One of the biggest insights I have gained from traveling at a slow place overland is the certainty that ancient cultures have a lot to teach us. In this increasingly fast-paced global world, competing for monetary profit is the accepted prevailing model of development.
But while cycling across mountainous and remote regions of the Subcontinent, I came to notice how my exposure and experience in those distant areas, where people have lived self-reliantly in a hostile environment and harsh terrain for centuries, has sharpened my whole notion of progress, shaking the patterns of my own existence.
Does progress always have to be a one-dimensional movement imposed by the Western-style model of development and economic growth as we become more and more dependent on technology? Can we learn a deeper sense of development and accept the natural limitations of our environment? How do you trade tradition for modernity in the context of cultural transformation?
Change is coming swiftly, and as the world becomes smaller and more interconnected, previously isolated communities are being attracted by – and brought into – the great global trend. Certainly, its people should not be denied the benefits of modern development.
But I often wonder how modernity could possibly maintain a healthy balance between its benefits and its threats to indigenous cultures, where people have learned the skills to live to a great extent self-sufficiently – like they have been doing for centuries – without the need to be told from outsiders how they could do better or different.
And where some see only signs of backwardness and economic poverty in those rural and distant areas, I often see an admirable capacity to live frugally and make the most of the limited resources available, while existing in harmony with the seasons and land in a cycle of adaptive change and resilience.
Undeniably, change also brings conflicting effects as the traditional cultures try to integrate new patterns of life and cope with new aspirations. Connection with the ‘outside’ brings ease and cash, but external influences impose a whole new system of ideas about fashion, religious practices, life goals, leisure activities, and social interactions.
Change brings hopes, but also fears and uncertainties. Thus, preserving social unity and cohesion from the most aggressive and harmful forms of development seem to be an intricate challenge that traditional cultures have to face.
During a trek in the extreme north of Pakistan last October, I came to learn about the Wakhi people and their unique cultural heritage and way of life. Every year, hundreds of goats, sheep, and yaks scramble along the precipitous paths to and from the high pastures in their annual transhumance. The kuch, as they call it in Wakhi language, is a long tradition in their economy of self-subsistence.
Kuch literally means travelling in a caravan and in mid-May they migrate up to Shuijerab, the first summer pasture. The livestock is taken care of mostly by women and children and, in mid-June, the herds are taken across Shimshal Pass, at 4,735 metres, to Shuwert before returning to Shuijerab and back to Shimshal village in mid-October.
Shimshal, located 3,000 metres above sea level in the Gojal tehsil of Hunza district, is a group of villages of some 250 households nestled in the Pamir mountains of the Karakoram range among spectacular peaks and glaciers. It is home to a large majority of the Wakhi community – spread across the Wakhan corridor – that has traditionally made a living from herding, farming and migration work.
It has been one of the most inaccessible communities in Pakistan, and the opening of a link road cut through hard rock in 2003 – a result of the communal effort over almost two decades – connected its villagers to the Karakoram Highway. A journey that took days on foot some decades ago takes now less than five hours by jeep.
Accessibility brought prosperity, opportunities, and earnings; tourism and trekking are now a major source of income and porters are also celebrated mountaineers and climbers wearing high-altitude fashion and high-quality gear.
Every day, I am introduced to tall, lean and fit Shimshalis, who have climbed many of the highest peaks in Pakistan. Young women, too, take part in mountain expeditions and as more and more families have found opportunities to run successful businesses and send their children to school and college to the cities, the people of Shimshal had the clarity to anticipate the pressure that modern day development put on their traditional practices.
As a result, the Shimshal Nature Trust was founded in 1998. The trust is run by the community itself and focuses on environmental education, cultural programmes, active conservation of flora and fauna and management of tourism.
Our local guide, Niamat, a 32-year-old Shimshali, has participated in many national and international skiing and climbing expeditions. He juggles his life between his job in Islamabad and his social work and family obligations within the community.
He came to help his family during the kuch season. Upon reaching the settlement in Shuijerab, we are invited by his family to their stone hut. We sit on blue sheep and goat skins around a traditional cooking stove and are served chalpindokh, a substantial snack that combines layers of chapatis with layers of fresh yak cheese topped with large amounts of liquid ghee. We wash it down with salted tea before continuing and being invited by another family.
On our last day in the high settlement of Shuijerab and before returning to the village, hundreds of yaks are being regrouped in smaller herds to tackle the arduous way back. I follow Niamat inside the corral as we squeeze our way through the herds of yaks and, in no time, he has identified the two yaks he had been missing.
Back to the village of Shimshal after a seven-day trek, the youngsters and elders are outside dressed in their new clothes. They are welcoming their relatives who had been away for the summer months in the high pastures.
Even though the management of their transhumance has changed somewhat in recent years, the entire community seems to be engaged in the preservation of their herding traditions. It is not only a valuable source of income but, more significantly, the expression of their identity as a community and of their intimate knowledge of the environment; they know grazing pastures where the grass is believed to make the yak stronger so that it can be sold better.
Before our departure, Hasil Shah, the owner of one of the two tourist lodges in the village and a well-known mountaineer, invites us to his house for tea. The outer wall has been reinforced with cement, covering the beautiful traditional stone structure, still visible in the neighbours' houses.
The traditional bukhari has been removed from the center of the living room and he boils water on a Japanese gas stove. The traditional wood-burning stove is still used in the colder months to warm up the house, we are told.
As we drink tea, he explains that every year eight households out of the 250 are designated to send one tough man – called shpun in Wakhi – to guard the yaks in the high pastures for six months during winter.
Hasil Shah’s household has been designated this year, but is unable to send any man from his family — his two children study in Islamabad and he and his wife move out in winter. Shah thus had to hire a shepherd to comply with his obligations toward the community.
Constantly on the move and more familiar with what makes people leave, I came close to understand why people stay: strong social ties and a deep connection to their land. And what impacted me the most was the impressive levels of development – in the most genuine and human way – that seemed to coexist with a great sense of responsibility of taking care of each other and belonging to a close-knit community.
I felt Shimshalis had embraced the new trends of modernity with a strong sense of dignity and pride for their own culture and identity.
The case of Shimshal gives me hope that traditional communities have the strength to produce desirable efforts and be the guardians of their own heritage as they improve their socio-economic conditions. It gives me hope that progress could be not only a step forward into an uncertain future, but also a step backward into a renewed past.
The writer set out to cycle overland from Japan to Spain, stopping in Pakistan and other South Asian countries along the way.