Saturday, September 25, 2010

On To Hunza

On To Hunza

Monday morning I woke up really refreshed. In fact, I was feeling fewer aches and pains than before I had started on this exhausting journey. Maybe travel really was rejuvenating. Not only that, but so far I hadn't even gotten sick. Although I didn't want to get too jubilant, since I knew that I could always get laid to waste at any time.

But I was glad to have my energy today, because this morning I'd be heading down south on the Karakoram Highway. Finished in 1974, it goes over the top of the Himalaya/Karakoram mangle of mountains, and connects Kashgar with Islamabad in Pakistan. That's right, Pakistan. As in, Are you nuts? Don't you know that you're going to get blown up? Or worse?

But I had done my research, and I knew that the inhabitants of the mountains of northern Pakistan weren't Pashtuns. They weren't even Punjabis. In fact, they were some of the most hospitable people in the world. And the mountains themselves were supposed to be beyond superlatives. So I was really looking forward to tackling the KKH.

The weather was finally starting to co-operate, with the cloud cover beginning to break apart. (Ironic that according to the LP, Kashgar gets 1 inch of rain a year. And September is the driest month.) I closed up my bags, settled up with reception, went outside, hailed a cab, and said 'Tashkurgan beeket'. Like all Chinese cabs it was painted green and white, and like all Chinese cabbies the guy was honest and used his meter.

When he pulled up to the entrance of the bus station there was a driver with an almost full Pajero who was charging just a little more than the bus fare. I hopped in and off we went towards Tashkurgan, the only town between here and the border, and the location of the Chinese immigration post.

Kashgar was in a flat area at about 4000 feet, and for the first 50 km or so we drove along on an American quality paved road past prosperous looking agricultural land. Within a few minutes the other passengers were all asleep, as they invariably are everywhere you go in the world. It's one thing to see it in Japan or Korea, where everyone is working 16 hour days. But in the third world? My theory is that the one thing that scares all humanity the most is to be alone with one's own thoughts. And even with pop music blaring to make that almost impossible, everyone still needs to conk out.

I was wide awake though, enjoying the view. By now the skies had completely cleared to a wonderful shade of blue, and up ahead of me stretched the first actual range of mountains that I had so far seen. Kind of like the Front Range in Colorado. Only bigger. As we neared them, a particular 23,500 foot peak presented itself.

Then a police check, and then we started going up, up, up a red sandstone canyon. I couldn't put my finger on it, but somehow these mountains were a lot more exciting than the ones in Central Asia had been. A decent road, the great weather, and my rested condition all factored into it, I'm sure. But there was still something else. These mountains had zazz.

And switchbacks. So it felt like you were actually going up something difficult. Finally we got to the top of the pass, at around 14,000 feet. Wild and rugged. Then down a bit and past a large mudflat area that could have been a turquoise gem lake if it had had water. The driver stopped for something and I got out to take pictures. Now here was a view that was truly Spectacular. Snow capped mountains all around a dead empty plain and an achingly blue sky.

Some really poor Tajik girls came over to try to sell me stone eggs. They were great stone eggs, but that's something that I already have plenty of. Then they pulled out the most stunning oval matte jade that I could ever imagine seeing. For $5. The rest of the necklace was pretty hokey, so I was hesitant, but then I thought: You idiot! That's an amazing piece of jade for $5! I started to open the door again but the driver was taking off. So I sat there realizing that now I would hate myself forever.

Twenty minutes later we came upon China's Karakul Lake. Now here on this sunny day was an incredible turquoise gem, with an arc of magnificent snowcapped peaks, anchored by two 24,000 foot giants. One of the most astounding sights I have ever seen. Too bad the driver didn't stop.

All too soon we arrived at Tashkurgan, a town of basically two and a half cross streets. Next to the small bus depot was the Traffic Hotel, where I secured an okay basic room. It was still not much past 1 pm, so I took it upon myself to walk around the town. Not much to see.

