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Hunza Valley Culture: People Born in the Mountains

hunza culture

For many centuries the people of Hunza Valley in Northern Pakistan have been living in the shadows of the mighty Karakoram Mountains. It was not until the Karakoram Highway opened in the late 1970s that access to the various valleys that make up the greater Hunza region was even possible by car.

To give you an idea of just how remote some of the villages are here in Northern Pakistan – think about how the Western United States was before colonial expansion and primitive road networks developed at the beginning of the 19th century; Hunza was the Pakistani equivalent to the “wild west” for so long that much of its distinct cultural identity remains intact to this day.

Upper Hunza was ruled by a Mir or king as recently as 1974 – which is pretty mind-blowing.

So what makes the people native to Hunza so special?

Why have we been traveling to Hunza Valley since Epic Backpacker Tours started?

Let’s take a quick look at a few of our favorite aspects of Hunza Culture.

Hunza is Diverse

altit fort huza
Epic Backpacker Tours guide Sohail in Altit Village, Lower Hunza.

There are two main ethnic groups and languages that make up Hunza Valley.

Lower Hunza: (Karimabad/Aliabad/Nagar, etc) – Burushaski-speaking people.

Upper Hunza: (All villages north of Attabad Lake – (Gulmit/Ghulkin/Shimshal/Charpursan, etc) – Wahki-speaking people.

Though only 30 kilometers separate these two areas, Burushaski and Wahki are two completely different languages. There is definitely some cultural overlap between the two groups in terms of lifestyle and religion but in order to communicate with one another, people from these two distinct communities typically speak together in Urdu – the national language of Pakistan.

If this was France as an example – that’s kind of like driving down the road to the next town over and instead of speaking French your neighbor speaks Chinese and in order to properly communicate you need to speak in Swahili – that’s how different all of these 3 languages are.

The Burushaski language does not have any solid linguistic links to other languages – making it one of the more unique languages from South Asia. Some ancient Tibetan texts reference a written manuscript from Gilgit that might have been written in Burushaski – although no written works from history have survived in the Burushaski language.

The Wahki language comes from an Eastern Iranian language though, in more recent centuries, native speakers tend to hale from the Wakhan Corridor and Pamir Mountains (a triangular area with shared borders with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan) – the ancestral homeland of the Wahki people found in Hunza. My friends in Upper Hunza have told me their families moved to the Gilgit Baltistan region that is now Hunza roughly 300 years ago – but first-hand documented history of the Wahki people does not seem to exist – adding to the greater mystery that makes up the people and culture of Hunza.

Traditional Hunza Sport

Men gearing up to play Buzkashi in Hunza.

While there may not be basketball and skateboarding happening in the Hunza Valley – Huzai folks love to get down on some sport.

Due to the fact that the lives of Hunza residents are closely intertwined with livestock, it is no surprise that some of the most popular sports in the region involve animals.

Horse Polo is a favorite pastime of men – and there are some truly epic high altitude polo grounds to be found in remote alpine pastures. The rules of the game are not what they are in the west – and matches can get downright rowdy, with LOTS more physical contact between players than one would see at a match in the UK for example.

Buzkashi is an ancient sport unique to parts of Central Asia and the Pamir region. It also involves mounted horsemen, a goal – and wait for it – a headless carcass of a goat or small cow. This sport is losing popularity with the younger generations without a doubt – but is still played annually in the summer and winter throughout Gilgit Baltistan and Hunza. Many people who formally enjoyed playing Buzkashi have sold their horses for the cash to make life more comfortable in the short term – which is making this bizarre yet fascinating sport even less common in Hunza these days.

Sports popular in the west are now very popular with the young people in Hunza. Cricket might be the overall favorite, though I have witnessed intense games between teenagers of volleyball, football (soccer), and ice hockey (in winter).

Unlike other parts of Pakistan, it is common to see both girls and boys engaging in sports – although co-ed games between older teenagers don’t really happen yet.

More and more folks from this area are getting into guiding and climbing as well – they say the best climbers in Pakistan come from Shimshal. That’s why we always use local guides on our trips – nobody knows the mountains like they do.

Long Life in Hunza

It is said that the people from the Hunza region have some of the highest life expectancy rates in Pakistan. Diet probably has a lot to do with it, as until recent times most of the food in Hunza was locally produced and organically grown without the use of toxic chemicals. It is also not uncommon to see old people out working hard in their fields well into their eighties.

Unlike in the west, access to regular or even basic health care was and still is pretty much non-existent. People relied on local remedies and treatments when they got sick – and even now if someone needs serious treatment for something – they must travel back to one of the cities in Punjab or Sindh – sometimes thousands of kilometers away.

When you compare that scenario to the number of times the average 80-year-old American has been to the doctor in their life – the long life of Hunza residents is even more impressive.

