Karakorum Highway Blues

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Karakorum Highway Blues - way, way back in the mists of time, September 2005 I was working in Pakistan and took a trip with a colleague, Mihai Diac. Mihai was finishing up after 6 years in Pakistan and wanted to visit Fairy Meadows on Nanga Parbat in Baltistan in the North Western Frontier Province.

Nanga Parbat is the 9th highest mountain in the world at 8,126 metres and is known as The Killer Mountain due to the high number of climbers lost in accidents, avalanches and falling into the glacier. I had little interest in mountain climbing but I did want to visit China, travel through the Khunjerab Pass, the highest road land pass in the world and down the Karakorum Highway.

So we did a deal — we flew from Islamabad to Kashgar in Western China and then travelled by road through Tajikistan and Tashkurgan, across the border at the Pass and onto Hunza valley where we stayed a few days before going on to Fairy Meadows.

Kashgar

Kashgar was amazing and we spent a few days sightseeing, including going to a nightclub which was open 24 hours at weekends so you got a time stamp on your hand (not that I could read it anyway). The city is home to a large university for trainee teachers so there was a lot of life around. The club was packed and when we went in, although there was music playing, no one was dancing. After about half an hour, a live group of traditional musicians took the stage and when they played the dance floor was packed. Once they finished and the recorded music came on again, the dancing stopped. And it went on like that through the night — live music alternating with Western music. We were dragged onto the floor and taught some basic steps so we could take part and eventually left about 5 am with everything still going strong.

Next day, we went to the markets and didn’t buy any of these:

We spent 2 days driving from Kashgar to Sost in Pakistan, travelling through Tashkurgan where we stayed overnight.

We went out for a walk in the evening and I was wondering what the great light beyond the horizon was — I didn’t remember there being any mention of another city nearby (this was about 10,000 ft above sea level) and then the moon rose and all was revealed — it was the moon.

Me playing pool in Tashkurgan

Next day we went though border control and then drove for several hours to reach the actual border. We had a Chinese soldier in our land cruiser with us as far as the actual border. There were several cars making the journey and as we drove we wondered how some of them would ever get to Pakistan. While the roads from Kashgar to Tashkurgan were good, this road was the opposite and some of the potholes and craters were so deep and long that our vehicle’s roof was level with the road as we drove through them.

There’s a long tail to this story, but it’s going to have to wait for another day. Suffice to say for the moment that this trip was 2 weeks before the earthquake in Pakistan that killed almost 100,000 people and made 4 million homeless. The Karakorum Highway was destroyed in several places and didn’t reopen for several years. Another colleague of ours took his leave, with his wife and 2 sons, when we returned from our trip. They travelled to Swat Valley in the NWFP and were there when the earthquake hit. Thankfully, none of them were hurt but they had to hike out of the valley on foot over several days.

On our way down the Highway, we stopped at a ranger station where one of the rangers introduced us to a snow leopard cub

Leo

The cub’s mother had been killed by poachers and the ranger had ‘adopted’ him — as you can see, he was happy and healthy. He later went on to play a large part in the international fundraising efforts for earthquake relief when he was brought to the Bronx Zoo in New York. You can read his story in “Leo, the Snow Leopard: The True Story of an Amazing Rescue” by Craig Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Juliana Hatkoff.

Next time…. how I made a lifelong friend on this trip and what she and her companion did to raise funds for the relief effort as a result of their wonderful experience in Pakistan

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