BBC Radio
August 4, 2003

Saving Shangri-La

I confess I didn't find everything quite so appetising - such as the 30 year old butter - yes you heard right, 30 year old butter! - a traditional food at weddings, parties and greeting ceremonies. It tastes kind of cheesy…

But communication with the outside world has bought positive things too.

The Hunza Valley has one of the most educated populations in Pakistan, and that includes the women. As members of the Ismailis Sect of Islam, under the influence of the Aga Khan, women here have a much freer way of life than in other parts of the Muslim State.

There has also been a massive influx of money resulting in higher living standards, better health care and a wider range of career options for everyone.

Most significantly there has been a concerted effort by the Aga Khan Foundation to preserve the very things that made Hunza so unique. Last year the Foundation won the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award - and we could see the results.

The most obvious is The Baltit Fort, an 800 year old Tibetan palace that sits at the top of the valley looking down over the settlement.

Up until 40 years ago it was the home of the Mirs, who ruled over the valley for the past 1200 years. As the palace crumbled around him, the last Mir moved out to a modern home, leaving it to collapse. But with an enormous injection of money and skills it has been restored to its former splendour.

The Baltit Fort may be the most tangible display of restoration, but traditional skills have also been undergoing a revival.

We were lucky enough to find a musician who has been teaching the old songs and music of the area to children at the local school. His father and his father before him had been court musicians at the Mir's palace, and he sung us a song in the language unique to Hunza, Barusheski.

It was hard after only a few days in the valley to say whether the efforts at saving it from the heavy footprint of the tourist will work, but the attnetion given to the valley in recent years has also increased pride felt in their special way of life, and the travellers who do make the effort to go so far are hardly looking for discos and minibars - and they certainly won't find them.

But they will find a little bit of Shangri-La.