For China, Pakistan’s friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the seas. But for Pakistanis, the 1,300km-long China-Pakistan Friendship Highway is a one-way thoroughfare.
Such was the sentiment when the Silk Road expedition team entered Pakistan through the world’s highest mountain pass after nearly a month-long stay in China. “It’s as though the road is a one-way street from China; there is no way back,” says K.M. Ali, making a jibe at China’s strict security conduct and treatment of Pakistanis in contrast to Pakistan’s increasing obsession with the Silk Road’s revival — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Entering Pakistan, the southern arm of the ancient Silk Road is a consistent reminder that the CPEC is changing life along its path as it is being built, he adds. With travel signboards being translated into Mandarin, starting from the checkpost at Sust and huge billboards along the highway that read “Long Live Pak-China Friendship”, one cannot escape the impact of the CPEC at this side of the border.
In the concluding episode of the series about traversing the historic Silk Route, the group of explorers finally enter the Pakistan side
Along the Karakoram Highway (KKH), trucks and tractors loaded to the brim with hay and construction material are a frequent sight, boasting the rapid development in the region.
A view of the mountains on a full moon night in Passu
“The northern region is a visual juxtaposition of nature and nurture in its present state,” Mohammad Khan recalls the imagery. “On the one hand, the KKH has newly-built long tunnels and on the other hand, there is the visually-soothing Attabad Lake which was formed when a major landslide blocked the Hunza River and submerged the highway, blocking the road link between China and Pakistan.”
The sight is a beautiful contrast of colour, with a nearly razor-sharp line delineating the two water colours of the Hunza River and Attabad Lake. “But, intersecting the view is a series of five tunnels built by the Chinese to restore the road link. The tunnels have significantly reduced the expense and travel time by boats on the lake,” Khan adds, recalling a candid conversation with Hafeezullah Sher, a local from Wakhan.
The world’s highest ATM on the Pakistan side, installed by the National Bank of Pakistan. You can tell that it was built by the Chinese because of the Chinese features on the structure, which appear on both sides
“Sher could now come and conveniently visit his parents. He also shared that the prices of goods such as medicines, salt and clothes had dropped significantly since the tunnels were built. Now they could again export dried khoobani (apricot) and shehtoot (mulberry) easily.”
Entering Pakistan, the southern arm of the ancient Silk Road is a consistent reminder that the CPEC is changing life along its path as it is being built.
The southern arm of the Silk Route is a scattered terrain with diverse typography. “All along the route we could see numerous waterfalls — some falling right on the road. Near Dasu, there was a hot water spring!” says Lubna Khan. “Our first night stop in Pakistan was in Passu. The skies were clear with glittering stars and then slowly the moon appeared and illuminated the mountains all around us. The diversity of mountains is unbelievable,” she muses.
Onwards to Gilgit-Baltistan, the group observed intense dam construction activity near Diamer-Bhasha Dam site and some pilot activity at the Dasu Dam site. “The KKH is in a poor state in that area and is planned to be moved up the mountain ridge,” Ali points out. “Irfan Husain, a driver enroute to the Gilgit area complained sorely over a cup of tea about the condition of the road which had resulted in a breakdown of his truck.”
A sign of The Old Silk Road
However, the locals are apparently delighted, he adds, as they are getting construction jobs and other opportunities.
As the group traversed southwards, they stopped at a brick kiln near Dera Ghazi Khan where a local expressed tremendous hope in the CPEC project. “He bought a new 110cc motorcycle to be able to go and visit the CPEC construction sites to collect payments,” Yasmin Ali shares the man’s story. “He was delivering red-clay bricks for lining the sides of the CPEC motorway. When asked if he intended to learn Chinese, he laughed and said, “We sometimes see the Chinese, but our dealings are with just the Pakistani contractor.” However, his son Iqbal chimed in “sometimes Chinese people come to our school.’”
The family revealed that the school had started elementary Chinese language classes. “Iqbal’s face lit up when we said ‘Nee hao’ [hello] and he promptly responded!” Lubna laughs.
The Silk Road expedition team at Passu
“We were not expecting to find a wide array of wildlife along the KKH. We saw Himalayan Golden Marmots — which are large squirrels weighing about eight to nine kilogrammes and about 50 centimetres tall — foraging on patches of grass and absorbing the sun,” Mehvash Ali tells Eos. “There were numerous sightings of Markhors and even a glimpse of four Himalayan ibexes as they were leaping down to approach the fast-flowing Hunza River — certainly an experience that is seen in documentaries only.”
“Did you know, there is also a wildlife conservancy along the Silk Route before Sust?” Imran Chaudhry asks. They charge a nominal fee for all travellers and use that amount to prevent unlicensed hunting. “In fact, at one time they had a snow leopard cub in captivity till activists persuaded the wildlife body to release it,” he says in amazement