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Sust on the Karakoram Highway

The Karakoram Highway or the KKH as it is known by the locals is a 1,300 kilometre highway, an engineering marvel that passes some of the world’s most picturesque and tallest mountains from Northern Pakistan to Western China. The Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir and Hindu Kush mountain ranges and some of the longest glaciers outside the polar region can be seen and driven across along the highway.

The scenery is very varied, from flat plains to fertile verdant valleys, rocky river gorges, villages surrounded by snow-capped mountains, high alpine passes, plateaus, lakes, rivers, marshes, and a barren desert. It is the highest paved border crossing in the world and due to the harsh winter weather the road is only open to the public from May to November. It took 15,000 Pakistani and 10,000 Chinese engineers 20 years to complete the road, 500 men lost their lives during the construction. Many monuments in praise of those who lost their lives are situated along the Highway. There are more than 25 major bridges and over seventy smaller ones.

The area is rich in history; from 2300 B.C. when the Indus Valley Civilization existed, the birth of Hinduism, Alexander the Great’s visit in 326 B.C., the 5th century saw the beginning of Islam, Marco Polo travelled here in the 14th century, the ‘Great Game’ between Britain and Russia in the late 1800’s to 1914 and independence in 1947 are a few of the historical events that took place in this area.

Many valleys were opened up when the KKH was completed, journeys that took many weeks were able to be completed in a few days and communication to these previously landlocked valleys were connected to the rest of Pakistan. The complete Karakoram Highway from Rawalpindi to Kashgar was opened to tourists on 1 May 1986.

Fresh sugar cane juice, Rawalpindi

We will start our journey at Rawalpindi from where it is a 45-kilometre drive along the Grand Trunk Road, across the Margella Pass, to Hasan Abdal. Today the Grand Trunk Road is a continuous stream of brightly painted trucks and buses. The Pakistani trucks are the brightest and most ornate vehicles that you will see. From the front to the back and from the left side to right side colourful patterns, scenes, animals and religious quotations adorn these vehicles. The Grand Trunk Road was 2,500 kilometres long and ran from Kabul to Calcutta in the days of the Moghul Empire and the British Raj. From the plains that surround Rawalpindi the Grand Trunk Road ascends through the Margella Pass. Close by is a portion of the old Grand Trunk road built by Sher Shah Suri. The Moghul emperor Aurangzeb repaired this cobblestone section in 1672.

Here the road climbs slowly towards Abbottabad, 1,200 metres above sea level, home to Pakistan’s National Military Academy and for a while home to Osama bin Laden. Due to the higher altitude it is cooler here than Islamabad and Rawalpindi and nearby is Thandiani, 2,700 metres, a popular hill station for the locals tiring of the heat in the lowlands. The Simila and Sarban Hills surrounding Abbottabad are covered with pine trees and offer panoramic views of the countryside.

Crossing the Indus River

From Abbottabad it is 25 kilometres to the next town of Mansehra, 975 metres above sea level. The KKH actually bypasses the main town situated in the Pakla Plains, which are very fertile and have been cultivated with terraced rice paddies and cornfields. The KKH continues northwards ascending through pine forests to Batal, 185 kilometres from Rawalpindi. The road from Batal to Batgram crosses the Chattar Plain named after Chattar Singh who was a general in the Sikh army. Twenty-six kilometres from Batgram is Thakot and the mighty Indus River. The bridge that spans the Indus is the most southern of the Chinese built suspension bridges that cross the Indus. Due west of Thakot is Pir Sar, 2,163 metres, which is believed to be the rock that was identified by Sir Auriel Stein as Aornos, which was the site where Alexander the Great fought the chiefs of Swat in 327 B.C.

