The Discovery of the Hunza Valley
A British General and a garrison of solders on horseback investigated the Hunza River Valley in the 1870s. Hunza was a tiny kingdom located in a remote valley 100 miles (160 km) long and only one mile (1.6 km) wide, situated at an elevation of 8,500 feet (2590 m), and completely enclosed by mountain peaks. These peaks soar to a height of 25,550 feet (7788 m) and belong to the Karakoram Range, broadly known in the West as the Himalayas. Hunza is now part of Pakistan in the northern section bordering on Afghanistan, Russia, China, Kashmir, and India. The Kilik Pass leads to Russia and the Mintaka Pass to China.
The pass to reach Hunza from Gilgit, Pakistan, was 13,700 feet (4176 m) high, a difficult and treacherous trail. Upon entering the valley, the British found the steep, rocky sides of the valley lined with terraced garden plots, fruit trees, and animals being raised for meat and milk.
The gardens were watered with mineral-rich glacier water carried by an aqueduct system running a distance of 50 miles (80 km) from the Ultar Glacier on the 25,550 foot (7788 m) high Mount Rakaposhi. The wooden aqueduct trough was hung from the sheer cliffs by steel nails hammered into the rock walls. Silt from the river below was carried up the side of the valley to form and replenish the terraced gardens. The average annual precipitation in Hunza is less than two inches.
Ultar Peak near Baltit, Hunza.Ultar Peak rising above Baltit, the capital of Hunza, is spectacular. The Old Palace is on the hill above the village. Click the picture to see an enlargement.
The difficult trail into Hunza kept the people isolated. As late as 1950, most of the children of Hunza had never seen a wheel or a Jeep even though airplanes were landing at the airport in Gilgit, Pakistan, only 70 miles (112 km) away. John Clark reported in his book, Hunza - Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, that he could see three peaks above 25,000 feet and eleven glaciers all at once from Shishpar Glacier Nullah (canyon) overlooking the Hunza valley. See page 92 in John Clark's book listed below.
The Hunzakuts, as they are called, had signed a peace treaty with their neighboring communities about 10 years prior to the arrival of the British. They had been a warrior community preying upon the Chinese trading caravans as they traveled the high mountain passes between Sinkiang and Kashmir. The Hunzakuts profited for a time by their thievery, plunder, and murder, but they were hated by their neighbors. According to Hunzakut folklore, a peace treaty was signed because the Mir's son convinced his father to end their murderous ways.
Burushaski, the language of the Hunzakuts, is much different from other languages of the region and appears to be a mixture of the languages of Ancient Macedonian and the Hellenistic Persian Empire. However, the people also learned to speak the written Urdu language of Pakistan and other languages of the region.
Hunza Terraced Gardens.The terraced gardens were extensive with up to 50 cascading levels. The people lived in communities below. It was a considerable distance to walk to work in the fields. They had no roads or wheeled carts. All the grain and other produce was transported to the homes on the backs of men and animals. Click the picture to see an enlargement.
Everything in Hunza valley was always in short supply except crumbling rocks. Fuel for heating and cooking was severely limited, and fodder for feeding the animals was precious. Animal dung was used for garden fertilizer rather than fuel for fires as was done elsewhere. Supplies from outside of the valley were limited by the difficulty in bring goods over the high mountain pass. Highly prized goods brought in from the outside included guns, knifes, tools, metal pots, stoves, lamps, cotton cloth, silk cloth, thread, needles, matches, mirrors, glassware, and some construction metals such as bolts, rods, sheet, and plate. As late as 1951, these items had to be carried on the backs of men or animals. In past centuries traditional dress and bedding were made from sheepskins and other animal hides.
The original valley was mostly bare rock with a very limited amount of indigenous plant life. The sudden appearance of the vegetation in contrast to the surrounding barren rock earned the valley the description of being Shangri-La or the Garden of Eden. Given the hard work required to tend the gardens and animals, the description of Garden of Eden certainly did not apply to the Hunza River Valley.
Mir Safdar Ali Khan in Hunza.Mir Muhammed Ghazan Khan I ruled from 1864 to 1886. Folklore stories say he sent his brother a gift of a cloak impregnated with smallpox and murdered his uncle and other brothers, but the facts are rather unknown. He was murdered in 1886 by Safdar Ali Khan who became the new ruler of Hunza. Mir Safdar Ali Khan is shown in the picture at the left. Click the picture to see an enlargement. In 1891 an expedition of 5,000 men lead by British Colonel Algernon Durand was attacked by the Hunzakut leader, Mir Safdar Ali Khan. The Mir fled to China and was replaced by his half-brother, Muhammed Nazim Klan. Mir Nazim Klan died in 1938 of mysterious causes, and it is highly suspect that his son, Muhammed Ghazan Khan II, was involved in his death. He died in 1946 and was replaced by his son, Muhammed Jamal Khan. Mir Muhammed Jamal Khan was deposed in 1974 by Pakistan although he maintained his property in Hunza. He died in Gilgit, Pakistan, in 1976 were he also had a residence. Mir Muhammed Jamal Khan could also speak perfect English because he had been educated by the British as a boy. His descendents maintain their royal titles but have no ruling authority in Hunza. Ancestry of Hunza Rulers Since the 16th Century.