In the town, that is. The stark beauty around the town was something else. Nothing specifically mindblowing, except for the 24,500 foot Murtagh Aga peak that we had passed at Karakul Lake and that still was quite visible the southern skyline. I was back at 10,400 feet, but it wasn't too cold; much like an October afternoon. All in all, this was an end of the world that was bleak yet strangely energetic.

I walked all the way down to the end of a tree lined road to where there were some 700 year old ruins of massive stone walls. But by now I had seen some much, much better ones. On the way back I stopped at what I took to be a school to take a picture of the Chinese flag flapping against a background of Murtagh Aga. A minute later three Chinese soldiers came running after me and demanded that I delete the photos. The place was actually a barracks. They were very polite about it, though.

Not so polite were all of the other Han Chinese around. Although much of the population was still Central Asian, the Han dominated. Most of the talking that I heard was singsong Mandarin. And I was once again being reminded just how absurdly rude and unfriendly the Chinese were.

I had first run into this on my first major trip to China in 1986. The people were so inhospitable that it ended up being almost funny. And I had assumed that their attitude must have been a function of ancient Chinese culture. But then I went over to Taiwan and these were literally some of the nicest people on Earth. So then I decided that it was one of Communism's dreary effects. And a few years ago when I went to Shanghai and Beijing I was pleasantly surprised at how pleasant the people there were now becoming.

But not here. Once again you had to stop yourself from laughing at how you'd walk into a shop and ask something, and the person there would spit out some monosyllabic unpleasantry without even looking up. In a singsong fashion.

So I was thinking these thoughts when I walked back into the Traffic Hotel, and a nice Chinese lady sitting there immediately invited me over for a slice of melon. Just goes to show how wrong you can be. Well, not really. The nice lady was actually from Korea.

As the afternoon was fading I decided to continue an earlier attempt to find the one internet place in town. The nice Korean lady got the Chinese hoteliers to make a series of gestures to show where it was. I had already walked along there and hadn't seen anything, but I thought I would try again.

Nope, just a row of clothing stalls. Wait, internet places are often on unused second floors. After much searching I found a staircase leading upstairs. And there it was. Over 20 kids playing video games. The young Chinese guy managing it just looked up and rudely shouted, 'Passport copy!' So back to the hotel I had to trudge.

My piddly communication needs taken care of, I now tried in vain to find something edible. Back to the Traffic Hotel for my Chinese snackables. But I was already getting sick of them. Ah well, there's always glorious sleep to look forward to...

Early next morning I was bright eyed and bushy tailed under a perfectly blue sky walking the mile or so down the road to the Chinese border post. Hoping to see at least a fresh naan bakery, but coming up empty. Still, just strolling along, expecting to come upon the unmistakable barriers across the road that announce a border. Just as in every other border post I've ever crossed.

But all I could see in front of me was an unfettered KKH all the way to the horizon. What gave? As I got near to where the LP map showed the post to be, off to the side was large building after large building. But all the signs were in Chinese, which didn't make sense for an international border. When I got to the last large building there were some cars stopped in the middle of the road. I went up to the soldier who had stopped them and said, 'Passport???' He had no idea what I was saying. But finally one of the people stopped and used his six word English vocabulary to figure out the situation. In the end a very nice soldier led me back four large buildings to where, again, there was absolutely no indication in anything other than Chinese ideograms that this was the border post.

But there were a few other foreigners waiting around for the bus ticket booth to open. I talked for a few minutes to a personable enough Dutch fellow who lived in Bangkok. He said that he was still looking for a place in the world for him and his boyfriend to settle down in. Then the booth opened and we all bought tickets and changed our yuan into rupees.

Being processed out of China was just as professional and courteous as being processed in. Then we waited while the Pakistani bus was brought around. There were six of us traveling: Me, the Dutch guy, a French cycling couple, a Japanese solo tourist, and a Pakistani returning home. You would have thought that we'd have a big bus all to ourselves. But you'd be wrong.

