The pass to China is at 4700 metres and we will need some kind of wind screen to keep out the cold. The first morning Luca drives with goggles. Bashir our faithful friend from Hunza, comes with us. He has been present during the whole operation , rushing to our side over the lake as soon as he heard the news (again thank you) helping both physically and morally . He wants to see us safely out of Pakistan. On the border in the small village of Sost, we find a metal worker specialised in body work. He bangs, burns and solders the cabin late into the night until it’s a reasonable shape and regular enough to stick on a translucent plastic sheet that will act as a windscreen. The kids sleep deeply through the racket. Giulio has stopped wetting his trousers and now includes ‘the rescue’ in his games, at the same time sticking to Luca like a little shadow. To see both the big solid truck ( he can’t remember much about home now) and his big, solid, father fall and crash in one single act has shaken him, but he’s getting his confidence back, surely and steadily. Lusira meanwhile does pretty paintings to decorate the broken windows, and plans beautiful restoration projects with Luca, for when we get home.
We reach the Chinese boarder in victory, with snowball fights and jubilation. The height has made us all heady and drunk and …I can’t believe my luck!!
There is always a silent message to be heard in strange events, and perhaps in a perverse kind of way the accident has made the prospect of coming home , easier…. We are together , healthy and there is still room for our dreams. The simplicity found on our travels and encapsulated symbolically in our truck, is perhaps also possible to achieve at home……we are suddenly able to plan and visualise our return , without regret or anxiety. The road ahead is clear, and I hope I will be able to sustain this new optimism until we get home.
A mountain road like many other we have driven, a few tight turns and narrow passages leading to a small lake and a glacier we want to explore. The exhausting days on Hunza Lake have taken their toll and we need a distraction. The view is glorious, spring has arrived and apricot trees as large as our oak trees line the road. We are invited to drink a salty tea inside one of the small flat, mud roved houses that make up this small village….a reminder of the Tibetan culture that is not far away. The old couple feed us on dried apricots and apricot stones that taste of almonds. Parked beneath snow capped mountains, we plan an excursion up the glacier. The path is lined with slippery slate and precarious boulders, but the sight is spectacular. Both Giulio and Lusira walk the two hours it takes to reach the top, a small snack and time to turn back, the weather is changing. I feel exhilarated and fulfilled, this is part of what travelling is about. I plan future excursions with Luca…the children are exhausted but proud devouring the hot soup prepared by Tanja.
It is with these thoughts in mind that we descend to meet the other members of the ‘China group’ and it is perhaps this total tranquillity and sense of satisfaction that makes the next few days seem even more surreal.
Halfway down the slope, as I help Luca keep on track, I see to my horror the road disappear beneath our wheels. “STOP” We halt just in time, the gap is from wheel to wheel, 3 metres wide. I jump out but have no immediate reaction, seconds pass loudly and Lusira is passed out of the window. Harald and Tanja join me quickly, I instinctively try and jam stones under the wheels , where they have fallen away. I quickly realise the road is handmade , and what seemed solid from above, from below is incredibly unstable. The sprinkling of soil on top, hid the telltale signs and the wall is now again crumbling under the weight of the truck. Harald screams to move away from below, the stones are giving under the right wheel. I see Giulio looking out of the side window ….then in a few split seconds the truck is hurtling forward in a wild attempt to reach onto solid ground. This is the image that will repeat itself many times in my mind in the next few days – frozen by the adrenalin running through me. A mad nine ton truck flying desperately forward, scrambling in search of firm ground. For a few split seconds I think it will make it, but the wall continues to open like a zip as the truck passes. I feel sick as the inevitable happens. The truck flies over the edge of the road and crashes heavily on its side on the next terrace, stopped by a stone wall from falling down the slope……images of a small crushed body and an unconscious , lifeless husband…I run screaming to the truck. Luca, to my confusion, jumps out vertically like a rabbit, when I reach the cabin… “Giuli?!! Where’s Giulio??” – but unseen to me, a few seconds before , Giulio had been passed to Harald through the window and is sitting wide eyed on the rock beside Lusira – My family is safe!!
Is my glass half full or half empty? I juggle with this thought all day and all night. Of course it’s half full, but the truck nevertheless looks in bad shape…and I feel despair.
Luca has hit his head and has a large lump on his temple – he is in shock and we try and persuade him to lie down. I prize myself through the broken window and enter a world of strange perspectives and wild jagged angles. I have to think hard to work out exactly which is the cupboard with our passports and money. I’m walking on the wall and the floor is the ceiling. Lentils, chilli powder anchovy oil and diesel is somehow spread everywhere. The fridge has hurtled to the other side, smashing the window and tomatoes litter the mattress. We will surely have to abandon our truck and fly home.
