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.