The Silk Road, China

Monday, 25 June 2007

The Karakorum Highway

The Karakorum Highway (or the KKH as it's called) was a 20 year joint project started by China and Pakistan in the sixties. Running 1,300km through the mountains, it connects Islamabad with Kashgar in north west China via the 4,900m Kunjerab pass.

Before the road there was nothing but Silk Road donkey tracks cut into the rock - sections of which are still visible today. No Central Asian four abreast camel trains (as illustrated in Marco Polo's Travels) made it down this branch of the Silk Road.

Today it is tarmaced and wide enough for two vehicles. Or at least, that's the theory. The Chinese side is so smooth you feel it is rather too easy going, but at the border there is a sharp line where the tarmac ends and you begin a somewhat rougher ride. In fairness, this is partly due to the fact that in China the road climbs gently up onto a plateau - the Pamirs are to the east and the road runs parallel to(and less than 100km) to our route north on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan.

All this changes abruptly on the Pakistani side of the pass. The road free falls into the gorge, twisting and turning as it descends. The mountains loom so large that they fill the entire window; you have to tilt your head right back to see any blue sky.

The road really has no right to be there. At every turn we pass, yet another 45 degree plus gully hangs over us which serves no other purpose but to spew thousands of tonnes of rock down into the gorge (and onto the road) whenever there is any rain. Rocks as big as houses sit precariously on knife edge ridges waiting for a nudge from above; looking up is like peering into the barrel of a loaded gun.

Needless to say, the KKH project has never ended and will never end. Within an hour of crossing the border we saw why. Heavy rain had sent a deluge of water down the mountain, leaving the KKH under a considerable depth of water.

The Karakorum waterway

Our bus stopped,we donned our packs and clambered up the hillside around the flooded area and rejoined the road further down to find a waiting bus. Happily, the entire contents of Kashgar's Sunday Market which had taken so long to get through Chinese customs had to be unloaded once more and carried over by porters before we could get going again. In all, it took 2 days to travel the 400km from Kashgar to Sost, the official border station in Pakistan.

For the last month we have been in some of the world's biggest mountains. Here you cannot fail to notice the importance of water - with a little help from gravity. Often you can see the grain of the rock is not horizontal, betraying the massive forces at work that create the mountains. But if the plates create them, it is the water that shapes and colours them.

From the peaks the melting snow trickles down, carving geometric crease marks into the mountainside. Like a network of leaf veins, the streams combine and cut deeper and deeper canyons until a there is a roaring river - sometimes a hundred metres or more wide and running at more than 30km/h - at the bottom of a deep gorge, like that through which the KKH passes. The muffled knocking of massive boulders being moved downstream can sometimes be heard over the noise of the water. It is all quite humbling; as I found out later in Chitral, falling in means certain death. All this continues year round, despite the sweltering summer heat and lack of rain due to the massive amount of water stored as snow at altitude.


Once we had cleared customs we found ourselves in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The only part of Pakistan to fight to be part of the country at Partition, the NA now finds itself in limbo due to the Kashmir question. It is not an official province (and therefore has no representatives in the National Assembly) because for Pakistan to grant it such status might imply some sort of finality to the disputed border of Kashmir.

Hunza was virtually undiscovered before the KKH was constructed. The road has transformed the region, but it remains incredibly beautiful. We stopped at a small village called Passu, which sat right underneath some jagged, fairytale mountains which I could have spent days simply sitting and looking at.

The Karakorum range offers world class trekking. In a just a few days you can wander through green fields right up to glaciers and the foot of some of the world's highest mountains - including, of course, K2, second only to Everest.

So we decided to spend a day exploring the Passu glacier and the Upper Hunza valley. The former spilled down the mountainside to within site of the KKH: white at the top, grey further down and black with earth and rock at its end, out of which poured icy blue water.

Glaciers may move very slowly, but there is constant movement on the surface: the noise of trickling water is frequently interrupted by the noise of rocks tumbling down the steep surface of the ice as it melts from underneath them.

We crossed the glacier in search of a path that would take us higher to a viewpoint over the valley. Despite our best efforts we could not find it; it later transpired that it had been more or less destroyed by landslides.

Crevasse jumping!

Instead, we headed back down into the valley, where the vivid green grass contrasted beautifully with the rusty mountains and snowy peaks.

We wandered through villages and crossed the river on one of the famous suspension bridges. Initially rather dismissive of these (it's only a bridge, after all!), I found these considerably more hair-raising than expected: steel cables for handrails and under foot, along with a vaguely straight / flat piece of wood stuck between the cables below once every metre or so (the bigger gaps were quite alarming) to step on! Meanwhile, the brown river raced past below...

We then took a bus down the KKH to Karimabad, one of my favourite places on the trip so far. Perched above the stunning Hunza valley, the view takes in not only the pyramid shaped 7,800m Rakaposhi in one direction, but also Karimabad's own 7,400m Ultar.

The view from the balcony of our (10 dollar) room

Hunza people are extremely friendly. By and large they are Ismaeli - a Shia spin off sect whose Harvard educated spiritual leader (Aga Khan) lives in Paris - which means many have a more relaxed interpretation of Islam. We were lucky enough to meet a guide called Elias, who was about our age, extremely laid back and exactly what we were looking for.

Within a few hours we sorted all of our treks and were at the top of the hill for sunset overlooking the Hunza valley with five of his cousins, enjoying a surreptitious fermented grape juice (not to be confused with wine which tastes quite different...). Later that evening we found ourselves dining with the Argentinian ambassador and his wife with whom we had shared some of the pain of the crossing from China. It was a memorable evening in Hunza.

Our trek the following day up to the foot of Ultar took us along the irrigation channels that have transformed Hunza from an arid mountain scape to a lush green valley. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the work completed by the Hunza people and their forefathers; from the top of the mountain they risk life and limb to carve channels into the cliffs, in doing so tapping into and distributing the life-giving water to their fields and the village below. To this day the tribes are allocated sections to maintain; anyone who does not help with the work must pay instead.

Nanga Parbat

The following day we jumped on a bus with Elias and headed down the KKH through Gilgit to Nanga Parbat - the world's 9th highest mountain and in the 8000+ club - for a 2 night trek to base camp.

The jeep ride up to the trail head from the road raised the bar once again for hair-raising driving, outdoing the descent from the Kunjerab pass by some margin. The single dirt track was built up on piles of slate onto a rock face that formed the steepest and deepest gorge I have ever seen. The wheel of the jeep was often less than a foot away from the edge, and - had anything gone wrong - the jeep would not have stopped tumbling for 1000m+ vertical metres until it hit the river at the bottom. Nanga Parbat has the greatest vertical drop from peak to mountain base of any mountain in the world (and a 4000m sheer face on the other side...).

Once at the trail head we hiked up for a few hours to Fairy Meadow to spend our first night before heading up to base camp. This was far more comfortable than we had expected, as the mountain is a signficant tourist attraction for Pakistanis; we immediately resolved to rough it the following night and camp up at base camp. But once over the shock of all this luxury, we enjoyed a delicious supper of daal and chappati and kicked back on the day bed with some more wine under the starry sky.

The climb up to base camp, though not particularly demanding, provided what we were looking for. We had the mountain to ourselves and were able to walk right up above base camp to the end of the Great Morraine and sit looking up at the mighty face of the mountain.

Below the Raikal glacier snaked down into the valley with stunning seracs (ice spikes) near the base camp.

Nanga Parbat was the perfect way to end Billo's leg of the trip. We were both sad not to have more time to explore the embarrassment of riches that the KKH has to offer.... not least K2. Another time, perhaps....!


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