On June 22, 2013, murder occurred on the “roof of the world.” Ten mountaineers were killed at the foot of Nanga Parbat—the world’s ninth-tallest peak, located in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region on the border with China where some of the world’s tallest mountain ranges converge. The victims included American, Chinese, Lithuanian, Nepali, Pakistani, Slovakian, and Ukrainian nationals, and the audacious attack shattered a rare sense of calm in Pakistan’s northernmost corner, bewildering locals. Members of the Pakistani Taliban doggedly scaled the heights to the mountaineers’ camp at an altitude of 15,000 feet and stormed the tents in the dead of night dressed as paramilitary police. One media outlet’s coverage flashed a haunting image of vulnerability: an orange tent on the mountain slopes bathed in moonlight.
Five days later, I boarded a plane to Gilgit-Baltistan.
I had set out to complete a journey I began 10 years ago: to traverse the mighty Karakoram Highway (KKH) connecting China and Pakistan. A decade earlier, I had traveled along the 800 mile-long KKH from Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region to the border with Pakistan. My travels became my college thesis—an analysis of the relationship between China, Pakistan, and Xinjiang’s restive Uighur Muslims in light of the traffic of militancy, drugs, and arms from Pakistan to Xinjiang. I argued that the KKH, a symbol of Chinese-Pakistani friendship, had proven to be both a blessing and a curse.
Now I set out to complete the journey from the Pakistani side in a week-long trip by plane, car, and boat. Once again, I discovered how lofty international relations and local communities intersect on the KKH—from tales of a “new Great Game” between China and America and infrastructure woes along the Pak-China Economic Corridor, to remarkable strides for women’s empowerment and development in communities keen to plug into China’s prosperity. I wound my way up through a land of glaciers, ibex, and snow leopards to the Khunjerab Pass at 14,000 feet—one of the world’s highest international border crossings. All the while, I was shadowed by the murder on the roof of the world.
I began my journey in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. I was lucky. The flight to Gilgit is frequently canceled due to inclement weather; travelers can be stranded in the purgatory of Islamabad for days on end. As the plane taxied and took off past military hangars, a reminder of the ever-fuzzy line between Pakistan’s civilian and military realms, the pilot pointed out the breathtaking convergence of three towering ranges that swiftly surrounded us: the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas. White knuckles gripping the seat, I alternated between awe and fear as the pilot deftly maneuvered among them, buffeted by unrelenting winds. As the plane reached cruising altitude, the pilot proceeded to outline the blood-stained route below: Abbottabad (where Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011), Mansehra (where seven people were killed when gunmen attacked the office of an NGO in 2010), Babusar (where 22 Shiite Muslims were pulled off buses and shot in a sectarian hail of bullets in 2012), and Nanga Parbat, in its gory majesty.
Upon landing in Gilgit, I walked past security officers wearing badges that stated “Be Firm and Courteous.” As we got on what my taxi driver called the “China Road,” or KKH, his jaunty tone quickly hardened when talk turned to the mountaineers and the perpetrators. Tourism was the lifeblood of the region, and the incident had cast a pall for the foreseeable future on locals' livelihoods. “These bastards are driving away our business!” the driver exclaimed.
Despite the violence plaguing “down country,” as the locals refer to the rest of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan continues to draw tourists and mountaineers. Its stunning landscape boasts some of the world’s tallest peaks, including the formidable K2, and extensive glacier coverage; in crossing one such glacier, I was struck by the dazzling interplay of ice, light, and time. The night sky is crystal clear given the altitude (and limited electricity), and the stars strewn across it seem tantalizingly within reach. While the terrain is largely hard and rocky, verdant valleys periodically arise along the KKH. Trees are filled with cherries, apricots, mulberries, and irascible magpies. Local treats include poppy soup and bur chapak, a flatbread stuffed with cheese and brushed with apricot oil.
Driving north along the KKH from Gilgit, I arrived a couple of hours later in the village of Karimabad, which once served as the capital of the former princely state of Hunza. Theories of the ancestry of Hunza’s inhabitants involve groups ranging from soldiers in Alexander the Great’s army (popular but unlikely) to the White Huns of Central Asia, from whose name Hunza is derived. A magnificent 900-year-old fort in the neighboring village of Altit, with its Hindu Shiva Lingam and Buddhist carvings, attests to the region’s mixed heritage. The Tibetan-style roofing supposedly traces to a Tibetan princess who married a local ruler. Today, the erstwhile rulers, or mirs, of Hunza are politically sidelined. Buffalos lord over the empty swimming pool in front of the current mir’s bungalow in his absence.
Gilgit-Baltistan’s strategic location near China and India has decisively shaped its fate. On display in Baltit Fort is a centuries-old trade agreement between the ruler in Hunza and authorities in China, showcasing historic commercial links along a branch of the Silk Road that Pakistan has sought to revive. Conversely, Pakistan has tried to minimize Gilgit-Baltistan’s connections with India, since the region was once part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that India and Pakistan have bloodily contested since 1947. Islamabad bestowed a measure of self-governance on Gilgit-Baltistan in 2009, though its elected legislative assembly has little say over key industries such as minerals and tourism.
The raucous politics of down country do occasionally trickle up to Gilgit-Baltistan, complicating questions of identity. Slogans from the national elections in May marked the walls along the KKH—ranging from those of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party that holds sway at the opposite end of the country, in the port city of Karachi, to the All Pakistan Muslim League of former President Pervez Musharraf, who is held in some regard for building the Karakoram International University in Gilgit. Some use the term “Punjabi”—the majority ethnic group in Pakistan—as a catchall for anyone from down country, with hints of disdain for their unruliness and a sense of being culturally and politically distinct from them. Others—those who served in the army, for example—evince great pride in being Pakistani.
More important than belonging to the Pakistani nation for many in Gilgit-Baltistan is belonging to the Ismaili community, which follows a branch of Shia Islam led by Prince Karim Agha Khan. (When the wealthy, Western Europe-based spiritual leader had last visited the region, conducting part of his trip by helicopter, followers had carved messages of welcome into the surrounding mountains). Members of the Ismaili community donate a portion of their earnings to the Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN), which has been empowering women in a country where their education and advancement has lagged substantially behind that of men. As one AKDN official told me, “We are sitting on a population time bomb in Pakistan. We need mothers who can train their sons and we need to unlock the potential of half the country’s population.”