I first arrived in Hunza some 12 years back and fell in love with it at first sight. The peaceful environs of Karimabad, the hospitable people, the magnificent Rakaposhi, the gushing streams flowing through terraced fields, star-studded nights and the shooting stars all together made me believe that if there is heaven on earth, it is indeed Hunza -- just like the Shangri-la in Lost Horizon, the 1933 classic novel by James Hilton.
After that first visit, I would find myself in Hunza every other summer -- and this love affair continues like one’s first love.
It was in 2002 that I entered Café de Hunza for the first time and had wholesome Hunza Muesli and cherry juice. The friendly owner Shafqat told me about the history of Hunza Muesli, which is a breakfast dish full of fresh fruits and yogurt. He considered it a traditional dish of Hunza and a reason for longevity of the life of Hunza people. He also told me that there is a similar muesli dish commonly used in Switzerland and Austria.
I later wrote an article on Hunza, mentioning Café de Hunza and its Hunza Muesli. The article is proudly displayed on one of the café’s walls till to date. Shafqat also has his brand of pure honey, olive oil, almonds etc. and now his son helps him in running the café during summers.
Last summer, I was in Hunza and decided to go to Gojal after crossing the AttabadLake on a boat. We had a sumptuous lunch at the Marcopolo hotel, followed by a cherry plucking spree by the children.
One of the heirs of yesteryear Gojal royalty, a friendly Raja Sahib took us to show the Gojal museum, which is owned by him. Raja Sahib started with, "This is the dinner set… this is the telephone… this is the photograph… this is the stuffed Markhor trophy" and so on. I instantly remembered listening to the same Raja Sahib with the same script a decade back.
At times, life goes on at a very slow pace in these small mountain towns.
At the Marcopolo hotel, we ran into a very graceful couple, that we later found out to be Mir and Rani of Hunza. Mirs of Hunza were once the most powerful dynasty of the area and have a history spanning over more than 800 years. Mir Ghazanfar, the current Mir of Hunza, donated 800-years-old magnificent Baltit Fort to the Aga Khan Heritage Foundation and this act speaks volumes of the benevolence of the man. Rani of Hunza, again a very elegant lady is from Lahore and married to the Mir for almost 40 years and has completely imbibed the Hunza culture.
It bewilders me how difficult it must have been for her 40 years back to come and settle into a totally different culture. Mir and Rani of Hunza have their palace in Karimabad but spend most of their time in a beautiful villa, Hunza House in Islamabad.
And then there is friendly Deedar, who owns one of the best rugs and shawls shops in Karimabad. He has authentic antique central Asian rugs, handmade rugs, pashmina and shahtoosh shawls all under one roof. However, he is never in a hurry to sell and is a very satisfied soul. Sitting in his aesthetically decorated home, Deedar gave me a lesson on Beethoven and Mozart and a virtual tour of Salzburg. Furqan, Deedar’s 18-year-old son on the other hand is an astronomy geek and showed my children various star formations on his IPad with the help of some star gaze softwareIpad.
Again Mobeen is a young IBA graduate who after spending sometime with multinationals arrived back in his home town to serve as Chief Executive of Karakorum Development Organization promoting local handicrafts. He oversees a rugs manufacturing unit run by special and disabled people besides supervising a gems and jewelry business run by local women. While his classmates may be job-hopping in the corporate world, Mobeen chose public service as a career and he is without doubt a satisfied soul.
My list goes on and on… with Khushnood the lively manager of Baltit Inn, Shifa-ullah the highlands game expert, Ain-ullah my local driver who checks if I have arrived home safely, and I am sure to miss many of my wonderful friends.
It feels like in Hunza, everyone knows everyone and everybody is a near or distant cousin. They are in no hurry and appear content with their lives, always smiling, soft spoken, and peaceful. It is the local people who have made Hunza beautiful -- and for me, these friends are my real assets, I have invested in during my travels over years.