KARAKORAM HIGHWAY: THE HIGH ROAD TO CHINA by John Borthwick

JB looks back at a classic road journey, a drive on the wild side, albeit one done in more peaceful days, early 2001.

Karakoram Highwy, China

“Ava Gardner, the renowned showbiz of Holly Wood stayed in this suite in the year 1955 during the shooting of Bhawany Junction,” declares a tarnished brass plaque at the old Faletta’s Hotel, Lahore. I can only hope that Ava’s suite was a cut above the exhausted quarters I occupy.

Then again, who cares? A brief night in this crumbling, colonnaded ghost of Empire is a fitting start for a Karakoram Highway journey, from Pakistan north to China, that’s all about seeing time – cultural, geological and who-knows – in dramatic rewind.

The Karakoram Range is a seven-thousand-metre speed hump, Nature’s way of slowing everything that would move north from the Indian subcontinent towards Central Asia, including the subcontinent itself. Fifty million years in the making, these massive earthworks aren’t so much the hand as the fist of the gods.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007Copyright John Borthwick

For millions of years, the only force to penetrate this white-knuckled seismic knot was water – rivers like the Indus, Hunza and Gilgit. In much more recent times, pilgrims, Silk Route traders and imperial invaders followed these watercourses through the mountains, travelling on paths that clung like spiderwebs to the valley walls.

Our minibus weaves along the new route that hangs somewhere below the remnants of the earlier filament trails and above the snow-fed torrents. The modern road that will carry us 1300 km from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to Kashgar, China, is the Karakoram Highway — the “KKH” — lauded by one promotional poster I see as “The most brilliant achievement of mankind of the 20th century”.

The nine of us in the minibus are out to test the proposition. More than guiding us is Asghar Khan, an avuncular Hunzakut, whose capacity to arrange for small mountains to be moved (if necessary by bulldozer), palms to be greased and dinner to arrive on time makes the Karakoram, for us at least, a pushover.

We leave behind the bazaar shenanigans of Peshawar – wandering ear-cleaners and Internet shops (surely this close to the Khyber Pass there’s one called the Cyber Pass?), naked weapons and veiled females – and head into the North West Frontier Province. The mountains rise before us like dragon’s teeth. Trundling down them are trucks, gaudy land galleons bedecked with fringes, wild paintwork and rampant over-cab prows – big show-off rigs that announce themselves with a belching of diesel and hashish fumes and the blast of tremolo air-horns.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

We roll past apricot orchards and Pepsi signs, heading into the North West Frontier Province through the Swat Valley, a former feudal kingdom that acknowledged it was part of Pakistan only 40 years ago.

Revenge and hospitality are among the sustaining tribal traditions here, along with the sequestration of women. It’s odd to see a street where the ratio of males to females is around 300-to-1. Still, serial religions (and their persuading armies) have flowed through here for five thousand years: Aryans, Darius of Persia, Alexander, the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhists, Bactrian Greeks, St Thomas the Apostle, Mongols and Islam have been among the passing parade.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

And now us – a group of mostly “over-50s” travellers. There’s Gloria, an incessant tripper who broke an arm in Nepal and set fire to her hotel room in Cuzco, and now cheerily awaits new disasters. Monty, a retired IT man has been to “Koola Lumper” and “Kuz-koo”, too, although the only significant events to have occurred anywhere he’s visited seem to have been his own shopping forays. Astrid, a farmer and self-confessed “carpetoholic” asks us to restrain her should she be seen lingering near any carpet stall.

The landscape goes vertical. Sawtooth wedges of air and mountain interlock. Below us, romping rivers squeeze between the folds of the earth. There are deodar forests and donkey carts, smoke-cured villages, ancient petroglyphs and unctuous souvenir vendors. A ripple of excitement runs through the bus at Besham with our first sight of the washtub torrent of the mighty Indus River. The colour of wet cement, it churns its way south, slowly returning those gate-crashing mountains to the Indian Ocean. We would celebrate with a beer, but this is teetotalling Pakistan, so we settle for tea, rice and chicken, and more tea.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

“By your age, your brains have already shrunk so much that fluid pressure – cerebral oedema – isn’t a significant risk,” declares our group leader, Ian Williams, as he briefs us on possible altitude sickness. With what remains of my shrunken brain, I deduce that the risks are minimal, as the highest altitude we will sleep at is 3,200 metres, in the Chinese town of Tashkurgan.

