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.

We lurched ahead, puffing dust and shedding flour, along the Karakoram Highway, two-lane asphalt here, and headed up the rising plateau toward the clouds. Chunky Himalayan marmots, resembling giant golden woodchucks, bounded away as we approached; eagles dropped into our slipstream. Tadzhik adobe villages, low to the ground, marked the farthest reaches of the valley. Red-scarved shepherdesses, their cheeks sun-bronzed, their noses aquiline, stood impassive beside the road; behind them, to the north, rose the rounded, snowy Pamirs.

Two hours later we came upon a trailer marked, in English, FRONTIER DEFENSE OF CHINA. The driver halted, the soldiers made off with their foodstuffs, and we were few again.

For two more hours we trundled upward into thinning air. Passing yaks and their yaklets, we entered the clouds, our engine straining, overheating, and eventually belching steam through the access hatch next to the driver. When we hit the 15,000-foot point, I found myself gasping for breath; a giddy sense of unreality set in. The Pakistanis wrapped themselves in blankets against the cold and lowered their heads.

Finally we reached the Khunjerab Pass. A broad clearing of rock and grassy knoll spread west, populated by ibex and more yaks, by drifting clouds and wandering shafts of sunlight. Elsewhere snow-covered mountains sloped up. We dawdled in their shadow. I felt as if I were on a roller coaster at the very top of its tracks, lolling on the brink, facing the whiplash descent. We rolled forward toward a yawning ravine of black rock and snow, as vistas of clear sky, crags, and glacier unfurled. Soon after we crossed over into the left lane (in Pakistan one drives on the left), the road dipped and we lurched into descent, swinging left, veering right, careening down switchback after switchback, honking and driving yaks from the road, scattering ibex on the cliffs, flying pell-mell around bends, the driver ripping open the hatch to check the steaming engine, slamming it shut as we swung near the edge, ever wrestling with his wheel. Rocks the size of coffins littered the road; we slowed and maneuvered around them. The driver, who had been scanning the mountain walls above, jammed on the brakes and we skidded sideways. "Movement!" he shouted, looking up.

Silence prevailed, and then the roar of a river at the ravine's bottom began to filter up to us. Soon, however, we heard what sounded like another river -- overhead. Hundreds of feet above, a dust cloud danced on the slopes -- but it was not a dust cloud. Baseball-sized stones were tumbling downward, loosening basketball-sized rocks in their path. A hurly-burly of stone was in motion -- a minor avalanche that could become major. Then it swept behind a ridge and disappeared; we never saw it end or learned its fate. I later learned that two months earlier a landslide on the road just ahead of this spot had buried three trucks and killed two Chinese drivers.

"The rocks they are falling down now, sir, oh yes!" the Pakistani across the aisle said to me.

After a ten-minute wait we went on, soon accelerating to our previous daredevil pace. We sailed down through sweeps of stratified rock. One wall would catch the sun off another, glowing opalescent green and amber, and pass the reflection on down to the next stratum, in a relay race of light and luminosity attended by our engine's echoes and by occasional thunderlike rumbling from adjacent chasms.

Toward evening we reached Sust (altitude 10,160 feet).

lives in Moscow. His first book, was published last month.

Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; On Top of the World; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 42 - 48.