Nature beckons where Pakistan and China meet
IT IS the second week of November. There is silence around me; snowflakes fall gently from the sky. The day is so white - there is no other colour in sight save for my red jeep and grey jacket, as everything else is hidden under the thick snow.
There is neither a military checkpoint nor any other sign of civilisation here. This is the Pakistan-China border, and I am standing at the Khunjerab Pass while facing Pakistan's brother, China.
The Pakistani segment of the Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan to China and dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, ends here. From here, it goes through the bluish waters of the Karakul Lake, settlements of nomads and through areas harbouring wild mountainous camels with two humps, and finally ends at Kashgar.
From here, a road leads to Yarkand and another leads to the Taklamakan Desert, which is the world's second-largest desert, with its shifting sand dunes.
The border is protected with barbed wire. A flock of sheep appears in sight, moving aimlessly, and then entering the Chinese territory to graze. There is no herdsman with the flock, which is usual in the northern areas. Birds and animals respect no borders, but I have to turn back from this point.
My next destination is Attabad Lake in Hunza.
Among the blackish and forsaken mountains of Karakoram, there is a lake which came into being purely by chance. It is one of Pakistan's biggest freshwater reservoirs.
This 22km long and 67m deep lake became filled with the blue waters of the Hunza river, when a landslide blocked its flow in 2010, creating a landslide dam. Strong winds in this narrow mountain pass create ripples in the blue-green water of the lake.
With the creation of this lake, more than 18km of the Karakoram Highway became submerged, affecting road transport. Now, the only option is to cross the lake, reach the Hussaini Village and get on the highway again.
The lake is terrifying. Not only did it drown several villages and people, but it has also affected trade with China. Now, the lake has its own traffic: boats, big and small, which transport people, vehicles and goods. The sailors are happy with the money they are earning. The disaster has proven to be a tragedy for some and a blessing for others.
When the boat is fully loaded, a sailor lifts the anchor. The journey takes 45 minutes. As the boat makes a sharp turn, I see Passu Cones, a series of mountains pointed as nails.
Strong winds rock the boat, and my heart skips a couple of beats. The sailor looks at my face and smiles. I look past him at the Passu Cones, to take my mind off the fear.
The boat finally reaches the bank and everyone gets off.
I have reached the Hussaini Village. In the bright sunlight, the Passu Cones are bathed in gold.
This entire area is called Upper Hunza or Gojal. The Gojal Valley borders China and Afghanistan, with its border meeting the Chinese border at Khunjerab - 4,700m above sea level - and covered with snow all year.
In the north-west, there is Chiporsun, whose border touches the Wakhan region of Afghanistan. The Karakoram Highway also passes through Gojal Valley and enters China at Khunjerab.
Before 1974, Gojal was part of the Hunza state, and was governed by the Mir of Hunza.
Gojal's Gulmit Village was the summer capital of Hunza, where the Mir of Hunza used to hold court.
As I exit the Hussaini Village, I see children crowding the road. Golden hair, blue eyes and faces so red they could outshine apricots. Riding along the river, I reach Gulmit, Gojal's most populated village.
It is autumn and it feels as if the entire village is asleep in the cool afternoon. The wind blows the leaves from trees, and this is the only sound I can hear.
The Passu Cones are in sight constantly. The fields have been harvested and the farmers are resting in their homes. I pass a few elderly women, wearing traditional caps, followed by little children. In reply to my salutations, I receive countless prayers. When my jeep moves forward, I can see the children waving in my rear-view mirror.
Just 1km ahead, the Borith Lake appears. There is an old hotel at the shore of the lake, the taste of its food still fresh in my memory. There is tall grass along the shore; in the backdrop are snow-covered mountains, their reflection casting a spectacular white in the murky water. Four waterhens float lazily on the surface.
In the past, the lake was home to wildlife and migrating birds, but now, the lake is gradually drying up.
An elderly man comes out of the hotel, welcomes me and says: "Terrorism has badly affected tourism. Not many people visit such faraway lands now. Once in a blue moon, there's a random traveller, who becomes the source of my bread. You must click some nice photographs and show them to the world, so that tourism once again gains momentum. Come, I will feed you some great meals." His sweet bribe makes me teary as I smile at him in response.
A Danish girl approaches me and we start talking - she is a doctorate student who is doing a thesis on climate changes in the Karakoram Mountain range. She tells me that she likes the lake so much that she has been staying at the lake for the past three months.
When I am about to leave, she says: "Your country is beautiful, do go to the Batura Glacier if you happen to visit the Passu Village, I have seen swans gathering on the white snow of the glacier."
My driver is astounded by her revelation and tells me: "Sahib, I've been living in this area since forever. I have never seen swans on the glacier."
Darkness is enveloping the valley as our jeep enters Passu Village. I check in at a hotel and rest for a while before stepping out.
Outside, people have decorated their homes and worship places. Men, women, children and elders all walk towards the Jamat Khana for the birth anniversary of their religious leader. The night is cold but the people are out in the streets in high spirits. The sky is decorated with stars and the homes with lamps.
In the morning, I witness the same joy and fervour as the previous night. It is just like Eid ul Fitr. Faces filled with happiness, toys in hands, prayers on lips. This autumnal morning in Passu seems even more beautiful. I have to leave this beautiful place, even though I really do not want to.
Along the route from Passu to Sost, there is a jeep road leading to Shimshal. This is a vast area, and its borders touch both China and Baltistan.
Due to the different terrain, it was disconnected from the rest of the world until a jeep road was built here.
Shimshal is famous for producing the country's finest mountaineers, including Samina Baig, who is the first Pakistani woman to have climbed Mount Everest.
Sost, the last town in Pakistan, is filled with motor workshops. There is no other settlement along the Karakoram Highway when you leave Sost for China. After Sost, there is the Khunjerab Pass. Apart from the Pakistan Customs office, there is a dry port in Sost, where goods to and from China are stored.
A large number of traders and labourers from different parts of Pakistan dwell here, which has given rise to more economic activities more than other places in the region. After Sost, a jeep road leads to the Chiporsun Valley. Its north-western part is connected to Afghanistan's Wakhan area through the Irshad Pass.
Khunjerab is the last Pakistani territory. The name literally translates to "stream of blood".
It is said that an ancient psychic had once prophesied that a battle would be fought here, and that the bloodshed would be so great that the horse riders' feet would be dripping with blood. This region is home to several rare creatures, including snow leopards, bears and the golden eagle.
At Khunjerab, the snowfall is constant, enveloping streams, springs, roads, mountains, everything. I look up at the sky, and soon my eyelashes are covered with snow. As I wipe my eyes, my driver says: "Sahib, Pakistan ends here, let's go back home."
He turns our jeep around and I say to him: "Sharif, Pakistan doesn't end, it begins here."
On my right, there is a sign which reads: "Welcome to Pakistan."
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK