The Karakoram Highway (1999 Essay)

A slightly longer version of this piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1999:

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
by Ted Rall

On your standard map it’s a thousand miles of pavement connecting China to Pakistan. Of course, on that same map New York City is just a black circle with a big fat dot in the middle. The truth is, the Karakoram Highway is a nexus of madness in a place already chock full of every conceivable form of lunacy. Understanding that psychosis, however, requires experiencing it firsthand. In the course of traveling over those thousand miles, my pal Cole Smithey and I braved wild animals, a military coup and a full-fledged invasion by Taliban terrorists.

It was all par for the course for a road trip on the world’s most dangerous highway.

The first thing you need to understand about the KKH, as it’s called on the Pakistani side of the border, is that this expanse of asphalt may well be the most staggering engineering achievement since the Great Wall—1,400 kilometers of two-lane roadway clinging to the side of immense, crumbling mountains, running alongside racing white water rivers prone to flooding and constant erosion, soaring the whole time through elevations anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 feet through areas so politically unstable that it’s impossible to find two maps depicting the same borders dated a year apart. Whereas Germany’s autobahn represents the ultimate triumph of man over nature, on the KKH it’s still up in the air as to which side will win in the end.

The KKH twists and turns through the Pamir, Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges; it’s a geological collision zone between tectonic plates that makes this junction between Asia and the subcontinent the world’s most seismically active place, period. Immense earthquakes that would flatten American cities in seconds are routine; fortunately, there’s nothing much here except animals, a lot of cool history and the highway itself. The mountains are constantly falling apart, and down on, the KKH; rock slides close down the road all the time.

At many points the highway, built from 1966 to 1986 as the result of a diplomatic resolution of a border dispute between Pakistan and China, runs alongside rivers that range from dry washes in late summer to vast, wide torrents during the spring. The rivers eat under the pavement, creating lethal sinkholes. They often close the narrow roadway until they’re repaired—and that can take weeks or even months.

An extension of the Tibetan plateau, nowhere on earth is it so high for so long. This fact makes June blizzards commonplace and forces the closure of the road from October through April or May. Even in the middle of summer it can be closed for weeks or longer. Altitude sickness starts killing people at 9,000 feet above sea level; you’re rarely ever that low on the KKH. In short, the Karakoram Highway is a doomed, psychotic project that may no longer exist as a viable transportation link by the time you read this. But if it does, and you can survive the landslides, terrorists and snow leopards, the Karakoram Highway offers a cat’s-eye view to some of the world’s most dazzling eye candy.

Getting There

The KKH begins at the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar in western China and ends up in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Because we went in September, we traveled south (from Kashgar to Islamabad) in order to minimize the effects of the already incipient Himalayan winter; in May you’d want to go the other way. You’ll need visas for China and Pakistan, obviously, but these may be hard to get because the KKH passes through the heart of Kashmir Province, where a war that began in 1947 over a Hindu chieftain’s decision to attach his Muslim region to India seems destined to continue forever.

Getting to Kashgar by air requires so many changes of plane through shitty airstrips that it’s virtually impossible; the most direct overland route from an international airport is the two-days-plus journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (that means a third visa). But there’s a catch—in Central Asia, there’s always a catch—the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, through the Torugart Pass, is permanently closed to foreigners. That means you, Americano.

The good thing about Central Asia, on the other hand, is that as it has for millennia along this ancient road between the Western and Eastern worlds, cash opens sealed frontiers. Conversely, the budget-traveler approach is extremely risky; we met a trio of Dutch tourists who took the bus to the border, were released by Kyrgyz customs cops but had failed to arrange for transportation to pick them up on the Chinese side of the old Soviet triumphal arch that’s still there, riddled with bullet holes. The Chinese won’t let you in unless someone meets you and going back to Kyrgyzstan isn’t allowed. The woman and two men we met were in bad shape; they’d been trapped in windswept no-man’s land between minefields at the roof of the world for 29 days with no hope in sight. Severely sunburned, without tents or sleeping bags and totally out of food, they’d been reduced to eating grass and whatever leftovers passing Kyrgyz troops deigned to give them. Without official papers we couldn’t take them with us. For all I know, they could still be up there.

