In Hunza They Live Forever

Outside magazine, April 1995

In Hunza They Live Forever

Is it the water? The apricots? The sublime mountain scenery? Is it all in their heads? High in the Himalayas, looking for a prodigal son who might have the answer.
By Rob Buchanan

Sudan in 1984 was enjoying its first days of the Sharia, the Islamic code of justice under which drunkards are publicly whipped and murderers beheaded, and it was with some trepidation that I boarded the ferry that runs down Lake Nasser from Aswan. The border post at Wadi Halfa was a scene of total chaos. The train that was supposed to have met the previous couple of ferries had never turned up, and now something like 2,000 begowned Sudanese, driven to near madness by a week of Nubian heat and Nile flies, were stampeding the newly arrived train. My train. I stood in the sand and stared in amazement. The half-dozen dilapidated carriages were already jammed with travelers sitting, standing, and lying in the overhead baggage racks. Even the roofs of the cars were thick with humanity, and still throngs laid siege to each door and window, fighting for a perch.

It was then that Ashraf Khan clapped his arm around my shoulder and offered a swig from his flask. I recognized him from the ferry: a jolly, balding rogue bull of a man with a bulbous nose, a walrus mustache, and a dangerous glint in his eye. He was a little old to fit into the world-traveler category, but he definitely had the WT spirit--the flame, as we called it back then. Beckoning me and another foreign backpacker, a German, to follow, he plunged into the crowd and, roaring invective in an alien tongue, muscled his way into one of the cars. Within a few minutes he'd commandeered a small compartment that, it soon became clear, had formerly served a different function. "Yes, my friends," he said, a phlegmy laugh rolling up from his barrel chest. "Three men in a toilet!"

For the next 40 hours, as the train crept south through the desert, Khan told us his story--or rather his stories, for he had a fantastic stock of them. He claimed to be from a remote valley in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, way up on the Afghanistan-China border. Hunza State, he called it. If he didn't look like a Pakistani, it was because Hunzakuts were fair-skinned and light-eyed--the descendants, he said, of Greek soldiers who'd deserted Alexander the Great's invading army. And who could blame them for staying? Hunza was a pocket world outside of time, a little Eden of verdant orchards and terraced fields cut off from the rest of the world by high peaks whose flanks were studded with gemstones. While it was true that the Hunzakuts had long ago converted to Islam, they were Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan, and thus enjoyed a uniquely liberal lifestyle. They ate, they drank, they danced amidst the abundance, and they lived longer than normal people did--much longer. Why, Khan himself had an uncle who was 132. When the German and I scoffed, Khan scoffed right back. How many years did we give him? Forty, 45? "No!" he roared. "I am 58 years, and still I have the strength of three men."

The train rolled on. We sat on top of one another and played bad chess on a pocket board and tugged away at Khan's flask. The German wrapped his head in a sheet and passed out, but Khan kept talking. He was, he said, the seventh son of Lal Beg, a prominent Hunza elder, and being blessed with a gift for languages, he had at a young age become a confidant of the mir, or king, of the little principality. "Old mir, he is loving me more than his own sons," Khan said. "New mir, I don't like, even though I am his translator. So I cheat him for 70,000 rupees, and I leave." He gave out a great laugh. Then he confessed that he himself had just been bilked out of $2,700 in a Cairo whorehouse, and laughed again. It was all a great game. He would ride filthy trains and trade Hunza stones and see the world, and then one day he would go home...

The more Khan talked, the brighter Hunza loomed, till I could practically see its snowcapped peaks on the dust-blown horizon and taste the golden apricots and the clear, cold glacier water tumbling down from the sky. Khan beamed, spreading his arms as wide as a man could while wedged in the corner of a lavatory. Someday I would come and see Hunza for myself. I would stay in Khan's house, inspect his father's orchards, climb with him to the secret canyons where garnets could be plucked from the hillsides like grapes. In Khartoum, he scrawled his address on a scrap of paper: Ashraf Khan, Hunza State, Gilgit District, Northern Areas, Pakistan.

