Though some of the inhabitants of the villages and small towns here still live in stone and mud houses, you don’t see any poor people in the streets of Gojal. Of course you don’t see any obviously rich people either. Those who have money tend to spend it on the betterment of the community, and evidence of this can perhaps be found in the close-to-zero illiteracy rate among the new generation. Even the youngest children here grow up speaking two to three languages.
The women at the bazaar in the Gulmit village, wrapped in their long, high-necked clothes, are a picture of grace, and their smiles are so elegant that you rediscover the gentleman in yourself.
The policemen spend most of their days in the tea shops, thanks to lack of activities which demand their attention, where they chat and admire the towering peak known as the Passu Cathedral. When boredom appears to overwhelm the officers, they take a walk up to the Borith Lake, at an altitude of 2600 metres, in which the 7,388-metre tall Ultar Mountain is reflected. Here, the cheerful 63-year-old Mr Khan manages his hotel, and even before serving me tea, he runs to turn his old radio on; this results in spontaneous dancing to the tune of traditional Wachi music.
What sounds like Paradise on Earth, is in fact Hunza-Gojal. This wide area is located in the Karakoram mountain range in Northern Pakistan, and borders with China and the Wakhan Corridor, which belongs to Afghanistan. Just about 20.000 people live in this huge canyon, which is spiked with breathtaking seven-thousanders and huge glaciers. The inhabitants make good use of these glaciers to create oases filled with apricot, apple and cherry trees, with the help of water canals.
Everyone dreams of a society of equals, a place of great natural beauty and tranquillity far from the chaos of modern life. Most will never find such a place only very few would suppose that such a place actually exists and can be found in northern Pakistan
If the saint-like Gojalis, with their pleasant expressions and tolerant character, start to make you feel like a sinner by comparison, there is only one thing you can say to make yourself feel better and this is: “Oh, you old robbers of the Silk Road!” Then you see a playfully ashamed giggle pass over the tanned and weathered face of Mr Khan.
That’s because they weren’t always such model citizens; venturing out from places such as the 700 year old Gulmit fort, the ancestors of the Gojalis specialised in attacking trade caravans on their way to the Silk Road. Their general mentality didn’t use to be exactly progressive either: “40 years ago I was paid a visit by a relative. Soon before departure, he took me aside and asked reproachfully what kind of man I was, being so friendly to my own wife,” remembers an old resident of Gulkin.
However, at the end of the ’70s, the Karakoram Highway finally reached Gojal and then went on across the 4,700 metre-tall Khunjerab Pass to China. With it arrived the development programmes and schools of the Aga Khan Foundation. Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the Ismailis who largely populate this area. Now, in 2014, men from villages such as Passu travel to southern Pakistan and take part in development projects with the help of NGOs. “Patience, they had lots of patience with us,” say an old man from Shishkot, and drily adds: “generally, the development programs lack in sustainability. A couple of schools, money and then the NGOs move on to the next place.”
In the afternoon, I sit with a prominent personality of the local community at the polo field in Gulmit. In front of us, the boys are playing football, while the girls are taking part in a seminar in the assembly hall. The theme: ‘How do I see Gojal in 10 years?’
“We also started slowly noticing the downsides of progress,” he says. “Young men and women who return from southern Pakistan live in a computer and TV world. Their desires are unrealistic dreams, and they have lost the capacity to help our community with useful ideas.”
Until a few years ago, there was a visa on arrival at Pakistan’s northernmost border crossing, in Sust, for foreign visitors who were entering from China. Yet, this was discontinued, and in tourist magnets such as Nepal, India or Thailand, the Pakistani consulates no longer issues visas.
During our conversation, kids and youngsters come and reverentially greet my interlocutor, and I comment, shaking my head: “Yet you live in the kind of community which appears to have died out in the Western World. How do you manage?”