Throw in the fresh mountain air, a lifetime of walking in hilly terrain every day, and little to no alcohol or drugs (well there is the local spirit known as Hunza Water), and there you might have the secret to the long lifespans found in Hunza.

Note to self: eat well, walk in the mountains a lot, work hard, and keep things simple.

Hunza Agriculture

cherry blossoms in Hunza
Cherry blossom season in Hunza is magic.

This subject is definitely linked to the long lifespans of local residents mentioned above – because eating a ton of freshly grown produce throughout your life is sure to keep you healthier than drinking Cocacola and eating Lays potato chips.

Hunza is famous for its fruit trees that light up the valleys in hues of pink, red, and white each spring. When these quiet hamlets pull out winter, they do so in style. Farmers are out tilling up the fields, sowing seeds of staple crops they will harvest in the summer and the fall as the fruit-bearing trees put on a display that rivals the famous cherry blossom scenes in Japan.

Part of the mindset in Hunza for generations has been self-reliance. There is a real can-do attitude amongst the people here – and this characteristic is probably a big reason why the communities of lower and upper Hunza have thrived in the face of relative isolation for so long.

The three most common fruits grown are apples, cherries, and apricots – and most are varietals not grown in too many other places in the world.

Crops like potatoes and wheat do well in the harsh mountain conditions and fertile soils. Another distinct quality of Hunza culture is that women are much more involved with tending animals and crops than men are.

Sometimes you will see couples working together, but most of the time it is the local women who are milking the cows every day, harvesting potatoes, cutting grass for the livestock to eat, collecting firewood, and producing dried fruit.

Education in Hunza

The average rate of literacy in Pakistan hangs at about 60% – and in some rural areas of Punjab and the south – literacy rates are far lower – as low as 15% in some small villages, and even lower for women.

In Hunza however, literacy rates are among the highest in the country – around 95%. Education for girls and women is also very high when compared to other parts of the country – which is largely due to the fact that there are no societal or cultural pressures in Hunza placing restrictions on female education.

Kids as young as 12 years old might be fluent in Urdu, Wahki, and conversational in English – which is definitely above and beyond the abilities of the average kid born in America.

Internet access in recent years has improved 1000% across Hunza, giving people direct access to western and local media/culture, Youtube, social media, and the like. All of this culminates in Hunza being far less isolated than it was in the past and sets the stage for major changes in the region over the next few generations.

Despite influences from the outside world pouring in from all sides, the strong Hunzai spirit born in the Karakoram remains strong, resilient, and very much alive – as does the feeling of some ancient magic found in every corner of the valley.

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Welcome to our Journal!

Here at Epic Backpacker Tours, adventure is constantly on our minds. 

Our blog – or Journal as we like to call it – contains epic trip stories, photo diaries, and news about new tours. 

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PAKISTAN
K2 BASE CAMP TREK

Next trip: July 4th – 24th, 2023

Adventure Guide

João has born in the mountains of Madeira Islands in Portugal. Nature lover, writer, musician, guide, for him, a day without contact with outdoor vibes is a nightmare.

With a degree in Cultural Studies in Portugal and a Master of Arts in Global Cultures and Creativity in the U.K.

João found out what really matters in life can be found on the trails, and in the contact with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Guiding, crazy trekking missions, sharing observations about the natural world, – these are some of João’s passions.

After his trek to K2 Base Camp and other adventures in the north of Pakistan, the love of the country and the local people resulted in his desire to share these feelings with world.

When not in Pakistan, João is  guiding and exploring in the Madeira Islands trails –  discovering some of the hidden treasures on his Portuguese Island.

João I can not thank you enough for the off the beaten paths and views you keep giving. Definitely one of the most challenging and amazing hikes we did 1200m meters all the way up to Fanal forest and circling back to the hidden village. Wow!

– Jeffery 

travel hunza valley

Adventure Guide

Sohail is the newest addition to the Epic Backpacker Tours team and we are beyond stoked to have him on board. As a veteran of the Karakoram and a native of Karimabad in Hunza, there is not much Sohail can’t do in the mountains. 

Besides having the ability to speak more languages than we can count, Sohail has explored every corner of Gilgit Baltistan and logs more trekking miles 

in a year than most people will do in a lifetime. As of the summer of 2022, Sohail has summited Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, and K2 – three of Pakistan’s five 8000-meter peaks. Sohail guides several trips including our annual bespoke expeditions but specializes in Hunza Valley tours.

Chris and Sohail, and the team at Epic are FANTASTIC! Highly recommend anyone to do a tour with ‘Epic’. They have the perfect balance of fun, excitement and wild adventures, tied in with being super professional and ensuring your safety/health in a foreign environment. Don’t waste a moment and book a tour with these guys as the value for money is UNREAL!