"That's it?" I asked.

Khan snorted. "In Hunza," he said, "everybody is knowing who I am."

Over the years the details of my trip up the Nile faded to a distant blur. I forgot most of the stories that Khan had told me, and indeed I forgot Khan's first name. But I never forgot about Hunza. Even though I'd never been there, in some strange way I'd been handed the keys. I tucked them away and said nothing about it, as a fisherman might guard the knowledge of a secluded pool.

So it came as a shock when, a couple of years ago, I stumbled across a bag of something called Healthy Hunzas in a Malibu grocery store. The West had discovered Hunza after all, and what had it made of the place? Low-cholesterol potato chips. Not long afterward, I got a flier from the Golden Gate Geographic Society, announcing the screening of a Danish travel video, aimed at seniors, titled Hunza--Kingdom of Longevity! And then came the clincher: a piece of junk mail from a California company called Hunza Health Products. "People from Hunza live to be 120 in Supreme Health," the pitch read. "At age 80-100 and over, the people of Hunza act, work and feel as if they are 30-40. You can too!" There was an 800 number, and before I knew it I was paging through Carl Classic's Secret to Hunza Superior Health.

The book was more than a little ridiculous, arguing that Hunzakuts not only "do not contract illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, hardening of the arteries, arthritis or any disease major or minor," but also "do not even know what pain, aches or fatigue are." Yet it was of a piece with everything else I could find about Hunza: congenial hype. To the earliest British visitors, the Hunzakuts weren't just good farmers--they were the finest husbandmen in all Asia. To the first climbers who came through in the forties and fifties, the local porters were the bravest, most cheerful, and most reliable. Travel journalists regularly repeated the myth that Hunza was the model for Shangri-la, the fictional Himalayan valley depicted in James Hilton's Lost Horizon. (It wasn't: Hilton never visited Hunza, and neither did the French explorer whose notes on Himalayan life he cribbed.)

Hunza has clearly fulfilled some basic need, some salt-thirst in the Western imagination, for a high-altitude utopia. It's a mountain fastness at the very crux of the world, a place where light-skinned farmers of European descent live in peace and harmony and by cooperation have somehow wrested a good life out of this unlikeliest setting. And in the end that was the reason I had to go--to root out the old idea that character can be linked to landscape, that sublime mountains make for sublime people. I wanted to know: Did Hunzakuts really live longer, happier lives than the rest of us? Or was it that the power and scale of the place simply compels people to imagine it that way?

North of the town of Gilgit, the earth came to an end and we entered into some other, colder world. Above us, barren fields of scree stretched to the sky, and in the yawning gorge below, a silt-gray river spewed forth, trundling boulders the size of our minivan. Now and then a patch of cultivation appeared on an alluvial fan, but otherwise there was only rock, gray and shattered. Then, 50 miles out, we came around one last precipice and entered the central reach of the Hunza Valley.

Nothing I'd read and no photograph I'd seen had quite prepared me for the shock of that first encounter. The entire north side of the valley was a Chinese scroll of green and gold, a thousand-stepped staircase of delicate terraces tumbling to the river gorge in watercolor harmony. Fruit trees sprang forth here and there with puffy vigor, and fastigiate poplars outlined the water channels. It was the channels, hacked into the cliffs centuries ago with ibex horns, that had made the colossal ant farm possible. Above them, Hunza was a desert; below them, an oasis.

But the sheer verticality of the place inevitably draws your gaze skyward. Your eyes pause momentarily at Baltit Fort, erstwhile home to the mirs of Hunza, and then sweep up the dark canyon of Ultar Nala three vertical miles to the snowcapped ramparts of Ultar itself, which at 24,700 feet remains the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Turn around and you're staring at the north face of 25,550-foot Rakaposhi, a perfect tooth of a mountain that rises almost four vertical miles from the river in one unbroken swath of rock and ice.

