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On top of the world

Uggla finalThe Karakoram highway between Pakistan and China was cut out of the Himalayan mountainsides and stretches some 1 300 km from the rich Punjabi plains in the south to the ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert to the north.

On top of the world is the first of a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram highway.

A trip on this road is a journey of a lifetime and may be the most scenic and adventurous one you can do anywhere. It takes you right through the greatest crossroads of the world. This is where the grand mountain ranges meet, where the prime historical empires clashed, where peoples and religions mixed and where fortunes were made on the Silk Road.

Travelling “the roof of the world” in the Pamir area is a physical and poetic experience as well. The human condition seems frail indeed when shadowed by giant mountains.

Route

To me, it all started in the south. I got to a rainy Peshawar by plane, all shook up after some days living with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan while following in the steps of Marco Polo.

I knew I wanted to go over the mountains to Kashgar on the legendary Karakoram highway but soon found out I had to do it in stages. I boarded a minibus for Gilgit in Islamabad in the morning and took of across the lush, damp and fertile plains.

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Rains in Peshawar

The bus soon passes by the ruins of Taxila, ancient capital of the Indus valley and conquered by Iranian empires and Alexander the Great. Taxila is UNESCO world heritage and worth stopping at if you’ve got the time.

After a while the road follows along the Indus itself, the source of all historical wealth here. The mighty river has its sources high up in the Himalayas and its grand scale brings a hint of what is to come.

Abbottabad is white, flat and well-ordered, I can see from the bus. Signs saying ”Officers mess” and ”Soldiers hospital” fly by. Everything is more British here than in England.

The landscape gets steadily more rocky and the road steadily worse as the hours pass. Late at night we must stop since the road is blocked by a landslide and I lie down to sleep with my backpack on the roof of the bus. In the early morning we march in column over the landslide and board another minibus on the far side.

High up in the Himalayan valleys now, still following the Indus, the mountains get higher and higher and the road truly frightful. There are minor landslides and large single rocks all over the driveway. The road often narrows down to a slim rock shelf over terrifying abysses. We constantly meet colourful Pakistani trucks for chicken-races.

In the afternoon we reach Gilgit. It’s a grey and gloomy place and a trekker’s paradise with small shops, hotels and restaurants serving banana pancakes. The Great Game may have been played here but that doesn’t make it much funnier.

Over the tiny assemblage of houses by the river the row of immense, dark peaks of the Karakoram towers in the north-east like a line of giants with snow-white crowns and immediately takes my breath away.

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