The snake-like highway was built in the gorge along the Khunjerab River, a tributary of Hunza River, which in turn that of the Indus. The road base was often at a level not much higher than the water. The walls of the gorge were almost vertical (right photo, I took it by extending the camera outside the window and faced it vertically up). Unlike anywhere in Kohistan, Chila and Hunza, one could truly feel the violence of the continental collisions which happened some hundred million years ago. Rocks whose size as big as the bus were dangling on the cliff a few hundred meters above. There edges were so sharp that I thought if they ever fell down, they could only chop the bus in half, instead of crushing it. Not long after we signed the 'guest book' at the last check point at Dih, the buses finished their job by bringing us in front of a landslide (left photo).
Before the departure we were informed that there would be a landslide ahead which might require a walking detour of a few hundred meters. None of us was serious enough about the warning. Now the reality was facing us. The landslide did not only bury the road for about 1 km but also extend to the river. To get around, one had first to wade a few hundred meters along the Khunjerab River, then scale a 300-meter mountain almost vertically. Porters had long been ready for the potential customers, carrying luggage for $10 a piece (right photo) . But young travelers would always like to challenge the mountains and waters. Before I dipped myself into the river, to wear or not to wear my boots became a Hamlet tyype of question. Although wearing wet leather boots in the next few days would be a pain, but it was equally problematic crossing the water bare-footed, for I could potentially injure my feet beneath the muddy snow water. Finally the former hazard outweighted the latter - I took off my boots and socks. But for each step under the water I had to feel and ensure that I did not step on any sharp edge of the rocks, which might cause cut or seizure to the feet easily, and I had to proceed with extra caution so that my upper body and the backpack would never get wet (a big problem if it ever did). Coming out from the water, I quickly dried and warmed up my wet feet, wasted no time for the mountains. Hilly was probably not a good word for describing the mountain in this region. With a heavy pack on back, everyone had to stop and take a deep breath every tens of steps. Looking ahead and behind, porters and travelers scattered along the trail. It was perhaps the best time to test one's physical fitness.
Buses on the other side of the landslide were long ready (left). It took another hour or so for people to regroup, to count heads, tight up luggage on the bus roof, to eat and to affix a Pakistani flag on the bus - it was Pakistan's National day. The buses slowly accented to a more open but higher altitude. The hi-tech altitude gauge on the Japanese's wrist watch read higher and higher, until it stopped at 4,700 meters. We were at the highest point of the Karakoram Highway - the Khunjerab pass, the crossing point between two countries (China and Pakistan), two watershed (rivers flowing to Tarim Basin and Arab Sea), and two mountain Range (Karakoram and Pamir). Desolated as one might imagine, the air was thin and the wind was cold, not a place for border guards. One could hardly recognize the border if not prompted by the border stone (right) and some symbolic wire fence in the wide opened field . The whole team was excited, for one could not claim to have Karakoram experience if he/she had not come as far as here. Everyone took the opportunity to take pictures (after toileting). The driver was nice to wait until everyone enjoyed the moment, and felt cold enough to get into the bus. Then the bus started to bare left of the road. We were in the Chinese territory.
A few km behind the border, the Chinese border guards came on board and examined each passport, and removed the Pakistani flag on the bus (but promised to keep it until the bus returned). There were some interesting observations about the Chinese and Pakistani border guards. While few Chinese guard appears to know English except one word - 'passport', most of the Pakistani guards spoke it fluently. But their working procedures were much less formal than their Chinese counterparts. And their uniforms seemed to be far from uniformed. The Chinese guards wore badges with ID number, they would stand still and salute when the bus arrived and departed. Both were bureaucratic, although one might find the Pakistani were much easier to 'negotiate'. The bus quickly descended from the Khunjerab pass. On the straight, smooth, wide opened road, it was racing with 80km/hr to the destination - Tashkurgan (below, left).
