Riding the Unknown


Reaching the Remote Valley of Shimshal

“There are a lot of ways to die here’” remarked Sergiu, the expedition leader. We had just seen a family of “car sized boulders” break loose from the ice, and free fall 50m into a large supraglacial glacial lake.

The resulting sudden fragmentation of the ice and rock sent shock waves throughout the glacial lake in all directions. The glacier groaned and heaved. The ice beneath our feet felt unstable. After some minutes the glacier calmed, and we were able to continue on our way. There must be an intricate and vast subglacial system of meltwater underneath us, transporting mass from high to low altitudes. Perhaps, the meltwater acts as a lubricant, enhancing the advancement of the glacier, hence blocking the trunk valley of Shimshal and leading to the formation of dangerous glacial lakes. This was always on our mind, the hypothesis we tried to prove.

Sergiu and Oliver were the ‘scientists’ of the KAP, an expedition to the remote Karakoram Mountains of Northern Pakistan. Along with photographer Tim Taylor and cinematographer Matthew Farrell, they spent two months in these desolate and beautiful mountains. The Karakoram is home to the snow leopard, K2 (the second highest mountain on the planet), and the largest glaciers in the world outside of the poles. These massive glaciers and their lakes were the reason for our visit. The KAP was a mission to investigate a little known but deadly hazard unique to regions with big glaciers, GLOFs, or ‘inland tsunamis’ as they are known, and which occur when an ice dam containing a glacial lake breaches. The subsequent surge of water rushes downstream, destroying anything in its path. It is thought that over 80,000 people in the Central Karakoram are at risk from glacial lake outburst floods. One of most badly affected regions of the Karakoram is called Shimshal Valley. This isolated place became our home for two months, whilst we assessed how the glaciers there might be affecting the likelihood of outburst floods.

Getting to Shimshal

Just getting to Shimshal was hard enough. The internal flight from Islamabad to Gilgit, the closest city to Hunza and the gateway from Pakistan to China, is a temperamental affair. At the first sign of bad weather the flight is cancelled. Safe to say bad weather prevented our travel north for four days running. We were forced to drive.

The drive north from Islamabad is notorious. Whilst we were careful to avoid the Karakoram Highway (KKH), which is black listed as no-go by the British Foreign Office for security reasons, the alternatives still present a whole host of difficulties. Most of these originate from the mountainous landscape where even small amounts of rain create road-blocking landslides. One of these halted our progress for five hours, as we waited for the impressive clearance operation that kicked into action – large bulldozers came rumbling down the road and promptly began to shift industrial amounts of earth. Having driven for two days we reached the spectacular Hunza valley. The backdrop to Hunza is Ultar Mountain (7388m) and across the valley in Nagar, the gleaming snows of Rakaposhi (7788) thrust a vertical five kilometers skywards.The many glaciers surrounding the valley have gifted the valley water for crops, and the rich green of the valley floor contrasts markedly with the browns, greys and whites of the surrounding mountains. The glaciers have even provided a historic defence to the people of Hunza. Baltit fort, which stands high upon an old glacial moraine above the valley and dates to the first century, was for centuries protected from attack to the north by a large glacier. That glacier has long since retreated into the snowy mountains from whence it came, but it serves to illustrate the significance of glaciers in defining civilisation in Hunza. The great mountain explorer Eric Shipton once called Hunza valley – “The ultimate manifestation of mountain grandeur and, at 2400m above sea level, it is indeed a fairytale land, rich, fecund and of an ethereal beauty”. The tiny terraced fields ripple down the mountainside, neatly arranged like fish scales, each supported on a high drystone wall. The colours change with the seasons: emerald green in the spring, orange and red in autumn. Everywhere the slender poplar trees cut strong vertical lines in the horizontal terraces and stand against the glacier-scarred rock. In the upper end of Hunza Valley, a massive lake was standing in our way. The lake known as Ata Abad was formed due to a huge landslide that occurred on January 4, 2010. The landslide killed twenty people and blocked the flow of the Hunza River for five months. The lake flooding displaced 6,000 people from upstream villages, stranded (from land transportation routes) a further 25,000, and inundated over 19 km of the Karakoram Highway. The lake reached 21 km long and over 100 metres in depth by the first week of June 2010 when it began flowing over the landslide dam, completely submerging lower Shishkat and partly flooding Gulmit.

Difficulties did not end here. After crossing Ata Abad with our 1000 kg of supplies and equipment and our 8-man team including two local assistants, a fantastic chef with experience of working in Moscow’s top restaurants and extremely resourceful mountain guide, Ali Muhammed Saltoro, our journey reached yet another obstacle. The entrance into the Shimshal valley, a deeply cut and treacherous gorge had been blocked by a giant rock avalanche. Here we had to call the only available vehicles in the remote Shimshal village to come and take over the load and us from the avalanche point.

