May 7th-11th: Karakoram Chronicles Part 5, Karimabad to Khunjerab Zero Point
May 7th-8th: Karimabad to Pasu, Jammu and Kashmir, 55km
From the fertile patchwork fields of Karimabad, the road north is dry, bleak and foreboding. Walls of jagged peaks peer over dark and scratched valley walls as our road delves between light and shade. Running off these blackened sides, we drink the spring water abundantly, in defiance of the heat of the day as the sun softens this mighty backdrop into haze. 'Relax, you're out of a landslide area,' a sign post informs us.
Layered into cracked granite slabs, a network of sandystreaks spread like shattered glass. We pass gnarled electricity pylons misshapened by random rockfall. A cold jet of wind hits us as we cross a bridge, overlooking a river that cascades over boulders into the Indus. Its flow is dark, milky and mineral laden from a melting glacier, gently bulldozing its way towards the road.
It's hard to convey the sense of refrained power in this world of extremes, to capture the solid yet precarious nature it embodies. We pause to refuel on fresh Hunza apricot jam, liberally doled out on chapati, before beginning a climb above and away from the river through a corridor that shines with black scree. The mountains have taken on a new character; steep and narrow, they rise like a king's crown, circling us as we freewheel towards the sleepy town of Passu.
I trek out with fellow traveller Viragi to Batura Glacier, a sharp hike across the moraine on a narrow and precarious path. The close-up view of this creeping and colossal river of ice is breathtaking. A network of ever changing ridges squeeze through a corridor of rock in a frozen wave, white icy peaks crunching against each other as it slowly eases forward. We listen to the trickle of melting streams running down the valley, resonating through the rockface, punctuated by the dramatic roar as vast blocks of ice overbalance and collapse, like dynamite blasts.
Across a cloudless plain that rises on either side like a huge bowl, we encounter a shepherd's hut around which a few yak and a flock of scraggly mountain goats graze. The men are in town and we're invited for tea. Stooping down through a miniature doorway, we emerge into an tiny stone room. Its roof is supported by twisted branches sinewed like a muscled thigh, pierced by shafts of light, each a beam of swirling dust in the darkness. Under food dangling from the ceiling, we huddle around an open fire and sip on milk tea, chatting in a concoction of English, Urdu and the local language. This brief encounter is the most interaction I've had with women in this country, as the old and wizened mother tries on my sunglasses and the young daughter shyly watches us from the corner of her eye. 'Are you Japanese?' they ask. My companion is German, very blond and blue eyed...
May 9th: Pasu to Sost, 40km
Sost. A border town, 90 kilometres from China. Groups of men wander its main street, chadois camiz flapping in the wind; there are no women to be seen. A few darkened shacks offer dubious food, and a throng of cheap hotels promise rooms for weary travellers, both local and foreign visitors alike. We inspect the vast range of biscuits and limited shrunken vegetables on offer then devour a potato curry, served up by a friendly hotelier, in preparation for theclimb ahead. See you tomorrow, 'Enshallah,' are their parting words.
May 10th: Sost to Koksil 70km
We've arrived in the forlorn army outpost of Koksil, a lofty 4,200m, just 17km from the border with China. We've climbed 1,500m, gently but perceptibly, through a tight valley that has now opened up into rolling, snow capped hills. The friendly Khunjerab Security Forces invite us for tea in their cosy stone room, as they radio Gilgit with their hourly updates. I feel very much at ease in this bleak and lonely landscape, where bright white peaks contrast to their dark brown bases, giants in this solitude. 'It's beautiful here,' I say. 'Not for us,' they reply. Eight months of service without their family and one month's leave must be a hard life.
We dine on cold chapati and dahl, eggs and biscuits, saving our wholesome Hunza bread for tomorrow's lunch. As I write, the sun is setting, yet at this altitude its rays are sharp as they pierce the evening clouds. The light is still clear, the snow still bright. The freshness of these high altitude plains brings a clarity to my mind. In this vast panorama the men posted here pray to Mecca, while others go about their chores, their chadois camiz supplemented by layers of jumpers, woolly socks and scarves wrapped around their faces. A soft coat of mauve spreads across the distant and rugged interlocking valleys. Behind, the snow glows a subtle orange. A thin wisp of cloud bursts with light, before suddenly extinguishing.
It's been a tiring day, and we both feel an accumulation of emotions. Cycling at different paces in these conditions can be tough. On the one hand, I'm often stopping to check all is well with Rosal; on the other, it's demoralising for her to see me lounging on a rock while I wait. We haven't encountered much traffic - a Japanese walker trekking 10,000km from Xi'an, China, to Istanbul, Turkey. A jeep driver from Chitral who rolled back his chair and insisted I rest my feet. Friendly road workers wave and greet us; a tractor is passing by, hopefully to scoop them up and take them to somewhere warm. Now that the sun has dipped behind the horizon, it's suddenly rather cold. Fingers of snow lie in valley folds and the Indus is now hemmed in by banks of ice, as it approaches its source in Tibet.
May 11th: Koksil to 'The Top' and back to Sost 104km
Top of Khunjerab Pass, 4730m. Alone with only the wind for company. A tiny red flag is fluttering on the other side of zero point, just 200m away. China. The sky is an indigo blue, the snow bleached white, from which pockets of grassland and craggy rocks peek out. Moss yellow rounded hills, polished like marble tops, gently roll into the distance, a marked contrast to the knife-like skyline which we have become used to. I await Rosal, listening to the wind, enjoying the strange combination of an icy chill on my skin relieved by a burning high altitude sun. We're joined by some Pakistani border guards, smartly uniformed, complete with mirrored shades that reflect this awesome landscape. The stirring words of Gulam Fanuque Khan are etched into the memorial stone, reminding us of the many lives laid down to build this epic road.
'The KKH... it is not a barrier against conflict and aggression, but a high road for peace and harmony. Winding through the barrier of the great Himalayas and negotiating tortuous valleys...snaking up to the roof of the world. A guiding light to the Chinese and Pakistanis who heaved and clawed at the towering heights of the Himalayas to link up the destinies of two nations.'
From here, we can look forward to 17 kilometres of switchbacks, followed by 70 kilometres of gradual descent back to Sost. A drop of two thousand metres into Northern Pakistan, before heading back to Hunza. China will have to wait for another time.