20-hour bus journey along Karakoram Highway
Rawalpindi, December 2
Finally when the news came that the flight had been cancelled, our hearts missed a beat. The prospect of a 16-hour back-breaking bus journey on one of the most treacherous roads could not have been amusing.
But then it also provided a rare opportunity to travel on the famous Karakoram Highway built more by the Chinese than the Pakistanis, though a tourist literature gives the latter much of its credit. But a Chinese graveyard near Gilgit, where over 200 Chinese “rest in peace,” gives a lie to such boastful claims.
However, there is no doubt that the 805-km highway that links Pakistan with China through the Karakoram Range is an engineering marvel. It took all of 15 years for the Chinese to build it as a symbol of China-Pakistan friendship. The route was part of the famous Silk Route that flourished from the 2nd to the 8th centuries AD.
The Japanese-built Northern Area Transport Corporation (NATCO) bus in which we travelled was so cosy that it took away most of the discomforts of the journey. Occasionally, we could find on the way Chinese trucks laden with goods passing by. A Chinese technician was seen supervising construction of a new bridge that would cut short the distance by at least a couple of kilometres.
The Karakoram Range, one of the highest mountain systems in the world, always provided a challenge to the ingenuity of man. It extends 480 kms from the easternmost part of Afghanistan. The borders of Tajikistan, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India all converge within the system.
It has several peaks the highest being K2, also called Mount Godwin Austen, at 28,238 feet. As the bus wound its way to Rawalpindi, we had a clear view of the snow-capped mighty Himalayas in the front. On the right was the Hindu Kush Range beyond which lies Afghanistan.
Many of the Taliban fighters had their initial training in this region. A small stream flowed parallel to the road. On the way, dozens of smaller streams could be seen merging into it. It is known as the Hunza. The river is also called the Gilgit.
Very soon, another stream was visible. It was the Indus which originates in the Tibetan region of China. Fed by glaciers and the melted snows, it was seen rushing through steep gorges. As the journey progressed, so did the size of the Indus into which the Hunza merged at what is known as the high point.
The bus halted at Hotel Shangrila at Chilas for lunch. It belongs to a famous soldier, who led the forces which succeeded in wresting what is known as Azad Kashmir from India. He turned out to be a good hotelier too! It is a lean period for the well-appointed hotel on the banks of the Indus. It gets a lot of tourists from western countries, Japan and China.
When the mechanics took over two hours to set right a minor problem in the bus, it was time to worry. Chilas has many shops selling dry fruits like apricot and mulberry. But more popular with the visitors is “Shilajeet”, a herbal stimulant which is also touted as a good medicine for backache and diabetics.
The prospect of a longer journey stared us in the face. There were two drivers to steer the bus by turns. A little after the second driver took command, the bus screeched to a halt behind a truck and another bus, also of NATCO.
A few minutes earlier, a landslide had occurred as a result of which a huge boulder blocked the road. Would we have to stay put on the road the whole night before help arrived from God knew where? The alternative was to push the boulder off the road.
Pushing the stone was easier said than done. Some of the journalists stepped out of the bus and suggested ways to do what some others thought was an impossible task. They also gave a helping hand. Using jacks and levers, the drivers and the journalists managed to have it pushed sideways. There was loud cheering and clapping over the accomplishment.
“If Pakistanis and Indians can remove such roadblocks as Kashmir in the same spirit, the subcontinent would be a much safer and peaceful place,” commented a Pakistani journalist accompanying us. A drizzle had brought the temperature down by a few degrees.
A hot cup of tea at a wayside shop near Pattan did wonders to most of us. Hot roti, fresh from the tandoor, sold like hot cakes. It was crisp and absolutely delicious.
Except for some patches, the Karakoram Highway was in good condition. But by the time we reached GT road at Rawalpindi, we had spent nearly 20 hours in the bus. Whatever the difficulties, the journey will always remain a memorable one for the Indian journalists who were the first to visit Gilgit under the auspices of the South Asian Free Media Association.