It took three days and cost about $600 for the two of us to get to Kashgar from Bishkek; we hired a pair of Ukrainian guides who knew which guards to bribe and how to bypass the worst police checkpoints on back roads.

Kashgar’s history is remote and romantic, but only the first remains—it’s a shithole. This legendary trading city still draws hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China every Sunday to sell everything from camels to silk cushions to Soviet-made missile detonators in the Muslim Uyghur neighborhood downtown, but the Chinese government has decimated the city’s glorious past with vile concrete apartment blocks and factories that produce a putrid dusty haze that would clog the lungs of the most hardened Angeleno. Moreover, Muslim militants backed by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have passed the last few years bombing public buildings and assassinating Chinese officials This has lead to the city being subjected to a sort of martial law lite.

Try as we did to enjoy Kashgar, Cole was still suffering from altitude sickness encountered at the Torugart Pass. I spent most of the time doubled over with stomach cramps and a brand of diarrhea that’s impossible to explain to the uninitiated. Fortunately the food was so putrid—they wash bowls with filthy cold water and zero soap—that I didn’t mind skipping the local laghman noodles.

It Begins

We caught the faux-lux “International” bus bound for Sost, Pakistan, the next day, so named because it departs from the former British embassy compound shut down during the 1949 Communist revolution. Trouble began within minutes: A Pakistani smuggler with an astonishing resemblance to Ted Danson ordered me to move my 6’2” frame to the back of the bus so that he and his brother could enjoy my front-seat view. “But I need to stretch my—” I began to reason.

“Hey asshole! What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” Cole barked from the other side of the aisle at the guy. Danson backed off, but that outburst set the tone for our journey. Here we were on a bus full of pissed-off Pakistanis and Afghans, some of them visibly armed, heading straight into the Kashmir war zone.

Like a hot chick who talks dirty but never puts out, the KKH (the Chinese call it the China-Pakistan Highway, or just the G314) teases drivers with perfectly-maintained pavement—complete with painted markers every tenth of a kilometer—the first few hours out of Kashgar. Then the road enters the immense Ghez Darya River canyon. That’s where road maintenance ends for good, and the KKH really begins.

River Madness

High-altitude roads often follow riverbeds because they offer the straightest path through mountains; thus the KKH runs alongside massive flows of snowmelt. Rock slides occur frequently; our bus repeatedly had to drive around huge boulders that had fallen thousands of feet down the side of the Pamir range within the previous few days. On the left side of the bus, the road vanished wherever the Ghez made a turn—in a monumental testimony to short-sighted stupidity, the Chinese side of the KKH has no levies to hold back the water. Washouts are indicated by rocks lined up at a 45-degree angle by road workers; rocks are the one thing that aren’t in short supply along the KKH. In a scene out of the classic movie “Wages of Fear,” the bus was forced to go off-road, rocking at wild angles over three-foot rocks at a fraction of a mile per hour, sections of shattered asphalt cracking and falling off into the torrent below. It’s just the water, the mountain and you, and you’re in the middle the whole way.

Judging from their green faces, even grizzled locals seemed not to take these side trips very well. But I was suffering particularly badly, having undergone a hernia operation a month before. You just haven’t lived until you become fully aware of your large intestines, I always say.
Passing a vehicle coming from the opposite direction involves a perverse game of Central Asian chicken; both drivers seize the middle of the road and floor the gas. It doesn’t matter if you were both all the way to the right to begin with—you move left as soon as you see the other bastard. At the last possible second before collision (and, according to locals, sometimes afterwards) the smaller vehicle of the two scoots over; it’s not rare for one tire to slip momentarily off the road over nothingness. At blind curves, it’s customary to speed up while honking ominously at whatever might be coming around the other side. Despite its low volume of traffic—it’s not unusual to go hours without seeing anything else—cars and trucks tumble off the KKH every few days.