I have long realised that time is a slippery concept that grows and contracts like an elastic, but now a new thought occurs to me. Solid objects too can change their identity, they are tightly bound to a specific space and context; if you drastically change these elements you no longer know their value or significance. I no longer know what’s important or useful to salvage ….clothes for the night or my travel diary? My head spins and I give up after taking the strictly practical things. Little amulets collected along the way are floating in olive oil along with Lusiras’ paintings and precious shells. The special order of objects that once gave them their identity has been swept away in a few seconds and anarchy reigns in our much loved nest.
Once we have filled the unimog with what we feel is important, we leave the scene. One kilometre down the road is an empty guest house we can use to store pour belongings…and to sleep. We need to collect our thoughts. Villagers have migrated to the scene of the accident and diligently help us…again the glass is half full. Here in this valley people have seen their homes disappear beneath 50 metres of water. Only two years ago the ‘Hunza Lake’ was an embryonic rain cloud. I feel humbled.
The unimog too is a mess of objects we are all crammed in the back, when to my horror one minute after leaving our truck Luca shouts “NO….EVERYONE OUT!!!” We clamber desperately over mountains of stuff that is blocking the doorway , throwing the children out and scattering like sheep . The road is now giving way beneath Haralds’ truck. Horrified we huddle together with the children. Tanja looks up and sees in a few seconds her truck crashed a few metres beneath ours “ What a terrible picture” she exclaims, but luckily it is not to be. There are many men now to help and the road is quickly stabilised beneath the truck . I walk down to the guest house with Lusira on my back (shoes lost) together with Tanja in her socks (no time for shoes) feeling as if we have taken part in some badly scripted, terrible American movie….
The story is long…much too long, but the outcome is simple (and to my disbelief even today) but happy. We have managed to save the truck in a complex rescue operation. No large machinery would risk the bad road, so with three pulleys , many small jacks and levers and twenty men digging, the truck was pulled back onto its wheels in less than 24 hours after rolling over.
Holes were drilled into the rocks to anchor the pulleys, and the large heavy objects were secured inside the truck to minimize damage. The side I imagined caved in and open like a tin of beans, is strangely in tact…even the Pakistani paintings haven’t suffered too much. …but will the engine start?? And what other hidden damage?
After the first night huddled all together in a coldest of beds pushed next to each other, we sleep a deep and easier sleep, again everything is possible. The next day I salvage objects I had irreverently thrown in disgust, and hoard them jealously inside the guest house away from the elements, mentally visualising myself placing them back in to their old place. The engine starts after a few hours of fiddling. The diesel filter is damaged and needs to be bypassed……but for now all else seems intact.
-we can most probably drive home-
A little dynamite handled with ease in this mining area is used to remove a large boulder awkwardly placed in front of our truck. A new track will have to be cleared to get us back on the road. Luca (very bravely – I was shaking and couldn’t look) drives the truck slowly and carefully down the slope. Men follow with shovels ,strangely silent and ready to intervene… but it’s not necessary. Our group of ‘China crossing’ travellers, came immediately to help and support us on hearing the news (thank you..) and there is a cheer and emotion as the truck parks in front of the guest house. Only Lusira frowns with a few speckles of unhappy tears marking her face as she spots her poor crooked truck. She wasn’t involved in the rescue and sees it for the first time since it rolled.
But no time- we must drive tomorrow if we are to cross China with our present visas. After lunch there is a hive of activity that touches me. Everyone is doing something to bang our truck into a drivable state and to make our little nest homely again.
Tanja helps me order the anarchy of objects littering the guest house floor, and in four hours I manage to repack everything into the truck. Diesel smell and all, we will sleep in the truck tonight. Giulio is very unsettled and needs to be reassured. This morning he told Luca that he thought he (Luca) was very small and had died. His games in the past two days relive the scene. Lego cars roll over cushions and Giulio eerily echoes the very same words pronounced during the accident. I need now to spend a little time with my kids.
Orchards, cherry trees in blossom, flowers and green green grass, mark the start of the Hunza valley- a small paradise surrounded by some of the most challenging mountains for Alpinists, not so much for their height ,but for their acute angles and dangerous conditions. Trekkers walk the narrow paths and ski fanatics take helicopters up to the glaciers and take their chances. Again faces have changed as well as costumes. This is the territory of the Ishmaelite, clear skinned, shorter and more Mediterranean in looks. The women wear round colourfully embroidered hats and look you straight in the eye. It is in this idyllic setting that disaster struck two years ago, in the form of the “Hunza Lake” a lake now 16 km wide created by one enormous land slide during the devastating rains that then led to wide scale flooding of more southern areas of Pakistan. The valley is very narrow here and intervention in any way is risky for towns below. The mass of water is now so big it is unlikely it will ever be drained away totally. Villages ,trees and roads sit in silence below 50m of crystal blue water whilst the inhabitants could only look on, salvaging only the bare essentials and their lives.
