At Home in Hunza: An Extraordinary Connection
Last year, on Dec. 10, Wanderlust published my account of my first-ever adventure with Geographic Expeditions, undertaken in 1990 when I was the Travel Editor at the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle. This was a life-changing trip to Pakistan, and last December, reflecting in my study after a year of staying close to home, something had moved me to spontaneously relive that journey, excavating 30-year-old journals and photographs from my garage so that I could travel in mind along the Karakoram Highway to fabled Hunza, a secluded valley high in the Karakoram mountains that was famed for its beauty and for the health and happiness of its residents.
The day after that story was published, on Dec. 11, we received a note from Didar Ali, our in-country colleague in Pakistan. Didar wrote that the story reminded him poignantly of his own early guiding days, and that he had known the wonderful Pakistani guide who had accompanied my trip, Asad Esker. He called Asad “my senior great guide” and informed us that Asad had passed away last year.
While the news about Asad was saddening, this completely unexpected connection was thrilling and fulfilling, and I marveled at how small the world can actually be.
But that was just the beginning!
Two and a half months later, on the morning of Feb. 28, I received a message through Facebook Messenger from a man named Riaz Karim.
This is what he wrote:
I came across a post of yours about Hunza valley on a website. I am moved by your experience there with local people. I recently shared a piece of your story with local people. I myself am from Karimabad, Hunza, but am living now in The Netherlands. Those photos you took on your expedition have great sentimental value for us. Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, the man (carpenter Islam Shah) you met has passed away recently a couple of weeks ago.
With kind regards,
This was truly astonishing! Here was someone, contacting me through Facebook, who was from Hunza—and who actually knew the carpenter I had met and described in my story! I felt a twinge of regret that the kindly Islam Shah had not lived to exult in seeing this story himself, but my overwhelming feeling was one of wonder at the interweavings of the world. Wow!
After reading this message, I was so glad that Wanderlust’s photo editor, Jenny Velasco, had decided to include photos of some of the people I had met while wandering around Hunza: two ageless elders, two smiling youths, the carpenter who had invited me to visit his family home, and the family I had met inside that home, a grandmother and mother who were holding two twin baby boys.
I was reflecting on just how amazing this serendipity was, when something even more amazing happened.
Less than an hour after that message from Riaz arrived, a note was posted on the Wanderlust blog in the Comments section beneath my Pakistan story. Written by a man named Kamran Shahzad, this note read:
Thank you so much for giving us such moments of your journey.
The boys in the arms of the grandmother and mother are me and my twin brother, whose house you visited in 1990. The man, Uncle Islam Shah, is a carpenter who was working at my house at those times.
A week ago, the carpenter Islam Shah left this world at the age of 85 plus. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
And the lady on the left also left this world in 2013. May her soul rest in eternal peace as well.
If you ever visit again to Hunza, we are warmly welcoming you to be guest again at our home.
Thank you so much for capturing very rare moments of our family. ♥️”
I could hardly believe it! What were the odds?!
A note had just been posted on our blog by a man in Hunza, a remote mountain valley on the other side of the planet from San Francisco, whom I had met and photographed 30 years ago when he was a baby!
As I tried to process this, I realized that this was the result of an improbable series of serendipities.
I had met Kamran only because on a day wandering around the valley in 1990, I had stopped to admire the work a carpenter was doing, fashioning a beautiful door for what I took to be his home, and because this carpenter had very kindly stopped his work and invited me to see the home and meet the family, and then even more kindly gathered the family so that I could take their picture.
That picture had sat in a dusty box in my garage for three decades until I had spontaneously decided to relive that Karakoram adventure three months earlier.
After I had written the story and it was time to design the layout, I had sent dozens of photos to photo editor Jenny Velasco. After looking through all these photos, Jenny had emailed me a one-line question, “Do you happen to have a photo that you took of the family that’s mentioned in your story?”
I sent it, and she published it.
And then, ten weeks later, perhaps because a former resident of Hunza now living in The Netherlands had seen my story on the Internet and had sent it to his family and friends in Hunza, this 30-year-old infant-become-a-man had read my story and then sent a note to me, from one side of the planet to the other, from his home to mine.
Now we were once again linked through space and time. Extraordinary!
I immediately wrote an email to him:
Dear Kamran Shahzad,
Thank you so much for the great comment you left on my story about my trip to Pakistan in 1990, when I visited your home in Hunza!
Hearing from you is so amazing and wonderful! I am so happy, honored, and grateful that my story found its way to you!
This is such wonderful news that I would like to write a follow-up story saying that you saw my story on the Internet, saw the photo of you and your brother, mother and grandmother, and wrote to me! I would like to share this wonderful news with others.
Is this OK with you?
Also, if possible, I would really love to have a photo of you now—and maybe also, if it is possible, of your twin brother and your mother now—that I could publish with my story and with the 1990 photo of you and your family.
Would it be possible for you to send me by email a photo or photos of you and your family, which I could publish with my story? I would really, really love that! Thank you!
I am definitely hoping to get back to Hunza to meet you and revisit your home!
Your family was so very kind and gracious to me when I was there in 1990, and I would really love to return.
I have said a prayer in my heart for your grandmother and for Islam Shah.
I will let you know if I am able to plan a trip to Hunza again!
Sending all very warmest wishes to you and your family,
A day later, Kamran sent this reply:
Thank you for being so humble and capturing such beautiful moments of our childhood. It would be a great honor for us to meet you again at our home in Hunza. My family sends greetings of love to your family and is so happy to hear about the story you posted on your website.
There is not any problem from my family side to post another story of from 1990 to 2021. It will be great to build a long-distance relationship between families. I would like to hear and see about your family, if possible, to share some pictures with my family as well. I have attached pictures of me and my twin brother and mother to share in your blog.
If you need anything, you can message me anytime. I would love to see you soon in Hunza.
Thank you so much.
Here are the photos that I took at Kamran’s family home in 1990.
And here are the photos that Kamran sent me in 2021.
Isn’t the world amazing?
After a tremendously difficult and challenging year, full of so much pain and suffering and discord, the universe delivers a gift like this.
What can you do but drop to your knees in astonishment, and wonder, and gratitude?
As I try to embrace this entire improbable tale, I think: We are surrounded by a million magical threads that connect us with all of the places and people that have moved us through the years. But only rarely do we get to view these threads and to feel their woven bond. I know now that one of these threads connects two humble, heart-filled homes: one on the Pacific ocean coast of northern California and the other in a Karakoram mountain valley in northern Pakistan.
Suddenly the world feels more intimate than before, and all I can think is: I can’t wait to get back to my Hunza home!
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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Thank you for taking this serendipitous journey with us! Have you ever had an extraordinary connection like this? We’d love to hear your tale! Please post it in the Comments section below. Thank you, as always, for joining us in sharing and celebrating the unexpected riches of the road!