Shangri-La? Exploring glaciers in Ghulkin
The Hunza Valley is said to be the inspiration behind the mythical valley of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon.’ It’s really not difficult to see the reason.
Rehman is well-known in the Pakistani network of travelers for accommodating foreigners at his family home in Ghulkin, a small village in the Hunza Valley only 15 minutes from Gulmit.
We have contacted him a few days before to see if we can stay overnight. Busy about touring for Pakistani British families, he arranged for his wife Sitara to look after us. He called us the night before to arrange for a family friend to pick us up from our Gulmit guesthouse Saturday morning.
This is Pakistan, so only a few walk on time and our lift is almost an hour late. We didn’t mind, we enjoyed walking after breakfast in the guesthouse garden, watching apples fall from trees and apricots drying on the shelves.
When we drove to Ghulkin, we passed the Dutch and Hamish left. A man from Singapore at Rehan’s house (also left that day) said that they had all been there for the past 2 nights (Karakoram Bikers, the agency we all use in Gilgit recommended Rehman). We were the only ones there that night that we wanted to hear when everyone slept together in their room, the traditional Hunza room, and that meant we had that place for ourselves.
Rehman’s father, Mr. Han, wanted to take us out on the trip when we arrived. It was already hot and with Marie having been sick for so long we tried to explain that the short was ideal but we had a different feeling when we headed to the glacier, on something that resembled a goat’s track through rocky slopes, which were not short in our length.
He spoke a little English and we had good conversations about the mountains around us. A true mountain man, he has summarized a number of peaks, including one that is nearly 8,000 million as a porter, which means he effectively climbed it several times back and forth to the base camp for 2 months and 22 days. At the age of 72, he clearly still can whip our ass on any terrain.
He did slow down for us, he kept saying this was our time and he stopped as often as we wanted. As with villages that are at an altitude of 2460m, only 40m are at an altitude, we can certainly feel less oxygen on the hill. A kind-hearted man whom he insisted on taking Marie’s bag, he was not stubborn and gladly accepted. He immediately knew where the camera bag was and would turn around and offer it every time he wanted it.
Our first goal is black glaciers (Gulmit), called because of the amount of moraine there. The point of view is above the first rocky slope. This is a large glacier, hundreds of meters wide and far longer than we have ever seen before. We sat and admired him for a while while listening to small stones as the ice melted. That must be life.
Then he guided us and guided us across it. There is no way, but with years of experience he chose the best route. Where he needed to, he made it by throwing stones under the surface of a small ice that was too large to be delayed. It runs slowly. A rock of a good size that doesn’t seem to be slept with often when you put it on it. We take it slowly and carefully and trust Mr. Han will take us through safely. It is a wonderful experience to climb across glaciers in remote parts of the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan. The background is large mountains in all directions, including the amazing jagged peaks of the Cathedral Passu Range which reached the highest altitude of 6100m.
We are quite happy when we reach the other side. He had navigated us perfectly to the deep exit on the side that covered the irrigation canal. We can see Lake Borit not far from there. It feels good to be able to stretch our legs on the flat when we head there.
After the chai and toilet stop at the Lake Borit restaurant (which is empty) Mr. Han checks us fine to continue. He took us to the white glacier (Passu) point of view, which when we asked him said he walked for an hour. It was quite hot on a hot day and he warned us that it would be ‘rather hot’, but wanted to see and experience as much as we could, we nodded our approval and filled the Mango juice and coconut stems from the small shop attached. Walking to the glacier itself is actually a 4WD track. Even though it’s so hot, we still enjoy stretching our legs while walking past the lake. We stopped to rest under the apricot tree while Mr. Han chose the best. Apricot here is very sweet. Perfect hiking food.
While we eat it in the shade of a tree branch, 4WD passes. Mr. Han did not hesitate to shout. A man he knew, he gave us a ride. It turned out that we did a flat section and the rest climbed without shade. We thank you for the trip. “Lucky, lucky” Mr. Han continued to say. It’s a dead end that sees little traffic.
In the end it is glacier. We thank the driver and climb the path along the side. The large white glacier that forms it looks like a jagged gap that opens in front of us. Not as wide as the black glacier went into the distance up the mountain. The length is 20.5 km.
We follow the path that sticks to the side, away from the edge and a big drop down to the glacier. We climbed higher and higher until we could see the entire glacier. Then Mr. Han took us to a place right on the edge and made us some stone chairs so we could sit and relax. He chose badly for Marie, the black stone, which after a while heats up. He was full of apologies when he realized.
The trip back to Lake Borit along the track was hot, but it also made us more grateful to be able to climb the lane. We have one stop mango juice in the shade. Mr. Han seemed to appreciate that we had bought quite a lot for him too. When we returned to the lake, he asked if we wanted to swim but knew that we were a few kilometers away to return to the homestay, we didn’t like walking with wet pants so give us a chance.
After tea again at the lake restaurant, we headed for the vehicle lane there from the Highway, cutting the switchback corner freely starting down the hill.
On the Highway, we sat in the shade, while Mr. Han watched the eagle looking for a ride we could flag. He told us that he had waited 5 hours to get a ride somewhere, like the silence of the highway at times. We are far more fortunate, we only wait around 20 minutes.
10 minutes on the road in Husseini he made them stop and we came out where Rehman and he built the right guesthouse. Not much can be seen, but they hope it will be finished next year. Sitara was there so we got a ride back to their home with her and their 3 youngest children.
We are relaxed all day. We need 5 hours to walk 12.5 km. Sitara warned us to get our belongings charged when we returned because the electricity would go out at 4pm. They have the power of 1 day in every 3. We should do it and we arrange our things for the night because it is much easier to do it in light than with a torch. We feel good about ourselves when it explodes. Then suddenly reappeared. When Mr. Han returned that night, all he could say was ‘lucky, lucky’.
We eat dahl, rice and potatoes for dinner, just like family. Sitara joins us. He speaks English very well and we have good conversations about their lives and ours. They like to host foreigners so that they can learn from them, even though that means he rushes to juggle teaching, family work and hosts from dawn to dusk. He also explained that the Hunza Valley is a religious Ismaili, a more relaxed Islamic sect, so there is no need to wear a hijab.
Rehman arrived shortly before going to bed and joined after dinner by Mr. Han, the five of us chatting to plan for the next day. Rehman’s group is in a guest house in a nearby village and he will pay If they go to his house for lunch, he insists we join them and that he will then drop us off at Passu village, which is where we want to go next. We slept the best we had in a long time.
Breakfast late (as is typical). Sitara was very sorry, she ran around as usual. After that we took a leisurely stroll in the village and talked to the children and watched the apricots harvest before they were put on the roof to dry. Apples are also dried and fed to cows in winter in what Han calls ‘soup’. Harvesting and drying are busy times throughout the year for villages.
After lunch with the Britsh family (which is beautiful but clearly has a bit of rural experience especially remote) Rehman drove us to a guesthouse in Passu. We want wifi because we have been without it for a few days and we have lots of photos to upload before we cross to China, there are only 2 guesthouses that have them and he called 1 and knows they are full, so that’s an easy decision.