Posted by: lrrp | October 1, 2004

On the border of vast vistas

In this concluding article chronicling recent travels through Pakistan’s ancient Silk Road routes, Nishy Wijewardane enters the high Khunjerab Pass, the final border pass between Pakistan and China, and starts on the ancient road to Kashgar in former Chinese

Turkestan.

The Khunjerab Pass, a national reserve of Pakistan spanning 2270 sq km, forms a bleak but scenic ‘No Man’s Land’ (more aptly one feels it is more a nomads’ land) of sorts as it straddles Pakistan and China. Originally the Pass was under the control of the Mirs of Hunza who controlled all hunting and grazing rights; more recently, since the 1970s, it has been administered by the central government.

Having left Pakistan’s border checkpoint town of Sost, my wife and I boarded a creaky old Toyota Land Cruiser managed by NATCO, the public transport service that operated quite smoothly in Pakistan’s northern areas. Indeed the manner in which the NATCO deputy manager in Gilgit, Arifkamal Rathore, shrugged off expectant private drivers and ensured that we travelled on modest rates was exemplary of the roadside hospitality we encountered for travellers on this mountainous route.

Packed in with six other passengers, local and foreign, and a considerable amount of luggage, the Land Cruiser creaked off. Some hours later, I was to learn to my great interest that the two jovial apricot-chewing Pakistani businessmen (with briefcases, a slightly odd corporate accessory in this environment) on the front seat were veteran, modern Silk Road traders, making this journey each month, weather permitting, in a yearly $300,000 silk purchasing venture. The silk bales that they purchased from buying centres across Xinjiang are sold in Pakistani cities to eager local markets. Nothing, it seemed to me, had changed much. Moreover, it was interesting to also learn that both Pakistani and Chinese customs apparently allowed barter trades in lorry cargos to be done on this route, keeping no doubt to the spirit of the past.

From Sost (at about 3100m or 10,200 feet), the road ascends and the temperature drops, as the air gets increasingly chillier. From the narrower V-shaped confines of most valleys along the central Karakoram, the Khunjerab valleys soon opened up in ‘steppe’ fashion in many parts of the Pass, rendering us with vast vistas of the surrounding landscape unlike any scale visible in Sri Lanka. Small objects gradually took shape on closer approach: a solitary black blip in the far distance gradually transformed into a yak, grazing peacefully in an isolated and silent landscape, interrupted only by the irregular howl of winds sweeping the plateaus and nipping at my ears. The animal was soon joined further on with a few more fellow yaks, their long shaggy manes bristling in the wind and making them impervious to the cold air. Later, my gaze was distracted by a sudden blur in an otherwise perfectly still scene: the head of golden marmot, a small cat sized rodent akin to a beaver or rock hyrax, popped up from its burrows on the plains and it darted across the plain, disturbed by our presence.

The area is also home to the rarer snow leopard of whom several thousands are said to exist across the remote ranges according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) officials I met on the route (and further confirmed by conversations with fur sellers in Kashgar who appear not to be short of their pelts and regard them as pests). The Khunjerab is also renowned for its large, curly horned Marco Polo sheep, of which a few hundred survive, as well as Himalayan ibex -the most popular icon of ancient graffiti, which I have seen etched in the rocks from the lower Karakorams to central Kyrgyzstan-and wolves.

After several hours of breathtaking scenery, the land began to level out and the steppe grasslands, increasingly snow covered since we left Sost, now gave way to sheetlike ice plains. The Land Cruiser, somewhat amazingly, carried on regardless of the thinning air. I sensed we were nearing the head of the Khunjerab Pass, at least at road level. Finally, in broad sunshine, cloudless blue skies and blinding reflected light from the white landscape, we began to see in the distance a strange man-made feature, a long fence, which symbolized the official Chinese line of control on its westernmost lands. We arrived at the border at midday on the world’s highest metalled ‘public’ road and one crossing a border, at almost 4800 m (16,000 feet), over thrice the height of Nuwara Eliya.

