Northern Provinces Pakistan 2009

Fate and adventures sit together in a certain time in history. 20 years ago I read the Zambezi was being dammed, and once built it would no longer be possible to run this jagged river – with rapids overflowing like no other river in the world – from Victoria Falls the full length to Lake Kariba.

A river is, particularly with a thought-provoking name – ‘Zambezi’, a direction defining a journey provocative and fascinating; and so I organised the last river expedition along this great river, still her full mighty force, just as Livingstone had travelled a century ago. I remember jagged rapids, Deep Throat and Stairway, names in themselves to stir adventure.

The pure magical ring of ‘Karakoram’ does the same.

The political mix of Pakistan may well be the undoing of this surprising country, and in the near future may implode into differing states. The Northern Lands would become differing self regulating autonomous regions, as they were before the Great Game and British conquest.

All this political talk aside, the Chinese are back with ambition to build a new Karakoram, connecting new manufacturing factories in Kashgar to new mining interests in Africa, via the port of Gwador in Balushastan. And then at Chilas the hydro-electric dam is coming to drown the valley and sink the thousand year old rock art.

Then this road, in many places no more than a goat track, at best a country lane, will be a Highway in the appropriate sense of the word and another journey will have changed, if not snuffed out. Of course others will open and the world turns.

So before China to Islamabad come down to a one day drive and the history of the road is changed for evermore, all well again or poorer, the present six day adventure of the Karakoram still has a little life left to grasp at, remaining for a while, the beautiful untamed road she still is.

And so I put Islamabad behind and head high to 15,000 feet, for a remorseless drive over 650 km in 6 days; then as God did on the seventh – rested. A delightful way to spend a week.

After a day drive the plains of Rawalpindi we soon behind and reaching the deep valley ravines of the Karakorum Mountains. The biggest surprise was the welcome from the Taliban villages along the route. The estimated population of the Taliban is fifty million, and as with other religions the Taliban comes with many beliefs. They have a traditional culture, traditional dress and the women are within the family house.

The surprise of road is the golden sand deserts on the high plateaus, and then the width of her high plateaus dazzle against the sun’s own light. Wonderfully white, austere and stern are the high peaks that look down from the Gods onto travellers below; often releasing rocks with unexpected landslides to slow our way.

This road was twelve years in the making and one death for ever kilometre, many Chinese, and this saddens me, for the road is only 30 years old and in disrepair. What a cost for so short a time.

A road with no more tourists and no women! Rise above the tree line and into the ruthless sober lands and for three days I saw not a single women. Village streets of men in the dress of Islam, beards and features developed and drawn by the harsh mountain climate, now strike fear into the western tourist with minds and thoughts of Jihad. So with fear, fearing only fear, the tourists come no more. From thousands a day to a trickle of half dozen a week now wander along this path into the high mountains.

Drive north zig zagging the wonderful mountain sides with glaciers engraved deep into rock high valleys above this road. Slowly the severe lands of the mountains, the kingdoms of Kohistan and Balistan, all in differing colours and perceptions, are behind as we make for the even higher Kingdom Valley of Hunzar.

And Hunzar – lush green amazing Hunzar!  A mountain wilderness transformed into the valley of Shangri-la by breathtaking green beauty enriched with endless poplar trees, with terraced fields of blossom, growing her celebrated apricots, her peaches and her plums. Just the sight of Hunzar Valley, encircled by snow peaks and blue skies refreshes a fatigued driver. The world has changed, people do smile.

This is Pakistan’s northern most valley bordering China. And as you drive into the valley women do exist; they are unmasked and their faces are beaming as they go about their business – dressed in saris of bright colours which show their strong white features causing a stare in surprise. Women greet men openly, astonishing to see compared to segregated lives in other parts of the Islamic world.

Why? Because Hunzar Valley is the home of the Ismailis with its lenient form of Islam, the Arga Khan their spiritual leader. Here no Pakistan army presence, no Taliban influence, no Ramadam. Just green, lush and at peace with herself. Hear life is absent from the torrid politics trying to shape the lands outside the valley.

Hunzar is the reward for those who toll this journey, where Ismailis, in the land of Shandri-la, live on tolerance, smiles, apricots and nuts, look forty and lived forever.

High above Krimabad, capitol of Hunzar, is Baltic Fort. This is Great Game country, were I wanted to learn the story of Safder Ali and Younghusband.

Hunain Ahmed is a slightly shy man of middling age, (who may well be 125 year old), short dark curly hair and holds the face of a family man flourishing, with pride and distinction. He holds the position of curator of the Aga Khan’s citadel, Baltic Fort, perched to observe all of what goes on in the valley below.

With an intense and radiant stare on me Hunain, with slow articulations, told the story of this fort, this valley, and how two men shaped the games played of years past. His informed words of conflict and treachery were enthralling, for when in 1889, at the height of the Great Game, with the Russians as close as the Pamirs, Safder Ali played the Russian Bear against the British Lion. From Younghusband he demanded a subsidy for not robbing British caravans. So the young British commander to show this trifling King of a valley, who considered Queen Victoria his equal, had his Gurkhas demonstrated the fire power of British military, by firing a volley at a rock 700 yards across the Hunzar Valley.  Apparently Safter Ali laughed this off. Shooting rocks is tame boys stuff and asked the Gurkhas to fire at a man on the path opposite. Younghusband refused! A shot would certainly hit and kill the man.  Safter Ali laughts – ‘But what does it matter if they do? After all he belongs to me.’

I journey to Hunzar in an open 35 year old Willies jeep. On the first day she was a dog of a vehicle, and I cursed my stupidity. Every time I tried the breaks she lurched to my left. Her tyres had seen better days and her gearbox went from 5th to 1st and got me into all sorts of trouble. But she was a drop head and had a beauty I had missed on the opening day. However as we drove the final days to China I forgave her difficult behaviour and found character in her impolite habits.

And the road climbs on from Hunzar back to the austere land going even further north. Back to valleys dry – barren – which cling to life. The changing form of road is physically magnificent, rising higher and higher to see the great sights of Nanga Parbat, Rakaposhi, even K2. From the peaks this road, this ‘highway’, looks no more than a dinky tear along her escarpments.

On our return from Hunzar we travelled together across the 14,500 ft Babusar Pass to throw snow balls and look down upon the highest polo pitch in the world. Then drive into the breathtaking Kaghan Valley to see the devastation of the earthquake of 2005 and ultimately back to Islamabad.