Tragedy struck us at dawn. We were traveling at a slow pace and destination was Hunza, Pakistan’s farthest abode of culture, civilization and nature’s abundant beauty in the north. From Mansehra we ditched the painfully long and boring Besham-Chilas road and took a chance at the beautiful short cut through Naran and Babusar pass. Naran Valley had become notorious last year for its massive traffic of tourists and dozens of miles long traffic jams. The signs weren’t positive as we moved forward between Mansehra and Balakot. People had parked their cars and were sleeping on the roadside. Finally it happened. The long line of vehicles stood still at Balakot and there was no way forward. It was no joke. The traffic jam was 50 km long. After making some calls, the organizers made a timely decision and coasters took a u-turn back to Mansehra. We were all sort of disappointed and the morale was low. Taking a U-turn meant another few hours added to an already long journey. However, the humor inside the coaster was so lively that the notorious “Balakot U-turn” became the subject of our jokes for the next six days.
We made a stop at Besham for breakfast and took the Karakorum Highway to Chilas. The sphere of friendship started with our immediate neighbors Ali, Maaz and JB who were all professional electrical engineers. The next party was a group of girls who kept playing cards with electrical engineers throughout the trip. Then there were two couples, a Dr. & Dr. Ajwad and a Mr. & Mrs. Talha. We struck up a good friendship with the latter couple because the man was still a boy. Finally, there was a group of three friends, Ramsha who was our DJ and had the most awesome collection of songs, Waleed who we came to know later on was an excellent night-time photographer and Abdul Rehman aka AB who was the organizer.
The road never seemed to end. I have given an account of its atrocities in my Skardu travelogue. Only a couple of months later, I was going through it all again. A Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwali was playing on the speakers. Someone complained that it made them drowsy. So the qawwali was replaced by “how deep is your love”. In the afternoon, somewhere in the wilderness before Chilas, our coasters and a few other cars on the road stopped. There had been a minor land sliding and a very strong wind was blowing from the north. In a few minutes it became so strong that the coasters started shaking badly. Boys ventured outside and girls started protesting that the wind may throw our coaster into the river if more than half its weight is out enjoying a smoke. Someone whose humor was still intact after all these hours on this rugged patch of Karakorum Highway suggested yet another u-turn. The road was cleared in half an hour. We resumed our journey and reached Chilas after sunset. Hunza was yet another six hours. By this time we were on the road for 27 hours. Through the night I took short naps which made me even more miserable. When I wasn’t asleep the only thing I could do was looking out of the widow in the dark. A dozen songs in my phone kept me alive. Around midnight, we passed through the town of Gilgit-Baltistan glittering in the dark. After 34 hours on the road, we finally reached Hunza at 2 am and lodged at The Eagle’s Nest in the Altit village, one of the best hotels in Hunza.
I woke up to a beautiful morning and a breathtaking view. From last night’s fatigue, everyone was still asleep. I was in the garden in front of our rooms, there was a tree full of red cherries and the garden offered a beautiful panoramic view of the entire Hunza valley. The river winding its way beautifully through the valley, lush green vegetation spread from its banks to the foothills. The massive Rakaposhi, world’s 27th highest peak stood above the valley with all its majesty. At places, its beautiful white slopes were hidden in clouds. Towards my right, I saw another marvel, the Lady Finger peak which is unique for its peculiarly pointed and narrow shape. Just beside the Lady Finger, Hunza Peak’s massive face emerges. Several other magnificent mountains including the Ultra Sar and Golden peaks surround the Hunza valley. Panoramic view of the valley and the mountains from Eagle’s Nest is worth dying for. The place couldn’t be named more appropriately.
Eagle’s Nest is beautifully decorated to depict the local culture and customs. After breakfast we left on our day’s journey to Khunjerab Pass, world’s highest marked frontier between Pakistan and China. Leaving Hunza behind, we crossed the bridge into Nagar Valley and took the Karakoram Highway making its way through the mountains along Hunza River. Half an hour later, serene waters of Attabad Lake came into view. The huge lake spanning over a dozen kilometers along the highway was formed a few years ago in the aftermath of a massive landslide which blocked the river flow. The landslide dam thus created resulted in several villages coming under water and vanishing forever. Loss of life and property was colossal and the natural disaster altered the landscape of the valley forever. Later, the river flow resumed and the landslide dam came to be known as Attabad Lake. In bright daylight, waters of the lake had a very peculiar metallic blue color which I have never witnessed in any other lake in Pakistan. Surface of the lake looked more like a huge mirror reflecting the surrounding mountains. It was an amazing sight. A few trees and houses of the lost villages were visible in the clear water. The tragedy also took a few kilometers patch of the highway with it and for six years, the only way of crossing the great lake was by loading passengers, cars and even trucks and buses on boats. In 2016, with Chinese collaboration, a tunnel in five parts was built along the lake and the Karakorum Highway was resumed.