In the old days only the Indiana Joneses of the world made it this far. There were perilously frayed rope bridges to cross, while the road, if you could call it that, was little more than a goat path clinging to the face of the cliffs; in some places it was actually cantilevered out over the void on crude platforms of brush and creaking timbers. All that changed in 1974, when the Karakoram Highway reached the village of Karimabad and Hunza State was formally annexed by Pakistan. What had been a one- or two-day ordeal, barring major rock slides, became a three-hour drive from the airport in Gilgit. Twelve years later, Chinese engineers pushed over the Khunjerab Pass from Xingjiang Uygur Province, opening the first road link between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.

The breezy ride in was undoubtedly a boon to the organizer of our little expedition, Sarah Timewell, an adventure travel packager from San Francisco, for whom the Karakoram Highway opened up all kinds of possibilities. We were joining her for the first part of an ambitious reconnaissance trip that would take her over the Khunjerab into western China and then on to Lhasa and Kathmandu. For photographer Rob Mackinlay and his wife, Mimi, a Berkeley schoolteacher, the drive was a relief, too; they'd traveled in the Northern Areas before and suffered too many horrendous 24-hour bus rides to feel nostalgic about them. But I couldn't help feeling a pang of disappointment. Getting to Hunza was almost too easy.

A half-dozen inns lined the main street in Karimabad, and a like number were under construction. There were shops hawking bottled water, lapis jewelry, and thin carpets, and there was a handful of open-air restaurants. But if the tourist was being truckled to, it was hard to tell. A serene, not-quite-prosperous aura surrounded the place. Dignified men in roll-brimmed Hunza caps and the tunic pajamas called shalwar qamiz strolled beneath the stately plane trees, as did groups of tall, handsome women in elegant Hunza headdresses. Like the men's, their features were startlingly Western.

Our local contact, Shabbir Hussein, was a jug-eared 30-year-old who favored jeans and a leather jacket over the shalwar qamiz. I didn't take to him at first: He was scrawny and a little obsequious. He carried a handkerchief against what seemed to be a permanent runny nose, and his darting eyes and weasely mustache made him seem evasive. But he proved an excellent guide and a fine storyteller, with a wicked wit that reminded me of Khan.

The best way to get around Hunza is to stick close to the water channels, or even walk directly in them, and the first day we did just that. It was mid-June, and much of the female population seemed to be stacking sheaves in the fields. Everywhere were scenes of marvelous fecundity, none more unexpected than the large clumps of cannabis that sprouted periodically alongside the canals. No one smoked it here, Shabbir said; its seeds were mashed and made into a porridge for pregnant women, to ease the pain of labor.

We were welcome to pick any fruit that grew along the water channels, Shabbir said, especially the apricots. They grew in the little low-walled orchards called zameen, hanging heavy on the trees like fluorescent golf balls, and on every rock surface they lay split open and awaiting the sun's drying rays. The landscape was ruddy with them; in the winter they'd be used as fodder for the livestock now up grazing in the summer pastures. Shabbir claimed there were more than 20 varieties in the valley; he picked handfuls of his two favorites, the small, pink, and unearthly-sweet cartachee and the doudour, firmer and easier to cleave.

It's probably the apricot, as much as anything, that's responsible for the myth of Hunzakut longevity. Until the advent of the Karakoram Highway, apricots were the main source of sugar in the local diet, and because animal pasturage in Hunza is so limited, oil from their tasty almondlike kernels provided one of the few sources of fat. Low fat and low sugar, went the reasoning, led to long life.

But how long, really? Until recently there were no written records in Hunza, and certainly none of the older citizens have birth certificates. Hunzakuts themselves tend to answer questions about longevity with a wink. Yet there is a remarkable vitality in some of the old people. One day we came upon a man--he didn't know how old he was--bent over like a tortoise under the weight of a huge rock. "Why are you carrying this rock?" Shabbir asked him.

"I'm taking it to my son's house," the man replied.

"Why does he need this rock?"

"He doesn't," the old man said. "But he might need it someday."

We came across only two avowed centenarians in our three weeks in Hunza. One was a 104-year-old woman, who declined to see us but sent word that she was in need of some medicine for her cataracts. The other was Nazar Shah, who claimed an age of 102.