The mountains now rear before us like terrestrial tsunamis – snow-peaked surf in five-thousand metre sets. The treeless, eroded faces slide from sky to river, their scree fans cut at the base by roaring torrents. We pile out of the bus to view an earth-sky-water vortex of literally Himalayan proportions: the point where the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges converge, where two continents – Asia and the Indian plate – collide and where the Gilgit and Indus rivers are thrown together in wild confluence. Not a place to linger should the mountain ogre decide to crack his tectonic knuckles.

The giant peaks of Nanga Parbat (8,125 metres) and Rakaposhi (7,790 metres) glow in crystal serration against the sky as the KKH climbs towards China. Other than local traffic, there are few tourist or international trade vehicles on this tortuous road, which was built by China and Pakistan between 1958 and 1978 (the unofficial death toll is reckoned at around one worker per kilometre). The Pakistan section runs through the most difficult terrain, constantly affected by glaciers, washouts and landslips – after all, Karakoram is a Turkic term for “crumbling rock.” Crews of Pakistan Army engineers and fearless bulldozer drivers are permanently deployed to keep the route open.

05_2 Karimabad,Hunza copy

We follow the river north to Asghar’s homeland, the legendary principality of Hunza, whose people were once said to live for over a century, sustained by fresh, 2,400-metre air, blissful bowels and, presumably, Hunza Pie. In fact, they’ve never heard of Hunza Pie in Hunza. Nowhere among the bazaars and tea shops of high Karimabad can I find the succulent wedge of cheese, spinach and wholemeal pastry that epitomised 1970s “hippie vego” cuisine and which came, one hopes, with a of side-serve of Himalayan wisdom.

The 10,000 people of Karimabad, the main town of Hunza, inhabit one of the most picturesque vales of the Himalaya–Karakoram chain. The fields of maize are shaded by orchards weighted with stone fruits. Tourism provides a modest cash flow and, as followers of the liberal Ismaili sect of Islam, Hunza girls (unlike many others in Pakistan) receive equal education with boys, and women are not obliged to veil their faces.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007Copyright John Borthwick

Life looks so benign here that, along with the immortality-through-Hunza-Pie sect, “Shangri-la-ists”, too, fixated upon Hunza, proclaiming it to be the prototype happy valley of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Far Horizons. That sunny vales from Bhutan to Mustang to Zhongdian, China all claim the same mythic mantle makes little difference to any of their boosters.

Ian, our guide is far more pragmatic, marvelling, “Where else could you simply drive in — rather than walk for a fortnight — and find yourself surrounded by six-thousand metre snow peaks?”

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

“Noisy with kingdoms” was Marco Polo’s take on this region in 1273. Even then, Baltit Fort towered over the town of Baltistan (now known as Karimabad). Seven centuries later, the 62-room palace-cum-fortress, once occupied by the Mir (king) of Hunza, still stands, framed by gothic pinnacles of stone and snow.

I am invited to dinner in the same palace room – now beautifully restored – in which Captain Francis Younghusband confronted the Mir in 1889, demanding that he cease raiding the caravans that passed on their way from Central Asia to British India. The Mir protested to the effect of, “Raiding is our only income – but, if your Queen Victoria is unhappy, I can cut her in on the action.” Preposterous. As Great Game warriors were wont to, Younghusband politely withdrew, then sent in the British Army to better explain the imperial point of view.

The KKH’s highest point, the 4,733-metre Khunjerab Pass in China, is closed by winter snows from November to May. We approach the Pakistan border town of Sust one week after the scheduled reopening of the pass, only to find that due to late snows there’s still a queue of trucks, Haj pilgrims’ buses and a score of French tourists. Asghar warns us that the latter may have priority over us and, since all foreigners must transfer to Pakistani government vehicles for the journey between Sust and Tashkorgan in China, we may have to wait several days.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

We wake next morning to learn that the pass is open and, thanks to methods best not queried closely, Asghar and Ian have secured several Land Cruisers for our immediate departure. Having leap-frogged, as it were, the French, we set sail for the Khunjerab Pass. The journey is a mixture of transcendent beauty – the sky above the high plains of snow burns like sapphire – and low farce. A Pakistani driver eager to be first over the icy pass slides his bus sideways into one of our vehicles, almost toppling us off the mountain.

