November 28, 2016

Borders and Bandits. Into China on the Karakoram Highway

US Dollars. The greenback is useful in so many places in the world, not just of course the USA, and proved to be the means for my escape from Sost at the Pakistan end of the Karokaram Highway. I had been stuck at this frontier town due to a tit-for-tat dispute between the countries which had led to the international border being closed for nine days.

The queue at the border to cross into China was huge. The daily 7 AM bus from Sost to Tashgurkan, my planned method to travel to China, was booked solid for the next week and beyond. And my Pakistan visa was on its last day before expiring.

That is where the US$ came in rather handy. Not in a very strong position, I negotiated a fare to China down to US$200. Expensive, yes. The alternative, travelling back to Islamabad, renewing my visa, and returning, would have been substantially more. And it turned out to be a bargain.

My driver, Wasim, was a local. And by local, I mean he knew everyone. He picked me up at my hotel at the ungodly hour of 5:00 AM. I negoiated that part also. He originally wanted to pick me up an hour earlier. With the border opening an hour later, and with the massive queues, this seemed a rather pointless excercise. Except that Wasim picked me and my bag up in his somewhat decrepit looking minibus, and then went to the homes of the border officals. I waited as he got each of them out of bed and drove us to the immigraion post.

In a somewhat sleepy state they opened the building up early, gave a cursory check of my bag, and stamped my passport. The early hour led to mistakes, my departure date stamp was 2070. The official noticed, adjusted the stamp, and I moved back in time to 1916. Third time lucky he got the right date, and I had a variety of Pakistani exit stamps in my passport and was free to leave. Leapfrogging the massive queue we left the land of curries and fabulous mountains before the border was officially open.

The Khunjerab Pass
We entered the Khunjerab Pass, now a national park where, if you are lucky snow leopards and ibex can be glimpsed from the roadside. A fee of US$8 is required to enter (I found rupees will be accepted if you have no small US$ notes, and you are the first visitors to the park early in the morning). 

The altitude here reaches 4,800 metres, almost 16,000 feet, a similar height to Mont Blanc in Switzerland. The extended acclimatisation I had been through over the past week meant that I was only slightly out of breath, with no obvious signs of altitude sickness.

The literal translation of Khunjerab is ‘rivers of blood’. It was a favoured place where Silk Road traders were attacked by the locals hiding in the rocks above, with the caravan occupants robbed and murdered. It was a desolate place, and you could see how easy it would be for robbers to hide and attack the unfortunate caravans.

Now it is deserted, the villages have been uprooted, and no one is allowed to live here so close to China, apart from the occasional nomadic shepherd. The mountains slowly give way to dry grassland as we approached what seemed to be a shining white Great Wall tower. This is the border. 

The Pakistani side is simple, a small barrier and a hut, with a rather incongruous ATM, proudly displaying the fact that it is the highest ATM in the country, for the rare incoming tourist, or the local day-tripper who come to gawk at the Chinese soldiers one hundred metres away.

Looking from the Pakistan Border to China
We woke up the Pakistani border guards and were waved through. We slowly approached the Chinese side. Clearly they were not ready, and we waited thirty minutes until troops were summoned to move the metal barriers on the border and let us pass under the faux Great Wall tower.

I was taken into a large building one hundred metres further on, where the seats for those who had yet to be processed had their own individual oxygen tanks.

The soldiers were friendly as they took apart my luggage. Everything was removed from my case, from clothes to a few small coins at the bottom of the case, and then x-rayed empty. Every photograph on my camera, and smart phone was checked. I was put through a full body scanner. The minivan was also being progressively dismantled and searched.

There is paranoia about both gun and drug running, and the importing of radical Islamic media from Pakistan to the politically sensitive region of Xinjiang. Clearly the Chinese were not taking any risks. 

I could now understand why I had been warned that a bus full of people could take over eight hours to pass through the border checks, and was again grateful that I had taken alternative transport.

The border during winter (closed to travellers of course)
Despite the intense checking, and photocopying of passports, this was not the Immigration post. That was a further 120 km away, in the town of Tashkurgan. A soldier, to ensure I did not get off and try to escape into the Chinese countryside, accompanied us in the minivan.

He was very relaxed, nodding off to sleep as he lay down along the back seat, and was carrying several shopping bags, evidently to take advantage of buying provisions in the distant town for the small garrison stranded at the isolated border.

We sped past agricultural land on the straight highway into the small Chinese town of Tashkurgan. The soldier hopped out as we entered a large well-protected compound on the outskirts of the town.

The bus was then directed by armed guards into what looked like a science fiction version of a car wash, that was in fact full of chemical sprays rather than water, to remove any possible trace of Pakistani bacteria.

Stopping in the courtyard a few metres further on I was met with the welcoming sight of two Chinese soldiers, dressed in riot gear with full helmets, shields, and large sticks, slowly approaching the bus. They gestured for me to get out, and, still standing their distance, pointed inside of the building.

I warily made the short journey inside, noticing that when I got slightly closer to the soldiers, they moved back the same distance. Maybe they were expecting some very pissed off passengers who had been twiddling their thumbs at Sost for the past week and had been going slowly mad.

Welcome to China. And now, at last, time for a beer.

The KKH on the way to Tashgurkan
Travelling on the Karokaram Highway parts one and three

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    2. Here's my link to my website I'm flogging on yours
    (Obviously the English is more f***ed than this, but you get the picture.)

    1. Thanks for the lack of website flogging ;-) Looking forward to actually travelling on some more journeys again.