Young Pakistani near Besham

For the next 27 kilometres the Highway twists and turns above the Indus to Besham, the first town in Kohistan. The Highway runs through the centre of Besham, which is always crowded as it is a transport junction with Hunza and China to the north, Rawalpindi to the south and Swat Valley, Peshawar and Afghanistan to the west. Buses, trucks and cars toot their horns and drivers yell their destinations as they weave along the narrow dusty road. Add to this the large array of shops and cheap hotels that front onto the main road and you have a crowded noisy town. Anything can be purchased in this Pathan town including a range of weapons and ammunition from the numerous arms dealers. Although it is crowded and dusty in the dry season, if you have time it is an interesting amble along the main thoroughfare.

Pattan is the first town on the Karakoram Highway where snow capped mountains can be seen in the early summer. In 1974 a massive earthquake flattened Pattan, claiming 5,000 lives and destroyed sixty kilometres of the KKH. The new town of Pattan is pleasantly situated in a bowl below the Karakoram Highway. Just after Pattan the pyramid shaped peak of Lashgelase, 3,090 metres, can be seen. The low scrub covered hills soon give way to a narrow gorge with high cliffs looming above the road. The barren mountains are so immense that the road appears to be a cotton thread stuck to the granite rock.

Tea Time

The Indus River divides the Kohistani villages of Komila and Dassu. Before the bridge across the Indus was built these villages were totally independent of each other, today they appear as one. This area was originally known as Yaghistan, ‘land of the ungoverned’. The Kohistani were regarded as lawlessness people and these towns were havens for outlaws who could hide here without fear of capture. It was not until 1976 when the Karakoram Highway was being built that Pakistan took an interest in this area. The police and the NWFP’s Frontier Constabulary protect the highway, but away from the road authority decreases abruptly. Not surprisingly visitors tend to pass these villages quickly. On one visit I had to stop to make a telephone call and parked near the wooden shops bordering both sides of the narrow main thoroughfare. Shish kebabs, at Rps2 per stick, and a plentiful array of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts were available at the roadside shops. One felt in a time warp as men, asses, tractors, buses and trucks weaved their way along and across the confined street. The scene reminded one of the Wild West as these rebellious Kohistani men, some armed, wandered the street looking at ‘the strangers in town’ with distrust. I felt an air of hostility as the men stared at me as though I was an exhibit in a zoo, perhaps justifiably. This feeling was soon dispelled when a group cheerfully asked for their photograph to be taken.

North of Dassu the Highway literally clings to the cliff like a rope glued to a wall. Towards Chilas the gorge narrows and the road twists and turns, as it appears to adhere to the cliff face. The engineers that built this part of the highway had to be mountaineers as well. They were lowered on ropes to place the charges of explosives to break the cliff wall. In some areas the highway is carved into the cliff like an ornamental groove in a piece of pottery. Here the ferns, moss and lichens cling to the precipitous cliffs and there are numerous crystal clear waterfalls that plummet hundreds of feet to the Indus River. The aquamarine water of these waterfalls merges with the murky waters of the Indus River. Here the Indus turns sharply to the west and the Highway follows it towards Shatial where there are some fifth century petroglyphs.

Mount Rakaposhi at 25,550 feet above sea level is a magnificent sight

The Karakoram Highway continues following the meandering Indus River whose riverbed is flat and wide. The town of Chilas is situated off the Karakoram Highway, 120 kilometres from Dassu. In the summer months it can get extremely hot and on one of my visits in late May it was 45.6° C in the late afternoon. After Chilas there are the hot springs at Tato Panni where many people come in September to bathe to soothe aches and reportedly cure arthritis. In the summer the water is too hot to soak in. The road continues through open plains until the Raikot Bridge, 55 kilometres from Chilas, crossing the Indus before reaching Talechi. This is the only place on the KKH where you can see both Rakaposhi, 7,788 metres, and Nanga Parbat, 8,126 metres and growing by seven millimetres a year. Nanga Parbat is an enormous mass of rock and is the ninth tallest mountain in the world.