Entering Xinjiang and China, we immediately spot unfamiliar creatures – shaggy Bactrian camels, even shaggier yaks and marmots, and women. There’s a nippy, overnight stop in Tashkorgan, followed by the 300 kilometre, seven-hour run to Kashgar. China’s KKH now widens into a military-capacity highway, an endless ribbon unrolling across a high desert plateau of pastel dunes and witch’s-cap peaks. In other places, the road seems merely borrowed from the banks of the roiling Ghez River, the cliffs that teeter above it being constrained only by the begrudging acknowledgment of gravity.

Katoomba, Blue Mouintains. NSW. 2007 Copyright John Borthwick

The main event for visitors to the so-called Uigur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang is the fabled Sunday market at Kashgar. As promised, Asghar gets us to Kashgar right on time. “Like Genghis Khan come to Chinatown,” is how a friend once described this former Silk Route caravanserai on market day. We step straight back into old East Turkestan, into Marco Polo and Tamerlane time. The faces and dress are Uigur, Kazahk, Tajik and Tartar. In terms of “race,” Han China plays a very second fiddle here. The market erupts around us, with 15,000 people buying and selling everything from kitchen sinks and samovars to air-conditioners, camels and carpets.

Carpets! Mindful of my vow to rescue Astrid from her “carpetoholic” compulsions, I plunge into the bazaar just in time to interrupt her all-but-completed purchase of a large Bukhara rug. A string of robustly autonomous Uigur epithets follows our empty-handed retreat from the carpet-wallah’s stall. We rejoin the group, finding that Monty, instead, has become the proud owner of a carpet, a silk prayer mat the size of a large tea-towel. “I bargained the fellow way down – got it for only one thousand Aussie bucks!” he hoots. Not too much more, I’d guess, than he might have paid in Melbourne.

©John Borthwick

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LISBON – FADO BY THE TAGUS by Glenn A. Baker

Lisbon - Portugal - Lisbon tramways by Glenn A. Baker

All great cities have a legend or two. Some weave their marketing motif around them. Mythical figures and tall tales are claimed and even fought over when it comes to setting one centre of civilisation apart from another.

Though Lisbon is a pivotal port of such vast, impressive documented history that it hardly needs the added sheen, it is quite prepared to toss into its tourist-teasing mix the story of how the Greek hero Ulysses founded the city on his way home from Troy.

While that can be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish, it does seem certain that the Phoenicians established a trading post on the site, there on the left bank of the Tagus River just inside the rugged Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, around 1200 BC and it is certain that the Romans came by in 205 BC and installed Julius Caesar as governor sixty years before Christ.

Lisbon - Sintra, Lisbon

It must have been a pleasing posting; it still would be. The city is bright and white, sparkling in a sun that never seems to be absent. It boasts springtime temperatures during the winter and cool summers invigorated by Atlantic breezes. The food is rich and plentiful, the architecture stirring and enveloping, the panoramas broad and breathtaking. With the intertwining of old and new realms has come another realm again, appealing as it is unique, as inexpensive as it is intriguing.

Claiming over twenty centuries of history, Lisbon has been Portugal’s formal capital since its conquest from the Moors in 1147. Some see it as the first true world city, the centre point of an empire spreading across the continents and sub-continents. All the western European nations amassed colonies but the Portuguese Empire was the first, longest-lasting and perhaps most diverse. After its flag was flown at Ceuta on the North African coast in 1415, this small nation took its language, culture and cuisine to Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, the Azores, Goa, Brazil, Macau and East Timor – where it remains to this day.

That it was recognised by even its adversaries as the City of Explorers was due to Prince Henrique the Navigator who established a navigation school at Sagres which made possible Vasco da Gama’s epic journey to India that fulfilled the Medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient, and initiated other epic adventures of discovery by Bartholomew Dias and Ferdinand Magellan (sailing for the Spanish crown). Like the bar scene in Star Wars, Lisbon was a crossroads of the universe, a magnet for wayfarers. In 1477, Christopher Columbus was in residence and, with his brother, worked as a cartographer and studied geography before taking up sea-borne commissions to the North Atlantic and Africa. It seemed the right place to do it.

