Ondra Poygah Trail

Ondra Poygah Trail

It was the start of the famous cherry blossom season of Hunza, when the entire region explodes with beautiful white and red flowers. The sky was an overcast, which would occasionally clear up, revealing patches of bright blue sky that would peek through. There was wind chill, and the ominous clouds threatened to break any moment. So, naturally, we decided to go on a hike.

We had vaguely heard of a new hiking trail built by the people of Gulmit, but we weren’t very sure where exactly it was. After asking a few locals for directions, we were directed towards a narrow offshoot of the main KKH, that led through a village which seemed like it hadn’t been frequented by tourists.  A wooden arrow board pointed to the direction of Ondra Poygah, but there wasn’t any designated parking area. We asked a lady where we should park, and she immediately opened a big gate that led to a large veranda, which I’m guessing was actually a school yard.  Parking our car securely, we set off.

There were 2-3 women who were busy chopping firewood, who happily directed us to the start point of the trek.  As we entered, we were greeted by a beautiful wooden archway that had ‘Ondra Paygah’ written on it. Stepping through the archway, we saw stone steps that had been carved from the surrounding rocks, which were climbing steadily up and vanishing across the bend. Small village houses were tucked away at the sides, and a steady stream of water was trickling on the sides.

It was beautiful. As we climbed up, we came across an elderly, but rather fit, gentleman with a warm smile. He introduced himself as Ayub Khan.

Sporting a casual attire with baggy jeans, sneakers and a vest, Ayub Khan was a delight to interact to. Leaning on a makeshift stick, he greeted us as if we were his own children, and proceeded to enthusiastically speak about the trail.

The makings of the Trail:

Mr. Ayub told us that the trail had a total of 1653 steps, and it led to the remains of an unknown fort at the top.  It was built in the winter of 2020, when the weather is harshest, and when the entire region is covered in snow. He said that the initial plan was to make 400 steps in one go. But when they started on the project, the entire community pitched in and worked tirelessly to make the trail. There were a total of 200 male volunteers, who themselves learnt how to cut and blast rock. The elders formed a managerial team, where they divided the entire work into manageable tasks, and supervised the youngsters in their work. There was a finance team, as well as a marketing team. They spent their own money, with no external funding, and did the entire project without the use of large equipment.

The women of the community also played a pivotal role in the making of this trail. Around 30-40 women volunteered and sent fresh home-cooked meals to the people who were working. Since it was winters, when temperatures dropped to -15C,  they kept sending tea and snacks, to help the volunteers in this harsh weather.

With such dedicated team work, the team managed to build 400 stairs in just 3 days! So they decided to expand the project, and in just 38 days, they managed to build a total of 1653 steps.

The steps lead up to the top of the mountain, which house the remains of an unknown fort. There is not much information available about the history of the fort. The locals call it Ondra Fort.

So how did Mr. Ayub find himself leading this project?

Mr. Ayub is a local, and had spent the better part of his life exploring other countries and trying out different jobs.

“There is no place like Hunza. I have seen the world. I have worked in the US, and Europe. I have interacted with a lot of people. But the amount of peace I get from this place is unparalleled”.

He leaned forward, smiling ear to ear, as he described his hometown.

 “Granted, life is tough over here. We work hard for basic necessities.  But the community spirit, the fresh air, the mountain views, and the overall peace of this place, is unmatched.”

At a ripe age of 84, Mr. Ayub is one of Gulmit’s most travelled and wise persons. So when the idea of the trail was manufactured, he found himself thoroughly involved, and ended up leading it.

Climbing the trail:

After a wonderful chat with Mr. Ayub, we set off to experience the trail ourselves. It was the month of April, and the sky was an overcast.  As we trudged steadily up, we couldn’t help but notice how each step was made of stone, which was cut out very precisely, and placed in a way that it fitted perfectly with the next. A small stream of water trickled down beside us in the initial part of the trek.

After only 20 minutes of climbing, we looked back and realized how far we’d come. The village of Gulmit started to look really small, and we could spot our car parked in the verandah. Trekking higher, we saw that we could now see the Hunza river in all its glory, snaking its way through the valley. At the far end of the horizon, we saw a blue mass of water. It took us a while to realise that it was actually Attabad Lake that we were seeing from such a height.

 As the winds picked up and the trail snaked on, we found ourselves finally arriving to the top of hill, just outside the crumbling wall of the fort.

At first glance, we could only make out the wall and some loose rocks. But as we went in, and stood on the top most rock we could find, we saw that there were actually structures built inside the fort. They appeared to be rooms of various sizes, and we could tell that the far ends of the fort probably had watch towers on them.

Standing atop the fort, we had a 360 degree view of the entire valley. On one side we saw Attabad Lake, and on the other, right opposite, we saw the magnificent Passu Cones, gleaming brightly from the light of a cloudburst. We could see the entire range from Passu to Attabad, as well as the various villages that dotted the valley. It was one of the most breathtaking sights we had seen.

As we looked around, it had started to become clear of why someone would build a fort in this place. One can only imagine how difficult it would be for invaders to invade this particular fort, which had vertical 90 degrees cliff on one side, and a steep slope on the other. It served as an ideal vantage point, from where the Fort inhabitants could keep an eye on the villages below.

After spending a good part of the day taking in the beautiful surroundings, we headed back to the start point of the trek.  As we climbed back down the stairs, my thoughts went back to the hard working people of Gulmit, who endured harsh weather and long working hours, just so that people like me could enjoy this part of Hunza in a new light.

If you are a trekking enthusiast, the Ondra Poygah trail is an excellent day excursion. The trail will see further changes and improvements in the coming years, and is bound to become one of the top-excursions for tourists.