The sub-zero temperatures are worth it
You don’t need to really panic if you can’t feel your toes after five minutes of walking. Or if you can only see the colour white all around you. Visiting Hunza in the winter will feel like a dream when you live in sub-zero temperatures and wake up to fresh blankets of snow every morning.
Here are five reasons to (responsibly) travel to Hunza this winter:
1. The views are stunning
Hunza’s beauty this time of the year is unparalleled to anything you may have seen before. From a crowded Karimabad bazaar set against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains to semi-frozen, turquoise rivers snaking through rocky valleys, Hunza’s beauty is mesmerizing. The steep trek up to Baltit Fort over cobble-stoned slopes is worth the view of Hunza Valley far below basking in the warm sunlight. The picturesque Passu Cones are a timeless landmark of Hunza any tourist needs to see, as are the pink and purple sunrises with golden hues that sleepily peak up behind the towering mountains.
2. The cold is exhilarating
The biting cold can be a dealbreaker for many, but -13 degree weather is worth experiencing at least once in your life. It’s quite the contrast from Karachi’s heatwaves or Lahore’s soaring summer temperatures, and the crisp mountain air is refreshing for a few minutes before it makes your face go numb. The piercing blue Attabad Lake is always a spectacular sight, but the winter wonderland this lake becomes is unlike its summer beauty. The icy depths below will always be a tragic mystery as submerged houses and drowned bodies lay in oblivion 10 years on. The surface holds a hypnotic reflection of grey mountains cheerfully contrasted by colourful boats docked at the banks. When the lake is well thawed, the boat owners will take you for a leisurely ride as they paddle past frozen discs of ice sitting on the surface like lily pads. If the lake is frozen at least six inches thick, you’ll have to swap the ride for a short walk on the lake until it cracks and you have to scramble back to land. Walking on ice or snow really numbs your feet within minutes, but it feels ethereal to tread on fresh snow at Hopper Glacier or at Naltar, largely untouched save for a trail of paw prints occasionally.
Fresh, handmade food prepared by the locals using centuries old recipes is one of Hunza’s main attractions. While many small eateries shut for the winter, there’s several local dishes you can still try. Chapshuro, which is easily the most commonly found dish in Hunza, is minced beef/yak meat stuffed between two chappatis and baked. Daodao is their traditional soup with hand-rolled wheat noodles packed full of brothy flavour. Like every dish in Hunza, its nutrition value is high, much like the traditional Giyaling crepes with apricot oil slathered on it.
Yak is a delicacy in this part of Pakistan, so yak nihari or karhai is a must to try when in Hunza. [Unlike Markhor, it is not illegal to kill and consume yak]. Several restaurants boast an extensive Chinese menu that substitutes for unavailable local dishes, but even the humble chicken corn soup has a twist to it that you can’t quite put a finger on. Walnut cake is a popular snack at most cafes, while Tumoro tea and hand-whipped coffee are almost always on the menu too. Local fruits and dry fruit are superior in quality, size and taste because they’re mostly grown organically up north. And if you’re ever craving universal comfort food, there will always be a French fries stall just around the corner for as little as 100 rupees for a heaped plate of masala fries.
4. You’re keeping small businesses afloat
COVID-19 has reduced the steady stream of tourists in Hunza from thousands to a few hundred this year. Shopkeepers and café owners are grateful for the handful of tourists arriving amid the pandemic, among them Amjad Khan. He sits within his wooden shack close to Hussaini Suspension Bridge selling tea, hand-whipped coffee and boiled eggs. Daring tourists who make the dangerous roundtrip across the bridge reward themselves with a cup of his creamy coffee and stunning views of mountain peaks to go with it, listening to Khan’s anecdotes as he works behind his single burner stove. Shops selling dry fruit, carpets, jewelry and winter gear are all huddled in narrow bazaar lanes across Hunza, the shopkeepers hoping tourists will empathize with their amped up prices this season to make ends meet.
5. It’s a thrill seeker’s paradise
Some winter activities in Hunza just aren’t for the fainthearted. Whether you’re zooming across narrow mountain roads at 110 kmph or your 4×4 jeep is skidding backward as it tries to drive over snow, you’ll love the adrenaline rush that masks the danger of the situation. Slipping on ice can be injurious if you’re not careful, just as the lack of warm winter clothing can turn your body numb painfully quickly. But if you can bear the cold, sliding down a snowy slope is one experience you don’t want to miss.
Planning a trip to Pakistan’s northern areas amid a pandemic may seem reckless and unnecessary, but if done responsibly can benefit the locals more than harm them. Revenue from tourism is what many local families depend on, and they’re more worried about going out of business than catching the virus this winter.