Lisbon - Lisbon 14 by GAB

“To someone born and raised in a Mediterranean sea port, his new home must have seemed magical, alive with anticipation,” contends historian Thomas Tirado. “Sitting at the mouth of the Tagus, Lisbon’s rhythm was that of the crashing ocean at its doorstep. Thrusting into the Atlantic, facing water on two sides, Portugal had become a center for maritime activity and Lisbon was a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents.”

Since 1960, on the riverbank in the Avenida de Brasilia in the district of Belem where the Tagus meets the sea and the mighty ships of sail first set off to lay claim to the New World 500 years before, the Portuguese Age of Discovery has been marked by the imposing Monument to the Discoveries. It’s a good place to start your own expedition, given its proximity to the Tower of Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage site that could well be the city’s most photographed edifice. Built in the 16th century to serve as a fortress in the middle of the River Tagus, its outer walls are adorned with a stone-carved rope and openwork balconies, as well as Moorish watchtowers and shield-shaped battlements.

Draped, like Rome, around seven hills, Lisbon is a walking city. It not only gives you ready access to the restaurants, taverns and markets, to the churches and cobblestone alleyways, but ensures that you fully appreciate the mosaic pavements, tiled facades, wrought-iron balconies, tall houses and churches for which it is famed and that you take full advantage of the strategically-positioned miradouros (viewpoints) that seem to present panoramas at every turn. Of course, it helps to know where to walk and where to start – which of those seven hills.

Lisbon - Lisbon 20 by GAB

It could be the highest of them, the one crowned by the moated St. George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), guarding the Tagus, a fortress since the 5th century that came into its own during the Moorish occupation of the 10th when it was the ancient seat of the Saracens. There you can walk esplanades, climb ramparts and filter your gaze and eventually yourself down over the spread of the medieval Alfama district, the city’s most ancient quarter where many buildings display fading coats of arms bearing testimony to the fact that what would become (and, in some cases, still is) the home of stevedores, traders and sailors was once a most aristocratic quarter. Having largely survived the massive earthquake of 1755, it is true to its original layout and adjacent to it, on the western and northern slopes, are the nearly-as-old districts of Castelo and Mouraria.

But it perhaps should be Lapa das Mouras (the Moorish Rock) in Barrio da Lapa, the exclusive western quarter of the city (a twenty minute walk from downtown) that has long been the residential district of choice for nobility, foreign diplomats and the significantly wealthy. It is said to exemplify, with its shading trees, thick gardens and grand buildings (many now embassies) the 19th century Portuguese concept of “calming luxury”.

Like Columbus, Sandro Fabris is an Italian who settled in Lisbon, a city he also found alive with anticipation and not a little magical. One of those larger-than-life characters who can analyse Umberto Eco, accurately hum the sweep of symphonies, pluck a passage from an historical biography or cite lines from a slew of cinema classics, argue the importance of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and tell you about his embryonic book of photographs and anecdotes of the markets of the world – all within ten minutes of meeting you – he was considered such an asset by both countries that Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy, conferred the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity upon him when he last dropped by Portugal.

Lisbon - Cascais 1 by GAB

As, until recently, General Manager of the opulent Lapa Palace Hotel, Fabris was the king of his own castle on Lapa das Mouras, such a sturdy guide on what must be seen and done that it is hard to believe that he was also a visitor. Fresh from preserving treasures in Venice, he enthusiastically took upon the task of maintaining the remarkable standards of a remarkable building; a lavish private house built in 1870 and transformed into a palace thirteen years later by the Counts of Valenças.

And what a palace it was. Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, one of the greatest Portuguese ceramists of the 19th century, created pieces of furniture and tiles. Columbano, the celebrated “painter of broken souls”, applied his art to the walls and ceilings. There was a ballroom, a Louis XV room (used as a ladies’ boudoir), a Noble Floor, river view towers and all manner of splendour. A family home until 1992 when the family of the Count sold it, it was turned into a hotel six years later by the family Simões de Almeida and then acquired by the Orient Express group.

The Lapa Palace has become accustomed to lavish praise, celebrated by a raft of reviewers as “Lisbon’s smartest hotel with luxuriant gardens”, “a voluptuous retreat” and “a hidden gem in Lisboa”. It hosts concerts by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Lisbon and the Ballet School of Lisbon uses its health club as a workout home, sharing the facilities with a steady stream of guests of renown, ranging from more crown heads of Europe than can be counted to Sting, Cher, U2, Catherine Deneuve, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Robin Williams, George W. Bush and a brace of Nobel Prize winners. When they were in residence, Sandro was in attendance though the most you’ll get from this discreet hotelier about the demands placed upon he and his team was, “…generally speaking the important people are not a problem, it’s their entourage which is difficult to manage.”

