Three days winding up the legendary Karakorum Highway took me from the desert oasis city of Kashgar, to Tashkurgan – at an altitude of over 3,000 metres the last settlement before China’s border with Pakistan. The road had taken me through spectacular mountain scenery although with the altitude and the gradient it had been quite a struggle. And Tashkurgan was as far as I was allowed to proceed on my own. This is where the Chinese Customs and Immigration office is located, and having been officially stamped out of the country I wasn’t permitted to cycle further. The only option was the bus. And so I found myself – the black Cadillac strapped on the roof – on the twice weekly bus for the Himalayan village of Sost over the border in Pakistan, in the company of Pakistani traders returning after offloading their booty of gemstones, rugs and handicrafts in Kashgar. The bus, including the aisles, was packed with Chinese manufactured domestic appliances, along with huge boxes of instant noodles. Though not seemingly high value, obviously there was a market for them at home.
This is awesome, dramatic terrrain. Where four of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges meet – the Karakorums, Hindu Kush, Pamirs and Himalayas. The Karakorum Highway, the KKH, referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, is an extraordinary feat of engineering, a road pushed through this continental collision zone of the Eurasian and Indian land masses. (‘Did you hear about the two tectonic plates who bump into each other. “Not my fault”, says one’.)
The mountain ranges were formed in separate eras with distinctive rock formations, which meant continuous challenges with different drilling and blasting techniques and a constant threat of avalanche, rockslides and flooding. Sixteen years it took to build the length of the KKH, an offshoot of the old Silk Route from Kashgar in China to Islamabad the capital of Pakistan. 15,000 soldiers from the Pakistan army and almost a similar amount of Chinese workers were involved with more than 500 men killed in the construction over the mountains, about one person per mile, most through rockfalls and avalanches. “Sometimes a great chunk of the mountain came down suddenly with a furious speed allowing no time to the workers to move out of the danger area” (M. Hanif Raza). In 1986 the KKH was formally opened, connecting areas that up to the 1970’s were isolated and cut off, accessible only by long journeys by mule or yak.
The word ‘Khunjerab’ means “drenched with blood” because of the attacks in former times on caravans by the tribes from the Hunza and Nagar valleys lower down. The Kunjerab Pass at 4,800 metres is claimed to be the “highest public highway in the world”. Which I don’t believe is correct, having driven over higher passes in Tibet in my previous life in a travel job. But I do believe it is the highest paved border crossing in the world.
Arriving at the pass, the cold wind and low cloud lent the place a forbidding and forlorn air. The squat concrete border post looked so out of place in this bleak, high altitude spot. Not one of China’s more desirable border postings. Two guards watched as the bus pulled up. Myself and a couple of the passengers grasped the opportunity to get off for a quick toilet break (and a photo op for me) and were pointed towards a small outhouse off to the side. Predictably the stench was strong and instead of pissing into the stinking pit I used the wall outside. I was absorbed in the desolate scenery around me when a berating voice disturbed my reverie. And became more shrill as it approached. Jeez, relax! When I felt the rough shove on my shoulder – stepping over a line in my book – I turned. Without turning off the waterworks. The young border guard jumped back with a yelp shaking his splattered trouser leg. My slight smirk turned very quickly as he swung his rifle up and pointed it at me, yelling in Mandarin. Ah, easy now. This could end in tears. I tried to placate him – an unfortunate accident, no need to overeact… The brief standoff was very fortunately interrupted by another guard and the bus driver hurrying over. My expressions of innocence seemed to help. Thankful to be back on the bus and in my seat very quickly, I willed the driver to get back behind the wheel. Which he did immediately. We continued over the pass into Pakistan, some of my fellow passengers laughing and joking (the driver didn’t betray any amusement) mostly in Urdu but a few directing supportive comments in English to me. The stop had lasted less than ten minutes.
Having crested the pass the bus wound dizzily down the switchbacks the other side. Granite peaks towered above us, the road following a river cascading downhill. At about 3,500 metres altitude we stopped at a small timber building by the side of the road, headquarters of the Khunjerab National Park. A bearded, smartly uniformed guard stepped out. A Park fee was payable, $8 for me, 40 rupees – 5% of the foreigners’ fee – for the others.