Nazar Shah lived in Hyderabad, a few miles from Karimabad, and one morning Shabbir drove the four of us over to quiz him on the secrets of long life. We found him squatting on his haunches on the porch of his house, hand to chin, looking out over the valley with his one good eye. Although it was an 85-degree day, Shah was warmly attired in a beige Hunza cap, a shalwar qamiz of blue wool, a heavy sweater, and two tweed jackets, one worn over the other. Around him stood a circle of curious grand- and great-grandchildren. Shah shook each of us by the hand and then saluted us with a salaam, touching two fingers to his forehead and then looping them down and away in a curlicue. Then he turned to his son and said something in Burushaski, the rasping indigenous tongue of Hunza. "THEY'RE FOREIGNERS," his son yelled back, for the old man was mostly deaf, the result of 15 years of working over a howling millstone.

Shah had been born in Hunza but moved to Gilgit as a youth and became a tailor. In the early fifties the mir asked him to return--he was the first man to bring a sewing machine to Hunza. He sewed into his seventies, and then, after his hands stiffened, took a job in a gristmill; as recently as two years ago he was still working his fields. One of his sons, a youthful-looking 50-year-old, prodded Shah to his feet and made him take a turn around the porch--just, it seemed, to demonstrate that he still could.

Clearly any kind of extended interview was going to be impossible, partly because no true Hunzakut can resist the temptation to get off a good one-liner. So when I attempted to ask the old man what his favorite dish was, his son had to say, "Whatever we offer him."

"Why does he think he's lived so long?" I said, pressing on.

The son screamed into his father's ear, but even before Shah had gummed a response, we were hearing it. "It is fruit," said the son. "The apricots and the apples. And the water."

"What's in the water?" I said, thinking of the silvery mica that swirled in the channels.

The son yelled into his father's ear again, and the old man looked puzzled. "He doesn't know," he said. "But he says whatever it is, it's good for the digestive system."

We all nodded solemnly at this nugget. It was the only one forthcoming, though. Nazar Shah seemed happy just to sit and stare, and occasionally salaam in our direction. But on our way out I overheard him mumbling something, some cryptic refrain that might give us a clue. Shabbir walked over for a closer listen, scrunching up his face in concentration.

"Mmm," he said. "He is saying, 'I am over 100 years old.'"

I did not, in those first few days, make much of an effort to locate Khan. I half expected to come around a bend in a water channel and find him spinning tales under a tree or sleeping off some late-night bacchanal. Shabbir was utterly unhelpful to my cause. It was a little ridiculous to go around asking for someone named Khan, he pointed out; probably a third of the 40,000 or so residents of Hunza bore the name.

My ace in the hole was an old picture I'd taken on that Sudanese train, and one afternoon I showed it around the tourist shops in Karimabad. No one recognized the face. "His name is Khan," I told one shopkeeper. "I can't remember his first name. It started with an A. Ah-something."

"Asghar?" asked the shopkeeper.

"Yeah, maybe," I said.

"Asghar Khan from Aliabad, or Asghar Khan the tailor?"

"Or Asghar Khan the high porter?" said another man. A small crowd had started to form.

"I don't know," I said. "His father's name was Beg."

"Lots of Begs in Hunza," said the shopkeeper. "Shopping Begs, sleeping Begs, any kind of Beg you want."

Suddenly the father's name popped into my head. "Lal Beg," I said. That got a big laugh; lal beg, it turns out, is Urdu for "cockroach." It dawned on me that Khan, whoever he was, may have been putting me on from the start. I passed the picture around the group. "This man is not from Hunza," one elder finally announced to a general nodding of heads. "Perhaps he is Persian, perhaps Turki." He spat out an imaginary fruit pit.

"But he said he was from Hunza," I protested. "That he was from a big family, that he'd been the mir's translator..."

The old man shrugged. "Tell lie," he said.

