Gilgit had not that much offer to travelers, except that it was an important trading and administration center and transportation hub for the entire north-eastern region. From a traveler point of view, Gilgit can be a place for stocking up supplies, as well as a starting point for the further journey.
The distance between Gilgit and Karimabad was only 105km (Rs60 for HIACE). As I wasn't totally recovered from the jetlag and fatigue in the previous days, I decided to take it easy by catching the 10h00 bus to Karimabad. By doing so I could also visit the PIA booking office in the early morning, and hopefully book the flight to Rawalpindi on my return. This way I could save at least one day if not more. Gilgit is a mountain region. All flights to and from that region highly depended upon the ever-changing mountain weather. Ticket could not be pre-booked. Travelers had to book and pay the ticket one day before departure.
The Rs80 breakfast in the Taj Hotel included cereal porridge, juice, toasts, eggs..., enough for the whole day's energy in case I miss lunch. I walked my way to the PIA office and the bus stand while enjoying watching the activities in the morning streets(right). With my request, I was given the #7 seat in the HIACE, the best for taking photos from the window. But soon after the bus departed, I found that the Hunza valley was on the other side. Regardless, the bus was traveling too fast and bumpy to take any good photos.
The section between Gilgit and Karimabad was perhaps one of the most scenic and smoothest rides. From the bus window one could see some >7,000m mountains such as Rakaposhi (7,700m, right). Two hours later the bus stopped at Aliabad for lunch. While other passengers were enjoying their curry and nans, I sat by the roadside and admired the snow mountains and green fields in the background and foreground. It was also the time the students took off from schools. Thanks to the tourist money, as well as the volunteer teachers from the west, Hunza area was enjoying one of the highest primary and secondary education standard in Pakistan. Children spoke fluent English. Boys were dressed in either blue or orange shalwar qamizes, or shirts, ties and trousers (left), girls were all in sky blue shalwar qamizes, with white skirts and scarves. There were many colorful and beautiful lady's shalwar qamizes in Pakistan, some with intricate patterns and decorations. But I still preferred the sky blue and white combination like that of the snow mountain and sky. The colors, I later learned, were reserved for school girls. On my way back to Gilgit, I had to buy a qamiz like that for a friend of mine in Canada.
Contrary to what many believed, Hunza is not a specific town or village. It referred to the whole area in the Hunza valley which is often called the Shangri-la. It is undoubtedly the central highlight of the entire Karakoram trip. If there is anyone village that could represent the quintessence of the whole area, it's Karimabad, a few kilometers off and high up from the Karakoram Highway. The bus dropped me off at Ganesh - a village on the highway closest to Karimabad - then continued its way to Sost. From the junctions one could hire the tiny Suzuki trucks to the village. I opted for hiking as I would like to exercise my strength and take photographs on the way. Motor vehicles followed the zigzag asphalt road into the village, but hiker often took the shorter but much steeper short-cut. With a backpack and a heavy camera, I nearly went out of breath when I reached the modern, three-storey Mountain View Hotel outside the village. In the reception room I was greeted by the benign, soft-spoken, well-fed and sanguine Mr. Bagh, the owner. I could feel his soft, smooth, and warm hand, contrary to the cold, hard and rough ones of other Pakistanis. He watched me like a judge when we chatted. After a few rounds of tea and that my heart beat down to 80/min, he asked a clerk to show me the rooms, and even let me to pick a price. Judging from the room quality and his kindness, I offered Rs300 and he agree without negotiation.
Since the name of Hunza was being known by more and more outsiders, hotels in Karimabad increased exponentially. As Mr. Bagh told me, thirteen years ago when he build the Mountain View, there were only another two or three. Now there were tens of them, ranging from the modest to star-rating. From the roof of the Mountain View one could have the classic view of the Hunza Valley and Hunza River - the same as that in the National Geographics magazine.
I walked into the village immediately after I settled the backpack in my room. On the way leading to the village one could admire the Baltit Fort dwarfed by the massive monolith at its back. The main street was occupied by numbers of hotels, restaurants, shops and travel agents. A fleet of rugged Toyota diesel 4x4 jeeps was ready to take customers for any adventurous excursions. A stone waterduct ran through the village, carrying from the canyon afar snow water vital to the life of the villagers. Though muddy, the water always had a thin film of shiny material on its surface, forming a very hydrodynamic pattern (right). I sometimes wondered if this mineral had contributed to the well-known longevity in this region, in addition to the well-known apricots.
It didn't take long for me to traversed the main street, passed the residential area (right) and arrived in Baltit Fort. When I passed the fort gate I heard someone yelled at me. Ah! there was an old man in the little booth selling foreigners pink, Rs200 ticket. Then I also saw a British Pakistani with a green Rs20 ticket. I should wear a qamiz next time.
The history of the fort could be traced back to 13th century. From then on, it always served as a symbol of Hunza identity. In the recent 150 years, it was largely augmented to today's grandeur. Until 1945, it had been the palace for generations of Mirs (rulers of Hunza and Nagar). Visitors were able to tour the entire fort and see different functional rooms such as kitchens, living rooms (below) and jail cells, but they had to be guided instead of walking freely.
Mr. Bagh seemed to understand what foreigners like for meal. In addition to the beef curry, nans and rice in his Rs120 fixed menu, there was fully cooked vegetable. And there was dessert - Hunza's sweet apricots - to end to course. Mr. Bagh had also seemed to studied the Lonely Planet guide book, and knew where visitors would like to go. After dinner he offered me a jeep tour early next morning to Duikar and Altit and watch sun rise. All for Rs1,000. Without jeep, it was nearly impossible for visitor to visit Duikar, said him. After some negotiation the price easily came down to Rs700. But no matter what, he wasn't willing to came down to Rs600 which I asked for. Before going to bed, I checked the regional drawing again and figured that both Duikar and Altit shouldn't be out of reach. I decided to do it myself the next morning.