The ride up to this point although a gradual one, suddenly made one aware of the elevation as a mild but persistent headache took over. Getting down from the cramped jeep after numerous bends, my head, more accustomed to coastal elevations (although it has ascended Mt. Kenya to a similar elevation), suddenly swam dizzily in the thin air, losing its sense of balance, and this made walking on the icy road bordered by thick snow a precarious experience. However, I could soon stop and rest easily: the approaching Chinese border police, consisting of young boys in smart green and red capped uniforms and a brisk air about them, kept travellers waiting a good two hours while formalities were completed, traveller by traveller. Luggage was inspected and poked and passports checked courteously and formally. My wife and I apparently were the first (perhaps at least amongst the very few historically) Sri Lankans to cross over according to the interested authorities in Colombo and here on this bleak border. Warmly welcomed, but still in snow covered terrain, we had crossed over into the vast desert province of Xinjiang! Ahead of us, much lower down in elevation, lay a more visible fusion of culture and ethnic groups than seen in a more uniform Pakistan, and a distinctly different kind of landscape.

Descending into Xinjiang

Still remaining in our public transport jeeps (a two jeep convoy for safety), we drove towards the first Chinese town of Tashkurgan, several hours away. The road was smooth, as in the Pakistan sector, and endlessly pursued mountains and spring-flowered plains, but it ran noticeably in more steppe country than in the former V-shaped Hunza region. This was essentially Tajik country in all but name, with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and its peoples exerting distinct influences and a reminder that modern boundaries are only pencil deep. Nomadic horse-backed herders appeared in the distances, rustling small dots that are livestock, yaks or dzu (yak/cow), a scene unchanged for centuries. Here and there but across vast distances, yurts (circular tents made of heavy felts and cloth draped on a rib of cross-hatched roped sticks) could be seen with wisps of smoke emanating from the circular chimney holes in the middle. On closer approach, small children could be glimpsed, playing with rudimentary toys often homemade wheeled toys made of sticks, wheels and planks and almost unchanged from some ancient toys I had seen in the Taxila Museum.

Despite the good road conditions, our jeep twice experienced flat tyres, which said more for the poor condition of the tyres rather than the road. We were stranded each time in beautiful, isolated landscapes without a spare tyre in the first instance, an unbelievable and then unnerving fact considering the remote terrain we had been covering, and, in the second instance, without a jack! On the second flat tyre, to the consternation of all, a sudden fist fight arose between the driver and the hitherto jovial Pakistani silk traders – it seemed to me that the latter were irate and indignant at having been asked to help once more due to the lack of accessories, seen as the driver’s negligence.

In the ensuing road fight set against such a tranquil landscape, I intervened, albeit helplessly in English, to try to pacify the warring parties, taking care not to be assaulted myself in the middle, but not before the poor driver had been beaten up. Concentrating attention on the deflated and rim-damaged tyre, I finally managed to rally around all manpower (in the discriminated sense of the word) to lift the vehicle while the driver quickly sought refuge under the jeep and proceeded to pile up stones to prop up the rear axle. A little while later, thanks to the Chinese Police escort that curiously chaperoned us throughout our journey between the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Pass and Tashkurgan, we soon had some company – moral support in this crisis – and were on our way without too much delay (nightfall would bring a sudden subzero drop in temperature and a dangerous exposure in this region).

Tashkurgan (or “Stone Tower”) is a border town at 3600 m (11,900 feet) boasting more modern infrastructure than those villages or hamlets on the Pakistan side. For reasons unfamiliar, although our passports were checked in the Khunjerab Pass Chinese Customs point, and perhaps once more subsequently, we were to undergo a rigid airport style passport and baggage check again in Tashkurgan. Thereafter, perhaps, one was truly “free” to travel in China. Though functionally equivalent to Sost, the Chinese authorities seem to have, almost vindictively, established two storey formal buildings and wide modern roads in this town, which sits in a pleasant valley.