The next time I pulled out the photograph, it was to show it to the mir, my best chance, I figured, for a positive identification. For surely the mir would remember a man who'd bilked him out of 70,000 rupees.

"Have you ever seen this man?" I asked.

The mir took the photo and glanced at it briefly. No discernible trace of recognition crossed his face.

"He says he used to work for you."

The mir smiled benignly. "I do not think this man is from Hunza," he said.

We were seated in the main hall of the mir's "palace," being served tea by a doddering old manservant whose hands shook perilously throughout the ritual. Back in the 1940s, Baltit Fort had ceased being the royal residence, and now the mir lived in a chalet stuck on the prime knuckle of land in Karimabad. Just inside the gatehouse was a peaceful garden with roses and a polo pitch that's no longer used, since no one in Hunza has horses anymore.

Plump and somewhat shy, Ghazanfar Ali was in his early fifties, with black swept-back hair and watery blue eyes. A university education and seven years in the foreign service had made his English reasonably refined; indeed, it was hard to imagine him needing a translator, let alone the wildly imprecise Khan. On the large desk in his ground-floor office we had seen a clutter of old photographs, including several of his father's coronation and a few from his own wedding. He'd been decked out in all the old finery: a cape, a fantastic hat, a sword. But mirs don't dress that way anymore. That day Ali wore a navy safari suit, Reeboks, and lots of gold: an impressive Rolex, a neck chain, a pinkie ring.

In the past few years, the mir had found himself in an increasingly delicate position. Since his father ceded sovereignty to Pakistan, Ghazanfar Ali had never been an absolute suzerain. Nevertheless, he was still by far the largest landowner in the valley and the area's elected representative in the Northern Areas council. "My father was a king," he said. "Now power depends on the likeness of the people.

"The likeness?"

"Yes, whoever they like."

But Shia fundamentalism was sweeping through the former state of Nagar, across the river on the south side of the valley. It was slowly infiltrating Hunza as well, causing resentment of the mir's lifestyle and leadership. Up and down the main street of Karimabad, we'd heard overt criticism: The mir and his family were a bunch of bon vivants up on the hill, out of touch with the people. Not long after we left, in fact, Ali would be defeated in his bid for reelection to the Northern Areas council.

But discontent, the mir insisted, was inevitable. "Opening the area has brought good things and bad things," he said. "People become businessmen--you can't avoid that." Currently he was supervising construction of Hunza's first luxury hotel, the 55-room Rakaposhi View, just across the garden from his chalet. And through the Aga Khan Heritage Trust, he was overseeing a number of ambitious public works projects. Baltit Fort was being rebuilt as a museum. There were a number of small hydropower plants under construction, and filtered water for Karimabad was in the offing. Then, too, the Chinese were knocking. Flour, cement, kerosene, oil, coal, crockery, shoes, and clothing were already coming over the pass on trucks. "We think in ten years China will be on top in the economy," Ali said. "They want to put up cement factories in our valley, and they will do it. How do we provide jobs for the new generation, if not in factories? Young people don't want to work in fields or on other people's land."

Admittedly, he said, the price of such progress was becoming increasingly clear. "In the old days, we produced enough food for the entire year," the mir said. "Now we only have enough production for seven or eight months. And we used to have many cultural festivals. Now there are hardly any. Even our Hunza music is dying. Still, we have a good life and we live a long time. Some say it is simple food, but I don't think so. In short, we have less worries, and worries will kill you."

It was in the town of Gulmit, in Upper Hunza, that we spotted the Chinese oil tanker parked on the side of the road. Shabbir told our driver to stop and asked me for 50 rupees, raising his eyebrows in a significant way. He returned a few minutes later, clutching a bottle of clear liquor inside his jacket and futilely trying to look inconspicuous. I assumed he'd found some Hunza Water, the mulberry eau-de-vie still made by a few old-timers, but it was ma-tai, Chinese brandy.

"I thought Shiites didn't drink, " I said.

Shabbir snorted, his eyes blazing. "I am a Hunzakut," he said.