I didn’t ask about the buses.

Aside from sheer rock faces and incredibly bleak vistas, the mountains are home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the long-horned ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Man and nature collide in spectacular ways here, as demonstrated by the snow leopard that leapt from its perch on top of a passing Volga sedan a few weeks before our arrival. The animal died on impact, the car was totaled, and there was no word on the driver. But while car and beast routinely mix it up on rural roads throughout the Third World, nothing beats the KKH for sheer volume of animal traffic. You pass herds of goats or sheep every few hundred meters; I lost count of how many suicidal yaks and bulls jumped out in front of us. There are lots of Bactrian camels (they’re of the double-humped variety) too, but they’re smart enough to edge off the roadway when a double-tractor-trailer piled thirty-feet high with God-knows-what passes them at 70.

The Ugly Americans Reach Out

About five hours out of Kashgar, at least 200 miles from the nearest village, we rounded a turn to find a line of trucks at a dead stop. The driver of the one in front of us was fast asleep on a red blanket on the ground. I took this as a bad sign.

We got out and walked ahead; it turned out that someone had abandoned a fully-loaded fuel tanker in the middle of the road on an incline up ahead. As guys have since time immemorial, we carefully examined the situation and pondered how to resolve it.

More accurately, a hundred guys yelled at each other in Mandarin, Uyghur, Urdu and Tajik, which are languages that don’t sound anything alike. Inexplicably, the Chinese men saw the rocks in front of the tires as the main problem—never mind that the thing was parked uphill. The Uyghurs appeared to agreed with Cole’s plan, which was to remove the rocks from behind the tires, thus allowing the truck to go over the edge of the cliff into the Ghez Darya. And the Pakistanis turned to Allah, praying at wildly-divergent angles towards Mecca.

After several hours during which the Chinese occupied themselves by moving the same huge rocks back and forth, but with great enthusiasm, a truck appeared from the opposite direction. The driver backed up and parked just far enough away from the gas truck to make it impossible to hook up a single cable. Then the guys began arguing about how to tie the cable. All in all, the arguing process took four hours. Cole and I shouted and pointed to our watches, which was, I realize now, futile: In Central Asia, nobody’s time is valuable, much less yours.

“This is China!” one guy in a business suit yelled at us while lugging a dusty hundred-pound boulder to the side of the road, evidently to imply that we ugly Americans would do well to mind our own national business. The Chinese guys gave out an exaggerated guffaw. The Uyghurs, who chafe under Chinese military occupation, grumbled ominously, but I couldn’t tell if they were siding with us or merely expressing a general disgust with the situation. Tired, humiliated, and certain that these nimrods were going to blow the KKH into nearby Tajikistan, Cole and I returned to the bus. Somehow the gas truck got moved. This would have made for a better story had it exploded, but life often fails to deliver on desired drama.

Anyway, our sadly low-powered bus rumbled on, dodging goats, boulders, holes and gaudy Pakistani trucks in a furious attempt to make up time. Just before nightfall the Ghez valley opened up into a lush, green plain containing the idyllic ethnic Kyrgyz enclave of Karakul. Karakul features a few hundred people, thousands of yaks and cattle and a few stone houses. Cole passed the two hours we waited there—Chinese army troops were filling in a spot where twenty feet of road had been sucked into the sandy ground—passing out dozens of those free postcards they have in American restaurants downstairs by the restroom to local kids. They featured the cover of the previous month’s Playboy.

Five hours late, exhausted and covered with soot, we slouched into our freezing cold seats as an exquisite blackness enveloped the bus. Suddenly, to the right of the bus over a row of snow-capped mountains, a huge, dazzling light lit up everything. For about a minute a bright yellow ball streaked across the sky perhaps a mile away, a trail of light behind it. Then the meteor was gone, smashed into the countryside in an explosion of fire. OK, so you could see that in Wisconsin, but you could also live your entire life without ever seeing a meteor hit the ground—and I saw mine in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region from my seat on the KKH.

The Rooster Crows For Thee

Everyone has a rooster with his name on it. It’s only a matter of time before you and that rooster come together, and when you do, it’s never a beautiful thing.

I met my cock at 4:30 in the morning after barely four hours of fitful sleep in a dismal dump of a hotel in the backwater hamlet of Tashkurgan, the last town before the border. The rooster kept up the audio entertainment of the program until 5:30, when patriotic Communist songs and news updates, announced by a woman with an amazingly grating voice, began blasting from loudspeakers outside.

The bus picked us up first thing in the morning, and drove us to the Chinese customs office, where every single book, bottle of aspirin and banana on the bus was carefully inspected while every gun and fat wad of cash was duly ignored. This took three hours, during which our driver got nice and loaded out of a brown paper bag. Then we set off across an empty scrub of desert along the bed of the then-dry Tashkurgan River—the bus overheated twice—and climbed slowly up into the Pamir mountains, well into the snow line—and finally, majestically, inevitably—we arrived at the magnificent, wind-blasted Khunjerab Pass. By this point our driver was thoroughly shitfaced, a fact which with I had no problem. I don’t think I could have navigated that bus up those mountains without a little help either.

At 16,000 feet, breathing becomes an exhilarating, triumphant act. The pass marks a change from crumbling Pamirs to stony Karakoram mountains, as well as to far superior road maintenance. The Pakistani side of the KKH features better levies and walls to keep rocks and water at bay, but the flip side of better engineering is greater risk: Here the highway runs anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet above the river. Glaciers turn the mountains wet, releasing them occasionally in the form of mudslides. Downed power lines criss-cross the road; the bus just drove right over sparking high-tension wires. (I lifted my feet off the floor.) Missing guardrails and telephone poles—and small Muslim death memorials topped with a crescent moon—offer mute testimony to those who came before but never left. Nonetheless, crossing the border into Pakistani-held Kashmir was far more frightening for something else that was missing: no one was guarding the border.

The Khunjerab Security Force outpost, supposedly controlled by the Pakistani army as the main passport control checkpoint, was unmanned. We continued about sixty miles down the road before we encountered a small shack where the bus’ passengers were asked to sign a register book full of phony signatures like “Joe Blow, the Lover Man.” The sleepy guard didn’t even bother to look at our passports; we’d find out why all semblance of authority was missing soon enough.
The bus dropped us off at Sost, from which we caught a taxi to the stunning Kashmiri village of Passu. Surrounded by three magnificent glaciers, rope suspension bridges crossing the legendary Hunza River and clouds so close you can actually touch them, our stay at the Passu Inn was a case study in low-tech life. Electricity comes and goes every few minutes; phones actually use a crank! (The phone number for our hotel was 7.) We spent the next morning trekking and negotiated with a surly local jeep driver to take us to Gilgit for $30. We were glad to get out of town; no matter how spectacular terrain is, once you’ve seen it you’re done.

The Passu-to-Gilgit bus ride takes eight hours, but if you use the same jeep driver as we did, you can do it in three. Convinced that he was being underpaid—although our hotel owner said $20 was more like it, he kept saying that some Japanese dude had paid $100 a week before—he drove wildly back and forth like a madman, intentionally skimming the edge of the abyss even when there wasn’t any other traffic. To add to the sense of menace, local children and young men threw stones at us whenever we passed through a village. Cole read some film book (he’s a movie critic); I attempted to look bored while I checked out Rakaposhi Peak (26,000 feet) and the Hunza Valley’s terraced agriculture and stone-lined irrigation canals. Looking for the lost kingdom of Shangri-la? The myth places it squarely in the Hunza Valley.

From the perspective of scenery that you simply can’t see anywhere else, this section is the highlight of the KKH. Europeans with months of vacation to spare spend weeks on side trips to villages off the highway in this region. We drove through a canyon that makes the Grand Canyon look like landfill and limped across roped suspension bridges where half the boards were missing (Cole to me: “So this is it, Ted. It’s been nice knowing you”) across a massive, primordial flow of whitewater as impressive as the Mississippi and the Nile combined. Every few hundred feet signs advise: “Relax—Landslide Area Ends,” but that’s hard to do considering that no one has bothered to post where they begin. Because the Hunza is lined with farming communities, animals become a more frequent driving problem—and because the Pakistanis don’t sterilize their cattle the bulls are both huge and fierce.

The Taliban Attacks

Located at the southern bank of the Gilgit River, Gilgit is the spiritual and political center of disputed Kashmir province and a key stop on the KKH. Violence has been a part of life here since Pakistan and India were partitioned in 1947, and the signs of the cheapness of life are everywhere—starving children and maimed old men line the sidewalks. More than 10,000 people have been shot, bombed and lynched there during the ‘90s alone, which is more than live there now. A stone’s throw from the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir, that rumbling in the distance is just as likely to be mortar fire as thunder.

Gilgit is “The Wild Bunch” meets the bar scene in “Star Wars” set in Kabul. Like Kashgar, it’s a dusty town where Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Chinese traders can get you anything for a price. There’s no electricity, phone or sewage system; even getting a postcard out requires greasing the proper palms. I liked it fine. Where else can you get your old Doc Martens resoled for a buck, munching a roti while watching wild dogs chew each other’s limbs off in the middle of rush-hour donkey-cart traffic? Still, our objective was the end of the KKH. After a few days of relaxation, we boarded a Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) bus for the 16-hour trip to the capital city of Islamabad.

The first thing we noticed as we assumed our customary spots at the front of the vehicle (we booked early) was the uniformed NATCO soldier riding shotgun—literally. He carried a shotgun right on his lap, occasionally pointing it right at me while chatting distractedly with the driver. He sat at the very front in a special seat, intentionally visible from the road. Then we checked out our fellow passengers. I hadn’t seen such a motley collection of smugglers and scoundrels since, well, the bus from Kashgar. Just outside Chilas I saw the first of several official signs stenciled on the rocky face of the mountain: “Ambush Point: 600 meters.” I asked the soldier about this.

“There are many, many bandits,” he explained apologetically. “Sometimes it’s not enough for them just to steal everything. Sometimes they kill everyone on the bus.”

“That’s a problem,” I said blandly.

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “Then no one wants to take the bus anymore.”

The Gilgit next becomes the Indus River, home to one of the planet’s great ancient civilizations, and the views alternate wildly between lush green valleys and bleak chalky rocks tumbling off canyon after canyon into oblivion. It’s astonishing, but after a while sensory overload sets in; it’s the kind of experience best digested after the fact.

In any event, the bus blew through one switchback after another until, just as darkness began to fall, things started getting weird. Hundreds of turbaned men carrying rocket launchers, automatic rifles and grenades walked along the side of the Karakoram Highway, dragging ammo behind them on the ground. I recognized their outfits from TV news footage.

“Holy shit,” I realized aloud to Cole. “It’s the mujahadeen.”

A week before we’d left for Kyrgyzstan the Taliban had declared Kashmir an “American-free zone.” They reserved for themselves the right to shoot any holder of a U.S. passport on sight, including diplomats. No one had taken the declaration seriously, especially since the KKH was at least a hundred miles from the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. We found out that night that, in the interim, what had formerly been Pakistani-held Kashmir had become half occupied by Taliban militants. Now I understood why the Pakistan-China border had been unguarded; the Pakistanis had allowed themselves to be “invaded” so that the Afghans could fight their war with India on their behalf without provoking a nuclear confrontation. The Taliban, however, were far less interested in taking on the Indians over territory so barren that fighting has to be suspended every winter than its real goal: turning Pakistan into another Islamic fundamentalist state. They’d earned a rep as the Khmer Rouge of the ‘90s for stoning adulterers to death and denying medical care to women. Now, working in conjunction with a Pakistani general in Islamabad (his coup d’etat went down a few weeks later) they were in position to enforce their previous threats.

The bus crossed the border of the North-West Frontier Province and pressed on into the hamlet of Dasu, the northern section of which had obviously been the scene of fighting hours earlier. Fires crackled in brand-new ruins. Broken glass, from God knows what, was everywhere. An orange glow lit up the windows to the left side of the bus; something big had exploded there. Unattended horses wandered aimlessly through the streets, some bleeding from shrapnel wounds. A woman walked crazily in a semicircle—shock? The body of a man, in the generic brown frocks Pakistani Muslims wear, leaned against a storefront. There wasn’t any blood. Burned-out cars lined the KKH as it passed through what had been the bazaar district. On the outskirts of town, three Taliban soldiers flagged us down by making circles on the road with a flashlight.

In the Third World, military checkpoints are a frequent nuisance, sort of the way bridge tolls are to us. With a full-fledged war going on, two holders of American passports that the Pakistani authorities hadn’t bothered to stamp weren’t going to last long under Taliban occupation; checkpoints were bound to spring up everywhere. The bus stopped and the front door opened. The soldiers gave the driver a big grin. My fellow passengers, who’d been glaring at Cole and I for hundreds of miles, looked entirely too pleased about this development for my tastes. The NATCO soldier got up, looked at Cole and I, and walked to the door. Would we be taken off the bus and shot by the side of the road? It was entirely possible; certainly no one on this vehicle would miss us. I seriously doubted that anyone would ever be punished, or that there’d ever be an investigation. I considered that as bad as dying is, dying far away from home surrounded by people who hate your guts is infinitely worse. I thought about the European Community passport in my backpack (I’m a dual French-U.S. citizen); that red booklet would get me off the hook but, unlike me, Cole didn’t have a backup nationality. I thought about the best arguments I could employ to try to save my life. Finally, I was angry at myself for not preparing properly—we could easily have bought guns in Gilgit, but it hadn’t occured to us.

Then the soldier did something for which I will always be grateful. Wearing a bored expression on his face, he nonchalantly pointed his gun straight at the lead mujahadeen and said something to the driver in Urdu. The bus moved forward, and that was it.

The stretch of the KKH between Dasu and Pattan is notoriously violent even in “peacetime”—a number of Western travelers have been beaten up, robbed and raped there. But the military situation was relatively static; mujahadeen trudged along, too dog-tired to care about anything beyond their next footstep. Civilian vehicles, including small cars and trucks, shared the road with hundreds of refugees going south into Pakistan proper and Afghan soldiers walking towards the Line of Control. Finally, at four in the morning, the road made a sharp southern turn, and the KKH became dark and empty. A farmer’s mule darted out into the street; we hit the sucker doing about 50. Our driver never slowed down.

We had three more hours ahead of us, but I figured that it was OK to try to catch some sleep. I was weak, hungry and still processing my brush with death. The last section of KKH is notable for nothing in particular, which means that the road leaves the mountains, becomes straight and flat and the chances of getting killed by another vehicle or a terrorist or a beast of burden are relatively minimal. If it hadn’t been for the Pakistani film music blaring from the speakers directly above our heads, it might even have been peaceful.

Fortunately, Cole had wire cutters.

(C) 1999 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.

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About Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the political cartoonist at ANewDomain.net, editor-in-chief of SkewedNews.net, a graphic novelist and author of many books of art and prose, and an occasional war correspondent. He is the author of the biography “Trump,” to be published in July 2016.

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