HONG KONG — “You should definitely visit Pakistan. It’s beautiful,” promised a friend over the phone from Beijing. “You can get your visa on arrival, and I’ll send my former guide to meet you.”
The call was crystal clear, courtesy of China’s massive infrastructure investments that stretch from China’s prosperous east coast all the way out to the western city of Kashgar. Further, even. In 1986, armies of Chinese and Pakistani workers completed the Karakorum Highway, the world’s highest paved road and long-dreamed link between Kashgar and Islamabad.
Locals spoke of some rain and one washed-out bridge, but we trusted the Chinese government’s iron will to keep traffic and commerce moving. Besides one hike and a few waits while earthmovers cleared the road, it was a smooth ride to the edge of China.
We were warned that the situation on the Pakistan side was worse.
“I think they have a system of ferries running now,” said the friend in Beijing, still coming through crystal-clear even in the far-flung frontier town of Tashkurgan.
A morning ascent through the alpine desert and tundra revealed the stark, stunning mountains that make the region famous. At the Khunjerab Pass — the world’s highest border crossing — the bus passed beneath an arch signifying the end of China. The road quickly deteriorated, but one constant remained: hundreds of Chinese workers on dozens of excavators and earthmovers, repairing the route and drilling tunnels.
And, fortunately, with the crossing came the superb English of the Pakistanis intermittently hitching rides. We could chat easily with most schoolchildren, bus drivers, shopkeepers, boat captains and improvised-cable-car-over-a-washed-out-bridge operators.
These last two proved critical. The Chinese workers and equipment thinned out as we pushed deeper into Pakistan. Locals claimed the government was wrangling with the Chinese over costs and scheduling. Some took matters into their own hands, using a cage suspended from a wire. It ferried people and small cargo across the rapids for 100 rupees, or about $1.17, per ride.
“Where are you from?” asked one of the operators.
“America,” I answered.
“How do you like it here?”
“It’s very beautiful, Pakistan is a lovely country.”
“This isn’t Pakistan. This is north Pakistan.”
The villages that dot this bucolic stretch of highway are populated by Ismailis, a Shiite sect led by a clean-shaven, suit-and-tie clad billionaire descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Known as the Aga Khan, he is famous for charitable works directed at his flock. White stones on a mountainside still spelled out “WELCOME OUR HAZIR IMAM” from one of his visits years ago.
Few signs of the Pakistani government were apparent. One frequently saw public goods sporting the logos of the Aga Khan Foundation: schools, buses, even life jackets.
The latter’s importance became clear in the morning. With no ferries the night before, we hiked a detour in the dark, several hours through forests and over gushing streams. Dawn revealed the turquoise water lapping at the edges of the village, trees and power lines sticking awkwardly above the blue. Our hotel had the high ground and we were the only guests. The putt-putt-putt of an old motorboat echoed down the valley. Several hours’ wait finally yielded our rickety ferry, already full of locals with their Aga Khan life jackets.
On Jan. 4, they explained, a massive landslide buried the village of Attabad, perched at the nadir of the river valley. For months, the river pooled into a lake behind this natural dam, flooding homes, crops, tourist hotels and the road itself. Eventually, engineers fashioned a spillway over the gigantic blockage of earth and stone, relieving pressure and fears of a sudden collapse that would drown downriver towns. The crisis stabilized, but the lake remains.
“They will need to update the maps,” said our guide drily. Boats transport a trickle of food, fuel, people and the occasional cow.
We found glorious, un-electrified isolation in our final destination: Karimabad, the most scenic section of the Hunza Valley. Sunrises were glorious, hikes exhilarating. Tourist dollars were a rare and welcome sight. Female members of our party shopped for the gloriously colored shawls worn by local women, while the guys enjoyed a fine selection of hats. Whole restaurants opened only for us, by candlelight. Minibuses occasionally found enough fuel to run back toward the Chinese border and after a few days we took one. Despite blockages and boat rides, we were back at the Sost immigration checkpoint by nightfall.
In Kashgar the next evening, we caught up on the news for the first time in days.
Massive flooding had drenched the regions around Hunza and all the way down the Indus River. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pakistan’s president had all visited nearby valleys while we hiked. No local or foreigner had entertained any notion of the disaster nearby, only a less severe iteration in the newly christened Attabad Lake.
Pakistan now needs friends and visitors more than ever. Don’t endanger yourself or be reckless. But if you happen to find yourself in Central Asia or northwest China, take advantage of the superior infrastructure and stability of the Kashgar corridor. Let the widespread English and hospitality smooth your journey and don’t worry about safety in an area whose hotels once hosted hundreds of backpackers in high season, and whose residents resent the Pakistani government more than foreign visitors.
Besides the adventure of a lifetime, you’ll come home with tales richer and truer than any newspaper headline.