Featured Image: Magnificent Glacier Riven Mustagh Ata, 7546m, between Tashkurgan and Kashgar, China, 1995
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 May 2022
This is the sixth article in travelling the Karakorum Highway series. The others are: 1 The Karakorum Highway (KKH), 2 The Lower Karakorum Highway, 3 Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain, 4 Extreme Polo in Gilgit, 5 The Hunza Valley, 7 Passu Paradise. The Kashgar Sunday Market article is also relevant.
In my last article Hunza Valley, Pakistan: Our Trip 4 I said that we left for the border in the rain. We’d had rain in Gilgit and were fortunate that we saw the best of Karimabad before the rain began again.
Rain and Danger in Sust, Pakistan: Our Trip 5, 1995
We left Karimabad in Hunza for the border post Sust (pronounced Sost) on 31 May 1995 as my journal states:
We took the last places almost in a Wagon from Gilgit to Sust. We left at 10.30 am and the trip (70km) was much longer than anticipated — four hours — we arrived at Sust at 2.30 pm. Because of the rain the rocks looked grey and dreary, Passu in particular looked like the end of the earth and one wondered why anyone would bother staying there. We had lunch at a Hotel up near the border post. It was a surprisingly excellent goat and dhal dish (they called it chicken). Some of the goat was white meat and some on the bone was brown but tasted bacony like a ham hock (although in the present company of hajis, it wouldn’t be polite to mention this).
We’d known of the dangers of rain whilst in Gilgit and we were very careful, when walking around the irrigation channels on the outskirts of Gilgit, that we kept away from the edge of the hills. Rain loosens rocks that can come thundering down from above. Major landslips are also common in the rain. My journal continues:
The rain continued heavily all day and we were a bit worried about landslides up the highway. We’d crossed two recent landslips. On the way up and near Sust rocks were falling onto the road in several places (the ones we saw were small), which was quite harrowing. It was worse for the conductor of the wagon, who had to rush ahead into the rain and remove the larger ones so that we could drive through.
A Near Death Experience (31 May, 1995)
A near death experience, not ours fortunately, as my journal relates:
That night, at the Mountain Refuge, we met the foreigners who’d tried to go to China that day. Sam (Dutch), Ilse (American — Swedish Passport), Al (American), Ben (Dutch) and Jason (English). Jason was wrapped in a large blanket because he’d left his gear on the bus.
They’d had a very frightening day in a bus that only got 8 kilometres.
Sam, Ilse and Al were searched very thoroughly by customs at the beginning of the day, which surprised us, and upset them. The worst part was that the search was conducted in an open tent and all their possessions were thrown about on the wet muddy ground.
In their forward progress on the bus, they stopped three times and all the passengers had to run out away from the cliff face as rocks rained down and fell around them. They were eventually stopped by a big landslip. When the bus turned around, they were stopped by another huge avalanche which must have happened shortly after they’d passed, within ten or twenty minutes and had marooned them.
We met the group over dinner. Jason had walked back to Sust through the rain leaving his pack locked on the bus. He was shivering and had no clothes other than what the others had lent him. The others were rescued by another bus and they had their gear at least.
Like us their packs had been out in the rain all day on top of the bus and everything they had was either wet or damp.
In their descriptions, there was neither bravado nor exaggeration. It had been an amazingly frightening experience. They’d been crouching behind rocks or running while fist sized rocks crashed nearby like missiles. We were impressed but also pleased to enjoy the experience vicariously, because we were glad that it hadn’t happened to us.
Perhaps, the adrenalin and the fear of death had released something in them because the group dynamic that evening was awesome and involving. Denise and I felt privileged to be there because we hadn’t had to nearly die to be members of the group. Over dinner we began a discussion that was wide-ranging and engrossing and continued late into the evening. They were an intelligent group of people at the top of the world and it was an intellectual free for all.
Ben we found by the end of the evening was a croupier in Holland. Ilse and Sam were students and, we found later, had been lovers since leaving Iran and were to split up in Kashgar.
