The road onwards from Gilgit is narrow, boulder-strewn and treacherous. The bus got cancelled so I took off in a rented jeep with two Pakistanis and a German.
We are moving north very slowly on the Karakoram highway to Sost in the stunningly beautiful Hunza valley and then to the Chinese border in the Khunjerab pass.
This unrealistic road between Pakistan and China was literally cut out of the highest mountain ranges in the world in the Himalayas. It is a true wonder but came at a terrible cost. Tens of thousands of people worked on building it and more than a thousand died from accidents. While military engineers worked on the Pakistani side, the Chinese used its army, paid volunteers and also convicts. Most deaths occurred on the Chinese side.
This is the second in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram highway. Read the first one here.
The mountain ranges meet in Gilgit. To the east is the Karakoram and in the south one end of the Himalayas. To the west you find Hindu Kush and Pamir is waiting to the north. In the north-east is the Kunlun, protecting Tibet.
Everything else is diminished by the gigantic presence of the mountains. Their deep-grey colors and brutal zick-zack lines are setting the tone for the entire landscape and all things human becomes miniatures. Some kilometers away is the mighty Rakaposhi, known as “the mother of clouds” and rising almost eight kilometers straight up in the sky. A bit further east looms the terrifying K2.
Karakoram is a Turkish word, meaning “black gravel” and it’s self-explanatory since the valleys here are covered in dark pebbles having eroded down from the mountain sides.
The British Raj was the governing of an Indian empire by the British crown between 1858 and 1947. Securing this rule, and the incomes generated from it, was a major concern and though the mountainous parts to the north first seemed impregnable, a disturbing insight soon grew among the British that it might still be possible for the Russian empire to send troops down through the mountains to conquer the subcontinent.
Imperial Russia thought exactly the same way, but so to speak from the other side, fearing British expansion northwards. The Royal Geographical Society in London started sending explorers with military training north to map the mountain passes, which was mirrored by the Imperial Geographical Society in St Petersburg and so started “The Great Game”, a cynical hide and seek game of mapping, espionage and intriguing for ultimate control of the roof of the world.
In the autumn of 1889, Captain Francis Edward Younghusband is slowly and arduously moving north in the high valleys above Gilgit with a small escort of Ghurkas. They wander, climb and wade over mountain passes and rivers into the beautiful but deadly Hunza valley.
The Mir of Hunza rules an independent and untrustworthy small mountain kingdom just outside the reach of British India. The kingdom is often loyal to China and bandits based here have developed a habit of plundering caravans on the Silk Road passing through.
There is a terrible chance that Hunza may align with the Russians and Younghusband is to map the area and gather information about the current situation.
A few days in to the expedition a courier gallops into Younghusbands camp, delivering a letter from Captain Bronislav Grombchevsky inviting him to dinner. Grombchevsky is camped nearby with an escort of Cossacks, on a mission from the Imperial Geographical society and Younghusbands exact mirror reflection on the other side.
They have an animated dinner where it turns out both are on a mission to establish contact with the Mir. Grombchevsky tries to fool Younghusband that Russian troops are ready to invade from the north. Younghusband gives Grombchevsky wrong directions on how to travel south, sending him and the Cossacks on a death march in the mountains.
In the autumn of 1947 the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir decided to join the new Indian state, but his commanders in Gilgit and the north, where most people are Muslim, rebelled and soon Gilgit, the Hunza valley and the entire north Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought over it since then.
The Karakoram Highway serpents up the valleys, passing small, stone-built villages, over rock-slides and rivers. We have little to talk about, me, the two Pakistanis and the German.
Half a day’s journey from Gilgit we arrive in Sost, a big village along the road and I find a room in the terrible Karawan hotel. Someone tries to break into my room at midnight but I have barricaded the door with a chair.
We start from Sost at dawn in two Toyota landcruisers belonging to NATCO, Northern Areas Transport Company. No larger vehicles are getting through from Sost to the Khunjerab. The air is thin and cold, the mountains grey and the road appalling.
The border between Pakistan and China is in the 4 800 m Khunjerab pass, “the home of the running water”, the highest border crossing in the world, and the red landcruiser stops to pause at two large commemoration stones in the pass.
Soon afterwards a giant, stone-faced Chinese border guard, easily more than two meters tall and dressed in impressive green uniform full of shiny buttons and with high, black leather boots ask for my passport without even the slightest hint of a smile.