For all its modernity, the town is ancient; it is referred to often as far back as 140 AD by Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, and his references are based in turn on earlier merchants’ accounts. Interestingly, according to a modern scholar (J.Tucker), Ptolemy’s accounts mention that the journey between modern day Xian (a source of silk) in middle China and Syria was about 11,000 kms in length. A mid point in this crossing between China and the West was Tashkurgan’s Stone Tower, at the edge of the Pamir mountain range; historical records suggest the journey between the Tower and Xian (through the Taklamakan rim, and one which I was to follow in large part) took about seven months.This would suggest to me that the ancient caravans could average around 26 km a day in often-hostile terrain, or a modest 2 km per hour night-time or daytime travel, depending on the climatic conditions of the day as it affected animals, humans and access to water. Today, one could probably do the same in about 11 days by road, in haste and weather permitting.

Tashkurgan is also home to a historic tale of a Persian king (date unknown) who took a Han Chinese princess from the east as a bride; the prospective bride in the course of her journey to meet her husband had taken refuge from bandits in the region by staying at a mountain peak in Tashkurgan. Finding herself embarrassingly pregnant, purportedly by the Sun God according to her, she resorted to taking up residence in a castle subsequently built for her by her frightened retinue. (Modern day Tashkurgan offers an enticing citadel, “The Princess Castle”, although archaeologists date this to 1279-1368 AD). Her son was to reign over the lands here and his remains, undecomposed in this dry atmosphere, are said to have been seen at a cave by the great Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, in 644AD. Xuanzang himself was accosted by bandits and at the nearby Tangitar Gorge, his white elephant (given as a gift by an Indian King, Harsha, to carry Buddhist relics from India back to China) was drowned. One might speculate hopefully that in this dry atmosphere, the elephant bones may still be intact, somewhere, but no finds have yet been reported.

Just before Tashkurgan, the Karakoram Highway deviates into the Wakhan Corridor to Afghanistan, another reminder of the extraordinary crossroads nature of this region.

The ancient road

to Kashgar

After our evening arrival into Tashkurgan from Sost, and clearance from Customs, we were faced with the difficult task of finding accommodation. It necessitated walking about 2-3 km into town at midnight, with heavy rucksacks and in the safety of a few foreigners, but fortunately under an unusually light night sky and on broad town roads devoid of vehicles. A surprising amount of human activity was visible at such a late hour, from gossiping rural elders to young couples on scooters. After much deliberation, and no English whatsoever, I managed to find a local room – the landlady promptly evicted the poor occupant (a visiting salesman?) in our favour for RMB 30 ($3.5). After a memorable night in one of the dirtiest accommodations ever experienced, we fled at first light to board a local Chinese bus for the 300 km winding journey down to Kashgar, which follows the ancient Silk Road. Later, we learnt that we had been a stone’s throw from better accommodation but in our exhaustion, further exploration was impossible.

The scenery was finally to change as we traversed from highland steppes, home to massive Pamir peaks such as Mount Kongur and Muztagh Ata (“the ice mountain”, with iced sides glistening in the sunlight), each towering over 7500 m (25,000 ft), gradually past the Karakol Lake (3800 m (12,500 ft), known to freeze over even in summer) and lush pasture lands, through to the Ghez Canyon surrounded by vast bleak sand dunes. The views at times were so vast that peering from my bus window along on a mountainside ridge, the feeling (and perspective) was precisely one of an airborne view looking down at earth. The structure and ambience of the villages en route also changed from the upper Karakoram reaches; the fresh greenness gave way as dust began to predominate, and poplar lined Muslim roadways, complete with the typical Central Asian donkey carts seen more in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, took shape.

We thus entered Chinese Turkestan or as it is known today, Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, a vast 1.6 million square kilometre province dominated by one of the world’s harshest deserts, the forbidding Taklamakan Desert and home to the distinctive Chinese Muslim Uighur ethnic group. This marked the beginning of the second half of my journey from Peshawar to Dunhuang, and a different one from that experienced up to this point from Peshawar, as revealed in the forthcoming articles from the rim of the Taklamakan Desert, circled southwards by the Tibetan plateau.

(http://www.sundaytimes.lk/040926/plus/7.html)

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