Pakistan – Along the Karakorum Highway

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The road itself is not so different from any other roads driven so far, but it begins to weave its spell on you as you enter the north western territories. Here everyone is eager to tell you how unsafe it is, but somehow I feel very safe. The faces are those of honest people, a tall race with clear skin and piercing eyes. We are given a police escort in relay across each small regional boarder; they are friendly young and speak proudly of their own family. The Pashto dialect is totally different to anything heard so far adding to the sense of having crossed an invisible boarder. As we advance the high mountains close in and the Indus River crashes impressively through the valleys. This feat of engineering took 12 years to complete…but in the forty years since its completion the upkeep has never really been possible. The rock face, so steep and fragile continues each year to destroy parts of the road, blocking the passage and discouraging a true route of communication between China and Pakistan. The colourful trucks that so contrast with the grey slate mountains, are more often than not for local transport, supplying Gilgit and surrounding areas.

There is a decisively Afghani feel to the small towns we pass through. Smoky chai shops, wooden ladders leaning on shop fronts leading up to the second floors, typical woollen Pashto caps and not a woman in sight! Chapattis and local mutton spice up the air, and I feel a little in a time capsule. But we cannot stop, the police have planned our night stop further down the valley, and I’m left only with these fleeting impressions, unable to immerse myself fully in this particular reality.

Only three times did we manage to slip through the police net, diving on small tracks into narrow side valleys lined with mulberry trees. A large group of men sit in an orderly circle around Luca posing the few simple questions they are able to pronounce in English, they are aware of their international reputation and are eager to dispel the myth…”So how does it feel to be amongst the bloodthirsty terrorists of Al-Qaida?” jokes an elderly school teacher.

White mulberries are collected with nets and eaten by the hand full, and delegates of women come to meet Tanja and me, and invite us shyly into their domestic space. There is a family living just beside where we are camping, I’m surprised to see how integrated the dwelling is with the surrounding nature. A small stream has been diverted to pass through the property, beds with simple rope mattresses are lined up outside beneath the trees and a smooth stone with a perfect dimple inside acts as a double bed. There is an inflated goat’s skin hanging from the tree to make butter and a small one room hut, presumably for when it rains. All is screened of with simple colourful cloths and woven mats. By evening the word has inevitably spread, and we are assigned two police guards who sleep on string beds in the warm evening outside beside our trucks!

Next we attempt a high pass to test the smaller members of the group in high altitude. It’s cold and we see our first snow from close up. A few villagers light a huge fire and we admire the perfect stone walls and cultivated terraces that characterise the area (some with special pink poppies!)…but at around midnight our truck ceiling is lit up with a red and blue light. Apparently the police got word of our passage and have been searching for us since three hours, with a puncture on the high pass and only spotting us by chance shining lights on the new cheerful reflective fish that now decorate our trucks.

They want to shift us, but Luca is adamant…we have a problem with our gears and can’t move until we have repaired it in the morning. One policeman says he will sleep in the front of the truck to guard us. Luca gives him our spare sleeping bag and the matter is settled.

The next morning our guard casually passes me his Chinese rifle through the window so he can collect some fire wood. He assures me there is a secure and I place it dubiously on our bed, holding it like an exotic animal that might sting. I want it out before the kids wake….they are getting all to used to seeing fire arms and of course Giulio is attracted to them like a magnet.

Once out of the North western frontier territory, we are again free to circulate alone. There is the meeting point of three of the most inponent mountain ranges in the world: The Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and the Pamir mountains. Directly in front of us is the ‘killer mountain’ Rakaposhi proving us with a good opportunity to set camp and relax for a few days. For the first time in days our phones are active and we speak to the other members of our ‘crossing China’ group who are one day behind us, we arrange to meet up and celebrate the first of May with homemade tagliatelli and breathtaking views.

After many days wondering about the rocks hanging precariously above our heads, our fears are verified. A huge boulder and landslide fallen during the night, blocks the road to Gilgit. We will have to go back and find an alternative route on the other side of the river. We take our chance over a narrow suspended bridge, holding our breath as we cross, the wood creaking and moaning at our passage. A strong coffee is needed when we reach the other side to calm our frayed nerves…we promise each other this is the last such bridge we will cross!

Further down the road as we near Gilgit, we pass six burnt out buses, reminding us of the troubles in this area just a few weeks ago, later learning to our horror that twelve people were executed on this spot in the Sunni Shiite rivalries… …ideas about safety are always relative, depending on who and where you are in which moment.

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