The 1300 km long Karakoram Highway passes through some of the most amazing rock formations on the planet. It is a dream path that few people know about. The Road of Pakistan which is the ‘Eighth wonder of the world’
While traveling on this hilly road, strong wind was coming in through the window of the car. Despite the summer, the snow was glistening on the 7,000 meters high peaks and the melting waters of the glacier were falling in the form of a waterfall in the river passing through the Hanra Valley.
This valley was named ‘Shangrila’ by the British novelist James Hilton.
The Karakoram Highway was once a part of the Silk Road, which was established centuries ago by the local inhabitants. However, in 1978, after 20 years of hard work by 24,000 Pakistani and Chinese laborers, the road was opened to regular vehicular traffic, opening the doors of trade, tourism and ease of travel to this remote area.
The 1300 km long road starts from the small town of Hasan Abdal near the federal capital of Pakistan Islamabad and goes to Xinjiang in China via the world’s highest paved road at Khunjarab at an altitude of 4700 meters.
However, the most interesting part of the road for me was the 194 kms in the Hunza Valley. This area is surrounded by the Karakoram Mountains, due to which this road was named the Karakoram Highway.
The area is unbelievably beautiful where you can see transparent glaciers, lakes and snow-capped peaks all around during the trek. This journey is beautiful but another important thing that makes the highway special at this place is the people of Hunza and the traditions of this valley.
Located between the Xinjiang and Wakhan Corridors in Gilgit-Baltistan, Hunza was cut off from the rest of the world until the 20th century. The local population consists of Brushu and Wakhi people and has its own language, music and culture that cannot be found anywhere else in Pakistan or around the world.
The Karakoram Highway has made travel to the valley easier for the world, but it has also had a negative impact on the environment and forced the majority of the local people to abandon their traditional lives. Now there are less and less people who celebrate the arrival of spring like ‘Jinani’ for a long time.
However, some local people are now working hard to keep the unique traditions of Hunza alive.
The first stop during my journey was at Ultat, a village famous for its 1100-year-old fort and preserved cultural traditions. Here I met musician Mujeeb Razak in a cafe overlooking the peaks of Rakaposhi and Duran in the distance.
A few steps away from us was a school called Leif Larsen Music Center where the traditional music of the valley is being taught and tried to be kept alive by the next generation.
“We depend a lot on music because music is connected to every part of our life whether you are farming or harvesting (we sing traditional folk songs),” Najib said. The younger generation did not know about it but now they know what the soul of culture is.’
The music center was established in 2016, but Najib says it really started when Zia Al Kareem started teaching children.
Music is usually learned here as a hobby, but Ziaul Kareem of Ultat was the first native to earn a degree in music and was proficient in several instruments. He taught music to over 100 students before his tragic death in a motorcycle accident in 2022.
Najeeb took me to the practice room which looked like a local house. Native pillows lined the walls of the room and so did about two dozen students. Although Pakistan is a patriarchal society, Hunza is considered a liberal region due to the majority of the Ismaili sect. It is a moderate sect of Islam that is identified with promoting tolerance and women’s rights.
Girls’ education and sports activities are encouraged here and many girls go on to university or beyond.
Due to such environment, many girls were also present in this music center holding raab.
Three students performed a sample of Harip music, a local Hanzai tune that features a long and relatively thin lute accompanied by a small drum. Soon the room was filled with mesmerizing music that made me feel happy that the traditional art of Central Hunza is still alive.
Leaving the rocky streets of the old Ultat, I drove through the Karakoram Highway to the most famous spot in the valley. It is known as Hunza Bala or locally Gojal.
Gojal, which shares a culture similar to that of Central Hunza, speaks the Wakhi language and is believed to have migrated from the Wakhan Corridor hundreds of years ago. Before the highway was opened, it used to be a journey of several days between these two parts of Hunza. Now it’s just an hour’s drive with the blue colored Attabad Lake welcoming me to the area.
This natural looking Attabad lake is actually an artificial lake which was born due to a tragedy. On January 4, 2010, a flash flood blocked the Hunza River, inundating several villages, resulting in an artificial lake.
But the lake, surrounded by luxury hotels, is also named after a village that was destroyed in 2010. It is now a symbol of Hunza’s innovation, just like the changes to the Karakoram Highway for ease of travel: five tunnels were completed in 2015 in the name of China-Pakistan Friendship, which looks like you’re the world’s first. Located in a busy city, not in such a remote area. The Road of Pakistan which is the ‘Eighth wonder of the world’