Al was an economist and spoke Russian. He’d been lucky and had worked with Price Waterhouse in Moscow and was now working under contract to US Aid in Kazakhstan to help set up a new economic management system. Reading between the lines we were not at all impressed by what the US was up to in Central Asia. And, in his knowledge of central Asia, Al appeared a little naive.
Jason we found out on the bus into China was a writer and on this trip was under contract to the Rough Guide to write about China. He was subtly and sometimes not so subtly picking peoples’ brains.
Travellers in general tend to be more liberal than one’s contemporaries at home (even Al who was at the soft end of right wing) and certainly that evening, if we’d had our way, we could have solved most of the world’s problems. It is hard to describe concretely in retrospect, but at the time it was like a very good ‘Search Conference’ where there is a true meeting of minds, for a brief time.
A Day Waiting (1 June, 1995)
We woke early and packed. Sam volunteered to walk the two kilometres up the road to the barrier to find out what was happening. The road was closed and we should return at 1 pm to ask again. (The KKH is officially closed every year from 31 December to 1 May, but this is notional, and in 1995 there had been late snows and now rain.)
Denise and I went for a walk up the nala across the river, getting used to the sway bridge with its loose planks. Apart from a 200-metre stretch of towering mud and conglomerate cliffs near the bridge, which was overhanging and very scary, we weren’t in any danger.
The walk up the stream bed was amazing. The boulders like nothing we’ve ever seen. For example, some of the rocks were conglomerates but igneous not sedimentary, battle ship grey mosaics put together competently but without much taste. Elsewhere were pinks and reds and occasional greens and blues. Perhaps the most outrageous rock of all looked exactly like an artist’s pallet, a dribbled symphony of colour. Others looked like avant-garde abstracts in perfect colour balance. Then, there were the more familiar but excellent quality boulders of coarse and fine pattern kitchen bench granite and others of white quartz.
That night the group waiting for the pass to open had grown. Mark and Penny, Rob and Dave (whom we’d met in Karimabad), Aussies and one Kwi had come up with a young Japanese, Shoyu. The conversation was interesting but lacked the stimulation of the previous evening. Nevertheless, it was a good crew to go to China with.
Dave had arrived early and had befriended the Hajis who’d been stuck on their bus for five days. He bought them biscuits, tea and some food. They, the Hajis, all Uighurs, were growing restive as they’d run out of money since the Haj and the Pakistanis were not sympathetic. Dave who was a bit of a rebel enjoyed their stories and decided to travel with them on their bus to China.
Shoyu was an inveterate traveller who eschewed marriage and normal Japanese values for a life of travel. He was a bicycle courier in Tokyo who worked to travel five months of the year. He’d been drugged on a bus from Islamabad to Peshawar and all his money and passport stolen. Returning to Islamabad his previous hotel keeper was incredibly supportive and provided him with money, food and accommodation until he could recover his resources. This attitude we met all over Pakistan — the kindness of strangers — it is our duty the Muslims would say.
Departure (2 June, 1995)
We arose later than yesterday, without much hope, but around 10 am it seemed that the road was going to be open. Then, everything happened in a hurry and, because we hadn’t pre-bought Nalco tickets, we went on a smaller and nicer PTDC bus. We left at 12.30am and had a smooth trip the whole way to Tashkurgan.
The scenery over the Khunjerab Pass is spectacular, beginning with the slow gorge climb out of Pakistan. We saw our first yaks before the top and marvelled at the unique orange-furred marmots (vectors of the Plague from at least 1347). The marmots were everywhere watching us and whistling, often perched on two legs on top of or near their burrows; or sometimes galloping over the short grass pick. The swinging wild hair of the yaks was primeval; most were black, but there was an occasional light-haired one.
At the top of the Pass 4730 m (15,500 feet), there was no wind and it seemed mild. Yet, Dave who was an hour or so ahead of us, with the Uighur Hajis, complained of the bitter wind.
