The Hunza Valley, Pakistan (photo, Robert Remington)

The Hunza Valley, Pakistan
(photo, Robert Remington)


Peace in the valley

In remote Hunza, there is profound change in Pakistan 

Robert Remington
Calgary Herald
Sunday, Feb, 20, 2005


Getting to this remote village in the fabled Hunza Valley of the western Himalayas is easy, if you’re a yak or a goat. Humans must negotiate the perilous Karakorum Highway, a stomach-churning mountain road that winds north from Islamabad along the rugged, barren gorges of the upper Indus River system, eventually taking white-knuckled travellers over the 4,730-metre Khunjerab Pass into China’s Xinjiang province. About as wide as an average Canadian driveway, it parallels portions of what was once the legendary Silk Road, the ancient trade route from China to west and south Asia.

Albertans are no wimps when it comes to mountain driving, but to a group of Calgary business leaders on a 10-day trip through Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway, or KKH, is a bit unnerving. As oncoming buses careen around blind corners, you realize it is only the skill, perhaps luck, of your driver that prevents a plunge into the churning river far below, where bodies get mangled with rocks and logs as they are delivered into the arms of Allah the Merciful.

“I can’t look,” says Ruth Ramsden-Wood, president of the Calgary and Area United Way and my soulmate in nervousness at the back of our small bus hurtling up the KKH. Chris Robb, a Calgary businessman and veteran world traveller with no apparent vertigo issues, is less apprehensive. “Look at that,” he says, pointing out a rickety bridge in the valley far below. I peer into the abyss, feigning enthusiasm. There are no guardrails. I want to get sick.

The Karakorum Highway is one of the most historic mountain roads in the world. Built by China and Pakistan in the mid-1980s at a cost of one human life for each 1.5 of its 1,300 kilometres, it passes through some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery on Earth.

Baltit Fort.  (Photo by Robert Remington)

Baltit Fort
(Photo by Robert Remington)

Arriving in Karimabad, visitors are rewarded the privilege of being in a truly special place. The Hunza region, bordered by the ranges of the Himalayas, the Karakorums and the Hindu Kush, is said to be the inspiration for Shangri-La, the idyllic, hidden valley of British writer James Hilton’s 1933 novel, The Lost Horizon.

Asif Fancy used to make the trip over the KKH three or four times a year to oversee the establishment of a teacher training institute in this remote region of northern Pakistan, which the Calgary group is visiting as part of a tour of facilities run by the Aga Khan Development Network. During the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from food or drink between sunrise and sunset, it was an especially arduous trip for Fancy. From Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, the drive to this area takes 14 bone-jarring hours. Try doing that without a drink of water.

Fancy managed to lop 10 hours off the Calgarians’ trip through the good fortune of a flight from Islamabad into Gilgit, the administrative centre of the Hunza region. Given the vagaries of weather in the western Himalayas and the visual flight requirements of Pakistani International Airlines’ aging fleet of Fokkers, any flight that spares one a goodly portion of the Karakorum is considered a blessing.

The Calgary group is led by Calgary oilman Jim Gray, who is interested in raising funds for a possible development partnership with the Aga Khan network. The non-denominational Ismaili Muslim organization is considered one of the world’s leading non-governmental organizations whose work in 10 countries focuses on education, health and social development, with an emphasis on helping women, traditionally an underprivileged group in Muslim society. Fancy, a former carpet dealer, is typical of the dedicated people who work for the AKDN.


The streets of Karimabad are like stepping back in time. (photo by Robert Remington)

“My business was quite successful, but I found a higher calling,” says Fancy, an Ismaili drawn to the organization by its non-denominational philosophy of bettering lives guided by the ethics of Islam. The success of the organization in this wild corner of Pakistan is evident at an AKDN school for girls here, where the Calgary contingent met daughters from illiterate farming families intent on going to Yale. Later, back in Calgary, Gray would tell a group of students that if they want to get into the world’s best universities, they need to look over their shoulders at competition not just from their own backyard, but from dedicated students from one of the most remote regions of the world who aren’t going out on Friday night doing shooters.

The Calgary group, all interested in Third World development issues, has been impressed with the Aga Khan network. “They do amazing work in the poorest of countries,” says Ramsden-Wood, who has come at her own expense. With so many needs back home, which Ramsden-Wood confronts daily through the United Way, why should Calgarians be concerned about Pakistan? “I think Calgarians are very global thinkers. They get it. They know that what happens at the local level is extremely important and what happens in the poorest of countries is equally important. People in Calgary are well travelled and aware of issues on a global perspective. I myself feel very passionate that we have to build our own communities, but we also have to be aware of the growing disparity in the world between the haves and the have-nots.”