Just past Jaglot the Gilgit River joins the Indus River, which turns northeast. Here is the western end of the Himalaya Range and the end of the Karakoram Range. To the west is the Hindu Kush. The Karakoram Highway leaves the Indus, after following it for 340 kilometres, and follows the Gilgit River. The road to Skardu, which follows the Indus southward, is just north of the confluence. Thirty kilometres north the KKH crosses the Gilgit River and passes the confluence of the Hunza and Gilgit Rivers. Gilgit is situated 10 kilometres off the Highway.

Collecting cherrys at Gilgit

Snow-capped mountains surround the town of Gilgit and the streets are lined with shops and food stalls. The ubiquitous teashops in the town make interesting photographs as do the chapli (large flat meat patties) makers. Gilgit has not been spoilt by tourism as yet and surprisingly very few souvenir and tourist shops are evident. The fruit sellers, chicken sellers mingle with the latest ice-cream vending machines in this male dominated town. There are very few women in the town and all the stalls and shops are run by the men.

Gilgit is the home of Polo. In an area where flat land is scarce, every village proudly shows off its polo field. The highest is at 4,050 metres in the Shandur Pass. Here every July Gilgit plays Chitral, a rivalry that has been contested for decades. Here polo is not the “Game of Kings” as it is played by ordinary village folk whose keenness for the sport far outweighs their economic capacity to maintain horses and equipment.

Delicious fresh chapli at Gilgit

Situated 10 kilometres west from Gilgit at Karagah Nala is the carved Karagah Buddha, which dates back to the seventh century. Situated high on a cliff face one wonders how it could have been carved. To some it is just a carving, to others it is a wonder, imagine 1400 years ago weary travellers made the effort to publicize their religion in such a way. In the nearby village I was invited to have a cup of freshly made lassi. Abdul Sadiq invited us to his house where he took the lassi from his homemade refrigerator. This stone construction had a door big enough for Abdul to squeeze into and he brought out cold refreshing lassi. In the season the local boys will pluck the mulberries from the trees. Three or four boys hold a large sheet under the tree while another climbs the tree and shakes the branches to make the berries fall onto the blanket. Freshly picked sweet mulberries – so delicious.

An interesting diversion when one leaves Gilgit is to take a jeep over the suspension bridge across the Gilgit River. The locals maintain it is the longest suspension bridge in Asia negotiable by jeep. Then continue across the one over the Hunza River which other locals assured me was the longest suspension bridge in Asia. This bridge is closed to jeeps so your transport will have to backtrack and meet you on the opposite side. This is definitely more terrifying than the Gilgit River Bridge as it moves quite considerably.

The Karakoram Highway from Gilgit to Hunza is a well-sealed road except where there are slips, to be expected on a highway built through such terrain. The scenery is different but still wonderful, mountain ranges and river valleys are constantly in view. Part of the way the road follows the Hunza River and at Chalt the Nagar Valley is close by. Near Chalt, on the opposite side, one can see the trail Marco Polo took when he came to this region. An ideal place to stop for a cup of tea is at Rakaposhi View Point Hotel and Restaurant, basically a camping ground that serves meals. The owner has been a guide to Rakaposhi’s peak on three occasions. He told me that it takes 32 days to ascent and descend this 7,788 metre high mountain. From Hassanabad the two unconquered, as at 1996, Ultar Peaks appear.

Here is the heart of the fabled Hunza Valley. For many westerners its isolation, rectitude and mythology created by James Hilton’s novel, ‘Lost Horizon’, and stories about the legendary Shangri-La have made Hunza a much sought-after destination. Its fantastic natural beauty and enchanting people makes the Hunza Valley the focal point of the Karakoram Highway. Whatever season visitors arrive, Hunza’s charm is there to enchant. In winter the starkness and the snow, spring brings blossoms and green to the apparently barren countryside, in summer the trees laden with fruit against the backdrop of brown, grey, red and purple mountains which still have snow on their peaks and in autumn the yellow poplars and red and orange trees in the orchards brighten the valleys with a riot of colour. Fortuitously, perhaps its seclusion has kept tourists away but I firmly believe that even if there are larger number of tourists, this part of the world will not become another Bangkok or Disneyland-type tourist destination. The local people are intensely dedicated to their way of life and culture; they will accept modernization to improve their lifestyle but not to the retrogression of it.