The Chinese custom was located in Tashkurgan., 140km from the border. Its population were mostly Tajik, intermingled with the Chinese and other minorities such as Kazakh. Hence the name of Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County. The name of Tashkurgan wasn't unfamiliar to me, since I listened to the beautiful cello solo "the sun shining on Tashkurgan" when I was young. Despite the race, the bus arrived after the custom hours (10h00 - 18h00 Beijing time, 08h00 - 16h00 local time). No one was on duty. So the PLA (People's Liberation Army) border guards had to take care of the business. They ordered the passengers to surrender their passports, then come back the next day for custom formalities. However, it was never clear as to what luggage the passengers could carry. I was the only one who could communicate with the officer and the group. At first it was said that no luggage could be carried. This inevitably triggered noise and protest. Then it was changed to that one could carry whatever they wanted. When everyone was just about to rush to get their baggages, the officer yelled again. At that time, I was thirsty, hungry and eventually became furious when the French still kept asking 'pourquoi' even after being allowed to carry one small pack. Allowing one small handbag was the most I could bargain for, and I didn't want the French to spoil this last bit of privilege.
There was still more than half an hour walk from the custom building to downtown Tashkurgan. My advantage in language drew a handful of followers in searching for a hotel. There were not many choices in Tashkurgan, in terms of accommodations. The most obvious choice for foreigners was the pricy Pamir Binguan (Hotel), plus some lower-class ones. By the time of arriving at the first hotel - Jiaotong (transportation, of traffics) Binguan at the long distance bus station, I had no more energy to move on. I started to yell for attendants. Fifteen minutes later a young lady in public transportation uniform emerged from the corridor. I wasted no time to inquire the room availability and price. A 'standard' room equipped with indemnities such as carpet, sofa, toilet seat, huge TV etc. cost Y100. And there were also some share rooms and dorm beds with share (extremely filthy) toilets for cheaper price. While my Italian and Polish and French followers were still hesitated and suspicious of my negotiation conducted in Chinese, I was already checked into a standard room. I had no Chinese currency, but the lady couldn't wait to run home to fetch Y320 of cash in order to exchange my $40, using official rate.
Only with Chinese currency I could walk out to the dark street to find whatever could filled my stomach. In the town dim yellow lights came out from the row of low, single level houses. The moon light was reflected on the water stream running in front of the houses, and the silhouette of the poplars by the water stream hanged ghostly on the darkblue sky. I was greeted by a youngster in a roadside restaurant. Inside, customers who were originally watching TV turned their heads to look up and down the stranger. Soon there came a bowl and a big pot of tea I desperately need. Five bowls of tea were consumed before the noddle I ordered finally arrived. It was stuffy and tasteful, but I left out most of the meat as I wasn't able to verify the type of meat and the degree of cooking.
All my toiletries was in my backpack left in the custom. Luckily the standard room rate also include some basic toiletries such as a simple tooth brush and a face cloth. I took my clothes and glasses off, and stepped into the stained bath tub. I closed my eyes as the warm shower massaged my body. When I re-open my eyes, I was shocked to see the water flowing down from my body was red. There must be some injury that I had never felt! I immediately put on my eye-glasses and search for the wound. To my relief, the 'blood' now looked more magenta than red. I looked at the cloth again, the originally red face cloth was now very much pink.
Perhaps due to the physical output that day, I developed a slight fever that night. I slipped under the thick blanket immediately after taking a Tylenol. But I soon found myself being annoyed by the noisy leaking water tank of the toilet. I returned to bed after half hour of plumbing job, the noise was no better than before. I took another trip to the toilet. Impatiently, I broke a critical string in the water tank during the process, and the water burst up to the ceiling, disarraying the decorating foam ceiling boards - I was taking another show, a cold one. With some struggle in shower, I managed to stop the water using the weighty water tank cover. Now I was lucky to stop the water spill, and no longer expected a quite night. I dried myself with the big window curtain and slipped under the blanket again. The fever was gone that night.