Silk Road Travelogue by Ali Karim: (6) In Hunza’s Capital, Karimabad – Named after Prince Karim Aga Khan
Ali and Dilshad Karim at Altit Fort, strategically located, precarious for enemies. Legends speak of the spot where they are standing as the capital punishment spot where enemies were simply pushed over the cliff. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
I conclude my Silk Road Series for Simergphotos, with this 6th and final piece that covers the last stage of our stay in Hunza. I would say that our experiences in Hunza have left for us deep and lasting impressions about the region and people of Hunza, who are mainly Ismailis. I would urge readers who haven’t read the entire series to click on the following links:
- Silk Road Travelogue by Ali Karim: (5) Ismailis of Remote Northern Hunza Rise High Above the Tallest Peaks, and Set a Lasting Example for Us to Follow
- Silk Road Travelogue By Ali Karim: (4) Scenes from Tashkurgan and an Encounter with an Ismaili Family, and the Drive to Northern Hunza on the Iconic Khunjerab Pass
- Silk Road Travelogue by Ali Karim: (3) More Kashgar and Spectacular Drive to Tashkurgan
- Silk Road Travelogue by Ali Karim: (2) More of Turpan and Historic Kashgar
- Silk Road Travelogue by Ali Karim: (1) Shanghai, Urumqi and Turpan
I further invite readers to join me on my Facebook page and to follow my personal blog, where I offer more insights and details about the numerous places that my wife Dilshad and I have travelled. I hope that as you travel, you will also share your expeiences, narratives, photos and videos with others. Opinions do matter, and an occasional feedback on sites such as Tripadvisor will assist thousands who are seeking information about the countries you have visited, including your favourite spots, where you stayed as well as where you shopped and dined!
With very heavy hearts, we left the wonderful people and hospitality of Passu to make our way to Karimabad, the capital of Hunza district. Just outside Passu village, we saw a spectacular suspension foot-bridge which the people (mainly women) of Passu use to cross the Hunza river to tend to their animals who are on pastures on the other side of the Hunza river. We also stopped at Passu glacier and Borith Lake, which are just to the south of Passu village. The Passu Glacier is in a valley just as you exit the town, and it is quite a sight to see this glacier close up.
Passu Suspension wooden footbridge across the Hunza river. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Passu Glacier, just outside Passu. This is where the village gets it drinking water and irrigation water from. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Husseini village on the Hunza river, with their own welcome message for His Highness the Aga Khan on the mountainside across the Hunza river. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Borith Lake at 8,500ft above sea level is a saline body of water occupying a hollow in the Karakorum mountains. It is reached via a turn off from the main KKH at Husseini village. The road is a narrow single lane unpaved road that climbs steeply until you reach the lake. Borith is saline as there is no river flowing out from this lake, so evaporation means that salinity increases over time. At Borith, there are good hiking treks to Passu Glacier and to Ghulkin glacier. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
University students enjoying an outing at Borith lake. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A distant view of Passu village and Hunza river from the bottom of the Passu glacier near Borith lake. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
After the stop at Borith Lake, we drove to Gulmit, which is a mid-sized town, between Passu and Karimabad. We went to the main Polo ground there, on one edge of which was the Mir’s former residence; where the Mir could watch the Polo games from the comfort of his balcony.
The residence of the former Mir of Hunza at the edge of the Gulmit town Polo ground. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
On the longer edge of the Polo ground was the existing Gulmit Jamat Khana and next to it, was a brand new nice looking building to extend the Jamatkana facilities.
The older building of the Gulmit jamatkhana. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The new extension building of the Gulmit Jamat Khana. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
We kept driving to Karimabad and soon came to a long narrow lake called Attabad lake along the Hunza river. The color of the lake was a nice turquoise color; very beautiful within the step sides of the Karakorum mountains. However, this lake has a very tragic history; it was formed in Jan 2010 when a massive landslide blocked the flow of the Hunza river, for 5 months, and killed 20 people. Since the Hunza river had no exit, water filled up the valley behind the landslide “dam” forming Attabad Lake, and consequently displaced over 6,000 people living in villages upstream of the new dam, and stranded all the upper Hunza valley as the Karakoram Highway (KKH) from Pakistan was inundated and flooded over, and there was no practical way to get food, medicines and essentials into the area from mainstream Pakistan.
Beautiful, yet tragic Attabad Lake. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
In all, 5 villages were flooded, and to this day, camps are still present in Karimabad where these internally displaced people still live. This is a very tragic situation, and the plight of Ismailis still living in camps is very sad indeed! With the KKH underwater, the only way to get around was using wooden boats, until the Chinese re-routed the KKH and built the new road, multiple tunnels and bridges to replace the 25km stretch that was now submerged.
