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Sunday, July 5, 2009

The road between China and Pakistan

By Alice Albinia

Published: July 4 2009

In the customs hall at Tashkurgan, the last town on the road from China's Xinjiang province into Pakistan, I felt a by-now familiar sense of trepidation.

Over the past six years I have travelled through Pakistan at least eight times – from the fertile valleys and snowy peaks of the north, to the deserts and shrines of the south – crossing in and out of neighbouring Afghanistan, India and China. I have friends from Karachi to Kalam, a salwar kameez (traditional dress) for every occasion, and an array of choice Urdu swear words. There are parts of the country I know better than the land I grew up in.

And yet standing on the outside, looking in, I feel afraid. And if the thought of travelling to Pakistan affects me like this, it is understandable why the number of foreign visitors has halved since 2007. The World Economic Forum's Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2009 placed Pakistan in the top 25 per cent of global destinations for its World Heritage sites, which range from the mangroves in the Delta, to the 5,000-year-old cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Yet it was also named the nation worst affected by terrorism.

Despite the jihadis who dominate the airwaves, however, Pakistan has a proud tradition of hospitality to outsiders. It is prudent to show some reserve in dress and behaviour, especially for lone women. But this restriction of personal freedom is amply compensated. Pakistan is a land of breathtaking beauty, rich in the interleaved histories of cosmopolitan cultures. And for the nervous traveller who fears becoming part of an international news item, nowhere is better than Hunza, Pakistan's northernmost valley on the border with China.

Outside the Chinese customs office, I get chatting to my Pakistani Jeep driver and soon he is boasting about the improvements being made to the road that links China to Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway.

This road traces an epic route from the Muslim city of Kashgar in north-western China, through a tangle of mountains, and down into the plains of the Punjab. Work on the highway began in 1966 but it took intrepid Chinese engineers more than a decade to blast their way through the mountain rock, open up the Khunjerab Pass, and pour Tarmac on to goat paths. Locals like to repeat the macabre fact that almost one worker died for every kilometre of road constructed. Most of them were from Pakistan.

Nothing proclaims the difference between Pakistan and China better than the condition of the road on either side of the border. In China, the Karakoram Highway is wide and the traffic moves fast. The moment it crosses into Pakistan, at the peak of the Khunjerab Pass, it becomes an assault course of potholes. As our Jeep rattled down the hillside, I pointed this out to the driver. But he shook his head and said: "Wait and see. The Chinese have begun widening the highway."

When it first opened, the Karakoram Highway became the conduit of international trade, tourism (and the Pakistan Army). Dervla Murphy, the Irish travel writer, visited in the 1970s just as the project was nearing completion. She wrote: "What with Chinese-built motorways ... and opium-hunting hippies, the stage really is set for the degeneration and despoliation of this whole region."

Thirty years on, the hippies have been frightened away but the Chinese are back, and this time their agenda is even more ambitious. The government wants to link its expanding manufacturing base in Xinjiang with its mining interests in Africa, via the port it has built in Pakistan at Gwadar. The northernmost part of the highway that joins these dots is to be widened and improved, turning a thin ribbon of Tarmac through the mountains into a fast and efficient superhighway.

We arrived at Sost, the Pakistani border town, in the afternoon. From here to Gilgit, the Karakoram Highway passes through a green oasis: a river valley terraced with fields and lined by apricot groves. The road clings to the river, into which glaciers – walls of rugged ice, dazzling in the sunlight – pour their meltwater. This is Hunza, one of the most idyllic places in the country, inhabited by Ismailis who follow a more lenient form of Islam than many of their compatriots.

I travelled south through Hunza on a local minibus. As the vehicle zigzagged down the hillside, stopping to pick up giggling children and ladies regal in embroidered caps, the air was noisy with banter and gossip. When men and women meet in Hunza, they kiss each other's fingers. Greeting each other across a crowded bus, they blow air kisses. Compared to the segregated worlds in which men and women live in other parts of Pakistan, the intimacy is astounding.

Today Hunza is a byword for tranquillity yet not so long ago, it, too, had a reputation for lawlessness and banditry. In the late 19th century, rumours were spread of a slave-dealing people who plundered other countries' caravans, practised weird magic and terrorised their innocent neighbours. An army was sent north to subdue the "robber valley".

A century later, after the highway brought in tourists with cameras, Hunza's reputation metamorphosed again: this time the inhabitants were famed for their longevity. A western woman wrote a book about their mountain diet of apricots and yoghurt. Pictures were published of sprightly Hunza males who looked 45 yet claimed to be 120.

If the age span of Hunza's people boggled belief, this was nothing compared to the valley's vertiginous history. Large parts of the Karakoram Highway overlapped with stretches of the Silk Route, and down by the river, people found boulders carved with some of the earliest artwork in south Asia. The discovery of the petroglyphs of the Karakoram Highway proved that, from prehistoric times, innumerable warriors, monks and merchants traversed this remote region. In Hunza, the carvings are concentrated at a place known as Sacred Rocks, right on the edge of the current road. If the Karakoram Highway first brought attention to this site, locals now fear that the ongoing expansion may damage or eliminate it entirely. Further south at Chilas, the rock-art is under threat from a different type of progress: a hydro-electric dam commissioned by the Pakistani government will submerge almost all the carvings beneath the waters of the reservoir.

As the bus stopped beside a spring, and the passengers got down to fill their bottles with water, the old man sitting beside me said: "When I was young, it took three days to get from here to Gilgit. Now it takes three hours. My grandchildren say the widened road will bring money and progress. But there are villagers who are losing their fields and orchards. Everything is changing so fast before my eyes."

Alice Albinia's book, 'Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River', has won a Somerset Maugham Award and been shortlisted for the Dolman Travel Prize. It is now out in paperback (John Murray)


How to get around

The mountainous overland border between China and Pakistan opens every year on May 1 and closes on October 31, when snows render it impassable. There is a new, seasonal bus service running from Kashgar in China to Gilgit in Pakistan. Tickets can be bought from the international bus station north of Kashgar, just over the Tuman River.

The journey from Kashgar to the Chinese border takes eight hours. The timing means that passengers are forced to spend the night in Tashkurgan, a place of decidedly mixed attractions. Border control and passport checks, which can be rigorous and must be met with patience, take place the following morning.

Over the border in Pakistan, the beautiful Hunza valley has many facilities for tourists. There is a fort with a 700-year history, and juniper-smoke- inhaling shamans. At present, there is an apparently happy balance between tourism, local development and environmental practice. But all this may change as the Karakoram Highway is widened.

Gilgit, where the buses from Kashgar end up, makes an excellent base for hiking trips along the valley, journeys east into Baltistan (in the shadow of K2), or west towards Chitral. Gilgit is also prone to occasional Sunni-Shia violence, which explains in part the heavy army presence.

Bus rides from here to Rawalpindi (the town adjoining Islamabad, the capital) take up to 18 hours. The UK Foreign Office is currently advising against travel south of Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway.

Instead, there is a 55-minute flight from Gilgit to Islamabad. The aircraft follows the Indus River south, swooping low across the craggy hills where shepherds stroll with their flocks, rifles slung nonchalantly over their shoulders.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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