Weaving traditional cloth at Karimabad

The people of Hunza Valley are Ismali Muslims and they speak Brushaski, but Urdu and English are understood. Karimabad is 2,400 metres above sea level with an average May daytime temperature from 10°C to 20°C. With a full moon and clear evening sky night photography of Mount Rakaposhi and the other peaks is possible. One and a half kilometres from Karimabad is the ‘fairy-tale’ castle of Baltit, built 600 years ago and nearby is Altit Fort. Baltit Fort is lighted up at night, which adds a romantic aura to the evening scene.

For the past 960 years Hunza has been ruled by the Mirs (kings) of Hunza. The people of Hunza are known as Hunzakuts and are thought to be descendants of ‘five wandering soldiers’ of the legions of Alexander the Great.

Before five o’clock in the morning in clear blue sky the sun commences to shine on the mountain peaks. Karimabad is the only town in the world where one can view five peaks over 7,000 metres, Mount Rakaposhi, 7,788 metres, Ultar I, 7,388 metres, Ultar II, 7,310 metres, Diran 7,273 metres and Golden Peak, 7,027 metres. The sound of the black, blue and white Kalklachi birds, crystalline blue sky and being encompassed by towering snow capped mountains with picture postcard views of the valleys below are the sights and sounds that one gets completely engrossed in when walking through the village early in the morning. The serenity is so quiet that one could hear a pin drop and the panorama is a phenomenon of nature. Every morning the light will be different and an early morning start will show the colour of Mount Rakaposhi as a pinkish orange until the sun shines fully on the snow changing its colour from light grey to brilliant white. The early morning serenity is something one can never tire of; lying in bed after half past four in the morning can give one a feeling of guilt as you are not sure what wonder could be passing by unnoticed. What better way to start the day than watching the changing patterns, some only for fleeting moments, composed by the sun, clouds and the mountain peaks. It is effortless to spend hours here appreciating the wonders of the world. Observing the rising sun and setting moon at the identical times above the mountain pinnacles can give one an ethereal feeling.

There are many handicraft shops in town offering local weavings, handicrafts, jewellery and items from nearby Afghanistan. Local fruits such as apricots and cherries as well as oil, sweets and nuts from apricots are readily available. The top weaver in Pakistan has a shop where he weaves from sheep, goats, camel and mountain ibex wool. From the town centre Ultar Peak looms to the right behind Baltit Fort, Rakaposhi to the left and Golden Peak to the fore. Out of the town centre village life continues, tending to the goats, harvesting the wheat and barley, caring for the potatoes and picking the fruit. As mundane as it appears the people always have a cheerful smile for the passing visitors. The Aga Khan Academy for Girls is one of the most impressive buildings in the village. The fees are Rps500 per month and some of the local families send one of their daughters to the Academy, perhaps a sign of change, in this male dominated area. The patches of lush terraced fields and irrigation channels on rugged mountain slopes attest to the onerous work laboured by the Hunzakuts. Hunza is the land of apricots, mulberries, apples, peaches, walnuts and grapes and complete serenity.

From Karimabad it is a two-hour, five-kilometre trek, or a 45-minute jeep ride to Dukar. This relatively easy trek takes you through the village of Ult and the fields of other small villages. A close look at their elaborate irrigation system reveals the generations of labour that have enabled this barren land to be turned into the green fertile land it is today.  The cheerful villagers are working in the fields and the children are more than happy to accompany you up the trail. One even offered to carry my photographic backpack, which was half his size. Views of Baltit and Altit Forts can be seen as one treks up the mountain. The patterns of the yellow, black, orange and green lichen make fascinating patterns on the rocks. This short trek takes you to the Eagle’s Nest, an aptly named restaurant and hotel. Situated on the edge of a cliff at 3,350 metres above sea level the views are superlative. While we were perched on the cliff top a large landslide came crashing onto the road 1,000 metres below. It completely blocked the road and partially blocked the river, luckily it was not the road that we would be taking the following day as our guide told us it would take at least five days to clear.

