Shimshal is a legendary place in northernost Pakistan. The Shimshalis are the people who live here. Of all the people I have worked with around the globe, a Shimshali named Muqeem Baig stood out immediately. His kind heart and mild manner conceal an extraordinary athlete born of fortitude and hardship in one of the most geographically isolated places in the world. I came to learn that a few of Muqeem's ancestors settled in the Shimshal Valley hundreds of years ago and proceeded to increase their numbers through generations until their decendents numbered a couple thousand. They are genetically different than all others in the world and their incredible strength and super human endurance might be comparable to something like the Sherpa of Nepal, though lesser in numbers. In Shimshal they were isolated for hundreds of years, requiring walks of more than 3 days involving near vertical canyons, rivers and summits higher than 17,000ft to reach any other settlements. They speak the language of Wahki, which is similar to Urdu.
The first road from Shimshal to the outside world, was completed in 2003, and this took 18 years using hand tools to carve away at dozens of miles of sheer cliffs hundreds of vertical feet above the canyons below. We had a chance to drive this road multiple times and it was the most breathtaking drive of my life. The villagers do not have cars, however, and many have never seen the land beyond. The valley is vast and supportive though, at about 11,000ft altitude, for those who have learned how to tend it. Until recently it was understood that the average life expectancy of a Shimshali was upwards of 90, despite a near complete lack of modern medicine. Their diet is rich in dried fruits and nuts and oils produced locally and while they raise Yaks and Sheep, they rarely eat meat. New more processed foods making their way into town, especially since the completion of the road have introduced intolerance and disease and are frowned upon by the elders.
In the early 1990s the government contacted the Shimshalis to see if they needed anything or wanted to trade. It was at this time the village got its first tractor, via military helicopter, which is still in good repair and running today.Most here still adhere to the old ways, but to preserve their culture and offer the outside world something of themselves, many have recently been involved in mountaineering and trekking. Muqeem's father was among the first to ever summit K2. Pakistan's most elite trekkers and climbers have come from the Shimshal.
Recently one of Muqeem's cousins became sick while in a field tending to a herd 2 days walk from town. He was carried on foot by his friends to town and when they reached town his condition had not improved. Since summer floods and rockfall, which are common, had made the road too dangerous the locals then proceeded to carry him on foot nearly 50 miles to the Hunza valley over 4 days. Unfortunately he died a short time later and it was suspected to have been a stroke. But if that doesn't show the strength of these people what does...
The town is surrounded by vast rolling meadows in an arid landscape and peaks of well over 22,000 feet rise on nearly all sides. Glaciers rumble above and great rivers rush below. Electricity is available only when a tiny hydro plant is operational thanks to adequate water flow in the stream, and even then is intermittent. There is no heat in our guest quarters, part of an old school building funded by a German donor many decades ago that was later turned over to the locals. Authorities had checked our passports on the way into the road leading to he valley but we were later told those police were illiterate anyway. School would be optional (and expensive) at best here however the police, for their part, had a beautiful little garden and a couple sheep at the checkpoint which amounted to their residence, on an especially arid bench near a river.
We soon met a gentleman on the road who was walking and asked him how he was doing. He said he had attempted to take a motorcycle to town but his bike had broken down some 15 miles ago in the canyon so he was proceeding to walk so that he would be able to take an exam for a course he had been taking there.
The road to Shimshal valley is very rough dirt and even with road access it is an all-day journey with no civilization of any kind along the way and canyons with walls ten thousand feet high on both sides so deep the sun never hits bottom in places. Roads are built upon a platform of stacked meticulously hand stacked rocks the like of which I have never seen elsewhere, as if proper stacking techniques will allow rocks the adhere perfectly to any surface. Bridges are hand made wooden suspension hung with metal cables attached to brick that sway greatly while passing over them and allow one vehicle at a time. One has to wait for the bridge to stop moving before putting wheels down on the other side.
Houses in town are of mud brick and roofs of wood and packed soil and plants in the old style, and a newer style is defined by locally made cinderblock and concrete from the glacial silt in the riverbanks. In neighborhoods around town it is very clean with little trash owing to local sourcing of most items and no need for disposable packaging and a deep respect for the land and environment surrounding. All cooking and heat in the village is done with wood from trees that were planted here by locals over generations and are meticulously cared for. The trees are a great part of their life produce apricot, walnut, apple and cherries, just to name a few. Potatoes and tomatoes are grown in abundance alongside essential grains such as wheat, for which the harvest is a town-wide qctivity that takes every available rooftop for drying. Much fruit is dried to last the winter and many preserves are made from it. There are in addition local honeys, salts, oils and a vinegar with apricot. The ancient local cuisine found here does not use things like curries or spices indicative of much Pakistani food. Rarely anywhere I have seen such proud, dedicated and beautiful people.
It has been great to go with Muqeem twice for trips now and would be honored to consider him a friend. I look forward to more trips with him to come, and many thanks to him for introducing me to many cousins and family members throughout our travels.