September 25, 2013

The Highest Highway: The road to Gilgit

I got picked up at my uncle’s house in Islamabad at 10:40pm (40 minutes late) in a 90′s Toyota Landcruiser. My driver, the reincarnation of Speed Racer, drove with such reckless abandon around blind turns that I began mentally preparing myself for an accident. My seatbelt stayed on the entire night.

We passed through now infamous Abbottabad (actually a nice town) and made a quick tea and bathroom stop shortly after passing Mansehra. Driving through Chilas in the dark, we turned left on the Karakoram Highway (KKH). The KKH is the highest paved road in the world and runs 1,300km through Pakistan and China. It is sometimes referred to as the 8th wonder of the world.

Shortly before dawn we stopped at a trucker’s stop constructed of mud and corrugated metal. Inside there were two truck drivers asleep on thin mats placed on an elevated platform. They were so tightly wrapped in blankets that they resembled mummies. At this point we were only 1.5 hours from the Babausar Pass (13,700 ft) so it was quite cold. We huddled around the mud oven and chatted with the proprietor and his son for a while before ordering breakfast. The air inside was thick with smoke from the wood burning oven. I remembered a project I briefly worked on in Guatemala in 2008 where these type of ovens were being replaced with a new design that dramatically reduced indoor air pollution and respiratory illnesses. Breakfast was fried eggs with paratas and chapatis, and lots of tea. We ate sitting cross legged on the platform next to the mummified truckers. Not only was it delicious, but at $3.80 for 4 people, extremely cheap. Just like with a tea stop we made earlier, one of the passengers paid for the whole group. I was impressed with and touched by the friendliness, respect and generosity with which the 3 other passengers treated each other and me, sharing snacks, cigarettes and gum. These were good people.

Shortly after driving over the Babusar pass, which offered a breathtaking panorama of the Kaghan valley, I got my first glimpse of Nanga Parbat. I felt like a newborn, in that my testicles retracted back into my body, and they did so with the speed of a mantis shrimp punch (fastest punch in the natural world). So fearsome a sight was the 9th tallest mountain in the world that any aspirations I had of doing serious mountaineering evaporated in that instant. Only a madman would want to set foot on that tremendous mass of death. From the craggy ridges near its peak hectares of ice sheets are blasted into the surrounding sky by pulverizing winds. It looks peaceful from afar but anyone with a sense of scale will realize that cold merciless fury resides above and to meet it would mean a miserable and hopeless death.

The KKH near Gilgit was buzzing with activity. We passed dozens of crews clearing rockfalls and repairing damage to the road from recent earthquakes. The region is earthquake prone as it sits on the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates. When India separated from Africa 140 million years ago (when it was part of the supercontinent Gondwana together with modern Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and South America) it made its way NNE with a slight counterclockwise rotation until it hit Eurasia. India was moving at 20cm/year, extremely fast for a tectonic plate. When it collided with Eurasia around 50 million years ago, it formed the Himalayas, the most awesome mountain range in the world.

But back to the roads – not only are they being repaired but they’re also being widened 3x to facilitate greater trade volume with China, especially as efforts are underway to connect the Gwadar Port (which just got struck by its own earthquake yesterday that apparently created a new Island nearby) to Lhasa, which is already connected to Beijing by rail. China is very keen on this happening and it shows. Chinese text can be seen on machinery or tents at just about every other worksite along the highway, signifying their involvement on the Pakistan side of the project.

Arriving in Gilgit at 1:00pm, I checked into the Madina 2 hotel ($18 incl bfast). This was me treating myself as acceptable rooms with private baths were available for $7 at two other places. But because of how shitty I felt after the 14 hour road journey, and the fact that we are at this point waaay under budget on our round the world (RTW) trip, I decided to go upscale. And then I fell into the longest sleep I’ve had in a long time.

Tomorrow we go equipment shopping in the Gilgit market!