Elders of Pakistan's apricot orchards show life is sweet after 100 in a real Shangri-La

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Niat Shah rests in the shade of an apricot tree after his morning chores. "I guess my age to be around 102," he says.

Niat Shah rests in the shade of an apricot tree after his morning chores. "I guess my age to be around 102," he says.

Up until five years ago, when his eyes began to cloud, the old hunter bagged quail and partridge high in Pakistan's Hunza Valley to feed his extended family. He used to stalk ibex with a muzzle-loaded musket, but tried to spare snow leopards, he says, "because they are too lovely to shoot, especially when they stretch after a cat nap".

He admits he once killed one of the great cats and sold its pelt to a rich sahib for 100 rupees (about £1.35 in today's money), but that was 50 years ago. A pair of snow leopards pounced while he was exposed on a high ledge, searching for a missing ram.

He fended one off, but then "there was a roar that filled the sky, and I saw another leopard flying towards my head. I grabbed him by the belly, and tossed him over my shoulder. It seemed to take a full minute for its body to hit the ground below."

Shah's memory is clear, and his lean body still is surprisingly nimble, although he steadies himself in the rough furrows by using a ski-pole trekkers left behind. He sits cross-legged and straight-backed in his orchard, surrounded by great grandchildren.

The celebrated hunter is among many spritely pensioners in the Hunza Valley, believed to be the inspiration behind Shangri-La. The writer James Hilton visited this remote region near the Chinese border two years before he published his novel Lost Horizon in 1933.

Buddhist swastikas, traditional symbols for long life, are carved on four venerable wooden prayer halls at the heart of Ganish, a 1,000-year-old Hunza village. They certainly seem to do the trick. Most of the elderly continue to be alert and independent, living at home with their families. Aged Hunza women routinely haul baskets of firewood or fruit up steep hills without grumbling. Men gossip under the chinar trees in the afternoon, and, after dark, quaff home-brewed mulberry wine or potent apricot arak in secret. These traditional tipples were officially banned in 1974 by Islamic laws, but "Hunza water" is widely tolerated as a social lubricant.

Hunza, off the ancient Silk Route, used to be walled in by towering snow peaks and glaciers but its seclusion ended with the blasting away of some prodigious granite spires, in 1978. Junk food and germs raced up the new road when the Karakoram Highway opened up the terraced apricot orchards of this valley to the rest of the world. The elders, who were said to defy death by eating organic fruits and grains or by quaffing water from streams milky with the minerals scoured from the rockface by glacial melt, no longer live beyond about 120 or 130 years.

But I did encounter a dozen lively people close to 100 years old. Niat Shah, the eldest, says he first roamed beyond his hunting grounds when the British employed him as a mail runner into China.

He inquires after the health of "England's beautiful young queen", and is saddened to learn that the Queen Mother, his near-contemporary "has passed away already".

He recalls how Major Evelyn Cobb, a British political agent at Gilgit in the 1930s, was besotted with polo. "Cobb Sahib played polo matches on moonlit meadows," he says. "Is this the same game played by the princes in London town?" Ghulbakht, a centenarian who takes daily walks to the barley fields she helped cut into the slopes, admits she used to be a notorious scold. "Neighbours befriended me because they feared my tongue," she says. "I beat my husband, he beat me, and we rowed about the children. Now I feel like the last leaf on a tree. The secret to happiness is telling people what they want to hear. White lies can avoid quarrels." She nibbles on walnuts and dried apricots, but abhors spicy chillis from the plains. Contact with the outside world in the past three decades has radically altered the Hunza diet, cut down on the use of cooking oil extracted from apricot pits and made life in the valley more sedentary.

Khwajaa Khan, a general practitioner, says: "These people used to be amazingly tough. If they could survive childhood disease, they lived extremely long and productive lives. Hard conditions acted as a natural cull."

But now patients die abruptly, not just from the odd tumble off a cliff, but from heart attacks. Formerly unknown illnesses, such as cancer, high blood pressure and angina, have begun to shorten life expectancy.

Old-timers in Hunza, after 10 or more decades of robust life, would not succumb to death without a fight. Khair ul-Nissa, 101, aims to go gently, reciting Persian poetry, but not any time soon. "All my friends have left this world, so I am here with the newcomers," she says. "We bring each other happiness. My life is sweet."

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