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I am just back from an adventurous trip to the far west of China and the far north of Pakistan. I had always wanted to see the Karakoram Mountains, the steepest and least accessible part of the Himalaya chain, and an opportunity arose in the form of a Betchart tour to Xinjiang and Hunza. Reaching our destination of the Hunza Valley in the tribal area of Northern Pakistan required two full days of flying (nearly half way around the world), three days of driving, much of it in an open jeep on rough dusty unpaved roads, and one stretch where people and cargo must transfer to boats.
We flew on Air China from California to Beijing to Urumchi to Kashgar. I will begin this narrative with Kashgar, the legendary crossroads of the Silk Road and unofficial capital of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uygurs. Throughout our trip we had local Muslim guides and ate in Muslim restaurants, with excellent food, but no alcohol. Kashgar is a romantic city that many people have seen as the stand-in for Kabul in the film of The Kite Runner. Unfortunately, it has been subject to massive “urban renewal” in the past decade, with destruction of most of the old mud-brick city. In some places, however, the Chinese have replaced the wood-framed mud brick structures with similar size buildings made of cement and kiln-bricks. I spent a lot of effort searching for remains of the old Uygur city. We attended the justly famous Sunday livestock market, with spirited haggling over hundreds of sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels, and donkeys.
From the outskirts of Kashgar we could see the long line of the snow-clad Pamir Mountains, the “roof of the world”. From here roads lead to Tibet, Tajikistan and Afghanistan as well as our destination in northern Pakistan. We followed the Chinese-Pakistani Karakoram Highway (KKH), which is beautiful paved road on this side of the border. The scenery is spectacular as the KKH ascends the canyon of the glacier-fed Ghez River, with Kongar Shan, the highest Pamir at 7719 m (25,000 ft) looming above. At the top of the canyon is one of the weirdest sights in the world: the immense Kumtagh dunes, reflected in a shallow lake created by the Chinese as part of a hydroelectric project on the Ghez River.
The KKH flattens out at about 12,000 ft and traverses several long barren valleys where hundreds of yaks and camels were grazing. Pamir means high meadows. The famous Kara Kul Lake has been spoiled by ugly tourist development, so we pushed on toward the landmark Muztagh Ata (7546m), the Father of Ice Mountains. The otherwise gentle slopes of this mountain are deeply incised by glaciers. A gentle pass marks the watershed between the Kashgar and Yarkand basins. In late afternoon we reached the Tajik town of Tashkargan with a famous ruined fort that was a landmark on the Silk Road. The next morning we spent several hours clearing Chinese Customs (with polite but well-armed, spit-and-polish immigration officers, military and police) before climbing the long gentle slopes to Khunjerab Pass (4730m, or 15,500 ft), the high point of the trip.
From the pass, the KKH quickly descends past several glaciers to the valley of the Khunjerab River, and from there to the upper Hunza River Valley. The character of the Karakorams is completely different from the gentle Parmirs, with jagged peaks and near-vertical cliffs of black rock. We drove though deep canyons almost devoid of vegetation, with the rushing river far below but only rare glimpses of snow peaks and glaciers above. At the border, the KKH changed to a rough, dusty surface. We saw no paving on the Pak side the KKH, but the nearly continuous Chinese and Pak work parties were clearly rebuilding the KKH to high modern standards. In a couple of years it should be a great highway linking China to the ports it has been constructing on the Arabian Sea.
Our experience with Pak immigration and customs was completely unlike China: a plain office with floor-to-ceiling stacks of unfiled paper and a relaxed staff with no uniforms. Our visas were hand written, and baggage inspection was minimal. We continued as darkness fell, feeling the cool air coming off invisible glaciers. The KKH has been blocked for the past year by a giant landslide that has created a beautiful lake 25 km long and up to 150 m deep. We transferred to a boat in the darkness and continued to our dinner and lodging after a long altercation with a policeman who said tourists were not allowed on the lake after dark. This was resolved with calls to the owner of our hotel, who was also a local official. In daylight, the view from the hotel was incredible, with multiple spires of the Passu Cathedral Ridge rising from one end of the lake. On our return we talked with the Pak Army engineer who is working to safely drain the lake and restore the KKH road connection.
Our final destination was the Hunza Valley (2500 m, or 8000 ft), considered one of the most beautiful places in the Karakorums, sometimes compared with the mythical Shangra La because many of its people live to very old age. We stayed here three days. It rained on the first two days, and it was not until the afternoon of the third day that the sky suddenly cleared to reveal the magnificent peaks that ring the valley, all over 7000 m (from 24,000 to 25,000 ft). Just to see these mountains was well worth the long trip. Hunza and other mountain communities are possible because of a striking engineering accomplishment of centuries past, when long irrigation channels were constructed, many carved out of the sheer canyon walls. These channels bring glacial meltwater and make agriculture possible. Everywhere in the valley we could hear the pleasant gurgle of water. We visited several distinct villages, each consisting of inter-connected stone buildings like a pueblo in the American Southwest. There are two surviving castle-forts, about a thousand years old, that have been recently restored and provide wonderful views. The Hunza valley was independent until 1946, and it remains largely isolated from the rest of Pakistan.
Although all of us had some concerns about how Americans would be received in Pakistan, we found the people of Hunza to be friendly and welcoming – certainly friendlier than the Chinese. Most of the people in Hunza are followers of the relatively liberal Ishmaelite branch of Islam, headed by the Aga Kahn (who lives in Paris). Partly through the Aga Kahn, there are some modern schools, a hydroelectric plant and clinic. Hunza has excellent tourist facilities for such a remote place, but almost no visitors since 2001. We were most impressed by a a modern girl’s school grades (6-12) where we spoke with faculty and students. The girls (some of whom get to spend a year in the U.S.) were amazingly bright, articulate, and mature. We wondered what would happen to them in the conservative male-dominated Pak society. Probably they will avoid the ties of marriage, and (unfortunately) many may join the brain drain that severely weakens Pak society.
It was an extraordinary trip to one of the most remote places on the planet.
David Morrison

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