The nation of Pakistan appeared on the map as a sovereign state in August 1947 as a result of the division of the British Indian Empire. The country, however, is far from homogeneous. The half-a-dozen civilisations that have flourished here have left their imprints carved into a land that is now as rich in cultural traditions as it is in landscapes.
Pakistan can trace its history to 2500 BC. Excavations at Harappa and Moenjodaro have unearthed evidence from as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation, with other later artefacts belonging to the Aryans (1500 BC), Persians (5th century BC) and Greeks in 327 BC. Having then fallen into the Arab sphere of influence, Pakistan fell to the sword of Mohammad bin Qasim as he systematically conquer Indo-Pakistan in the 8th century AD. British rule began in the 18th century and endured for over 100 years until the latest Muslim revival launched first by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and then by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who led Pakistan to its independence as a Muslim state in keeping with the vision of Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, the poet and philosopher.
A trip through Pakistan is a breathless encounter with the fascinating lands that have seen these conquerors come and go, while also preserving their essence in the form of monuments and archaeological sites. On the one hand, the excavated sites of Moenjodaro and Taxila (the seats of the ancient Indus and Gandharan civilisations), the architectural wonders of the Mughals, the Khyber Pass – gateway to Central Asia – and the ancient surviving traditions of the Kalash of the Chitral Valley present a living image of times past. On the other hand, for those with an intrinsic love of mountains, Pakistan offers the unique pleasure of its northern ranges – the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakorams. These monolithic wonders are without rival and boast such formidable peaks as K-2 (8611m) and Rakaposhi (7788m) in Karakoram range, Nanga Parbat (8125m) in the Himalayan range and Tirchmir (7787m) in the Hindu Kush range.
Welcome to Shangri-La
Not too far from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, is the Hunza Valley. Surrounded by several high peaks rising to over 7000m, Hunza is one of the most exotic places in Pakistan and believed by some to be the inspiration for James Hilton’s The Lost Horizon, the famous novel written in the 1933 that introduced the idea of Shangri-La, a mythical mountain utopia.
Most parts of Hunza certainly do offer awe-inspiring views of Rakaposhi, whose snow-capped peaks glitter in the moonlight, producing an atmosphere of ethereal magnetism. And while the people of Hunza may not have inhuman longevity (as they did in Shangri-La), they are certainly fabled for their long lives, friendliness and hospitality.
One of Hunza’s most impressive sights is the fairytale castle of Baltit, set atop a hill in the state capital, Karimabad, in Gilgit-Baltistan territory. Constructed in the 13th century by the Mirs, the feudal rulers of Hunza, it sit on massive stilts, which in ancient times served as an important line of defence. The foundations are said to date back approximately 760 years, although the structures have been rebuilt and altered over the centuries. The current castle/fort, a World Heritage Site, was constructed in the 16th century when the ruler, called the Thum, married a princess from Baltistan, who travelled with a group of her native craftsmen to build the fortress as part of her dowry. The architectural style, said to resemble that of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, is a clear indication of the latter’s influence in Baltistan at the time.
Hunza is an ideal place for mountaineering, trekking and hiking. Most treks in this valley aren’t particularly long, but there are exceptions, such as the Hispar-Biafo walk and the trek over Chapchingol Pass to Shimshal Valley.