This was Pakistan! No matter how often it happened, I was always fascinated at how crossing a land border drops you in a different culture. And obviously because of the geological barrier the difference in culture between China and Pakistan is quite a contrast. I had been looking forward with huge anticipation to arriving in Pakistan. This was partly because of the uncertainty of being allowed in – very few tourists were now getting visas, and failure to get in would mean a long detour through China and the Taklamakan Desert. Which, having had enough of months of desert, I didn’t want to do. So I was indebted to people who’d helped. Before leaving Azerbaijan I’d couriered one of my passports (I had two) to Dublin, where a friend very helpfully made a few visits to the Pakistan embassy before securing a visa and posting the passport to me in Dushanbe. A Pakistani friend working for a local NGO had arranged a letter of invitation.
But I was mainly excited because of the fond memory I retained from previous visits in the 1990’s in my travel job. Of the people, the scenery, the food…
So disembarking at the village of Sost I was eager to soak it all in. The bus yard was a hive of activity. Men dressed in salwar kamiz – the long shirt over baggy pants – swarmed around the bus unloading luggage and negotiating with passengers. Some wore the Pashtun beret, others’ turbans elaborately wrapped around their head. There was no sight of women.
I paid a tip to the men who offloaded my bike from the roof before loading my panniers and bags. All appeared undamaged. Immigration formalities were completed without a problem. The feeling of joy at being here intensified as I made for one of the number of eating houses across the road. I had been dreaming for a long time about enjoying again the local dish, chapatti and dahl – the thin, flat bread fresh out of the tandoor oven, and thick lentil soup with the flavours of garlic and tomato added to that of garam masala, the curry blend. The taste of the torn off pieces of steamy, flour chapatti with the scooped up savoury, spicy dahl was heaven. Pakistan was part of a former British colony and a public announcement on the wall in English about local water supplies added a reassurance of familiarity.
And what a pleasure to set off – downhill. Well, not all of it but the trajectory averaged out in my favour. It wasn’t my first time on this road having driven it a couple of times fifteen years previously (a memory of a snow leopard glimpsed in the twilight on a slope opposite), but cycling the KKH – in this direction – is as good as it gets. Surrounded by some of the most impressive mountains in the world in their rawest form. Northern Pakistan holds the densest concentration of 8000+ metre peaks in the world. The sheer scale of the bare rock faces rising up thousands of metres is staggering. An eagle kept pace with me a while, riding the thermals along a gorge wall towering a thousand metres above the road. No lush river valleys or pine forests, no mountain villages – just jagged, ragged peaks into the distance. I was experiencing the bare rock, glacier and mountain peaks from the inside. Cycling amongst them, not past them. It felt like I was actually in it.
The evening sun was turning the snowy mountains a golden colour when some boarded up tourist lodges along the road signalled my arrival at the village of Passu. Pausing to look back, I took a snap of what I subsequently learned are the Pasu cones, each peak remarkably with its own puff of cloud. This area, one of the most scenically dramatic in the world, used to thrive on visitors – here to climb, trek or just admire. Now none came. The perception of Pakistan as a no-go area because of security concerns has meant hardly any international visitors for years.
There were lights on and a few men sitting around drinking tea outside The Passu Inn. After the wildness of the terrain, what a satisfying feeling it was climbing off the bike after getting the most out of such an exhilarating day’s travel. And the prospect of electricity, hot food and a bed. As this was Pakistan I would have to get used to there being no beer at the end of the day.
In the morning light I could see how delightful Passu is. And it was further spectacular cycling following the Hunza river down the Karakorum Highway. Until I had to pick my way along the ‘highway’ which had become just a sandy track, having been washed away. Landslides are a common occurrence, even without the precipitating effect of earthquake tremors, and the road is regularly obstructed by boulders and rubble. Since much of the KKH is narrow, even a small landslide will immobilise traffic in both directions until the debris can be cleared. A man I chatted to on the side of the road – this was great, English is the lingua franca – reckoned these were becoming more common with the effects of climate change and melting glaciers.