There are many other day trips from Karimabad. Near Ghulmet there are the Ghulmet, Pisan and Minapin Glaciers. It is a two-hour walk to be able to view the Minapin glacier. This climb is quite steep and hardly worth the effort unless you are prepared to spend a few days to climb right up to the glacier, its one day to the hut at Hapakan and another day to Taghaphary which is the base camp for those climbing Mount Rakaposhi.

After Aliabad one can see the Kitchener Monument on the opposite bank of the Hunza River. The reason for its erection is a mystery, as Kitchener did not achieve anything outstanding in this area. On one of my trips two kilometres before Gulmit we had to get out of the bus and walk over an avalanche that completely blocked the road. This mainly snow and rock avalanche came down in March, two months previously, and would melt in the summer months. The bus had to detour along a makeshift road on the riverbed. Gulmit a quaint 2,000-population village is situated on the mountainside and is famous for potatoes. Stonewalled narrow paths meander through the fields where one can see the locals hard at work and one feels time stopped still hundreds of years ago. Here invitations to visit the houses and photography of women are not unheard of. The air is fresh, the sky blue and the people appear to be very contented. Although the people are not materially as well off as some westerners there is no sign of poverty, which is prevalent in many big cities.

Khunjerab Pass at 16,200 feet is the highest paved border crossing in the world. This photo was taken in mid-summer

The drive to Khunjerab Pass, 4,930 metres above sea level, which borders the Xinjiang Province of China, is a 130-kilometre drive from Gulmit that takes about three hours. The Karakoram Highway follows the Hunza River passing through Passu where the Passu Glacier can be seen from the road. Usually there are quite a few small slips so caution is required when driving although there is very little traffic. At Sust one has to clear customs and immigration and it is advisable to get there no later than 9:00am otherwise there could be delays and if you are travelling north the drive to Tashkurghan will be rushed. After passing through the police and customs check at Sust the road follows the Khunjerab River. This crystal clear river narrows to a few feet in parts as the mountain cliffs on either side almost converge, and has to go underground on occasions where an avalanche has blocked the riverbed. Chukor (a mountain partridge), yaks, zhos (a cross between a yak and a cow), and marmots (rodent family) are usually visible from the road. The other animals in the area, although rarely seen, are snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, ibex, double-humped camels, markhor and urial. The road climbs gradually until Dhir to about 3,400 metres. On two occasions about fifteen kilometres from the summit landslides had blocked the road. Both times we were fortunate that the engineers had already began to clear the road and we were only delayed for half an hour. From here the road twists and zigzags steeply up the cliff face and near the top the white blanket that greets you is almost blinding. Herds of yaks can be seen near the summit grazing between the patches of snow. At the top is a large plateau covered with snow throughout most of the year. The Chinese/Pakistan border at the Khunjerab Pass is 4,930 metres where the air is very thin and it is usually bitterly cold, 2°C in June, even with bright sunshine and clear sky. At the border there is a roadside marker with Pakistan on one side and China on the other advising motorists to drive on the other side of the road as Pakistanis drive on the left and the Chinese on the right.

This area surely has to be the most serene and peaceable place on earth. To be able to have the opportunity to spend a part of one’s life, albeit a momentary part, is an experience one will never forget.

This is Part 1, Part 2 is from Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar and will be posted next week.

Anyone interested in partaking in this wonderful journey of a lifetime can contact Afzal Khan at sterlingcrown@yahoo.com