North of Hunza River is a place that is widely believed to have inspired the Shangri-La of James Hilton in his famous book, a place of ancient settlements and forts, prehistoric rock art, 7000-metre peaks, and remarkably long-lived people. Despite the near-fictional characteristics, this is in fact a real place: this is Hunza Valley, which lies at an altitude of approximately 2,500m from sea level.
Hunza Valley used to be administered as a princely state, and though Aliabad is the current capital, Baltit (which is now called Karimabad) used to be the capital before it. The rulers were referred to as Thums and received the respectful address of Soori, which finds an apparent cognate in the more widely used Shri of the Indian language, a title appended to deities as well as to nobility. Baltit holds the world-famous Baltit Fort as well, which is one of the most popular places to visit in the area. It must be noted, however, that Baltit was not the first capital of Hunza: that was actually Altit, situated above it. Altit was replaced by Baltit as the capital due to a disagreement between the sons of the ruling Sultan, where one sibling shifted his residence to Baltit and later on became the triumphant brother. Invasions and wars have rendered a great deal of damage to the fort over the years, but the fort is now maintained by the Baltit Heritage Trust and has been repaired where necessary.
Altit Fort was thus the older home of Hunza’s rulers. The fort stands over a millennium in age, with a watchtower that is considered the most ancient of all of Hunza’s remaining defensive structures. There are theories about the fair-skinned and light-eyed people of the village of Altit having been descended from the Huns of nearby China, especially because the village’s previous name translated to “The Huns’ Village”. This has yet to be proven, however, although conjecture remains ripe. In a place that has inspired Hilton’s Shangri-La, romantic theories are not unfamiliar: another common claim made about the residents of the valley is that they are descended from the lost soldiers of Alexander the Great.
There are many other things to see in the Valley. The oldest settlement in the valley is Ganish, which lies just below Karimabad. Due to its age, Ganish has some of the oldest remaining monuments in the valley, including some ancient watchtowers or shikaris, as they are called in the local language, that the people used for defending the town and some old houses of the Hunza nobles. Above Karimabad is another structure of note and one that holds the oldest large monument in the entire valley: There are also prehistoric carvings on rocks nearby, as well as Buddha sculptures nearly two millennia in age. Karimabad has some ruby mines if you are interested in them and nearby is the second-longest glacier of the country, Batura. There are several mountains around the area that pass 6,000m as well, the tallest even reaching an altitude in excess of 7,700m (Rakaposhi).
Whether or not it is true that Hunza Valley inspired Hilton to write of a Shangri-La, there is one thing of which we may be certain: the true valley itself has sufficient power on its own to stand as a world of near-mystical beauty and historic value. This mountainous retreat in Pakistan is among the most valued of the country’s tourist destinations and is a place you should most certainly try to visit if you are in the area at any time save winter (winter is not a great time for visiting it due to the snows blocking the passes).