Bashir our Hunza friend is at the entrance of Aliabad to greet us, but we are impatient to see the lake and rush ahead promising a meeting and chai in the evening. There are rumours that there will be a big blast in three days leaving little time for making any lake crossing arrangements…..we could have stopped and drunk a tea in retrospect, we discover that there are in fact blasts every day and rumours of a big blast have been circulating for months. The first view of the lake is stunning, but the descent down is very steep and sandy. Chaos reigns as hundreds of Chinese tyres are unloaded by hand from the brightly coloured boats and loaded into Toyotas and tractors. The dust is incredibly fine and covers us all in a fine coat within a few minutes. Lusira and Giulio slip forward and cover themselves resembling little ghosts by the time we reach the truck again. The problem is immediately obvious, although the boats crossing the river look stable, one would need two leashed together to take the load of our trucks and more importantly, how to load them on? The road is steep and narrow and there is only a small space for manoeuvre at the bottom, fine for a car but not so for a truck…..but we aren’t yet worried. We know there is a military pontoon that takes the big Pakistani trucks across the lake, we will try and arrange our crossing with them. But this is the start of an oriental saga……we soon discover that yes there is a pontoon, but that it needs two engines to push it and one has a broken injection pump . Four days of long negotiations with various ‘’influential ‘ people, comes to no avail. We have the usual…yes, o.k. no problem, maybe, perhaps no, not possible but I can extend your visa…. before we decide to pluck up courage and face the fact that we will have to load our trucks on to the wooden boats. Half of the group have now left the scenic campsite and are on the other side of the lake, we must be at the Chinese boarder in time to meet up again.
Bashir helps us with long negotiations and we descend from 700 to 200 dollars for each truck crossing. I volunteer for our truck to go first, I can no longer stand the suspense and want to get it over with. The decent down is painless, luckily all the cars usually parked on the narrow road are absent, today is rest day for many. Space is made behind the truck with a little digging and stones are used to prepare a sort of ramp. After one hour we are ready to load….but our boat is still at the other side of the lake!! Luca waits impatiently as the light dwindles. When the boats finally come it’s a rush against darkness. Much shouting and creaking and in one hour we are on, but it is now dark….after all our efforts, no photo, and a dash up to the top of the hill, Giulio has been crying for half an hour looking for his mummy.
I sleep with Giulio and Lusira in the unimog with Tanja, Theo and Nils whilst the men make the two hour journey across the lake in the dark. Unknown to me the truck is also unloaded the same night, with the help of the local people who work untiringly shifting stones for two hours, a kind of ramp was made, making unloading painless and safe.
The night is wrestles and by the time I fall asleep it’s time to wake up. Wolfgang drives down the slope…his truck worries us most , it is long without power steering…but today we have light and time after four solid hours of preparation ‘Morpheus ‘ is ready to board. To load cheers with dignity she drives up the ramp and on to the planks. I will take the children across now, leaving luca to help Harald with our last load. The crossing is fun and yet eerie, the scenery is stark and majestic and we’re in good spirits – but the thought of drowned villages below adds an uneasy feeling to our ‘boat trip’. . I discover from the boat men that the wooden boats are only 18 months old. They were built on the opposite shore with local pine and fir trees by craftsmen coming from southern Pakistan. Bashir explains that many people from his village no longer visit Hunza…the crossing and the memory is too painful. The loud blasts remind us again that this is no ordinary lake.
Our two boatmen head off to collect the last truck, as we run up the hill to greet ours, happy the ordeal is over. ..But still more surprises, the weather has changed , it is now too windy for Harald to download, they will have to wait for more calm in a bay further up. Luca walks the 200m that separate us, it is again almost night fall but we can’t wait here. Current work on the lake has partially blocked the outlet over the past few days the level has risen, rapidly covering the road that leads to the next village and up north. At first the task is daunting, some say the level is already one and a half metres high, others say it’s impossible. Then two young high spirited men shout from across the other side, they enter the freezing water with their clothes on to show us the direction of the road and the level of the water. It only reaches their thighs and they are pleased with the quick rupees they earn in the few minutes it takes us to cross. Just as I persuade Nils to sleep in Giulios’ bed, I hear the sound of a happy Pakistani horn and recognise the short melody, it’s the unimog. We are all relieved, Nils returns happily to his own bed and Bashir sleeps, exhausted in our front cabin.
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.