Noreen Haider: Nature strikes with mind blowing force at the most pristine of places and with no compassion for people or property. The Hunza Valley of Gilgit Batlistan, a paradise on earth, turned into a chaos with a catastrophic land slide. Noreen makes a personal connection in this passionate essay with suffering of her childhood land of love.
Gilgit Baltistan is the land of three mightiest mountain ranges of the world Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindukush. It is also the base camp for eight of the highest and most spectacular peaks of the world including Nanga Parbat,”the killer mountain”, Broad Peak, and Gashabroom.
It was as a very young student, during the summer vacations that I travelled to Gilgit Baltistan for the first time. My father was posted in Gilgit for two years and my parents and younger siblings were living there in a grand sprawling house on a hill, with fruit trees and rolling lawns reaching down to the edge of the gushing river but I as a freshman, had to stay back in Lahore in the college dormitory. How I longed for the vacations so that I could fly there and see the mountains and rivers.
The half hour flight from Islamabad to Gilgit was an indescribable experience. The sight of the snow-clad mountain ranges is beyond any narrative. The plane literally transported me to another world, a magnificent magical world of majestic mountains and their white tops wrapped in mist and clouds. Everything including myself was reduced to insignificance in the presence of the regal beauty of nature in its mightiest and grandest form.
The small Folker Friendship plane was like a toy flying across the face of gigantic mountains. It seemed difficult that the plane would be able to reach its destination safely but amazingly it did and in the last few minutes glided smoothly between a corridor made by two adjacent mountains, slightly tilting as if to avoid brushing with the mountain sides and landed at the half asleep Gilgit airport.
I stayed there for two summer months and travelled up and down Gilgit, visiting the beautiful valleys of Gilmit, Goshal, Shashmal and Hunza. It was difficult not to fall in love with the simple valley folks, so generous with their hospitality and so eager to welcome you in their homes. The valleys of Gilgit looked gorgeous in the summer, the orchid were spectacular, fragrant and colorful, with trees laden with apples, peaches and apricot. The corn was ripe and the colour of gold looked dazzling on the hill terraces and slopes. The leaves of the trees were a hundred different shades of green and red, from the palest pistachio to the flaming crimson.
The small and big rivers and streams running in the vallies were full of clear, ice cold water from the melting glaciers and it was impossible to even touch it for more than a few seconds.
These beautiful valleys have been attracting visitors from all over the world who come here looking for the proverbial Shangri-La. I don’t know about the reality of the folk lore but what I do know is that the vallies of Gilgit Baltistan had such an untainted, pure and raw beauty that made me feel as if I had entered another world, another time zone and another dimension. The people seemed so content in their rustic life with no connection to the fast paced outside world and no wish to be a part of it. They dried apricot as their staple food in the summers and ate the dry fruit all winter with milk and bread and eggs. Most people did not have anything to fall back on in case of any calamity. All they had were their seasonal fruits and crops and some livestock. The women also produced exquisitely embroidered shawls and small purses.
After the summer was over, I left Gilgit, with enchanting memories and also bags stuffed with almonds, walnuts, dried apricot, and boxes of cherries for friends and relatives and cartons of apples from a place called “Katchura”, known for the sweetest apples, put in the car boot by my mother. The flights were disrupted because of bad weather and it took more than thirteen hours to get to Islamabad from Gilgit by road but college had resumed and I had to return immediately.
Many memories have faded with time but I will never ever forget the sight of the full moon I saw in Hunza where I stayed for a night with my father. The full yellow moon was huge and it seemed as if it was descending on our roof top. The valley was lit up by the moonlight and it was so magical that I actually reached out to it almost sure that I would be able to touch it.
Although I visited Gilgit again briefly but did not had a chance to visit the valleys for the second time and now I may never see some of them again as the beautiful valleys have submerged along with their fragrant orchids in the waters of River Hunza.
On January 4th 2010 a strong earthquake jolted Hunza and a massive land slide fell across Hunza River at a place called Attabad which is about 14 KMs upstream of Karimabad, the capital of Hunza. At least 20 people died in the landslide that blocked the Hunza River, creating a lake that gradually expanded 23 kilometers upstream, submerging four villages – Ainabad, Shishkat, Gulmit and Gulkin. The landslide also blocked the Karakoram Highway (KKH), a vital trade link to China, cutting off 26,000 people in Upper Hunza Valley, also known as Gojal Valley. The debris obstructed nearly three kilometers of the once fast-flowing river and a longer stretch of the highway.
The landslide that had blocked the river was over one and a half kilometers wide and it was not realized by anybody that the leaking water from the river will eventually cement the debris making the landslide far stronger than any man made dam and then it would be literally impossible to remove or blast away the landslide by any means. Precious months were wasted in indecision and eventually the landslide become indestructible.
When the water in the lake started rising an attempt was made to make a spillway in the landslide to drain the lake but the plan remained futile. A feeble spillway was made but the water it drained was like a trickle out of the lake. The Frontier Works Organization made several attempts to widen the spillway through controlled blasts but failed to drain the 23-kilometre-long lake.
Soon it was clear that nothing could be done to save the villages situated along the river Hunza as the lake continued to grow. The apple orchids, the hundreds of years old trees, the relics of Buddhist remains, the mosques and the temples, artifacts and crafts and wooden houses with carved pillars all drowned in the lake. The people were evacuated by the army and temporarily moved to a valley Ghizar but they have become utterly heartbroken and miserable. The simple life that they were so contented with was disrupted beyond belief and the life sustaining river turned into a giant lake gulping and swallowing everything with its rising waters.
The government is powerless to do anything. Even controlled blasts cannot be made as it would destabilize the mountains and cause more landslides. The spill way is still a trickle and the lake is still rising.
The government of Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan do not have the requisite expertise or resources to drain the lake and to rehabilitate the lost villages. It would be a wonderful example of regional cooperation if Pakistan would seek the help of its more developed neighbors like India and China and try to find a way out of this problem.
The beautiful vallies and all that they symbolize is a shared heritage of the region and it is a shared responsibility to preserve this heritage for the coming generations. We owe it to the future generations to leave this earth a better place when we pass on. Perhaps if we act today we will save the villages and restore the orchids and people would be able to return home.
Life must be returned to the villages so that generations of young people with stars in their eyes and heart full of song come here and be inspired forever by the beauty of the yellow moon in the dreamy valley of Hunza.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>