On Top of the World

Days of adventure and moments of transcendence along the Karakoram Highway

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Karakoram Highway    The Karakoram Highway:
    a feat of high-altitude engineering

BEYOND the mud-and-stone houses of the Chinese town of Tashkurghan (altitude 12,136 feet) the grassy plateau and granite-hued mountains climb into the sky. Though majestic, this view is just a preamble to the geography in Pakistan, eighty miles to the south; there the Karakoram, the Pamir, the Himalaya, and the Hindu Kush Mountains abut. Amid this jumble of ranges some thirty peaks top 22,000 feet, and even most of these are dwarfed by Rakaposhi, at 25,551 feet; Nanga Parbat, at 26,660; and K2, at 28,250, the highest mountain on earth after Everest.

Incredibly, the Chinese and the Pakistanis have blasted a road -- the Karakoram Highway -- through this territory, a feat of engineering that took twenty years and cost hundreds of lives. Inaugurated in 1982 (but not fully opened to foreigners until four years later), the highway follows the most treacherous parts of the old Silk Road, and might more accurately be described as an 800-mile track of dirt, broken asphalt, and unstable macadam. It begins in the Chinese city of Kashgar, passes through Tashkurghan, and continues south into Pakistan over the Khunjerab Pass, which, at 15,514 feet, is said to be the highest border crossing in the world. From there it winds its way down through mountains of pristine isolation and beauty, and ends in the hectic lowland cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Last spring I went to western China in order to travel the Karakoram Highway. The road from Kashgar to Tashkurghan was dusty and long, passing through dun-colored mountains whose desolation suggested the surface of the moon, but I knew that the best lay ahead, in Pakistan. I wanted to breathe the crystalline air there and gaze on cloud-laced peaks, and I looked forward to meeting the Wakhi Tadzhik inhabitants of the highway's northern reaches, who I'd been told are friendly and unjaded. The highway had other attractions as well, including rivers crashing down from glacial lees near the town of Passu, and the mist-shrouded glacier of Ultar. All in all, the Karakoram promised a combination of people and high-altitude scenery to take my breath away.

ON the morning of my departure from Tashkurghan dust twisters wandered up and down the valley, powdery snow blew across the drab earth, and the wind groaned over tinny Chinese pop songs piped onto the main street through loudspeakers on the lampposts. I was to leave on the daily bus for the Khunjerab Pass and the Pakistani town of Sust. I stood and talked, in English, with six or seven friendly traders from Lahore who were wearing oversize Reebok sneakers, Chicago Bulls caps, and regal white shalwar qamizes (their traditional knee-length shirts and baggy trousers) under down jackets. They fiddled with prayer beads and twirled Motorola beepers on chains -- for use elsewhere. Tashkurghan has no pager service.

The China-Pakistan bus rattled up an hour late, looking like a tawny ghost of itself. It was covered with dust. The engine coughed through the tailpipe, the driver coughed into his hands, and we passengers began coughing as we boarded. Having suffered through a terrible dust storm on its way in from Kashgar, the bus had a half-inch-thick layer of sand on its floor. Its seats puffed dust, and its windows were an opaque brown.

After getting through Chinese passport control we roared out onto the main road and to a checkpoint. There an officer in crisp white gloves flagged us down and hopped aboard. He squinted hard at the Pakistanis and me, and then turned and waved at a nearby bunker. A squadron of People's Liberation Army recruits jogged out in formation. They were garbed in tidy camouflage uniforms and camouflage sneakers, and carried, among other things, bushels of cauliflower, bundles of garlic, sheaves of long-rooted onions, leaking sacks of flour, boxes stuffed with red peppers. They leaped aboard and marched down the aisle, onions and garlic and flour flying onto our heads as they passed. Once they had deposited their loads in the rear, they jogged back to the bunker for more. Within minutes half the bus was piled to the roof with produce, and I found myself sharing my seat with a sack of potatoes. The commander saw this and ordered the sack removed. He sat down next to me and, smiling, companionably placed his hand on my knee. Smiling, I companionably removed it.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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