That night, back in Karimabad, he introduced me to a mysterious figure, an American climber named Alexander Reid who'd spent several summers and part of a winter in Hunza. Shabbir was a little leery of him. "I don't like someone with so much prizings of himself," he said. Sikander, as he called himself, as in Sikander the Great, did seem a little over the top. He went around in a gleaming white shalwar qamiz and a natty black-and-white checked kaffiyeh, referred to himself as "an alpine bohemian," and claimed 31 virgin ascents in the Hunza Valley alone. "But hey," he said, "who's counting?"

Sikander knew a lot about Hunza, though. And he had some novel theories on the longevity question. It was the fat-free diet, of course, and the daily routine of hard physical labor at high altitude. But there was, Sikander said, a third ingredient: "the idea that you should celebrate if you survived those first two things." It was a good insight, and we drank to it.

As the night went on, Sikander bemoaned the changes that were overtaking the valley: the construction boom, the brain drain, the creeping religious intolerance. If the old ways lived on, he said, it was in the summer pastures, the high flanks of Hunza's side canyons. Up there were places barely accessible to the goats, and not at all to the sheep--some so steep with slick grass that it was dangerous to walk around without an ice ax. Sikander said these "ultimate hanging meadows" were the only places that approached the Hunza of old. "That's all there is left," he said.

We could, I suppose, have picked any of 20 valleys for a three-day trek. We'd considered a few in Upper Hunza but decided they were too big to do justice to in such a short trip. We even made one exploratory foray into hostile Nagar, where the children pelted our jeep with rotten fruit. In the end we chose the canyon right behind Kari-mabad, Ultar Nala. And it was good we did, for the upper basin proved to be as spectacular a natural amphitheater as any I've seen. There was a huge half-bowl of pasture, Fujichrome green, with a small stone hut and corral dug into its lowest declivity. High on the slopes we could see the flocks moving across like ants. Above them was the great hanging frozen waterfall of the Ultar Glacier, and above that the slender, as-yet-unclimbed fang of Bubulimating, the Lady's Thumb, a 2,500-foot needle of impossible perfection, and the colossal, unconquerable monolith of Ultar itself.

What power did a place of such magnitude have over the human imagination? I thought of the nomads who'd trekked up here a millennium or two ago and been inspired to build the canals that would establish their unlikely Eden. Had these heights persuaded them that they were a chosen, exalted people, destined to live longer and better than their scenically impoverished neighbors? I thought of the sublime spirituality that the first Western travelers had imputed to the place and wondered whether it hadn't become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. And I imagined Khan as a young boy climbing up here to sit in the deep grass, kept company by the munching goats and the burbling springs and the wildflowers blowing in the breeze. How could he not have dreamed grandiose thoughts of storming the globe? Only this most prodigal of landscapes could have produced that most prodigal of sons.

Was it possible that geography could have such an effect on culture? Standing below this massive cirque of jagged rock and ice, I believed it could. This was a place of origin, a place where the water and the butterfat and the very dreams that fed Hunza were born. If you stayed up here long enough, your mind could seemingly expand as wide as the sky. Or, at the very least, you might invent some pretty wild stories.

That night we pitched our tent near the shepherd's hut, cooked dinner as dusk turned to darkness, and uncorked the ma-tai. Shabbir began describing a bizarre natural phenomenon known as the jurrk-- "the speedy wind," as he translated it. The jurrk happened every decade or so, whenever a sufficiently large chunk of ice calved off the side of Ultar and fell into the nala. This caused a terrific displacement of air, and the wind shot down the canyon toward Karimabad, got pinched between the high walls of the gorge, and blew out into Hunza proper at more than 60 miles per hour. It was like an instant, two-minute hurricane; the last one had been in 1987, and it had knocked the roof off the girls' school in Ganesh. When we raised our eyebrows, Shabbir reacted in a very Khanlike way: He told us his father remembered a jurrk that had blown a man who was out tilling with his oxen clear across the river to a hill on the Nagar side, a mile and a half away.