We continued onto Karimabad along the KKH, with continued spectacular scenery at every corner.
Another view of the Attabad Lake. Note the white submerged roof is that of the jamatkhana that was located on a small hill. The new lake got filled up over a period of time, and the contents inside the kjamatkhana were therefore retrieved before it was fully submerged. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
There were small settlements and town along the Hunza River and cultivation was done wherever possible. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Spectacular scenery along the KKH to Karimabad. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Karimabad is a large town, located on the west bank of the Hunza river in the Middle Hunza area; and is the capital of Hunza Valley (& District) in Gilgit-Baltistan Province, northern Pakistan. It is nestled at 8,500ft amidst impressive snow-clad towering mountain peaks (including Rakaposhi 25,000ft) and glaciers of the Karakorum range. The town was a Silk Road caravan stopping place for people who were traveling through the Hindu Kush mountains to Kashmir, and to China, as well as to the west. The predominant language here is Burusho, which then changes to Shina in Giglit, further south. As mentioned in the previous part, the language spoken in Upper Hunza is Wakhi.
Baltit Fort on hilltop above Karimabad town; under towering Karakoram mountains (Rakaposhi peak on left). Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Karimabad used to be called as Baltit or Hunza, and was renamed Karimabad, after Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual head of Shia Ismaili Nizari community. The majority of the people here are Ismailis, who live and co-esist peacefully with other Shia and Sunni Muslims. Karimabad used to be the seat of power of the Mir of Hunza and capital of Hunza valley for over 750 years, until the 1970’s when the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Bhutto, abolished the kingdom. The foundations of the fort date back to 700 years ago, with rebuilds and alterations over the centuries. The fort was the Mir’s residence until the mid 1940’s and then was abandoned in the 1940’s for another palace down the hill.
A quick stop over at a butchery on the outskirts of Karimabad. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The town on the East side of the Hunza River, across from Karimabad, is called Nagar Khas, and was the capital of the princely state of Nagar until it was dissolved in 1974. The population is majority Ithnā‘ashari Shias (Twelvers)
We arrived in Karimabad, and started with the local walnut cake and fresh apricot juice that Karimabad is famous for, at Café de Hunza,. They were as delicious; as good as touted. However, prices were Starbucks equivalent, and so this was mostly a tourist destination. There are great views of Rakaposhi Peak (25,000ft) from the town.
Rakaposhi peak view from Karimabad. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
After a walk around Kriambad, we went searching for a hotel room. The Serena had previously been booked, and I tried my luck there again, but unfortunately, the hotel was fully booked for quite some time by a Punjabi film crew. So we found a nearby hotel, and it took some time before we found a room to our liking , and even then, we had an interesting time with getting hot water in the room, getting all electricals to work etc. The staff at this hotel were extremely accommodating, attending to everything with a smile. Dinner in Karimabad was street mishkaki (Swahili for meat skewers).
Dilshad in the hotel balcony in Karimabad. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The next morning, we woke up and took a short 30 minute drive up a steep road climbing up to up to Eagle’s Nest, which is the highest point of Karimabad. There, we had breakfast of paratha’s and Pakistani omelets, and stunning views of Karimabad below and snowcapped mountains all around.
The peaks surrounding Karimabad, as seen from Eagle’s Nest, the highest point in the town of Karimabad. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright. Extracted from video (see stunning videos, links at end of article).
A monument to Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, from the Altit community, on route to Eagle’s Nest. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Another view of Baltit Fort, this time from Eagle’s Nest. The fort is perched on a strategic hilltop above Karimabad;. Ali Karim. Copyright.
Both Baltit Fort (built 13th century), and the similarly sounding Altit Fort (1,100yrs old; the oldest structure in Gilgit-Baltistan province)) were fully refurbished in 2006 and 2007 respectively by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
We went to visit Altit Fort for a guided tour with tour guide Javed, who gave us great insights into the Fort and its history. Apparently, this area was occupied by the Chinese and the Europeans (Alexander the Great) at different times in their history. Amazingly, small communities of Chinese and Macedonians still live in remote areas nearby preserving their heritage and cultures.
A drop-down view from Altit Fort. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Rahimabad jamatkhana in Karimabad, Hunza. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Around the fort, is the old preserved town of Altit. This old town was restored and improved by the Aga Khan Foundation to provide clean drinking water, sewage system, and electricity with buried wires to all homes, in exchange for maintaining the exterior of the houses to the same look and feel as in the olden times. That way, the old town is preserved. The old town was very nice; had a quick walk through it.
