Sunday, November 06, 2005


I have finally managed to leave China and am now in northern Pakistan. Yay! And although it's only 8:15 in the evening I am feeling rather tired due to, for want of a better word, buslag. You see, in an elegant display of classic, communist one-size-fits-all mentality, all of China follows "Beijing time" of +8 GMT, despite stretching over 4000km from end to end. Therefore when you cross over from China into Pakistan you have to set your watch back a whopping 3 hours (The biggest time difference at a land border, incidentally, is between China and Afghanistan, where the gap is 3.5 hours.).

The road over the Khunjerab pass is the famous Karakoram Highway (or, as it is lovingly known by travellers, the KKH), and it takes two days to get from Kashgar to Sost on the Pakistani side. On the Chinese side the road rises steadily to the windswept Subash plateau that borders Tajikistan and Afghanistan to the west. The landscape is harsh and desolate and life must be tough for the Tajik herders that live up there. The plains are dominated by the great, big meringue that is Muztagh Ata (meaning "Father of Ice" in Uighur), a 7500m behemoth of a mountain. But because the plains are so empty, you lose your sense of perspective and the mountain doesn't look as big as it should. The night is spent in the town of Tashkurgan. It was very late and cold when we got there, so my impression of the town is tainted by my hunger and the onset of frostbite. Needless to say, it was not a highlight.

The next day, after clearing customs and the farcical Chinese bureaucracy, we headed off towards the looming mountains that form the border with Pakistan. The difference, upon crossing the pass, was huge and immediate. Whereas the countryside on the Chinese side was mainly flat with mountains off to the side, in Pakistan the mountains rise straight up from the side of the road making them seem taller, more dangerous, more real. Here a constant battle is waged by man to keep the mountains from consuming the road that was built with so much effort and human sacrifice. All along the route there is evidence of continuous landslides as the mountains try to reclaim the road. I know I've waxed lyrical about many places whilst on my trip, and I have been moved by all of them, but none match the mountains of northern Pakistan for visceral impact. The raw, jagged, primal peaks are the greatest testament to the incredible forces that cause continents to move and collide. Nowhere else in the world can you see such stupendous mountains so closely, or see glaciers descend to within a short walk of the main road. Wherever the road widens only slightly, a village springs up, with sheep and goats scurrying about (although god only knows how the villagers can keep so much livestock as there is barely any grass upon the rocky hillsides). The villagers of these northern areas are fascinating because they do not look at all as one might expect, being sandwiched between the Turkic peoples to the north and the Punjabis and other Pakistanis to the south. In fact, if you were to give them a wash and a change of clothes (and perhaps a shave for some of the men), they could be from pretty much anywhere in Europe. Apparently the people of the Hunza valley are the last remnants of the Kushan empire that ruled the area 2000 years ago, or, according to some, descendants of Alexander the Great's army as he marched through the region some 2300 years ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hei Eric,

eventually, it works to post you a comment - in fact, I had to leave China in order to do that, but better late than never. Good to hear that you made it into Pakistan! Hope, you keep us up to date.
I am currently in Laos. Wonderful country! Nice people, nice weather, good emailing ;), lovely...

Did you read that I passed my exam? Sorry for mourning the other day - poor you who had to bear me complaining about my non-existing-future career ;) .

Enjoy your onward trip,