At the village of Gulmit the road ends at a lakeside. In 2010 a massive landslide had dumped hundreds of tons of rock into the Hunza river twenty kilometres downstream blocking it. After five months the water level reached the height of a spillway that had been created to ease the pressure, to prevent a catastrophic bursting of the natural ‘dam’. In this time the river had backed up submerging five villages and 19 kilometres of the KKH, filling the valley floor and creating Lake Attabad. For the 25,000 inhabitants living upriver, with all road transport now severed, there were major consequences. Everything – building supplies, foodstuffs, locally produced goods for markets south, and goods bound for or coming from China – has to be offloaded onto boats for transhipment down the lake. Consequently everything is more expensive. And for maybe three or four months of the winter the lake is frozen which virtually isolates the people living north of the lake.
I arrived to a busy dockside scene, boats being loaded and unloaded onto every form of transport from carts to classic ‘jinglies’, the vibrantly painted Pakistan trucks with clinking strings of chain hanging off the bumpers. With help I lowered the bike and separately my panniers down onto a boat about to leave, and off we chugged down the lake. The colour of the deep, glacier fed water was electric blue.
After about forty minutes we tied up at the far end of the lake to a similar scene. There was work going on with diggers and barges to stabilise the shore. Amidst the high activity loading and offloading I lifted off my bike and prepared it to continue, under, I was aware, the idle gaze of a few of the Pakistan military. Two of them stepped forward. With the usual questions, where coming from, going to, alone? etc. I had found on the journey, the further from Europe the less the answer “Ireland” has an effect. In Georgia there appeared to be some recognition (“Robbie Keane!”) but since then less and less. In Pakistan there was usually one of two responses – polite if mild interest (as if I’d perhaps said “Belgium”), or the other was “Ahh. Cricket!”. We are now on the map in Pakistan after the Ireland cricket team – a lowly ranked collection of part timers and a couple of newly naturalised citizens from South Africa – knocked out Pakistan, then fourth ranked in the world, by beating them in the 2007 cricket World Cup. My friendly military interrogators responded warmly when I told them where I was from. “Ireland?”, one of them beamed. They had been part of a project the military had worked on with the ESB it seems in some electricity generation scheme.
The legendary Hunza valley is claimed to be the inspiration for the mythical kingdom of Shangri La, an earthly paradise inhabited by a people who aged hardly at all. And in fact the local diet, dependent on orchards of mulberry, apples, walnuts and particularly the apricots, is supposedly responsible for the people to live to an unusually old age. The valley is beautiful. Lush, green orchards irrigated by streams tumbling down with clusters of squat stone houses, fruit drying on the flat rooftops. Surrounding the valley and towering above it are soaring peaks of snow-covered rock. Karimabad is the capital of the Hunza, named after Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual head of Shia Ismaili Nizari community. A minority in predominantly Sunni Pakistan. An obvious tourist hub with guesthouses around every hairpin bend of the road, there is no problem finding a bed. I appeared to be the only tourist.
My intention was to break my journey for a few days and take the opportunity of trekking into these magnificent mountains. After reading up on the various options – Karimabad is the perfect location for any number of excursions – I reckoned a four or five day walk would suit me best. Enough time to bring me deep into the mountains, but not too much time off my journey. I was under a little time pressure to get to Islamabad and apply for an Indian visa. The following day as I strolled up through the village checking it out, a Dutch dentist and a couple of his students spending a few weeks attending to local dental needs pulled up in an old jeep. It was refreshing to chat to someone from my part of the world. When I mentioned my intention to find a guide to take me into the mountains, he introduced me to his driver, fixer and local contact man, Saleh, who used to have his own guiding company in the area. The dentist reassured me of Saleh’s integrity. I happily threw my lot in with him and we agreed a plan for a five day trek up the Hopar Valley where he was from. He would sort out a porter and food and collect me later in the day to drive into the mountains. Due to the lack of tourists I understood joining a group to share the costs probably wasn’t an option. I justified the price of $180 reckoning I wouldn’t have a chance like this again for a long time.
