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.”
CIQAM, a vocational program in Altit that trains women in carpentry, land surveying, electrical work, and design and drafting, represents real progress—though the resulting changes to social norms are at times creating divisions within households and marriages. The services of trainees are now employed, for example, in constructing furniture for one of Pakistan’s leading hotel chains, the AKDN-owned Serena Hotel. AKDN and other organizations also offer educational services, resulting in a reported literacy rate of around 90 percent in Hunza compared to the national average of under 55 percent. When a friend and I visited one of the schools in Altit, we were invited to address an intent group of middle school students sitting cross-legged on the roof, engrossed in a talent show. My friend exhorted them to focus on their education and recalled an oft-cited saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” “In your case,” my colleague joked, “you don’t have to go too far!”
As AKDN and foreign donors have provided services that the Pakistani state has largely failed to deliver, some in Gilgit-Baltistan and down country have grown concerned about, as one tour guide told me, a “parallel state” in the region. Locals described in hushed tones the omnipresence of Pakistan’s feared intelligence service given the area’s high geopolitical profile. More questions and conspiracy theories swirled following the attack on the mountaineers at Nanga Parbat.
It’s the kind of cloak-and-dagger meddling with which locals are all too familiar.
Once upon a time, Gilgit-Baltistan was center stage in the so-called “Great Game” between the British Empire and Czarist Russia, which came within mere miles of each other in the upper reaches of the subcontinent. Famously memorialized in Rudyard Kipling’s classic Kim and revitalized in Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, the phrase “Great Game” has entered the local lexicon. Kipling and Hopkirk’s works are displayed in Karimabad’s bookstores. And now, a “New Great Game” is afoot in the region, as a high school student, a tour guide, and a journalist put it in separate conversations with me. The players this time around: America and China.
I resumed my journey on the KKH pondering this New Great Game, and China’s ancient shadow over the region. The KKH, after all, is just a modern manifestation of a branch of the Silk Road that long connected China with the subcontinent. In the seventh century, the Chinese monk Xuanzang famously traversed this route on his pilgrimage to India to study Buddhism. Building a road on such treacherous terrain and at so high an altitude is a legendary feat of engineering in its own right. With ties cemented in common hostility toward India, China and Pakistan jointly constructed the highway over three decades, completing the project in 1978, at the cost of not just treasure but also blood (900 lives were lost). Today the KKH is hailed as a symbol of China and Pakistan’s “all-weather” friendship; a Pak-China Friendship Tunnel burrowed in the mountains drives home the point.
This close relationship has occasionally given China pause; In the 1990s, for instance, Beijing periodically closed the KKH to demand that Islamabad get serious about preventing the highway from becoming a conduit of drugs, arms, and militancy for China’s restive Xinjiang region. But the highway has aroused greater concern in Delhi and to some extent in Washington. India views China’s push into South Asia through large-scale infrastructure projects such as the KKH as an alarming and unwarranted intrusion into its regional sphere—let alone one in an area to which it lays claim. Analysts in the United States have emphasized the importance of China’s toehold in Pakistan both in Gilgit-Baltistan in the north and in Balochistan in the southwest, where Beijing has financed and operates the Gwadar Port. These moves are perceived to be part of China’s larger effort to expand its reach and influence beyond its borders, at America’s expense. Listen closely, and you can hear the rumblings of the New Great Game.
For Pakistan, however, the KKH represents the promise of jumpstarting its economy by plugging into China’s. The same week that I was traveling along the KKH, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in Beijing touting a Pak-China Economic Corridor through upgrades to the KKH—a “game changer” that would rapidly bolster anemic trade relations. Three speed bumps for the plan were apparent as I rode along the KKH itself, however. The first is security, given a steady uptick in attacks on Chinese nationals in the area, including at Nanga Parbat. (One prevailing theory in Hunza at the time of my visit was that the timing of the attack against the mountaineers at Nanga Parbat, right before Sharif’s visit to Beijing, suggested that the Americans were out to undermine Chinese-Pakistani relations.)