Later a pack of shepherd boys came over. They begged Shabbir for slugs of ma-tai, and he grudgingly obliged. In five minutes they were all wildly drunk."Who are you?" one of them howled to the sky. "Where are we? What is this?" Another tried to sell me a garnet, which he called a ruby, for 80 rupees. Suddenly, in the moonlight, he noticed the beautiful Mimi, her long hair unbound, and impulsively made her a gift of the gem. After a while we noticed an old shepherd standing back in the shadows, nodding with disapproval. "Be in limits," Shabbir yelled to the reeling kids. He turned back to our group. "They are holy," he said, gesturing to the old shepherd. "They do not like this. It offends the fairies."

The fairies were winged, female, and pretty. They fed on viscera and hot blood. "Only the bittan an talk to them," Shabbir explained. Bittans were witch doctors who fell into trances by means of music and juniper smoke. There weren't many around. "A bittan is known in the babyhood," he continued. "If no one is watching it, the fairies will give it milk. Later you know the bittan because it walks in its sleep and the fire doesn't hurt its hand."

I wandered up the hill to clear my head. Polaris danced on Ultar's crown, and the dipper wheeled around the Lady's Thumb. Up among the rocks there was a great marble mausoleum with two headstones marking the graves of two Japanese climbers who had been washed off the side of Ultar by an icefall two summers ago. Sikander had told me about it. What an epic fall it must have been, from a few hundred meters short of the summit all the way down the avalanche chute called Death Valley--something like 4,000 meters in a vertical Waring blender. "Ultar the unclimbable," Sikander had said. "The last 800 feet is rotten rock, overhanging at 99 degrees, the most revolting route I've ever seen. It's not supposed to be climbed."

When I returned to the tent, Shabbir was singing a mournful Burushaski chant. "I am waiting all my life for you," he translated. "And you are only coming at the very end." Off in the distance, I heard puking noises, goats or kids, I couldn't tell. Beyond that, distant rockfall boomed like artillery on the horizon. They were young mountains, the Karakoram, growing and sloughing. And sometimes the things that came tumbling out of them were more imagined than real.

The mystery of Ashraf Khan unraveled slowly at first, and then all at once. On a whim, I showed an innkeeper in the village of Pasu the rumpled photo. He turned it over in his hands a few times and then handed it back. "Yes," he said. "I am knowing this man." He didn't know his name, only that he was from Murtazabad, not far down the valley from Karimabad. He hadn't seen him in more than ten years.

I turned gloatingly to Shabbir, who seemed hardly enthused. I had to cajole him into accompanying us to Murtazabad, where we stopped at the house of the oldest man in town. No one there recognized Khan, but there was a lot of discussion back and forth. "They are saying in this nearby family the elders are looking like this man," Shabbir explained, and eventually they sent for someone from that family. Ghulam Kareem arrived a few minutes later, young, bearded, serious. He looked at the picture and said, "Yes, I know this man. I have seen him at the Karachi train station, pretending he is not a Hunzakut, cursing the porters in English. But he is a Hunzakut. His name is Ashraf Khan, and he is from Hyderabad."

"Ashraf Khan?" said Shabbir, a strange, sick look coming over his face. And then the whole story came out. Shabbir's wife was Khan's wife's younger sister. Shabbir had never met him, but now Khan's own son lived with his family. It was a terrible story. A Hunzakut merchant who lived in Karachi, Ghulam Qadir, had been found shot to death around the time Khan went abroad. Khan had had many dealings with him; he was Khan's younger brother's wife's brother. (Shabbir had to repeat that a few times before I could follow.) Qadir's family was certain he was the murderer and would surely kill him if he ever returned to Hunza. Khan lived in Switzerland now. "Yes, that's him," said Kareem. "He doesn't have a good reputation. He's very tricky and a fraud person."

We drove to Hyderabad, to the house of Khan's younger brother, Haji Beg. It was a few yards from the house of the 102-year-old Nazar Shah. Shabbir asked me not to mention the murder in front of the brother, lest he think I was police. And suddenly I realized that that was what Shabbir himself had thought all along. For surely he'd known who I was looking for.

