We were sitting in our Tashkurgan hostel when Saeed came to say hello. Like us, he was enjoying a last beer, an indulgence that is not available in his home village of Moorkhun, about twenty minutes south of Sost. In older times Saeed would be called a trader, or a merchant of the silk road. Today he says “import export”. He treks over the border to trade Pakistani fabrics and generic medicines for Chinese cosmetics and instant noodles.
When Saeed learned we were headed south the next day, just like him, he insisted that we come and stay with his family. We did. The three days that followed will forever rate among our best ever travel experiences.
On the first day we trekked outside of Moorkhun with Saeed’s cousin. Well, we think cousin. The details of relations were a little hard to work out because terms like cousin, sister and even grandmother are used to describe all sorts of people and, in the small villages of the upper Hunza, most people are related to each other in more ways than one anyway.
The Karakoram Highway roughly follows the Hunza river downstream and all around the mountains are spectacular. They rise so steeply it seems as if they’re overhanging at the top, peering down to police the valley below. The stunning views in the Abghaz valley where we trekked were heightened by its calm and isolation.
We arrived for the night at Saeed’s ancestral village. It’s old enough to have a tower to watch for roaming Uighur hordes, though it’s little more than rubble now. The Jamatkhana – the Mosque equivalent of the Ismaili Islam practiced in the Upper Hunza – was the only building with glass windows. None had electricity or running water. People visit the village to graze animals in summertime or, in the case of our hosts for the night – more ambiguously titled relatives – to escape pollen allergies in the valley below.
On other days we just hung out with Saeed’s immediate family in Moorkhun. We taught games to his four kids, read their school books, helped them harvest wheat and generally roamed about the neighbourhood. The kids’ dedication to showing us about grew with age though all were ready to put hosting aside to play a little fruit ninja. Nuzhat, 6, was still young enough to use rolly pollys as her main means of transportation around the traditional family home with living spaces decked out exclusively in rugs and cushions. Our main use to her was as a living jungle gym. Abbas, 9, seemed to have a little more freedom than his sisters. He came on our trek into the Abghaz and scurried ahead to scavenge a kind of root that looked like rhubarb but tasted like green apple.
The older girls, Fariha, 11 and Sosun, 13, herded us between family apricot orchards and neighbours with waiting cups of tea like the cows and goats they normally shepherd. They were serious about their studies, and while their English wasn’t perfect, they weren’t shy about speaking to us like a Chinese student muddling through their English studies might be.
Their mum, Zaina, showed us wedding photos. She was sad then, she said, because the marriage was arranged. But now she is very happy and clearly proud of her children. At just thirty two, she’s got four kids, the eldest about to go off to college. Quite a different life experience to our own.
She works hard in the fields, teaches evening classes for children on the Koran, runs a small shop with goods for the women in the village, and marshals her older daughters to help her cook for the family and for us. During our visit we were plied with goat curry, and tea, paratha, eggs, and tea, dhal, and tea, potato and spinach curry, and tea, apricots, and tea, apples and tea, and every so often, fresh hot milk, and then tea. We enjoyed it all, although the fresh milk sometimes tasted a bit too much like cow.
The family’s hosting was effusive. We were given the choicest bits of meat, the seat closest to the fire, and no chance to carry our own bags anywhere. But the family wasn’t stiff around us. Saeed and Zaina still teased each other (“Now you will be cooking.” …”Oh, am I your servant?”) and the older girls still got themselves in an endearingly mighty sulk when they were scolded for disappearing to prayers without telling their parents.
For a while we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to be asked to pay an outrageous sum for services rendered, or bundled off to some conniving tout. We weren’t asked for anything but ended up wanting to give something. We gave the extra camera we never use because we’d seen how much the kids like photos. We’re still not quite sure if the family was profoundly grateful, or a little offended. But our final night became a whirlwind of gift giving in return: dried apricots, clothes and goods from the family shop (“on this shelf, what things do you like… now this shelf”).
We’re not sure what motivated Saeed to welcome us into his home. Pride in his culture? Curiosity about ours? Most likely, we think, a profound cultural imperative to be hospitable. But whatever, we are enormously grateful for the rich experience we received. Some days have passed now but we still smile with memories of it all. It was like we reached travel nirvana.