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Introducing Hunza & Nagyr

The Hunza Valley is the centrepiece of the KKH. The continuous sweep from the Hunza River through mighty, grey-brown scree slopes and up to snowy peaks, including 7788m Rakaposhi, is a reminder of the river’s deep slice across the Karakoram. In spring the famous fruit trees erupt in white blossom, and autumn is a riot of yellow poplars, reddening orchards and golden maize drying on rooftops.

Snaking across the slopes is Hunza’s hallmark, the precision-made stone channels on which the valley’s life depends. Carrying glacier meltwater to tiny stone-walled fields 8km away, they have transformed a ‘mountain desert’ with few horizontal surfaces into a breadbasket. Their paths on the high rock faces are revealed by thin lines of vegetation, and patches of green are visible on the most improbable walls and ledges. Irrigation sustains orchards of Hunza’s famous apricots, as well as peaches, plums, apples, grapes, cherries and walnuts. Irrigation also waters the fields of maize and wheat, and the ever-present poplars, a fast-growing source of fodder, firewood and timber.

Added to the beauty is a kind of mythology about Hunza’s isolation and purity, spawned by James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, nourished in films about the lost kingdom of Shangri-la, and fostered in the 1970s by media stories of extraordinary health and longevity. The KKH itself has put an end to Hunza’s isolation, and while the Garden of Eden image ignores a rather bloody history, this hardly alters Hunza’s appeal.

‘Hunza’ is commonly (and inaccurately) used for the entire broad valley. In fact, two former princely states, Hunza and Nagyr (nah-gr), with shared language and ancestry, face one another across the river. Hunza refers to the villages on the north bank from Khizerabad to Ghareghat (or sometimes as far as Nazimabad). Gojal is sometimes described as part of Hunza too.

Smaller but more populous Nagyr occupies the entire south side of the valley and the north side around Chalt, and includes Rakaposhi and the lower Hispar Glacier. Although it enjoys less media fame, Nagyr is home to some of the best treks in the Karakoram (many of them described in Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Karakoram & Hindukush).

Most people here still think of themselves as subjects of their respective mirs, rather than as Pakistanis. And though they are very hospitable to foreigners, even in remote areas, they are not always so fond of the down-land Pakistanis.

The two kingdoms also have a common language, Burushaski, but nobody is sure where it came from. Wakhi is spoken in upper Hunza (Gojal); in Lower Nagyr (in common with Gilgit), Shina is also used. Many people speak Urdu and English.

Hunza and Nagyr also once shared the Shiite faith, but Hunza is now almost entirely Ismaili (except for Murtazaabad, Ganish and a few other pockets).