Lisbon - Lapa Palace, Lisbon

From Barrio da Lapa, it is a quick cab ride down to the main squares, the imposing statues, the seafront, the theatres, the tramcars tackling impossibly steep rises and the Bairro da Alto – the Upper City. An historic enclave like the Alfama, dating back to 1513, it is, as one guide book gushes, “a colourful district that resounds to the calls of vendors and fishmongers, its windows and balconies festooned with laundry and bird cages”. Reached from the lower city by the Santa Justa Elevator (sort of a mini Eiffel Tower), it really comes into its own at night when visitors come to streets lit by Victorian lamps to frequent the Fado cafes, fado being a music and dance form of lament and despair not unlike the blues that was introduced to Portugal by 19th century African slaves.

There is so much packed in to Lisbon, so much reward for investigation, that is seems almost greedy to want more. Yet foolish be the visitor who chooses not to take the brief bus or train ride to Sintra, billed as a riot of 14th century palaces and 19th century pastel-coloured whimsy architecture. The poet Lord Byron described it as a “glorious Eden … perhaps the most delightful spot in Europe” and his view was shared by UNESCO which has bestowed further World Heritage status.

The Serra de Sintra is a ten kilometre long granite outcrop thrusting upward between a vast plain to the north and the Tagus estuary to the south. This twisting mini-mountain range projects into the Atlantic Ocean as the Cabo da Roca headland – continental Europe’s westernmost point. Anciently associated with astral cults – evidence of which is seen in archeology and myriad monuments – it came to be known as Mons Lanae (Hills of the Moon) and, thanks to a micro-climate all its own, has always been draped in dense, verdant vegetation.

Lisbon - Lisbon 39 by GAB

Portugal’s tourism bodies seem to move into the highest of their gears when selling Sintra. Earnestly assuring that “The visitor can choose between descending into the Neolithic era at Tholos do Monge; enjoying the view of distant horizons from the walls of the Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th century Moorish defensive construction; experiencing the harsh austerity of the Franciscan monks of Convento dos Capuchos; strolling through the delightful mysteries of the Palacio da Pena, a mythically magical palace that seems more like a continuation of the actual mountain; or savouring the nooks and crannies of the Parque da Pena, a place of love and exoticism that exudes great peace and serenity”.

None of which is overstated, for a day spent negotiating the labyrinthine streets and steps and poking about the palaces and examining the art is a day exceedingly well spent.

The same can be said about a swift sweep down the coast to Cascais which, with nearby Estoril and Guincho, is a stylish summer resort zone of sea-swept seafood restaurants, flash resort hotels, nightclubs and discotheques intertwined with 15th to 18th century churches, hermitages, fortresses and a sea museum. Here are the hotels and bars, some still intact, where Nazi and Allied spies swapped secrets and did deals during World War II. The places where those desperate souls prepared to do anything to obtain travel documents in Casablanca dreamed of finding themselves. The places that contemporary author Robert Wilson weaves so wonderfully into gripping historical thriller-fiction in A Small Death In Lisbon and The Company of Strangers.

Lisbon - Lisbon 05 by GAB

With today’s tourism flow there is perhaps greater interest in seeking out the shop, on the way to Cascais, where the Portuguese Tart was first baked. The queues extending out onto the footpath have a strong English component, as does the southern Algarve region, the destination for more than a few charter flights out of London and land of the time share arrangement and holiday hotel. The connection between the Poms and the Portuguese is long and strong, with the Iberian inhabitants more often with them than against them during skirmishes with France and Spain over the centuries. Even while sticking to its policy of neutrality, Portugal granted Britain the right to establish a naval base on the strategically important Acores Island in 1943, to Germany’s considerable displeasure.

Before he departed for Madeira, Sandro Frabris liked to think that he’d fingered the source of solidarity. It is all about a gift of practice and culture that rather took on in a kingdom not always united. “When Catherine Braganza went to Britain to marry Charles II, she took tea with her,” he explained simply. Seems he shared that one with Sting while adding lemon.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.