Part III - Hunza, Pakistan, across the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar, China
Tupopdan, 6,106 metres, also known as "Passu Cones" or "Passu Cathedral", lies to the north of Passu village; it is the most photographed peak of the region, apparently.
Passu Glacier, also known as White Glacier. The nearby Batura Glacier is know as Black Glacier and is one of the longest glaciers in the world outside of the Polar regions.
Day five | 8 September | Karimabad to Passu, Hunza, Pakistan
In 1974 there was a flash flood of the Hunza River reaching high up into Passu town and eroding much of the land along the banks of the river. As a result of the damage to property, there was a huge out-migration from Passu, resulting in a drop in population of five times. Passu has never recovered and now is a very small collection of houses surrounded by agricultural land on the river side and huge mountains and glaciers in all directions. This area is the most heavily glaciated region outside of the Polar zones!
It was a few hours from Karimabad in a minibus heading North to Passu, arriving in the afternoon. The scenery along the way continued to dazzle with mountains that defied comprehension. We were dropped in Passu and easily found the one and only hotel in the village, run by a friendly local family just by the side of the Karakarom Highway. They served us a really excellent Pakistani meal - one of the best I've had in my two years here.
We then set out for a walk up into the hills. Although not particularly steep, it was a good few hours uphill on the slate rocks that littered the hillside; for every two steps up, it was one slide back down. Wherever we looked, huge mountains spread out in every direction. Towards the top of the first large hill, we found a well-made path that led us to the south side of Passu Glacier and wound high up along the mountain side.
The path was beautifully made - flat with slate slabs and with a bubbling water channel running alongside it, fed with run off from the glacier. It was such a quaint path and looked like it belonged in a manicured English garden. Take your eyes off the path, however, and plummeting below and to the right was a deep gorge carved out over millennia and Passu Glacier. The glacier was a mass of jagged and razor sharp ice-teeth, almost glowing a bright blue in the crevices. We could see that the glacier had visibly shrunk by several hundred meters, where it ended in a brown pool of glacial run off and moraine. Higher up above us, the top of the glacier disappeared into the distance, below the massive Passu Sar, or Passu Peak.
We continued up along the charming path until we hit a small pool from where the path ascended steeply towards the peak. We stopped here as it was becoming late and took a few minutes to build a cairn from pebbles and appreciate the beauty and magnitude of the ice before us.
We descended back down the path, heading right on a jeep track past several small stone huts before coming across a village and, finally, Borit Late. From here it was a short walk downhill to Hussaini Village.
Dusk was descending and we hurried on to make it to the "Indian Jones" bridge that traverses the Hunza River. We reached the bridge just as it was becoming dark; it was just light enough to understand the danger of crossing such a bridge. A similar bridge running alongside it had fallen into disrepair with planks and wires hanging in the fast flowing river below. The bridge in use didn't seem far off a similar fate. It was essentially made of wire rope comprising the foundations of the bridge and the hand rails, with old pieces of wood twisted into the wire at a considerable distance from one another, so that one had to walk, tight rope-like, on the wires between the plants. It was long - maybe 100m - and the far end could barely be seen in the dim light. I was tired and grumpy and only dared a few meters along it, while Luc went all the way to the other end and back.
We met a couple on our way back. They had a house in Hussaini but cultivated land on the other side of the river, across the bridge, where a small village lay. Given that the bridge was the only means of access, no cars or heavy equipment could be available in that small village.
It was now dark and a long way back to Passu and our hotel. There was barely any cars on the Karakoram Highway - the only road connecting Hussaini and Passu - but we were lucky. After a few minutes a car passed us and stopped to give us a lift. The driver was also willing to act as a taxi driver for our trip to Sost tomorrow. It turns out he had worked for a while for some NGOs after the earthquake (like so many Pakistani's we've met) and spoke good English.
