Lost Horizon

Major General Syed Ali Hamid describes the experience of being a guest of the Mir of Hunza in 1954

Lost Horizon
In 1934 James Hilton wrote Goodbye Mr. Chips, which was a huge success and became an international best seller. It is currently included in the high school curriculum in Pakistan. A year before that, he had written Lost Horizon, which became one of the most popular novels of the 20 century and sold several million copies. It was inspired by an earlier visit to Hunza and his description of the mythical Shangri-La in the story closely matches this isolated oasis nestled in the shadows of huge peak that we know as Rakaposhi – meaning “snow-covered” in the local language.

In the spring of 1954, Mir Muhammad Jamal Khan met Major General Syed Shahid Hamid at the Lahore Horse Show and extended an invitation to visit his Princely State of Hunza. When the invitation was repeated a month later, my parents decided to take the family on a great adventure to the legendary valley. Air Vice Marshal Bill Cannon, the second Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Pakistan Air Force, and his wife, decided to come along. The journey took a lot of preparation as it involved travel by plane, jeep and ponies and a month’s stay. My mother had seen enough mountaineering expeditions passing through Rawalpindi to know what and how to pack for a long trip into the heart of the Karakorums.

Mir Jamal in ceremonial dress with President Ayub Khan at Hunza

Ultimately one early morning we boarded a noisy Bristol Freighter for Gilgit that lacked its doors because it was also flying supply missions in the Northern Areas. My memory of the one-and-a-half-hour bitterly cold flight was of sitting in a bucket seat wrapped in a blanket. I was too young to remember anything more and even if I did, I could never describe the flight more eloquently than the well-known author Ian Stephens. Ian had been the editor of The Statesman in Calcutta during the war years and in 1966, wrote a book on Pakistan called Horned Moon, based on his travels through Pakistan. He flew up to Gilgit the same year that we went and narrates the leg over the Babusar Pass:

“The dial shows 11,000 ft. A steep snow-powdered forested crest soars on our left […] the climb ceases. A shaft of sunlight arrives. On our right much bigger snow-peaks emerge, then wrap themselves again in cloud. Ahead is a grey misty bumpiness; we edge left to avoid it, pass very low over a snow-topped hill; beneath I see sunlit green deodars, vertical and tall on the slopes. A horrid blackness impends on our right, then moves away from us and for a while we proceed in clear tranquil air. We are over the winding Indus now; it is narrow and swift, sunk deep in a grey cleft, the glacial jade-green waters sometimes white-streaked with rapids”
In The Burusho of Hunza published in 1938, E. O. Lorimer writes:
“There is something winning about the complete lack of servility in Hunza. The people are hospitable, courteous and polite […] they own the soil, live their own lives and can look the whole world in the face”

We were received by the Political Agent (PA), the legendary and imposing Muhammad Jan who accommodated us in the famous Residency in Gilgit from where the British had administered an area of the size of France.  While waiting for Bill Cannon, we fished for trout – some of which reached 8 pounds. Muhammad Jan did not believe in reeling in his catch. With a line that was strong enough to land a large Mahseer, he would whisk the unfortunate trout straight out of the water with a strong jerk and it would sail over his shoulder. An ever-ready attendant standing behind would unhook it and Muhammad Jan would cast straight back. The trout had been introduced by another famous PA, Colonel Cobb, who was also mad keen on polo and established a number of polo grounds all over the Gilgit Agency including one at Hunza. Ultimately, the Air Vice Marshal and his wife Tiddler arrived early one morning after a non-stop night flight in a Bristol Freighter all the way from Karachi. Cannon knew the region well from the days he had commanded a squadron of Wapiti biplanes on the Northwest Frontier in 1937.

The first leg of our journey to Hunza was 60 km by jeep to Chalt. The track ran along the River Hunza on the opposite bank to where the Karakorum Highway now runs. Ahead of the beautiful vale of Nomal, it became extremely hazardous, and traversed a wide scree of crumbling rock called the Chaicher Pari. The boulders hurtling down from thousands of feet created a dust cloud that filled the valley. At Chalt, where the river swings east around Rakaposhi, our caravan stopped for the night. Being at the jeep head, Chalt was a trading post with herds of ponies and yaks on their way to or returning from Misgar on the border with China.

An eagle's nest - the guest house of the Mir of Hunza, perched on a boulder with a stunning view of Rakaposhi

The next morning we transferred to ponies for a relatively short but difficult leg of 12 km to the rest house at Maiun. Danger and security alternated on the narrow track that at times ran along a gut-wrenching precipice 1000 meters above the river and then in series of steep hairpin bends, entered soothing fields and orchards. Tiddler insisted on remaining on the pony even down the most dangerous descents and Shahid Hamid admits that he had never met a person with more guts and so indifferent to the hazardous journey. The caravan entered the Mir’s territory at Hindi where the local band struck a lively tune while the guests were received by the elders, who escorted them till the end of the village. The village lane was lined by peasants presenting baskets of apricots and mountain apples as a welcome gesture and they were hurt if some of their offering was not accepted. This ritual was repeated at every village along the way.

