Day 3: Over the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan
What a day! Today I achieved a long-time ambition of traveling over the Karakoram Highway from China to Pakistan, a dream I had since a guy called Christian (whose apartment I took over in Baden) first told me about it as he departed Switzerland to bicycle to Delhi via Central Asia and through the Karakoram.
The day started with the old army adage “hurry up and wait”. We headed over to the Chinese immigration and customs post in Tashkurgan straight after breakfast, but the Chinese officials were a little lazy coming in for work (blame it on the Mid-Autumn Festival festivities the night before – too much moon cake) and we were forced to wait out in the sun for a good hour and a half past opening time. The following hour and a half were a shining example of Chinese inefficiency and ineptitude, but by 1pm (Beijing time, 10am Pakistan time) we were back on the bus and awaiting our military escort to the border/pass. Due to the instability in nearby Afghanistan (accessible via the famous Wakhan corridor) and recent troubles with the Uighur in Xinjiang, it’s now impossible to travel independently over the Khunjerab Pass – to the disappointment of a French cyclist, who was forced to put his bike on the bus and travel that way rather than under his own power. We therefore had to wait for the other buses to be processed, and then traveled in convoy south towards the pass.
It’s a good 100+km from Tashkurgan to the Khunjerab Pass, through a wide valley flanked by the Karakoram and Pamir mountain ranges and dotted with rather bleak-looking Tajik villages and the odd yurt. The altitude rose gradually, and it was only just a couple of kilometers short of the pass that we hit a set of switchbacks. After a final security checkpoint at 4600m we were left on our own to drive the remaining distance to the Khunjerab Pass at 4730m! The thin air left us breathless but the views of snow-capped mountains and glaciers coming almost to the road more than made up for it. We spent a few minutes at the pass for the ubiquitous photos, and our Pakistani representatives were there to meet us.
The less-than-convincing Khunjerab Security Force (KSF) failed to meet us at the pass, so we began the descent down the Khunjerab by ourselves. It’s along this section of the KKH that the Chinese builders really earned their keep over the 20 years it took to construct this engineering marvel (at the expense of a life per kilometre!), as the road plunges down a frightful set of switchbacks and cuts into the cliff side high above the river below and with near vertical mountains above. We had to weave between minor rockfalls on the road, but all in all I was surprised by the good condition of it.
First stop was a KSF checkpoint, whee we had our first exposure to Pakistan bureaucracy which clearly follows the Indian and British Imperial model. With time to burn we had an impromptu tea party by the river, and after another hour or so we were on our way further down the valley to Sost to get our visas and clear customs – I won’t get into the details but you can imagine how that went, even when palms were greased with a ludicrous $150 per visa!
Near Sost we passed the rather sad roadside spectacle of a caged snow leopard. She had been found some 18 months ago as a cub abandoned in the river, and while the locals had plans for a conservation effort in the meantime this beautiful animal was being kept in less-than-ideal conditions. I was however curious to see this oh-so-rare animal, and I wasn’t disappointed: beautiful soft colorings, smaller than I thought, with a long bushy spotted tail about the length of the body.
We made it to Passu around sunset at 7pm pretty exhausted from the day’s travels, and after dinner and a beer to celebrate making it to Pakistan while looking across the river at the jagged ridge above us we headed to bed fairly early.