Day six | 9 September | Passu, Pakistan, across Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar, China
A long, long day of travel awaited us this day. We were welcomed by freshly snow powdered mountains across the Hunza River when we emerged into the crisp morning air at 6:30 am. We breakfasted on paratha, omelette and gruel-like porridge which chacha (Uncle in Urdu) had kindly made for us, and our driver arrived as promised.
We packed into the small Suzuki with Miro and Vera, a Slovakian couple staying in the same hotel, for the trip to Afiyatabad, also known as Sost. Sost is the village directly before the Khunjerab National Park and the border crossing to China.
The view during the journey was of looming rocky mountains and the constant peeking out of snow-capped giants beyond. It took about one hour to get to Sost. Part of the village was located on the other side of the Hunza River and looked just like all the other peaceful villages we had seen. The part we saw, however, was a bunch of shops and truck stops located along the Karakoram Highway.
We bought our bus tickets for the crossing (1200 PKR each) and changed some money into Reminbi. We had to wait 40 minutes or so for customs to open. We got our bags checked then loaded onto a bus - us at the front, one Turkish tourist with his Pakistani guide behind, and the rest of the passengers Pakistani - mostly Northern Area people who get a special pass to travel more easily into China, but also a few Peshawaris who were checked much more thoroughly than the rest of us. We took a 2 minute ride up the road to the immigration office, where we got our passports checked and stamped. We were then on our way!
We soon entered the Khunjerab National Park (USD4 each - only USD accepted). The valley here was very narrow and prone to landslides. We wove our way around long Chinese trucks heading for the border and slowly up into the higher mountains. We were lucky to be sitting at the front, with fantastic views of the narrow gorge we drove through and then of the colourful and lightly snow-powdered mountains of yellows, reds and oranges. As we neared the border, we passed a herd of well-camouflaged Ibex.
At the border, a no-man's land with barbed wire fencing, it was snowing. A spectacular vista of mist, meadows, snow and mountains. We stopped for a short while on the Pakistani side - waiting for something though I never found out what - and then drove across. It might be something to do with being Australian (and the absence of international land border crossings over there), but even after all my travels, I still find land borders something mystical and thrilling to cross. To drive across a line and pass from one country to the next.... wow!
The border crosses at Khunjerab Pass (4693m), which is the highest point of the Karakoram Highway, as well as the highest international border crossing in the world. The border road was completed in 1982 and is usually closed 6 months of the year due to the extreme weather.
The no-man's land of the border crossing at Khunjerab Pass
Saying farewell to Pakistan
We were both thrilled to arrive in China! We got off the bus just across the border where it stopped, and took some photos with a bunch of Chinese tourists who had come to the border for the same purpose. Two things were immediately striking; one was the transition from potholes to a velveteen smooth road; second was the unfriendliness and strictness of the Chinese military as we went through customs.
Chinese soldiers on the way down from the pass.
The scenery on the way down towards Taxkorgan was spectacular. The high mountains opened up to wide, green plateaus sprinkled with Tajik nomads and crumbling villages. In the distance grew huge mountains.
Taxkorgan is a one horse town and the site of the official immigration and customs. The Pakistanis had their bags checked thoroughly, but Luc and I glided through. While I was experiencing my first rural Chinese toilet (never experienced anything like them, before or since), Luc got talking with some Pakistani businessmen and we agreed to share a 4x4 to Kashgar leaving after a Pakistani meal we shared together.
The sun set soon after we left and much of the eight hour journey was completed in darkness. It involved one or two passport checks before arrival after midnight in Kashgar.
Our first impression upon arriving in the city was that of an absence of anything non-Chinese. You arrive in a fabled Silk Road city, home to a large ethnic minority of Uighurs and thousands of kilometers from Beijing, and you expect a slightly different feel. However, it was all large streets with people on bicycles and big ugly buildings with too much neon. We hadn't known what to expect but it wasn't this!
After getting a hotel room - which shocked us price-wise after Pakistani prices - we found a nearby Uighur restaurant still open where we had noodles with veggies and meat. Finally, an exhausted sleep after this massive day of travel.