An interesting abode in Karimabad, Hunza. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Old village surrounding Altit Fort; all the old houses were preserved, maintaining the “oldness” of the exteriors. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Old town by Altit Fort; kids enjoying the warm summer weather at the local watering hole. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A stunning view of the sprawling roof-tops of homes around Altit Fort. The flat roofs are used for multiple activities like drying fruit, clothes, etc. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A close-up view of the roof-tops of the old town surrounding Altit Fort. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Dilshad making friends with local Ismailis; young and old. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
Then we went back to another part of Karimabad, and stopped at the Aga Khan Academy, which is a girl’s high school. Since it was Sunday, the place was closed. We asked the guard if we could visit it. After making a call, we were allowed inside, and he asked a resident teacher at the hostel to give us a tour. Aliya very kindly agreed and gave us a tour of this wonderful Academy, and the hostel attached to it. Since it was break time, there were only a few girls living in the hostel who had not returned home for the vacation. The school takes girls only based on merit and provides financial assistance to those that need it.
Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
The school has separate areas for the hostel/living area, and the classrooms were on the other side; complete with very modern, well equipped and impressive labs for the sciences and arts. Equally impressive was the natural surroundings with the majestic backdrop of snow-clad towering mountains and beautiful well kept grounds of the school.
Aliya (left), a resident teacher at the Aga Khan Academy with Dilshad in the compounds of the school against the backdrop of the majestic snow-clad mountains. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A room in the boarding hostel room. There are 9 students per room with bunkbeds on top, cupboard and desk on bottom for each student. Each of these rooms has its own bathroom/shower. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
A street in the hilly Karimabad town. Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
After a thorough and comprehensive stay in Karimamabd we left for Gilgit. We noted the presence of the Aga Khan Development Network and its numerous agencies everywhere. Our trip from Gilgit then continued to Skardu and Khaplu. We then returned to Gilgit and then proceeded to Islamabad via Kohistan, and finally to Lahore. All these episodes are captured in my travelog web site.
This has to be our most memorable and adventurous trip. We visited many old and interesting Muslim heritage and cultural sites in Xinjiang, China, and Hunza, Pakistan, which are off the beaten path. We encountered interesting, beautiful and very hospitable people and travelled through some of the most beautiful landscapes and scenery we have ever seen in the world. We drove on some of the most adventurous, and heart-stopping scary roads and landslides in Pakistan as well as crossed the Khunjerab, the highest border crossing in the world. We drove through dubious territory in Pakistan, and then into the heart of a very busy and populated and hot Pakistan.
Travelling on the KKH was exciting as well as scary! Photo: Ali Karim. Copyright.
This was a first visit for us to Pakistan, and when I compare it our visit to India some seven years ago, I would say that Pakistan impressed me in many respect. It was cleaner, there was no unnecessary car honking, there were no stray dogs howling in the night, and the bathrooms were cleaner especially when I compare Lahore to larger cities in India that I have been to.
People were very helpful everywhere; and that may have been due to the lack of tourists. Northern Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan, Kohistan, etc) has huge tourism potential and is a bonanza for nature lovers who love trekking, hiking, and mountain climbing. If Pakistan can get its act together and become politically stable like its much larger neighbour, India, and achieve higher literacy rates I think it will in time attract a large number of tourists from around the world, and become a genuine destination for travel.
My bucket list of places that I want to visit is simply very deep, and I don’t think I can manage that in one lifetime. But this Silk Roads journey was momentous and I thank all the readers of Simergphotos for staying with me during my rantings. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Date posted: February 13, 2017.
We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Please share this travelogue with your friends!
Links to earlier installments in the Silk Road series:
- (1) Shanghai, Urumqi and Turpan
- (2) More of Turpan and Historic Kashgar
- (3) More Kashgar and Spectacular Drive to Tashkurgan
- (4) Scenes from Tashkurgan and an Encounter with an Ismaili Family, and the Drive to Northern Hunza on the Iconic Khunjerab Pass
- (5) Ismailis of Remote Northern Hunza Rise High Above the Tallest Peaks, and Set a Lasting Example for Us to Follow
To learn more about Ali and Dilshad Karim’s interest in travelling, please click Contributors.
Links to numerous video:
Also see a scalable interactive map of Ali Karim’s journey at:
Full versions of the Silk Roads Travelogue at: