Friday, May 28, 2010

Bussing the Karakoram Highway

On our way back to the immigration post in the morning we spot a couple of foreigners getting on a bus to Kashgar. This means they've probably come from Pakistan - they have. The news is that the helicopter service is in place flying people over the lake that is now almost at the top of the landslide dam. It's now about 25 km in length and several villages have been submerged or cut off. Although this is not good news for anyone, the fact that the helicopters are flying and carrying tourists means that we have a chance to get into Pakistan. After a wait at immigration for staff to arrive, a bus turns up. We ask the driver if he has space for us and the bikes - he has. And so we buy our tickets and wait in line with mostly Chinese workers who are all heading to Pakistan to work on the road-widening and reconstruction. The Chinese do not allow cyclists to go by bike south of Tashkurgan, but there is a chance the driver will let us off at the border to ride down to Sost, where Pakistan immigration is.

The scenery on the Chinese side is beautiful - a big wide valley lined by snowy peaks and pastures full of grass, settlements here and there, animals happily munching away. The people here are Tajik, and the women wear bright red clothes and embroidered rimless hats. There are a couple of Pakistanis on board and an Australian tourist. Everyone else is Chinese. One of them, an engineer, translates our request to the driver when we get over the Khunjerab pass. The border here is at 4800m, and on the Pakistani side the road deteriorates immediately as it slaloms down a narrow rocky valley. The driver doesn't want to let us off. Our names are on his passenger list and he must deliver us to immigration. However, at the first checkpoint we ask the smart Pakistani soldiers if we can get off and cycle. "Yes, of course, no problem" they say, smiling. Great. "But it is the driver's decsion." Hmm. The driver says no, but finally he relents at Dih, a small village about 35km from Sost. So we unload our gear and set off down the road. The valley is still narrow and twisting as we descend, with glimpses of huge snowy peaks. The road itself is a catastrophe. Like all the other roads we have ridden in China which are under construction. We take our time to Sost. The scenery is imposing and the going is slow as we navigate around the works. In one spot the Chinese are tunelling through the mountain to avoid a landslide-prone zone.

Late afternoon we pull up at the police checkpoint at the entrance to Sost. The policeman asks if we are coming from China and points us to the immigration building. It's deserted. He rings someone and he rings someone else and eventually there are about eight officials gathered to admit us. We are applying for a visa on arrival and the process is fairly straightforward if slow. For a start, we sit in the Immigration Officer's office while his flunkeys do the paperwork. The flunkeys can't tell where we are from. "You are from where, sir?" "England" They look at our passport. "Not Ireland?" "No, England, Britain, U.K." They read the title in our passport slowly. "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". It is admittedly a mouthful. "So, U.K. sir?" "Yes." That'll be $90 each. They show Britain/UK on the price list. Gayle points to Brunei, below it. "I'm from Brunei", she jokes. Those from Brunei pay $12. No-one in the office laughs. Finally, after about seven people have handled our passports we are stamped in and allowed to go. We are officially in Pakistan and it feels great. We were not sure that we'd ever arrive here without a single hitch.

After a tasty chicken biryani and a good night's sleep we leave Sost and nosey on down the road to Passu. The road here is not too dramatic, and it was pretty well-paved in 2008. Not now. The Chinese have built retaining walls and drainage ditches and there's not a scrap of tarmac left. The scenery on the hand is wonderful. The mountains here are craggy and dramatic. The villages are green with irrigated fields and tall plane trees all around. It's a lovely sunny day and we enjoy the ride, but by the time we get to the village of Passu we're hungry and tired. And this is cycling more or less downhill. We stop at a guesthouse run by Saleem. There are a few other travellers there , all heading north. A young Japanese couple on their honeymoon, a Chinese woman (only the third Chinese we've met travelling) and an old Aussie man. He immediately dominates the conversation and we recognise immediately what he is - a pontificationg old fart. Now and again, we meet these older men who have been everywhere and done everything and know it all. They like to listen to their own voice and they are invariably boring. It turns out that this is the guy who Alex warned us about in Kashgar. Now we know why.

The Passu peak Inn is in a great location, just outside the village but with a clear view of the beautiful mountains across the river. The valley is fairly flat at the bottom, the river winding its way slowly, and the mountains rise upwards in huge sheer towers. On either side of the village are two huge glaciers. The Batura is one of the world's longest outside the polar peaks, but all you can see from the road is the mass of rock and detritus of the morraine. These glaciers are now releasing meltwater fast into the Hunza river, thus adding to the lake at a fast rate. The news is that helicopters are flying to Aliabad and we need to turn up early and put our name down on the waiting list when we wish to leave. First, we have a rest day and wash some clothes. Then we go and have a look at the outer reaches of the lake. It's a turquoise blue and looks lovely, but in reality it's a disaster waiting to happen. There is a strong likelihood that eventually the landslide will give way and the lake will force it's way down the valley, destroying everything in its path. Villages close to the river have been evacuated, some bridges removed. It's possible that the lake will erode the landslide slowly, but the authorities cannot afford to take the chance. Meanwhile there are a few foolhardy tourists trying to still travel this part of the KKH and lots of locals stuck trying to get to the other side of the lake, in both directions.


karim said...

really nice story of your journey, is it possible for you to join the facebook page of passu peak inn
karim akbar

karim said...