Sitting in the lawn of the Maiun Rest House that evening, the weary but happy travelers relished their first view of Rakaposhi rising 19,000 feet from the river in stages of fields and orchards followed by forests of fir, mountain meadows and finally snow fields topped with ice cliffs. Only 60 years earlier, the forts at Maiun and Nilt on the other side of the river that guarded the entrance to Hunza-Nagar were stormed by a force of 1,000 under Colonel Durand. The evidence of fierce resistance mainly by the tribe of Nagar were the three Victoria Crosses (VCs) awarded to British officers, and a number of Indian Orders of Merit (the equivalent of the VC) to the Native troops. Four years later when Chitral rebelled, the newly appointed Mir Nazim (the grandfather of Mir Jamal), assisted the British with troops and a large body of porters who bodily hauled the guns over the Shandur Pass through deep snow in the middle of winter. It deepened the British trust in the Mir and in 1912, he was asked to raise a Corps of Scouts, two companies strong, based in Gilgit – with his son Ghazan Khan (the father of Mir Jamal) as the first Subedar Major. It was subsequently given the title of the Gilgit Scouts and in 1947, overthrew the Governor appointed by the state of Jammu and Kashmir, declaring accession of the Gilgit Agency to Pakistan.

An aerial photograph of the suspension bridge over the River Hunza at Gilgit, circa 1938

The next and final leg of 38 km was no less dangerous in its initial stage, and the caravan had to frequently halt to avoided boulders tumbling down. The speed with which the locals moved was admirable and before the road was built till Chalt, they could trek from Gilgit to Hunza in a day. At Murtazabad, the travelers finally entered the lush green valley of Little Hunza with its orchards and irrigation channels that had been laboriously constructed over decades by diverting the mountain streams. They were received at the rest house at Aliabad by Prince Ayash Khan, the Mir’s brother, and Ghazanfar, the heir apparent who was clad in a naval uniform. Six kilometres ahead the Mir with his entire family were waiting for them outside their residence at Karimabad.

Mir Sahib (as he was addressed by all), possessed a towering personality; a legacy of eight centuries of Mirship by his family. When his father Mir Ghazan Khan passed away in 1945, he became Mir at the tender age of 22. Two years later he married Shams-un-Nehar, a princess from the State of Nagar. She was addressed as Rani Sahiba and was soft spoken with an endearing smile. The Mir and Rani Sahiba had 9 children, all of whom were reared by foster parents, one from every village. It was an admirable way of uniting the community and the children used to spend the night in their foster homes. His six daughters were excellent company for my two sisters and I. Adjoining the Mir’s residence was a large freshwater pond in which the boys swam during the day and the girls were allowed in the evening in their shalwar kameez. Shahnaz my eldest sister had recently learnt swimming and jumped into the pond, little realizing that it was fed by a stream that had plunged 1,500 meters from a glacier. In the few seconds it took her to struggle out, her teeth were chattering and lips were turning blue!

The author (2nd from right) playing cards with the children of the Mir and Rani of Hunza in the lawn of their residence in Karimabad, Hunza, 1954

The three weeks that the visitors spent with the Mir and his gracious Rani were idyllic. The guest house next to Mir Sahib’s residence was perched on a huge boulder like an eagles nest and had a commanding view of the valley against the backdrop of Rakaposhi. Shahid Hamid spent time sitting on its balcony consulting a treasure trove of books on the region in Mir Sahib’s library and compiling the early chapters of a book on Hunza. Much of the material in this article has been extracted from this book that was published as attribute to the Mir after he passed away. The usual routine was a late breakfast followed by a ride or a walk through the fields and hamlets, lunch and siesta followed by a game of tennis, and finally an early dinner and a long night’s rest. One of visitor’s most arduous tasks every evening was to decide on the menu for the next day.

During the three weeks that they spent in the valley, the visitors had an opportunity to closely observe the lifestyle of a tribe that was portrayed in the most glowing terms by travellers and explorers. In The Burusho of Hunza published in 1938, E. O. Lorimer writes:

“There is something winning about the complete lack of servility in Hunza. The people are hospitable, courteous and polite […] they own the soil, live their own lives and can look the whole world in the face”.

In his book The Mountains of Tartary, Eric Shipton the legendary mountaineer describes the Hunzakuts as “proud, loyal, brave and open hearted.” In fact in the opinion of Younghusband the great explorer who was appointed as the Assistant PA in Karaimabad, the Hunza-Nagar Campaign would have been unnecessary if the British had maintained a closer personal relationship with the Mir.

