Sunday, October 22, 2006


As we leave Kashgar, Leni.. I mean, Mao shows us the way. Different guy, but same ubiquitous statue and cult of personality. The Karakoram Highway (KKH) really starts from Kashgar, but the Chinese side is very different from the Pakistan side: it follows the edge of the Pamirs (Kongur, 7719m and Muztagh Ata, 7546m). There's a very touristy stop at Karakul lake (another one), where noisy Chinese climb on a camel and take pictures in front of Muztagh Ata. At Tashkurgan our guide finds out that most hotels are booked by an American crew shooting a movie supposed to take place in Afghanistan, but we eventually find a (cold) room for the night.
Although Tashkurgan is more than 100km away from the pass and the border, the customs are conveniently located here, so we start the day by going through the papers. Our passports are stamped out and our temperature taken by some bizarre machine (or so I guess, could be also a "M.I.B." brain wash..?). Then the custom officer wants us to open all our bags... as a matter of fact, we have avoided this until now, and don't miss it as it is a pain to unpack all the panniers. I start with my big black bag containing my sleeping bag, tent and books. The Chinese asks to see the bag with books and maps, so I open it and he immediately spots and takes out... my Russian Playboy magazine! Good snatch, as Playboy is only available in the black market here. He starts to flip the pages and not deterred by the Cyrillic text he quickly walks away, telling us we're OK and can go. When I bought it back in Kazakhstan I didn't think it would save us half an hour at the customs! Of course we all had a good laugh about the Chinese (including the Uygurs around), thinking about what he's about to do in the privacy of his office.

Eventually, after 1 1/2 hour we're cleared, leave our guide and follow a long and wide valley that slowly climbs from 3100m to 4300m in 100km. It's a bit boring and very cold, and doesn't look very much like a pass, except for the last few switch backs to the last Chinese check point. As we reach the pass we meet a couple Pakistani border guards who shake our hand, without even bothering to check our passport. Picture, congratulations, and we quickly leave before freezing our ass, after a perilous change to left-hand drive (the Chinese truck drivers tend to forget that detail as well, which makes for interesting crossing...).

Here we are in the junction between the Pamirs, that we have just left, the Hindu Kush that leads west across Afghanistan, the Karakoram and the Himalayas! This the last part of the globe to have been fully explored by Europeans, and now we see why. At that time, in the 19th century, Afghanistan was a very dangerous country to cross, although the most direct route between the central Asia trading centers and India. 150 years later it’s no different, but now the Khunjerab pass offers a safe way for traveling the Silk Road, and as in the old tradition of the caravans, the Chinese tax us heavily for this privilege.

The way down on the Pakistani side is very steep, and the road is much worse than in China, but OK as far as we're concerned. The mountains and glaciers surrounding us are spectacular; we’re literally in the middle of 6000- and 7000-m high mountains. That's an awesome work done by the Chinese and Pakistanis workers in the 70's and 80's, and even now there are many Chinese workers repairing the road all along. We quickly lose 2000m of elevation (but gain a few much appreciated degrees) to reach Sost, acting both as a Pakistani border post and a truck terminal where Chinese trucks unload and the colorful Pakistani trucks take over.

Next day we reach Karimabad, up the side of the beautiful Hunza valley, where we chill out and spend a day hiking up the amazing water channels. The weather is great and the atmosphere very friendly, even during this time of Ramadan, so much that we find without problem a restaurant serving us lunch, and even a shop selling beer.. the explanation is that this particular village is Ismaili Muslim, and they are much more relaxed about the rules than Sunnite and Shiite, as we already experienced in Tajikistan.

Further down the valley we stop in Gilgit, the major town half-way to Islamabad. We stay at a very friendly guest house where we meet backpackers from everywhere. Anders would have preferred the Girl's school but then there was this armed guard at the entry. The army is very present around and inside the town, with many heavily armed check points protected by sand bags, even an Indian Army helicopter displayed there as a hunting trophy. It seems that the army is keeping a close eye on those Northern tribes, and indeed on our way down we were stopped in a village by an anti-American demonstration, ending with a burning flag. People seemed not very much interested though, and more keen to clean up the road so that they could drive through, so we didn't feel threatened at all. Well, I kept alow profile anyway, you never know..


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