This travelogue is not literature. It is a narrative, day-by-day log that records some details that I encountered during my trip to the Karakoram Highway. It can also be considered as information sheet hopefully useful for the future travelers.
The Karakoram trip can't be categorized as a successful one. It came with virtually without preparation. I changed my job in the summer of 1998. When all had been confirmed, there was less than a month before starting date of the new job. It was under this circumstance I decided to take advantage of the time gap, even though it came with a price - highly inflated last-minute plane ticket and double visa fees.
A collegue took me from the office directly to the Ottawa airport in the afternoon of August 7. In the evening I was Frankfurt bound from Toronto. I was lucky to catch the ongoing flight to Karachi, since the plane was grounded at the Toronto airport for an extra three hours for hydraulic problem. After making an one-hour stop at Dubai, the Lufthansa plane touched down at 03h00, August 9 at the Karachi airport, which was surprisingly crowded even at midnight.
For every traveler emerging from the custom counter in the Karachi airport, there would be a figure (notes on touts) emerging from the crowd, over-zealously carrying baggage, bringing him/her to the money changers (notes on money) and other necessary facilities. They are in general safe and helpful, although at the end of everything there would be a demand of an unrealistic sum of money. It seems to be useless to ask beforehand the cost of these services, since the answer would always be "for friendship", or "whatever you like". For less than half hour of errand, the gentleman refused to accept Rs 150 until I was about to walk in, without paying, to the passengers only domestic flight terminal.
In light of the prolong and unpredictable ground trip and my limited days in Pakistan and China, I planned to waste no time in Karachi, but to fly directly to the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The PIA (Pakistan International Airline) and the domestic AeroAsia both offered daily multiple flights to Islamabad, although the latter offered cheaper fare (~Rs 2,700 vs Rs3,300) with non international in-flight standard. I opted for the latter as it had an early morning flight, as well as more economic fare. Ironically, I still ended up paying Rs3,200 to the travel agent recommended by the errand boy, though I was careful enough to book only one way. When the sun rose from the steamy horizon of Karachi, I had already been sitting in the filthy, malfunctioned seat in an AeroAsia's obsolete BAe-111 jet. But the flight, I have to admit, was surprisingly quiet and smooth. The flight attendants were busy serving soft drink, with a very primitive foam container, and breakfast - two pieces of yam, a dry, dark curry meat ball and a piece of bakery.
Rawalpindi/Islamabad's international airport was much smaller and less busy than that in Karachi. In addition to PIA, only British Airways and Saudi Airline served international flights there. The AeroAsia flight arrived on time - 09h30. To make sure I could be home again, I absolutely needed to be in Karachi by August 22 evening. On the other hand, I needed to stretch my time as much as possible, since it generally took 7 days to complete the 1,300km Karakoram Highway. Having experience AeroAsia, I would rather to spend a few hundred more rupees and take PIA. Without errand boy and any fuss, I bought the return ticket for August 22 evening to Karachi, for about Rs3,300. When all these were done, I was ready push as far as I could for the day.
The long distance NATCO (Northern Area Transport Company) bus stand was in Pir Wahdai, according to the Lonely Planet. The taxi driver was slightly surprised by my familiarity of the place and the accurate pronunciation. Without much ripped-off (Rs150), I was dropped off from the taxi at Pir Wahdai, a busy bazaad, where no NATCO bus was found. The time was approaching high noon, the August sun was hot although it probably wasn't the worst time of the year. I sweated as I was coming out of a pool. In non-tourist areas, bottled water could be hard to find. Instead of searching for the bus stand, I was obeying my thirst and searching for anything that safe to drink. God blessed, I found something to drink - 1.5l of Pepsi - and the bus stand simultaneously, after blindly going round and round the bazaad. It took the bus 17 hours for the 600km journey from Pir Wahdai to Gilgit. It was an overdose for the first day. I had no more than six hours that day, the appropriate stop was perhaps Besham at the mid-point (260km) between Ralwalpindi and Gilgit. Leaving the ticketing window with the Rs135 ticket, I unconsciously glimpsed the time on my watch - 02h30 - of course Ottawa time. It meant 11h30 local time, I was at the head of the Karakoram Highway.
The rickety, "air-conditioned", 70-passenger Chinese-made bus left Pir Wahdai right on time, with loud, joyous Pakistani music on board and a cloud of dust behind. Cities, towns, villages and settlements were built contiguously by the highway for the first 100km or so from Rawalpindi (Pindi for short for many Pakistanis). The bus traveled particularly slowly when it was hindered by the overloaded and highly decorated buses and trucks. It passed the bustling bazaars at every town, picking up and dropping off passengers (Once the passengers had to wait for the driver shopping cement for himself too). The busy scene only seemed to fall behind when the bus passed Mansehra. The road started to become hilly and then mountainous. The bus trip was also interrupted by a numbers of food and toilet breaks (notes on toilet). Strange enough, the driver once decided to take a break, not at the usual tea house or food stall but an accident scene, so that passengers could relax themselves by stretching their necks to take a glimpse of a pulverized bus on the river bank several hundred meters below (right). It happened two days ago, I was told. And it was the same NATCO bus. Somehow a picture of a free-falling bus came in front of my eyes. A shiver ran over my body, as if I heard the mixture of scream and loud music in the bus in the middle of the free fall. Fortunately, only 38 people died.
When the driver handed me my backpack from the bus roof, it was 18h30 in Besham. The town was by no means a tourist spot. It was situated in Kohistan region, notorious for its lawlessness. Gun shops were on the main streets. But it was an important mid-point between Pindi and Gilgit. All houses in the town center were built along side the dusty and bumpy highway. Trucks and buses went each directions day and night, blowing their loud, high-pitch, often crescendo horns. I checked in the first hotel I saw - Paris Hotel. A modest room with hot shower for Rs250 after some negotiation. The food was OK. Despite my specific order of cooked vegetable, there was still a plate of raw cucumber and tomato on the table. For travelers going to regions like this, they should know why raw food should be avoided. But this was almost uncomprehensible to the locals. Only after I agreed to pay for the untouched plate, it was substituted by a plate of over-cooked, black, unknown vegetable. I wasn't sleepy, perhaps because of the jetlag, or because over the threshold. But I had to force myself to sleep. I took a look at my watch again: 11h20, August 9, Ottawa time. So after about 51 hours, I was on a bed again. I didn't hear the horn that night.