We met some Pakistan commandos later at Passu. We rode on their truck while they were off-loaded to jog up the road (some were less fit than others). They were on a course to gain a mountaineering badge. After a few days of training, they were going up to the Khunjerab Pass to climb a 6000 m (20,000 feet) peak. This would be done in one day from 4.30 am to 6.30 pm.
The sun stayed with us on the China side of the pass. The landscape changed immediately and couldn’t have been more different. There were no more gorges. The landscape was desert or arid plain, in yellow brown with the occasional green patch (irrigated) flanked by banks of mud (the old river bed) and hills rising to what seemed like low mountains covered in snow, the Pamirs, but we knew they weren’t low.
One cannot but think of the Great Game and how, coming out of the gorge country and the narrow defiles of the Karakorums, presided over by God on high, one must think, even if only briefly, that a Russian army could easily sweep over these plains out of Osh and the Ferghana.
The lonely border checkpoint not far below the pass was manned by young Han Chinese who were very friendly and forgot themselves to the extent of letting us take photographs of them and the captain let Denise wear his cap and posed with her, but he seemed to realise at the last minute that he shouldn’t be doing this. They hadn’t seen anyone for five days.
Our arrival in Tashkurgan was uneventful. The hotel was basic and unhygienic. All the water pipes in Tashkurgan had burst over winter and hadn’t been repaired.
Some of our travel companions had been teaching English in Taiwan and spoke some Mandarin. They told us that the mainland Chinese thought it was their patriotic duty to overcharge foreigners. Twelve of us sat together in a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no sign just a cloth over the door. Our friends bargained for about ten minutes over the cost of each item on the menu before ordering. The food when it came was magnificent and ridiculously cheap. We gorged on meat and vegetables and were astounded at the end of the meal when two huge plates of dumplings arrived that we’d forgotten about.
The food that Denise and I had been surviving on for a month in Pakistan was insufficient (mostly carbohydrate and limited meat) with almost no vegetables. We’d lost weight. We savoured the vegetables in China especially, as the food of the Gods. Even though we knew how they’d been fertilised, we didn’t care.
We drank beer!
Our companions called the re-used chopsticks, usually bamboo, ‘hep sticks’ and dunked them in boiling tea before using them. I didn’t think that would help much, but we didn’t contract hepatitis; whereas in Pakistan we succumbed to Giardia and other stomach bugs, rather too regularly.
Journey to Kashgar (3 June)
The next day was a long one to Kashgar but the scenery in the Pamirs was magnificent. The only negative was that our bus driver patriotically saved fuel by descending each hill in ‘angel gear’, which was frightening.
My article Kashgar Sunday Market details the highlights of our stay in Kashgar.
Key Words: Karakorum Highway, KKH, Karakorums, rain, danger, Sust, Sost, border, Pakistan, igneous, conglomerate, China, Khunjerab Pass, Gilgit, Karimabad, Hunza, Hunza Valley, Passu, Tashkurgan, Kashgar, landslips, landslides, falling rocks, near death experience, fear, adrenalin, customs search, Haj, Haji, marmot, yak, Pamirs, Great Game
Note: The names of many of the people above have been changed, in case they may not wish to be identified.
Written under Covid quarantine, in Canberra
Your Covid quarantine has given us this wonderful record.
Thanks Peggy. I still have a couple of articles to do. I’m not sure how many people think writing about a trip in 1995 is relevant today. But, anyone who has been to the region will appreciate the comparison with today. The world has changed incredibly in the past twenty-five years. The international tourism trade on the KKH virtually dried up, while the Taliban were a threat in the Swat Valley and elsewhere in Pakistan. And looking back 1995 was an innocent time. The related article on the Kashgar Sunday market in 1995 is important because initially the increase in rail and air connections made Kashgar easy to get to. Then the nature of the market was destroyed by Chinese development efforts in Kashgar. And, then the systematic oppression of the Uighur people by the Chinese makes even travelling to the region morally complex.
So many years ago now – but any travel seems worth reconsidering in these strange times when travel suddenly is hardly an option. Such beautiful photos too. A world away and a world apart.