Friday, August 19, 2011

Immortality on the vine

In James Hilton’s The Lost Horizon, a motley crew gets stranded high in the mountains of central Asia when their small plane crashes. Slowly they learn the secret of the strange, isolated society they stumble on: its residents live forever. I’d always assumed the story to be based on Tibet, but apparently it was actually modeled on Hunza, a series of idyllic villages high up in the Karakorum Mountains of northern Pakistan. Traditionally, it was common for people here to live to well over 100 with minimal signs of aging, strolling up and down the mountainsides with baskets of hay on their backs as spry as antelope well past the age when most “modern” people have become semi-immobile or succumbed to cancer or some other affliction. Many scientists have led investigations into the secret of Hunza longevity; no specific answers have been found, because the formula is impossibly simple: clean air, lots of exercise, a simple lifestyle, and a very pure diet.

If nothing else, Hunza validates the idea of eating local: there’s little distinction between yard, pasture, and crop land—apricot and walnut trees drop fruit almost straight into kitchens, goats roam like pet dogs, and pumpkins hang over stone walls like lost balloons. Chemists tend to scoff at “terroir,” the notion that wine, or anything edible, could taste different depending on where it’s grown; that the flavor of a fruit could specifically reflect the flavor of a place. But Hunza seems to put the lie to the skeptics. Hunza apricots may

not convey immortality, but they do taste different from any other apricots I’ve ever had. And drying them in baskets on the roof under the high-altitude sun definitely makes them distinct from the sulfur- and heat-lamp-processed ones available elsewhere. I adore apricots, so I’ve been looking forward to Hunza the whole trip; if all you need to do to live forever is eat apricots, I figured, I’m ready. Trouble is, according to Hinton’s story, the price of eternal life is remaining in the lost world. Since we only had two days in Hunza, I probably didn’t manage immortality, even though I devoured every apricot I could find.
Hunza is world-famous for its apricots, but it didn’t become that way because they offer some magic flavor or health kick. They’re common in Hunza because that’s what grows best. Hunza is all about balance: water-channels are carved exactly where they’re needed; fields are contoured perfectly into the hillsides; paths are steep but made manageable with carefully placed stone steps.
The people are balanced too. Men and women dress and act as equals: some women wear head-scarves and some don’t; either way, they’re out and about, working alongside the men, rather than hiding in the house. (You rarely so much as see a woman on the street in much of rural Pakistan.) Some men wear the traditional salwar kameez and some wear Western clothes. Ramadan is honored as much in the breach as in the observance, and beer is readily available; many still make their own wine and brandy. As Ismaili people who look to the Aga Khan for spiritual leadership, they value health care and education, viewing the hajj as a luxury, not a mandate.

If eternal life ever did exist in Hunza, it’s probably gone now. Locals grumble that the old lifestyle has been ruined as people today drive up and down the hills from home to field rather than walking, and the influx of Chinese imports has ruined both the diet and the lifestyle, while tractors and minibuses have fouled the once-pure air. Nonetheless, an outsider could be forgiven for assuming it’s Shangri-la. The surrounding mountains are breathtakingly scenic, but even more arresting is the ineffable sense of peace in the villages. So many human settlements feel like intrusions on the landscape, but in Hunza it really seems as if this valley was made for just this combination of fruit trees, stone walls, shaggy pastures, and modest houses tucked in as neatly and lovingly as babes in a crib.


  1. Appreciated the 'lost balloons' idea.

  2. Thanks for visiting. Hope to hear from you again.

  3. Now I wonder if eating apricots was my 109 year's old grandpa's secret to still remain alive with a conscious mind. Thanks for the entry. It is enlightening reading your blog!

  4. Mmm...apricots! So were these better than the ones we picked off the tree in the Mormon orchard in Zion Canyon? I always wondered where the Aga Khan's people live--the President of Bowdoin while I was there used to work for him. Is it possible their longevity has something to do with stronger longs from adapting to less oxygen at the high altitude?

  5. Interesting info again, and very nicely expressed. So many questions arise about this lifestyle, diet, and so forth.