The Hunzakuts lived a hard life grazing their flocks and herds in the high pastures, repairing the water channels and tilling their fields and orchards throughout the summer to survive the harsh winter. Their families were closely knit and houses well-tended. There were no rich or poor and in bad times the neighbours chipped in to help those in distress and appeal for help to the Mir was never ignored. The women were treated as partners by the men. Marital unfaithfulness was rare and divorce was not a stigma. Their diet consisted of milk products (fresh, sour, butter, cheese and ghee) and vegetables, both leafy green as well as roots and were boiled in a little water, which was also drunk. There were no spices and salt was substituted by saline earth which was washed and added to the pot. A large variety of fruits were part of their diet, of which the apricot was the most important. It was the only source of sugar and was eaten fresh in summer and dried in winter and the kernel provided oil. During winter, the preferred diet was a hot porridge of dried apricots and wholemeal corn, baked in a variety of ways – sometimes with oil to make it into a cake. Grapes were never eaten but used for making wine, the famous ‘Hunza Pani’, which was only drunk in winter. Likewise the Hunzakuts only eat meat in winter.

One of the highlights of the stay was a visit to the Baltit Fort which was located above the Mir’s residence and dominated the valley. When the British troops stormed Hunza, they looted the fort’s armory and its priceless objects that had been acquired over centuries. Valuable lamps, musical boxes from Paris, delicate Chinese pottery, Russian Samovars and other objects of art were sold by the British to the bazaars in Gilgit to pay for the bounty to the troops who had taken part in the operation. Centuries old manuscripts in Chinese, Turkish, Persian and Hindi along with copies of the Quran were sent to the India Office and are probably now in possession of the British Library. The fort was subsequently rebuilt and the Mir and his ancestors brought back some of its lost charm by richly furnishing it with Chinese silks, Yarkand carpets and colored prints from Kashgar.

The Mir himself lived in a comparatively modest but aesthetically designed residence. The living space on the upper floor was like a small museum and the shelves in the sitting room were adorned with autographed pictures of famous personalities who had either visited Hunza or the Mir and Rani Sahiba had befriended in Paris and elsewhere abroad. In a storeroom below was the Rani Sahiba’s collection of Chinese silk and tapestries which she showed my mother one day while I sat alongside. With a gentle smile she gave me something small from what looked to me like a treasure chest. I can’t remember what it was, but I cannot forget the gesture.

The Mir commanded great respect and was a fatherly figure. He governed his subjects in a simple and intimate manner and had a special relationship with them which were based on mutual respect.  Next to the residence was his Audience Chamber where he spent most of the morning receiving a stream of subjects who brought petitions or disputes mostly dealing with the distribution of water which was their lifeline; all this set against the backdrop of Rakaposhi. Mir Sahib was not only the ruler. The population of Hunza are Shia Muslims of the Ismaili branch and Mir Sahib had been nominated by the Agha Khan to look after the sect in the entire region of Central Asia. He was worldly-wise and a much traveled man who was invited by the Agha Khan every year along with his family to meetings of their community in Paris.

The Mir had the honorary rank of major general in the Frontier Force Regiment and was a frequent guest at military functions. He was always accompanied by Prince Ayash Khan who acted as his secretary. The Prince had been given the honorary rank of a major in the Corps of Signals by the British. He had been trained in wireless at Mhow to look after the communication which included a telephone line that connected Srinagar with Misgar as well as a transmitter at Karimabad to report on any incursions by the Russians or Chinese. After Independence, the Mir extended the communication network throughout the State and in the evening talked to all his village headmen.

Both the Mir and Ayash Khan had a passion for radios. Considering the remoteness of the valley this was understandable and it was how they remained aware of what was happening in the wider world. I remember his American battery powered Zenith Trans-Oceanic Short Wave Radio that had a price tag of $100 (the equivalent of $1,000 in 2019). Some years later the Mir also acquired what was considered the Rolls Royce of radios; the German Grundig Satellit Transistor 6000. It was highly engineered and intrinsically more complex than the Zenith and in the 1960s would set a customer back by $500. It is now in the possession of Abbas, his youngest son.

Before our departure, we were all presented Choghas. These are traditional gowns woven from sheep-down and those for the females were intricately embroidered with bright floral patterns. The Mir and Rani Sahiba were generous to a fault. As our caravan headed back, my father noticed that one of the ponies was carrying a large roll that was not part of our luggage. It was a carpet that had adorned Mir Sahib’s sitting room that my mother had one day admired, and he quietly sent it along as a gift. Over the next two decades, our families became very close – more so because Mir Sahib constructed a house in Satellite Town, an upcoming suburb of Rawalpindi. It was named Hunza House and his family would winter here.

After political disturbances in Hunza in 1974, the State was annexed to the Northern Areas under the federal government. Mir Jamal was inconsolable. “What will become of my people?” he lamented to his friends. It is ironic that the last Mir of a tribe renowned for their longevity, passed away at the relatively young age of 64. A way of life that had been preserved for centuries had been demolished and he died of a broken heart.