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.