A few turns after the lake was left behind, we came across the world notorious Passu cones, a succession of dozens of cone like narrow peaks also known as Passu cathedral. Opposite the cathedral is Passu Sar, a snow capped mountain and the glacier which forms it’s base. This marvel of nature is famous worldwide. Passu is a must stopover for every traveler. You just cannot pass by it without taking a picture. Coasters were parked alongside the road and we took a group picture. At this point, the organizers let us climb over the roof tops of the coasters and thus began the most unforgettable experience of the journey. We rode on the rooftop all the way from Passu to Sost for nearly forty kilometers. It felt like there’s nothing between us and the majesty of Mother Nature. As if all your senses are numb, giving way to a supreme sensibility which only allows you to live in that moment. You see everything and lose yourself in it. Great expanse of the valley and the lifeline of a river flowing through it, trees, fields, the mighty mountains with their sandy slopes towering over them, the snow capped peaks far away, the blue sky and the clouds, beautiful curves of the road and the changing scenes after every few minutes and the intoxicating air. The scene kept narrowing and widening. I particularly remember one fascinating moment during our rooftop adventure. A great cloud had casted a dark shadow over half the valley. We felt the ecstasy when we entered the shadow from the bright sunlight. It was more than a thousand Hollywood special effects combined.
We finally reached Sost, Pakistan’s last town before the Chinese border and it was time for us to vacate the roof top for others. Places were exchanged and we resumed journey towards the border. Merely five minutes later, the first border check post came and the officer gave us a very disapproving look. From this point onwards, due to sensitivity of the border area, riding the rooftop was prohibited. When the roof riders came down with long faces we couldn’t help laughing out loud. The terrain became more and more wild and rugged as we moved forward. Angry gray waters of the river were flowing through the valley which became narrower and narrower. There are some dozen big and small tunnels between Hunza and Khunjerab. Most of them lie on the patch between Sost and Khunjerab. These excellent examples of engineering protect the Karakorum Highway from land sliding and ensure smooth flow of traffic. The scene widened up and after a few picturesque turns we finally reached the border. A magnificent snowcapped peak was rising over the border. The Pakistani inside me grew possessive that the peak should be in Pakistan. Upon enquiry I came to know that its name is Khushek Peak and it is indeed in Pakistan. Buses were parked in the parking lot and we walked towards the border gate. We were at a great height and temperature was unbelievably low. It was warm in Hunza and all the way up but at the border a chilling cold breeze was blowing and rain came down as little particles of snow. Khunjerab Pass is at a height of more than 15,000 feet. Surrounding peaks seemed not so far away and the valley on both sides disappeared down into the mountains and mist. It felt like we were on the throne of the kingdom of great mountains. Khunjerab Pass is a fascinating place. Pakistani side of the border is simple with a border patrol check post, a couple of commemorative stones and world’s highest ATM machine. Chinese on the other hand have built an impressive gate befitting the uniqueness and importance of the highest marked border in the world. The gate is visible from far. We walked across the gate and stepped foot in no man’s land. Chinese flag was hoisted on the check post. Barbed wire was spread along the border to protect over ambitious Pakistanis from their deadly ambitions. Pakistani side was crowded with tourists but on the Chinese side, there were not more than a dozen people, one coaster and a van. Khunjerab Pass was the beginning of more than half a century long Pakistan China relationship which is going to magnifying into internationally significant partnership in near future. Pakistan and China came close after Sino-India war of 1962 and the first act of friendship and cooperation was determination of the exact borderline between the two countries, a feat successfully achieved by the then foreign minister Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
We stayed at the Khunjerab Pass for an hour or so. Clouds were gathering and it felt like there’s going to be a snowfall, so we left for Hunza. Sun went down while we were on the road and by the time we reached Passu, the night had fallen. We made a stopover at a beautiful roadside inn Glacier Breeze Café for dinner. From the road, a flight of stairs takes you to the inn. It takes its name from the great stream of water coming out of the great Passu and Batura glaciers and falling into the river at this point. The inn had a beautiful interior which soon disappeared into the dark owing to a power failure. It turned out to be even more romantic for we had a candle light dinner and enjoyed cups of green tea outside under the stars with a breathtaking view of Passu cones in the moonlight and roaring of the glacier stream in the background. The night’s mysteries hadn’t ended. On our way back to Hunza, we had a mesmerizing view of the moon reflecting in the waters of Attabad Lake from the coaster windows.
After getting some rest at the hotel, we did a little hike to the rocks nearby. The air was cold and fragrant at this hour. The night was so clear and the stars so bright and near, it felt like we are in a galaxy. Some of us found places to sit. I and a few others lied down on a rock, quietly gazed at the Milky Way and lost all sense of time. Waleed set his camera for an hour and a half time lapse. Later, he took fabulous pictures of the night. Balti boys who worked at Eagle’s Nest joined us. They sang local songs and added to the night’s beauty. One of them was very good at playing dholak. Such nights are rare. We talked, we sang, we laughed and the night dissolved in the heat of our merrymaking.
Written by Haroon Ashraf