SHIMSHAL VALLEY, Pakistan — For centuries, this tiny village in the far northern tip of Pakistan has been known as the home of some of central Asia’s toughest inhabitants.
From this rugged, 10,000-foot plateau in the Karakorum Mountains, residents used to have to walk for up to a week to reach another settlement. The journey, which involved crossing an icy river dozens of times, was so grueling that monarchs banished prisoners to live here — assuming they survived the walk.
About a decade ago, the opening of a one-lane road — after 18 years of construction — brought comforts such as factory-made blankets and water filtration systems over the mountains, as well as some concern that the route that freed the village from isolation would doom it as younger residents left in search of jobs and Internet access.
“We need mobile systems and we need the Internet,” said Perviz Armin, 26, who said he wants to move to a Pakistani city. “Nowadays, the Internet is important. But to use it, I have to book a car and drive” to a city three hours away.
For now, the 2,800 villagers who live here in the Shimshal Valley remain, arguably, the toughest residents of Pakistan, as well as some of the world’s best mountain climbers.
They have to be. Electricity arrived in the late 1990s but only works sporadically, and still there are no phones. There is no police force. Winter is so severe that most residents keep two years’ worth of food stocks, knowing that help is not nearby.
The dirt and gravel road connecting the valley to the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltisan area has been referred to as one of the world’s most dangerous — and beautiful — drives. Carved into the sides of mountains, the route is so narrow a jeep’s tires roll inches from the edge while passing through breathtaking gorges, axle-busting rock fields and next to a multi-story glacier.
In the valley, tiny stone houses are clustered at the base of barren mountains that resemble giant bags of crumbly brown sugar. But irrigation ditches have made the valley floor lush in the summer, and wheat grows up to the doorstep of most homes.
For generations, residents relied on that wheat and a herd of about 5,000 goats and yaks to survive. Villagers take the animals into upper reaches of the valley, where the elevation rises to about 14,000 feet, to graze each summer.
“Climbing is in our nature, so you have to do it,” said Jaffar Ullah, 18. “It’s not till later in life, when you grow up, that you learn about other things such as the Internet and television.”
That is how local Samina Baig, 24, became a celebrity in Pakistan — and the first Pakistani woman to summit Mt. Everest. As a child, she began climbing into the mountains with her mother to collect firewood, said her father, Muhammad Baig, 69. As she grew older, Samina Baig’s older brother began telling her that one day they would make it to the top.
“It was during nightly storytelling mode that he used to tell her, ‘We are going to climb the mountains like the foreigners do,’ ” Muhammad Baig said.
In 2010, Samina Baig became the first person to summit Chaskin Sar, a 19,600-foot mountain near the Shimshal Valley. Over the next four years, after lining up better equipment and some sponsorships, Baig became the first Pakistani woman to climb the tallest mountain in each of the seven continents, including Mt. Everest in 2013.
Pakistani media reported that she was injured in an avalanche in late July while trying to summit K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.
Daulet Amin, 75, a retired teacher and the local historian, said the known history of the village dates back about 900 years. At the time, the ancient Kingdom of Hunza was governed by a royal family.
One of the king’s brothers discovered the valley while hunting on a distant mountain and decided to trek there with his wife and a goat, Amin said. In the centuries that followed, Hunza’s royal family exiled prisoners to live there.
“It wasn’t because Shimshal was such a bad place to live,” Amin said. “It was to punish them on their walk there.”
Like many village elders, Amin knows that walk well.
“We had to take off our trousers and carry them on our backs because we had to cross the river so many times,” he said.
Villagers who never left the valley finally saw their first mechanical vehicle in the late 1990s, when a Pakistan Army helicopter dropped off a tractor. Even today, however, residents rely on cows to crush wheat with their hooves, then they throw it into the air so wind can separate kernels from beards.
But life here is changing.
“We can now get livestock from other places, like chickens,” said one of Samina Baig’s brothers, Zulfiqar Ali Baig, 35. “Before we had to slaughter our own livestock, like yaks and goats, so we didn’t eat meat as much.”
As more young adults leave, residents question whether the next generation will stay. Each year since the road opened, villagers say, fewer people have been sleeping up in the pasture with the herd.
“Now, everyone is going to other places for education and, if they don’t have jobs, they do come back but they don’t stay for long,” said Yahya Baig, 42.
Still, other residents remain optimistic that their bucolic way of life will live on — whether or not phones and Internet arrive.
“At least now with the road, we feel part of global village,” Amin said. “And we are thankful that people are starting to recognize our genetic toughness.”