The second is economics. Local traders along the KKH expressed concern about Chinese goods flooding the market and China benefitting disproportionately from the economic cooperation; Pakistani fruit, for instance, cannot be readily exported to China because of quarantine restrictions, whereas Chinese fruit can freely enter Pakistan. Nonetheless, many saw the Chinese market as a tremendous long-term opportunity. One trader had just returned from Kashgar, where the Chinese government was setting up a mall and offering Pakistani businessmen rent-free space for three years to sell their wares. Others pined for Chinese tourism, noting the mere trickle of Chinese tourists in the region relative to their size and proximity.
Yet perhaps the biggest impediment to the envisioned corridor, as readily apparent on the KKH, is Mother Nature. An hour north of Hunza, the highway abruptly vanishes. It lies beneath Attabad Lake—a body of water created by a landslide in 2010 that dammed the Hunza River and wiped out entire villages. Goods going between Pakistan and China on the KKH are now loaded onto boats, which take roughly 45 minutes to cross Attabad; when we made our way across the sparkling blue lake, a beautiful floating graveyard, Chinese Kunlun brand tires were headed down country.
Evidence of Chinese influence is everywhere along the KKH—from road signs with messages such as “Quality Is Life” and “Safety Weighs Greater Than Mountains” to Chinese items on restaurant menus. Crews from China’s Road and Bridge Construction Company, some dressed in fatigues, were hard at work. Their metallic camps off the KKH are cordoned off, and security details now shadow them in the wake of several incidents targeting the 10,000 Chinese nationals working on projects throughout Pakistan, from the Gwadar Port to the Gomal Zam Dam. Given the security and language barriers, “Pak-Cheen dosti” (Pakistan-China friendship) is on thin air at 14,000 feet, and the Chinese units remain aloof from locals. When I asked one crew in rusty Mandarin to move its steamroller so we could make our way to the border, the site manager shot off a list of grievances—from stomach sickness to a disdain for Pakistanis who could not build their own roads. All-weather friends, it seems, is all well and good in the temperature-controlled halls of Islamabad and Beijing. Relationships exposed to the elements day in and day out are a different story.
As we made our final push to the border, we passed through the dry port of Sost—a shanty town that had seen its share of South Korean and Japanese tourists judging from the writings on the walls of motels. Pakistani and Chinese trucks unload their wares in Sost and hand them off to nationals of the other country. We wound our way through the Khunjerab National Park, which boasts wildlife ranging from the Himalayan ibex and snow leopards to golden marmots and giant vulture-like birds. Suddenly, the terrain flattened. Before us stood China.
The China-Pakistan border area is starkly beautiful, as desolate as it is randomly placed amid the heedless mountain ranges. A plaque on the Pakistani side describes the construction of the KKH in the typically overwrought rhetoric of Chinese-Pakistani relations, noting that “the stony silence of Khunjerab was broken by mellifluous sound of spaces.”
Grappling with altitude sickness, we trudged over to the Chinese marker, capped with the seal of the People’s Republic. Not a soul was present except the guard on the Pakistani side. The silence contrasted sharply with the noise of the Wagah-Attari crossing between Pakistan and India. Every evening, during the change of the guard ceremony, Indian and Pakistani border guards glare at each other and race to lower their flags in a faux competition set to the jingoistic cheers of spectators on either side of the border. At both crossings, Pakistan’s lack of trade with its neighboring economic giant is evident. Here, the stark geographic and cultural divides between the two countries, despite close political ties, were also on display. As we made our way back down the KKH, I looked back one last time. Twisting in the wind, I could make out flags—the red and yellow of China, the green and white of Pakistan. They were mere specks lost in a sea of mountains.
My return to Islamabad was disorienting. I gave a talk at a local think tank on the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia” and how Pakistan relates to and can leverage the economic dynamism of the Asia-Pacific region. But the conversation quickly turned inward to terrorism—not surprising given that the scourge remains painfully real, having claimed nearly 50,000 lives since 9/11 (just two days earlier, I had been 10 minutes away from a blast in Lahore’s Purani Anarkali market).
I left the event frustrated by my inability to get a seasoned audience of diplomats, journalists, and academics to think beyond today’s threats to tomorrow’s opportunities. Perhaps, I thought harshly, Pakistanis have bought into the same security-centric conception of themselves that they chide the West for promoting. Might that explain the prominent display books such as Blackwater and Manhunt get in Islamabad’s bookstores?
Yet the KKH breaks this mold. Despite echoes of terrorism and the murder on the roof of the world, it represents so much more: an instrument of grand strategy; an overlook on a rising China; a portal to Mother Nature; a lesson in development; and a channel through everyday lives and aspirations. Thinking of the starry sky above the highway—viewed alike by those hapless mountaineers, homesick Chinese, and women of CIQAM, hammering away—countless narratives suddenly seem within reach.