It was dark before we took off along a dirt road wending its way upstream into the mountains up the Nagar valley for the two hour drive to Saleh’s village at the end of the road. Strapped into the passenger seat of the rough and ready jeep, I was aware the track – clinging to a mountainside – was following a fast flowing river. As the jeep roared and rattled around the hairpins the headlights threw their beam onto sheer rockface ahead or into black nothingness. An occasional white water rapid caught in the moonlight far below gave me an idea of the precipitousness. But Saleh was a good driver, well in control. Occasionally the road descended and we’d carefully drive across a narrow bridge, the water cascading under us, before it wound its way back up the other side. At one point, we pulled up suddenly at a small waterfall splashing onto the road, a favoured spot, to fill a few bottles with fresh, sweet water and to top up the radiator. After an hour of total focus on the illuminated bit of track in front of us it was a strange experience to arrive into a village. A wedding party was taking place. Saleh wanted to invite me in but then reckoned it was late, we still had a bit to go and an early start in the morning. Eventually after the hair raising ride we pulled up to a guesthouse, friends of his, where we were given a cup of chai and some chapatti and dahl. I was shown my bed, piled high with Chinese manufactured synthetic blankets. It was very, very cold.
We had a five day trek planned up the Meer valley. I’d read that the 5,000 metre Rush peak was accessible to “amateur climbers without proper mountaineering gear”. Sounded good to me. And so it was the next morning I headed off with Ali the cook, porter and guide for my little Himalayan mountain expedition. Ali looked to be in his late thirties, in other words a fair bit of experience under his belt. The first hour was spent clambering across the base of the Hisper glacier before the steady tramp upstream towards the base of the peak we were to climb. What a pleasure to get away from the road and into this other world for a few days. Snowy peaks soared above us as we followed the course of the glacier. The odd little glade offered a patch of green pasture and flowering rose trees and junipers. It was like paradise. I was well insulated against the cold, particularly when we walked in the sunshine. But the air temperature was crisp. Our breath came out in clouds. I had heard it said a bareheaded man here with his feet in the shade can suffer heat stroke and frostbite at the same time.
Ali had a habit of stopping every half hour for a break. I’d be getting into the walk and then he’d find a rock and sit down for a rest. After a few hours of this we were making pretty slow progress. Was this just the way things were done here or was he a malingerer, I found myself wondering? Hah, that was a word I’d never used before! I found it interesting to observe my reactions of frustration. What could I do, how should I deal with this? To be fair he was carrying the heavier gear but I’d already offered to share some of his load and he would hear nothing of it. I subsequently learned Ali had actually done very little portering this year as there had been no demand. Which meant he was probably unfit. That evening after two hours boiling lentils he gave up trying to cook the dahl. He’d forgotten to bring the pressure cooker, which is needed at this altitude. And a tin opener for the tuna, which we ended up bashing open with a stone. There were chapatis. I reckoned Ali just wasn’t a very experienced porter.
The following day we came upon a man in his twenties and his uncle rounding up his sheep to bring them down for the winter. A friendly, outgoing guy the nephew generously insisted on carrying Ali’s pack for about half an hour. We established the uncle, who had no English, was the same age as me, which gave rise to some amusement. With his hard, weather beaten face he looked many years older. After we parted ways I noticed Ali stopped less for a break. Maybe his pride had been a little piqued.
The ascent was pretty severe. I was pleased to discover, because of the cycling, I was fairly well acclimatised to the altitude at this stage and felt none of the usual signs of light headedness or headache. But there was still a lot less oxygen in the air! It just meant the going was slow. Different people have their own method of walking I’ve found, tending towards either the tortoise or the hare. Some naturally wish to keep pushing on, pause to catch breath, and continue in that way. The best way for me is to find my own pace and stick to it, not someone else’s, and to keep plodding on without regularly stopping for a break. A good guideline is, if I’m needing to pause for breath my pace is too fast. Slow it down. The thing with a steady plod – as I found on long mountain ascents on the bike – is I am continually making progress, and will eventually get there. On the bike, hours pass and so do the kilometres. Eventually we got up to Rush Lake – at 4,700 metres the highest alpine lake in the world. A few hundred metres higher and I was on top of Rush Peak, looking all around me in awe and wonder at the imposing snow covered Himalayas.
The rest of the trek was such a pleasure. A cup of chai in a smoke filled stone hut with herdsmen preparing to abandon their summer settlement for the season. Buying some rough rubies, lapis lazuli and emeralds from the area. The return jeep ride in daylight down the dramatic valley past terraced orchards. And arriving back to the comforts of Karimabad, a warm shower and a good curry. And ready to continue the cycle, towards India.