Haji Beg was shirtless, mortaring the side of a house. He was obviously Khan's brother--younger and punier, but with the same outrageous nose. Without putting down his trowel, he looked at the picture and nodded. A flicker of amusement played at the corners of his mouth. Ashraf's son, unfortunately, was down in Gilgit for a few days, but a group of men gathered and began to tell stories. In school, one of them recalled, Khan had always been known as a hooker--someone who was less interested in playing sports than in making the other boys fall. Another man remembered the last time Khan had come to Hunza, not long before the murder. He'd at first played the foreigner, pompously pretending not to speak anything but English. Later, at a hotel, he'd gotten drunk and made a terrific scene, and in the morning he'd casually rolled to the side of his cot and emptied his bladder onto the floor. When the manager of the hotel heard about it, he came at Khan with an ax, swearing to kill him. Khan had leapt out of bed stark naked, brandished his cigarette lighter, and said, "No, I will flame you and your hotel." Around the room they circled, ax to Zippo, until the proprietor backed off. Even stodgy Kareem had to laugh. Ashraf Khan might be very tricky and a fraud person, but he had a Hunza soul.

Khan, I think, would prefer that the city go nameless. It's one of those old Swiss factory towns, well sited at the head of a pretty lake but slipping now into decline. His address is a graying tenement on Hospitalstrasse, a few blocks from the train station. There's a liquor store downstairs, and after dark prostitutes prowl the sidewalk.

"Ah, my friend," says Khan as he opens the door. "You are still young!"

Alas, I cannot say the same for him. He's old now and pallid, his hair gone completely white and his once robust frame sagging and paunchy. His eyes, too, seem overcast with the glaucous haze of the aged, and there's a gentle shyness about him that I don't remember. He's obviously made an effort for my visit, pulling out a rumpled suit and yellowed shirt, even putting on a tie. But behind him the whole story is laid bare in a glance: a narrow bed, a hot plate, a jumpy black-and-white TV, the Koran and the Book of Mormon laid open on the desk. The one window is shuttered.

We sit for a couple of hours, bringing each other up to date. After Khartoum, Khan went on to Kampala and established a business there, selling calculators and cheap radios and electronic parts. It was a good business for a while, until his partner betrayed him and he was thrown out of the country. He made his way across Africa, trading stones, and then up to Paris, where once again a traitor relieved him of his fortune--a princely $83,000. What could he do? The murder charge was false, but he could hardly go home.

No matter. He's got big plans to get back into the gem business. He doesn't need much to get started. Five or six thousand dollars. He knows all the free ports of the world. He knows how to bribe the lads at the customs posts with a bottle and a clap on the back. The profits are out there, fruit on the tree, ripe for the plucking. "You see this watch," he says. He slips a tinny-looking thing off his wrist. QUARZ SWISS MADE, reads the face. "These you can buy in Hong Kong for seven or eight dollars per kilo. Here you are selling them by the piece for two dollars." It's simple. Buy the stuff where it's cheap and take it where it's expensive.

After a while I get up to open the window, but it's shut fast. Khan says he hasn't opened it in three years. He dislikes the way the wind makes it rattle. That stops me cold. All this time I've been operating on the theory that Khan wound up in Switzerland because of the mountains, the views. Khan laughs. He's in Switzerland because of all the European countries it has the most generous social welfare program. He doesn't miss the mountains. Even in his youth he would never climb them, unless it was to look for stones.

I didn't know what to make of Khan ten years ago on the African train, and I don't really know what to make of him now. Perhaps he is a murderer, or perhaps just another maniacal con man out riding the rails. But I prefer to think of him as a lapsed chodri, a holy man far from his source of inspiration, abroad in the world and spreading word of an obscure mountain kingdom called Hunza.

Rob Buchanan, a frequent contributor to Outside, wrote about decathlete Dan O'Brien in the October 1994 issue.

See also:

Access & Resources: Deep in the Karakoram;

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