First of all, the bus was only half size. Second, although it had about 20 seats, they were only supposed to be big enough for Pakistanis. And most of them, along with the roof, were already stuffed with all sorts of sacks and boxes heading south. So there was just barely enough extra room for us.

We were supposed to leave at around 10 am real time. But it was 10:40 before we got final clearance. Then 20 km further along there was a checkpoint where a Chinese soldier got on and, like at least five other Chinese officials before him, obsessively counted and recounted the six of us to make sure that we lined up with the manifest. He would accompany us the rest of the way until we got to the real border.

I tried to look through the dirty windows, but the outside didn't appear nearly as interesting as the scenery yesterday. We were traversing a wide flat, mostly stony plain, with occasional cows browsing. Where the hell were the yaks? But I'd already discovered from other travels that all the neat, exotic domesticated animals are being pushed aside by totally uninteresting cattle. I guess that they're just too damn cost effective.

The mountain ridges way off to the side weren't that exciting, either. I shifted my attention to the two people sitting in front of me, and idly thought, So I guess this is what the world has come down to: Chinese soldiers and gay Dutch guys. And I had absolutely no idea as to which side would win out.

When we stopped for a stretch break I saw that, once I was outside of dirty windows, the scenery and atmosphere were actually pretty intense. Or maybe it was because the plain was narrowing and the ridges were getting higher. Whatever, soon we were at the head of the valley and starting up switchbacks. The bus slowed down as the grade got steeper, and now I could open my window and gaze out.

Whoa. This stuff was of the jaw dropping caliber. Pale blue endless sky, giant snowcapped rugged peaks, and a sweeping gap that we were climbing to the top of. Hey, Alps! You suck! Astonishing, really. Just then the Chinese soldier opened his window and tossed a large plastic bottle out into the pristine wilderness.

As we neared the summit we reached the Chinese border station and the soldier got off. A Pakistani soldier, all cool looking in his shades, khaki pants, black sweater and beret, and silver belt, got on. A km later, right at the tippy top, was a stone pagoda arch, and then we were in Pakistan. The road immediately changed from high quality blacktop to low quality gravel.

A couple of hundred meters further and we were at the Pakistani border station. The vibe was instantly way more relaxed. We all got out and walked around for ten minutes, taking pictures and enjoying where we were. This was Khunjerab Pass, at 15,700 feet the highest automotive pass in the world. Beautiful empty thwumps and clumps of mountain and snow and ice everywhere. And not too chilly, either.

It was all downhill from here. Which is what I had been looking forward to. Because I had this conviction that this time something was finally going to live up its hype. Nor was I disappointed. First there were the peaks and canyons of shiny black karakoram rock. Then peaks and canyons of brown and of red. All the while with a perfectly blue sky and a happily gurgling river. You just couldn't ask more of Nature. To top it off, the Pakistani road crews we passed all happily waved. The air was a lot warmer this side of the pass. And the signs were all in English.

I liked this place.

Even before this summer's floods, the KKH had been all torn up by the Chinese trying to upgrade it for their Pakistani friends. Of course, it was also in their self interest to get a good road connecting them to the Arabian Sea. So they had already been here with their equipment when the floods came, which meant that they had already capably repaired the washed out bridges, etc.. And the road, while slow, wasn't that terrible or rough.

Around 5 we arrived at the Pakistani border post at Sost. Once again, strangely, no barrier on the road. We stopped beside a modest building and went in. Generally speaking, Pakistani visas are a pain in the ass to obtain. Plus they're super expensive, Plus now, since they're scared of a possible tourist beheading, the authorities are actively discouraging tourism and you need a letter of support and who knows what else. BUT if you show up at the KKH post at Sost you can still get a visa on arrival. Just like that And once I had found that out, it had sealed the deal. I had to come.

It was still expensive for Americans, $150. But it was so pleasant to be treated with a dignified civilized courtesy reminiscent of the British Raj They would have bought out a cup of tea if I had requested it. Then, after the visa was hand pasted into my passport, the government officials were all eager to offer their individual money changing services.