Humbly smiling, he replies: “Our spiritual leader, Aga Khan, hands out advice. He says, for example, that smoking or drinking isn’t good for your health. However, the way you implement the advice is up to you. Tolerance. Tolerance is the foundation of our community, as each person has their own rhythm.”
However, the very isolation and self-sufficiency that has allowed this land to thrive has also been its bane.
In 2002 Tajik engineers warned the Gojalis that a big landslide was in the making in a tight spot of the canyon, just 13km from Gulmit.
Gulmit’s people, nonetheless, kept building houses and hotels alongside the Hunza River. “Should we have forced people?” questions one of those responsible for not heeding the warning at the time, as I ask how come people weren’t transferred after the alarm was raised. In January 2010 the inevitable took place; a huge landslide blocked the way of the Hunza River exactly in the predicted spot.
Seven months later, a 28-km long, 100-m deep lake had formed; it flooded a good part of Gulmit, and transformed the village Shishkot into an island. Today the lake is 13km long, and Gojal is cut off from the rest of Pakistan, reachable only by boat, which makes the sale of the region’s products unprofitable. Also the other source of income of the Gojalis, tourism, has basically dried out. The state of affairs in Pakistan is only partially responsible for this. Until a few years ago, there was a visa on arrival at Pakistan’s northernmost border crossing, in Sust, for foreign visitors who were entering from China. Yet, this was discontinued, and in tourist magnets such as Nepal, India or Thailand, the Pakistani consulates no longer issues visas. So it’s no surprise that locals speak of a war on tourism rather than war on terrorism.
Additionally, in recent summers the meltwaters of the Gulkin glacier have regularly flooded the Karakoram Highway — for the elders and the sick, a march through freezing water is pure torture. On some days it’s even impossible to wade through, which means that everyone must go by foot over the glacier: with suitcases, small kids, or even goats being physically carried. There, I meet Gulmit’s cricket team, returning from a defeat in the Charpursan valley. One of them is wearing an India jersey, five others a hat with the Indian flag. When they see my puzzled expression, one of them replies laughing: “Why should we hate India? Even our policemen listen to Indian Bollywood music.”
At the Borith Lake, Mr Khan has other problems besides the missing guests; we head together towards the neighbouring black Gulkin glacier. In the middle we come upon a big waterhole, from which plastic pipes bring the water down to the village: “The glaciers are retreating, and each year we must build new canals. Yet the lads move to the big cities in southern Pakistan to find a job,” says Mr Khan. Then he suddenly laughs, shows me his wiry upper arm, and adds: “However, us old ones are strong and we’ll fight until the lads come back.”
An hour east from the Borith Lake you reach the white Passu glacier. There are small Alps in a tight stripe of land between the glacier moraine and the harsh cliffs of the Borith Sar. From there you reach the glacier, which, in this season, looks like a huge white boa during a disturbed sleep. All around you there are crashes, cracks opening, icy water rivers flowing. Yet, before I get the chance to imagine being Reinhold Messner, an old man in well-worn sneakers comes towards me in the ice labyrinth. As I express my admiration, he just sleepily waves and says: “In springtime and summer even our cows walk through here”.
Back at the Borith Lake, I stand on the hotel terrace with Mr Khan’s son. He has been studying in recent years in Peshawar and can only help his father in the summer months. I tell him that I see the Paradise of Gojal slowly fading away, and offer a few examples. The exodus of the youth, for one, or the Chinese, who are improving the Karakoram Highway at this time and building a tunnel above the Atabad Lake. Their business oriented ways seem to have already soaked into the Gojalis, as you can notice this looking at the ‘taxi mafia’ at the harbour in Gulmit: due to the lack of a functioning public transport system, locals suck other locals dry. “No, it’s just a few (exploiters), and you must also understand them. We lost every possibility to make money here. However even those few will begin to reflect. Our Paradise might be in trouble at the time, but ultimately, its people are accountable for this. I shall, in any case, return, and try to complement our tradition with what I’m learning in college”. Then he suddenly laughs like his father, and defiantly adds: “The Paradise will live on.”