Shimshal Valley and Shimshal Village

Shimshal is a relatively large Wakhi-speaking village supported by vast herds of sheep, goats and yaks that are moved up and down the valley with the seasons. The valley of Shimshal was closed to visitors until 1986, after which an increasing number of adventurers braved the mountain trail through the narrow and dangerous Shimshal gorge. It was from the upper Shimshal, even as late as the 1890s, that raiders harried caravans heading to Kashmir. In 2003 a jeep road was inaugurated that finally linked Shimshal village to the KKH.

The road to Shimshal leaves the KKH at the snout of the Batura Glacier, 6km north of Passu. It crosses the Hunza River on a suspension bridge and then enters the narrow gorge of the lower Shimshal River; a more ominous gateway would be hard to imagine. After about an hour of negotiating a shifting, cliff-hugging jeep track and crossing a couple of daunting bridges, an experience definitely not for the faint hearted, we arrived at Dut, a reforested oasis with no permanent settlement but a few huts for shepherds and road workers. Soon after Dut the valley opens out, closes in again, and glaciers approach the road. It’s hard to picture more awe-inspiring and stark scenery. Flowing off the lofty white mass of Distaghil Sar (7885m) – the 19th highest mountain in the world, Malungutti Glacier descends right to the road, calving its ice into the rapidly flowing Shimshal River.

Shimshal is made up of three villages: Aminabad, Shimshal and Khizarabad. Aminabad is announced by vast fields of stones hemmed in by drystone walls, and fortress-like houses of stone and mud. As one approaches Shimshal a glimpse of Adver Sar (6400m), also known as Shimshal Whitehorn can be seen. Shimshal has hydroelectricity for five months of the year (when the water isn’t frozen). According to local tradition, Shimshal has been inhabited for 400 to 500 years. A charming legend tells of the first settler, Mamu Singh, the son of the wazir (prime minister) of Hunza, who fell in love with a girl from the Wakhan and defied his family by marrying her and eloping to the remote Shimshal valley to live. Shimshal was later used as a penal colony by the Mir of Hunza who exiled criminals and troublemakers to this remote valley. It was also from the hidden valley of Shimshal that the Hunzakuts raided caravans crossing the mountains from China to India, even as far as the Karakoram pass in Ladakh, 200km away. The trade route from Leh to Yarkand.

The reason why Shimshal was located in such an out-of-the-way place is because this is where the Mir (ruler) of Hunza used to send his people who were found guilty of crimes and also those who he just did not like! Shimshalis are now a proud and hardy folk. Their hospitality is legendary and the natural beauty that they inhabit makes tourists feel that perhaps the Mir sentenced them to heaven, not hell. Shimshal is the oldest of the Whaki speaking villages in Gojal. Some claim that it is an attraction for anthropologists as the only place where the culture and values of Hunza is still alive. These characteristics all make Shimshal one of the best places to visit in Hunza. C. J. Morris, 1928 – one of the first to accurately describe Shimshal referred to [to avoid 2 describes] the valley in The Geographical Journal as follows: “The whole of this region must be one of the most desolate in the world. Everything here is grim and desolate, and the general effect of the scenery is depressing in the extreme. Even the glaciers with which this country abounds are dirty and covered with debris, and the giants of the Karakoram, but for which this country could.

Tourism and Hospitality in Shimshal

In Pakistan, a traveller will be treated as an honored. This is not just an empty phrase, but part of the Pakistani tradition of hospitality. He or she will be invited into homes and offered endless cups of tea. The tricks is to smile and shake hand as ask polite questions about health and family – this is the Pakistani way, and if one learns a few words in Urdu, it will pleasure everyone. Until 1987 the hospitality of the Shimshali people, the serenity and calmness of the valley and the rediscovery of a lost paradise were the main themes of most references to the region. These perceptions confirm the findings of most social science work on tourism – that people come to places such as Shimshal to escape from their mundane routines and to seek places of untouched nature and history. But as these tourists were escaping their routine structure, they were getting sucked into another structure often called the structure of “newness” according to which the motivation to visit somewhere new is perhaps more important than finding an escape. This is apparent in how most tourists are in a rush – many comment that they are able to stay in a place only for a short period of time. This, perhaps, reflects Leed’s (1991) point that in their efforts to escape their daily routines, tourists often find themselves sucked into another routine, that of the touristic mode, that is marked by the experience of estrangement after estrangement. In the old days when travelling conditions were harsh, Shimshalis could relate to the hardships that tourists had experienced during their journey to Shimshal so they felt naturally compelled to extend their full hospitality to them. This claim is further strengthened by the fact that Shimshal in the 1980s and 1990s was fully self-sufficient in food, so feeding extra mouths had never been a problem, unlike in many other villages in the region where food shortage is a fact of life and hence puts a practical restraint on hospitality. Moreover, hospitality was an extension of an already existing institutionalized practice in Shimshal in which they welcomed strangers into their villages and homes.