– Borgan

iran travel tour

Adventure Guide

Pedro’s been traveling all around the globe since 2009. His keen interests in documentary photography, rural life, and local people from different ethnic groups have been the focus of many of his professional projects.

Since 2012, he has developed his passion for travel and awesome shared experiences into a full-time adventure photography tour leader position.

Pedro has found himself continuously going back to the Middle East, with his likely favorite destination being Iran. Pedro will be leading his 11th tour in Iran with EBT this coming spring 2020

When Pedro’s not traveling the world with Epic Backpacker Tours, you’ll find him based in the western south of Portugal planning he’s next adventure missions, logistics and working out his photos in local exhibitions.

 I loved the combination of hiking, camping around breathtaking scenery mixed with the cultural aspects. The guide (Pedro) is knowledgeable and work very hard to make the trip as memorable as possible. All in all an epic adventure with some extremely epic individuals! Go for it, you won’t regret it!

– Saisun

Touring Iran with EBT in May 2022 was way above our expectation: itineraries well planned and carefully executed, perfect mix of sights and trekking, delicious food, nice accommodation, great guides and wonderful fellow travellers. Trekking can be handled by anyone physically fit. Highly recommended for those who want to experience the real Iran.

– Sumera

Diane Bouvet

Adventure Admin / Marketing

After fleeing from the corporate fashion world in Paris towards the start of 2020, Diane has been working as a web developer and graphic designer remotely from various bases across the globe

She brings all of her incredible design and organizational power to Epic Backpacker Tours and is responsible for many of the beautiful behind-the-scenes design elements. 

Diane has been to Iran and to Pakistan twice including all over Gilgit Baltistan and KPK.

k2 base camp trek guide

Head of Operations | Guide

A veteran of Pakistan travel, Ralph is an experienced guide, photographer and writer who specializes in documenting remote locations. 

Not one to simply go where everyone else does, he insists on exploring new and lesser-known areas.

Together with Epic Backpacker Tours, he shows people parts of Pakistan that most other operators don’t even know about. He is particularly fond of the village of Barah, which he believes will become just as famous as Hunza one day.

Just got back from EBT’s Trekking Amongst Giants 15 day tour. The experience was first class. Ralph, our head guide, ensured that the entire trip ran smoothly and relatively on time (a bonus for anyone travelling in Pakistan). We had so many unforgettable days on the tour and the trekking was well-planned, safe but also a rewarding challenge. 

– Calvin


Traveling to a non-tourist destination can be a little intimidating but EBT takes all of the worry and trepidation away. From the pre-trip call to meeting the wonderful staff in person you can tell that you are dealing with a company that has a passion for what they do each and every day. Ralph, Zahid, and Khan were supportive, kind, and always willing to go the extra mile to make sure that everyone on the trip was getting what they wanted out of the experience.

– Katrina 

adventure tours pakistan

Founder | Adventure Guide | Director

For the last eleven years, Chris has been seeking out every shade of adventure in various parts of the globe and had visited more than 65 countries along the way. 

Since 2011, Chris has logged more than 6300 trail miles across five continents and climbed multiple 6000 + 7000 meter peaks in Pakistan and Nepal.

In 2017, a distant dream and a deep passion for the mountains and people of Pakistan led Chris to found Epic Backpacker Tours at a time when foreign adventure tourism in Pakistan was almost nonexistent. Since then, Chris has guided more than 15 expeditions to various parts of Northern Pakistan.

Chris believes in using photography and powerful adventure experiences to dismantle negative stereotypes regarding what mainstream media considers “dangerous” countries while facilitating unique and meaningful memories in the mountains for countless people from around the globe. 

Long-distance hiking, learning languages, meaningful conversations, all things Turkish food, mountaineering, and making tasty coffee above 6,000 meters rank among his favorite things in life. 

For him, an ideal start to the day begins with a steaming cup of good coffee, the beam of a headlamp, alpine boots, and a camera in hand.

When he is not leading or planning tours, Chris works as a writer and photographer on his blog Off the Atlas – an adventure travel blog all about Pakistan. 

 

Chris believes in Pakistan and its people, and he believes in the value of journeys shared with others and family cultivated on the road. Honesty and integrity are at the heart of what he does, and this really shines through in his work as a guide. He also makes great coffee – whether at 5am in an empty guesthouse or half way up a Himalayan peak.”

– Will De Villers

Chris believes in Pakistan and its people, and he believes in the value of journeys shared with others and family cultivated on the road. Honesty and integrity are at the heart of what he does, and this really shines through in his work as a guide. He also makes great coffee – whether at 5am in an empty guesthouse or half way up a Himalayan peak.”

– Alicia Anne Bjerkseth