November 03, 2016

Heading North on the Karakoram Highway. Pakistan

The Karakoram Highway, connecting Pakistan to China, regularly makes it into the top 10 most dangerous roads in the world, alongside the Kolyma Highway, or ‘Road of Bones’, in Russia and the Yungas track, the ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia. 

What makes the Karakoram Highway, or KKH as it known by the locals, different is that it is both considerably longer, at 1320 kilometres (810 miles) and higher. It is the highest highway in the world, reaching a breathless 4693 metres (15,937 feet) above sea level at its highest point in the Khunjerab Pass,

Tracing the ancient caravan trail of the Silk Road the KKH winds it way north from Islamabad to the ancient Chinese city of Kashgar. Work began in 1959 and was only completed twenty years later, and has cost the lives of over 1,000 workers from both Pakistan and China due to the majority of the road being cut out of the sides of mountains, which are then prone to landslides due to their location at the meeting points of the Eurasian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates.

Landslides are a regular occurrence on the Highway
Initially the road was only open for military traffic, and it was not until 1986 that it was open for all to travel. Today that is beginning to wound back. Currently the road is closed to all foreigners travelling from China to Pakistan, even if you have the requisite visas. Access to Tashkurgan on the Chinese side is only possible with difficulty, a permit is required from Kashgar, and no permit is available for the 120 km road to the Khunjerab pass and the border for non-Chinese.

The border is also closed for six months during winter (approximately November 1st to April 30th, but in reality as soon as snow blocks the road, and when it is eventually able to be cleared the following year), weekends, public holidays, and when the countries at one or the other end decide to close it for no apparent reason.

With frequent delays due to bridges being washed away, by the road being blocked by mountain rocks, or just by unexplained border closures, it is not for those who need to travel and be in Kashgar on a definite date. I had built in quite a bit of flexibility in my travel plans, and it was lucky I did as it took much me longer than planned, and I ended up cutting it rather fine by departing Pakistan on the very last day of my visa.

I started my journey in the capital, Islamabad. A planned city with more than a passing resemblance to Canberra in Australia, wide roads, green spaces and most unlike my preconceptions of Pakistan. Heading to Rawalpindi, which is growing into the capital I hired a car, a Toyota Corolla, and driver, Sadiq, a lovely dhal loving local with absolutely no English. A Bus could have been an option, but at US$50 a day, the opportunity to go at my own pace, and stop and take photos where I wanted was irresistible. 

The three lane highway was fast, although as it descended into a chaotic five lanes with the emergency lane, and any gaps, being filled by the collection of cars, bikes, tractors, trucks and buses, all competing for position as if in a Grand Prix race.

Driving through the spectacular Hunza Valley
After Abbottabad, a city made famous by the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and full of military garrisons, the road shrank to one lane each way, and as we climbed into the mountains near Nanga Parbat, we came across sections washed away in floods, or blocked by rockfalls. Patience is a huge requirement, we stopped for three hours near Chilas while waiting for a mixture of army and road crews to remove debris from the road.

Not surprisingly many sections of the Highway are closed after 16:30. You need your wits about you at the best of times on the KKR, let alone at night. There are often no barriers to prevent you hurtling hundreds of metres to your death if you misjudge one of the many curves through the mountains, or swerve to avoid the many cattle that like to graze on the sides, or often, just contemplate a short life, in the middle of the road. 

The Pakistani authorities take your personal security seriously, and you will be likely to pick up an armed ranger to accompany you on sections of the road. I had a rather lovely cricket obsessed ranger, Javed, who questioned me on the cricket grounds of England, with a particular affinity to Taunton in Somerset, and who was very sad to say goodbye when we reached the next checkpoint.

The New Attabad Tunnels
The dangers that nature poses to the highway are not to be underestimated. The tunnels on the KKR in Attabad, opened in 2015, were a stark reminder of this. In 2010 a massive landslide blocked the highway, dammed the Hunza River and killed twenty people. A massive lake, the Attabad Lake, was created which reached a depth of 125 metres; boats were required to transfer vehicles and passengers on the 25 km journey to rejoin the highway.

Standing beside the highway the roofs of some of the lost houses are just visible above the water, alongside the tops of Poplar trees. The road has been rebuilt here, and throughout the Hunza Valley, with a huge investment from China, and it makes for a modern, fast highway. Although it still is regularly blocked by rock falls, and cattle.
Goats are just one of the risks on the Highway
The Pakistan border is at Sost, a tiny border town with little to recommend it. We were met by a pack of wild dogs, and continued slowly down the only street, which was covered in dirt and rubbish. There were a couple of hotels, with the paint peeling off the outside walls, a couple of money exchange places and a Pakistan immigration and customs hall.  

It was here that I learnt that the border was closed. The Chinese were unhappy that Pakistan had closed its border for the festival of Eid to celebrate the end of Ramadan the previous week for four days without pre-warning them. They had a point, who closes an international border, to all travellers, even for a day?

Their retaliation was to close their border for the entire National holidays, a period of five days. As the border is also closed at weekends (Yes, they really do take weekends off. Why not? It is only the international border between two major countries) this meant it would now be closed for nine consecutive days. And winter, with its five to six month closure due to massive drifts of snow, was soon to be upon us.

I was now stuck, in a one horse town, with a visa about to run out, and my car and driver, having finished their journey to the border, heading back to Rawalpindi. 

Travelling on the Karokaram Highway parts two and three

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