I got some rupees and walked out to the street. Not much to the village of Sost, but due south along the KKH was the 23,000 foot massif of Qarun Koh. The China giants I had seen had been more like massive lumps. This here was large and dramatic and craggy. Plus I was now lower down in altitude so that the differential was greater. Pretty darn neat.

The better hotels (still not saying much) were all filled with Chinese engineers. I went into the best cheapie and the guy said that he didn't have a single; I would have to pay for all three beds. That set me back $7.50. Then some dahl and chapatti, which sounded pretty good about now. Then the electricity went off and I had to find my way back to my room.

I was up and ready to go at 5:30 the next morning; the LP said that the first transport left at 6. But when I hit the street at 5:50 I was the only person there. Twenty meters ahead, though, a couple of guys in a side alley were putting sacks on the roof of a minibus. Ah! Being the first customer of the day, I snagged the front seat.

More and more people appeared, and by 6:30 it was determined that we were fully loaded. So off we went, that giant massif getting hit by the first rays of sunlight. As the driver kept stopping and jamming ever more humans into the back I was glad in my only slightly crowded front that I had risen early. I also had the best views.

The sky was once again perfectly clear, and we passed through canyons and occasional open areas which contained little stone houses and little orchards and fields. After an hour and a half we reached the Passu district, which was a relatively wide plain. On its northeast side was another gargantuan craggy massif. At its south end we went over a hill and came down to the northernmost reach of the landslide lake.

It was only on January 8 of this year that a massive landslide had occurred some 30 km south of here. Apparently the Chinese had offered to use their equipment to bore a hole through it so that water wouldn't accumulate. But the Pakistanis had said, Never mind, we can handle this. So the result was that this giant 500 foot deep lake now lapped at my feet.

Earlier in the spring, when it was uncertain whether the landslide dam would collapse, the Pakistani army had been helicoptering people over it. But the helicopters had been needed for the horrible floods this summer, and it became obvious that the rocks weren't going anywhere, so now there was a thriving traffic of little boats ferrying people and goods up and down the lake. (It would be interesting to know where the boats had come from, since they certainly didn't have new paint jobs.)

It was a little confusing as to which boats were cargo and which were passenger, but a guy from the government came by to get my passport number in case I drowned, and he pointed me to the right one. When I slid down the dirt hill with my gear they were just in the process of getting a jeep to drive up a couple of narrow planks and balance astride the 8 foot wide boat, with only rocks under the tires holding it in place.

That kind of obstructed the view a bit, but only a bit. Other than that it was one of the mellowest lake rides of my life. Warm air, incredibly blue sky, crystalline clear water. Giant massif in the background. Mostly traveling through steep brown rock canyon, although I also knew that beneath us were the ruins of many orchards and little stone houses.

When we got to where the landslide was I could see that almost 2000 vertical feet of the mountainside had slid down. The little boat reached the little boat area, and I and my bags had to balance onto another rickety boat and then onto the shore. Which was a steep side of crumbly dirt. A porter put my pack on his back and carried it straight up about a quarter of the way up the giant landslide hill, to where a jeep was stationed alongside the jeep track that had been created. Some of the other boat's passengers were already dickering with the driver. He asked an absurdly large amount from me; I got him down to half that. I was still paying the lion's share, but in exchange I did get the front seat.

The others sat on wood benches in the back as he churned through the thick dust up towards the top of the hill. It was a mighty impressive pile of rock that had fallen down, and short of a medium sized thermonuclear device that landslide and lake are here to stay. As he maneuvered down the other side to the previous road level I was glad that I hadn't had to walk it. Especially with my pack.

Then it was about a half an hour through an increasingly verdant and wider canyon, and then before us stretched a (for here) large tableland of green terraced fields and orchards sitting a couple hundred feet above the river, at least five miles long and two miles wide, until bumping up against the surrounding mountains.

We had arrived at Hunza.


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