Sun, Aug 10, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Kashmiri says mountain life is the key to longevity

AFP, CHATTAH, Pakistan

Ninety-two-year-old Sabat Khan speaks to reporters in Chattah Village in the mountainous region of Upper Neelum Valley in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on Dec. 1 last year.

Photo: AFP

He might be more than a century old, but Hafeezullah still goes to work every day. With the aid of a cane, the wizened white-bearded centenarian tends to fields in Pakistan’s hauntingly beautiful Neelum Valley just as he did when Britain still ruled that part of the world.

Pakistan was recently named by the UN as one of the worst countries in the world to be for an old person in a report that cited insecurity and lack of freedom for those over 60.

However, a dozen or so centenarians like Hafeezulah living in a remote region of Kashmir are bucking that trend, putting their longevity down to their simple mountain lifestyle.

Situated in the Lower Himalayan Range, a 200km long river runs through the Neelum Valley, which is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.

Craggy, snow-peaked mountains, waterfalls and green pastures surround the village of Chattah where reporters met with about a dozen men and women claiming to be at least a century old.

Hafeezullah says he is 132, which would make him the oldest person in the world — although Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) says he is 107.

A slightly built man with a face as jagged as the mountains surrounding him, he said a healthy diet of mainly fresh produce and occasional meat was the reason behind his longevity.

He has lived through the days of British India and witnessed Partition, but says the thing he remembers most fondly is the low cost of living during his youth.

“We used to eat vegetables and pulses. We dumped the dried vegetables in land during the winter season and then dug them up and ate them in summer,” he said referring to the practice of freezing produce under snow-covered ground.

He has outlived three wives, and his fourth, Issem Jan, dedicates herself to helping him.

Chattah and nearby villages are 2,000m above sea level and cut off from the rest of the country by snow for almost six months a year.

The altitude also increases red blood cell production in the body, and the crisp air is free from the kind of choking pollution that blights Pakistan’s major cities.

Despite being a favored tourism spot, Neelum Valley is relatively untouched by time, and traditional farming methods, including the use of bullocks to plow fields, are still practiced.

There are no nearby markets, no fast food and villagers are for the most part self-sufficient.

“The farmers still use bulls to plow their fields. This an old system of agriculture,” village head Abdul Khaliq, 75, said.

He added that the village’s young people get up at about 4am and work till sunset, doing farm tasks like chopping wood, carpentry and tending to livestock — another factor contributing to their overall good health.

Mohammad Shapal Khan, an senior NADRA official said that only 60 percent of the region’s population had so far been added to federal data — but each village in the valley has a dozen or so people over 90.

In stark contrast, the average life expectancy in Pakistan is 64 for men and 66 for women, data from the WHO shows.

The UN-backed Global Age Watch Index named Pakistan as one of the three worst places in the world to grow old in and the worst in terms of so-called “enabling environment,” which includes security and freedom of movement.

Sabat Khan, another elderly local who claims he is 102, although official records place him at 92, said his idyllic homeland and lack of ill-health were responsible for his long life.

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