Here, in this one-time kingdom sandwiched between China and India, hard work, subsistence farming and genetics have made the people of Hunza renowned for their longevity. Many live past 100 years. Life, however, is not easy in Hunza.

“We are very poor,” says Nasir Hussain, whose three-generation household share two rooms. The family cooks over a small stove that is the only source of heat for Hussain, his wife, five children and parents. In winter at this altitude, about 3,000 metres, temperatures can drop to -20 C. Portable kerosene heaters are all that warm the schools and many of the homes.

The Hussain family prepares breakfast. "We are very poor," says the father, Karim.  (photo by Robert Remington)

The Hussain family prepares breakfast. “We are very poor,” says the father, Karim.
(photo by Robert Remington)

Hussain is a mountain guide; his wife does needlepoint that she sells in the local shops. Like most families, they also own one of the most important possessions in Karimabad — a goat. Every morning, families bring the animals to a holding pen, a kind of goat day care, where they are turned over to local shepherds who take them into the hills to graze. Trekking is also important to the local economy, but since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, few people have come to the area, says Rahmat Karim, a local mountain guide.

“They think it is dangerous,” says Karim, who leads treks to several glaciers and to the base camp at K2, the highest peak in Pakistan and the second-highest mountain in the world. In fact, trekking in northern Pakistan at the moment is considerably safer than Nepal, where a Maoist insurgency continues.

Formerly known as Baltit, Karimabad was renamed for Prince Karim Aga Khan, the billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, the predominant religious group in Hunza. Ismailis, moderate on many aspects of the Muslim faith and even in their attitudes towards alcohol, are occasionally criticized by stricter sects of Islam for being too liberal. Yet they, like the Aga Khan network, are regarded as a moderating influence in tumultuous regions such as Pakistan

In May of 2004, Margaret Huber, Canada’s high commissioner to Pakistan, wrote a report after a visit to Pakistan’s northern areas, lauding the work of the AKDN. “The northern areas are a bellwether part of the region where a battle is now being waged for the hearts and minds of the people. Fundamentalist mullahs are seeking to persuade people to turn away from anything perceived as secular, including music and traditional dance. When the Aga Khan paid a long-awaited visit to Chitral (a town in the Northern Areas) last October, the visit was boycotted by the fundamentalist MMA Party. But 100,000 Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike turned out to greet him and hear his message of co-existing peacefully with other communities, avoiding drugs or drug cultivation, and working together for health and education improvements. We take pride in working with such partners,” she concluded.

The Aga Khan network, however, is more than an instrument for health and education. It is also dedicated to the preservation of Muslim architecture and historic sites such as Baltit Fort, the traditional home of the ruling mirs of Hunza. At the highest point overlooking Karimabad, the 700-year-old fort stands as a sentinel over the terraced landscape.

It is easy to be left in awe of Hunza, not just of the geography, but of what the Aga Khan network has accomplished here in less than 20 years. In this remote region, 100 kilometres from the Chinese border, the Calgary group met high school girls who have gone through the Aga Khan system intent on being engineers, pilots and teachers. In an area where girls are wed in arranged marriages as early as age 10, and where the education of women had traditionally been regarded as unnecessary, the impact these young women will have on Pakistani society will be profound.

The Aga Khan and his legions of dedicated workers are attacking the root causes of terrorism — ignorance, poverty and despair — mostly by empowering women such as Ramzia Ashrafee. A former Afghan refugee, Ashrafee, returned to her home country after finishing her education at Aga Khan University in Karachi. She is helping to re-build the broken health-care system in Kabul, where women were banished to their houses and not educated for seven dark years of dreaded Taliban rule.

In an increasingly bunkered North America, where the Muslim world is regarded as a threatening cauldron of fanaticism, organizations such as the Aga Khan Development Network might offer better hope than smart bombs and homeland security.

Despite such educational achievements in a part of the world where female literacy was merely a dream 20 years ago, life goes on here much the way it has throughout history.

As dawn broke over the mountains one morning in Karimabad, a voice could be heard calling out to the village from a rooftop — still the most effective way of communicating quickly.

Mola Dad Shafa, who runs the region’s Aga Khan Institute for Educational Development, stood listening as the voice echoed across the valley, so mournful that even roosters stopped crowing. “Somebody,” he said, “has died.”

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