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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Author: davidlatta

David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure. During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications. He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music. He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II. As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.

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