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Karakoram highway.

Karakoram Highway

The newest, oldest road in the world, traveled by Marco Polo yet shrouded in mystery, closed because of tense politics as well as the formidable Himalayan and Karakoram mountains, is now open. The Karakoram Highway, 1,000 panoramic kilometers of isolated cultures and striking topography, penetrates China from the west, via the ancient Silk Road, to the trading oasis of Kashi.

Most Westerners traveling by public bus or hired jeep begin in Pakistan's neighboor cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Older Rawalpindi, darkened by rubber factories, is crowded with bicycles, rickshaws, precariously leaning buses, horse carriages, and livestock; adjacent Islamabad's modern government buildings blare popular Asian music. The few women in the streets are heavily veiled.

Outside the city in a dry, brown landscape, the highway passes the edicts of Asoka, inscribed on a monument in Pali, the ancient local language. The long-ago emperor's message urges restraint from killing animals and adds humans only as an afterthought. In the fertile Indus Valley, women shed their veils to work the fields of mustard, lettuce, lentils, turnips, potatoes, and radishes. Higher in the Himalayan foothills, Pakistanis vacation to escape the heat of the plains. Because of the scarcity of hotels, residents rent their roofs as accommodations to travelers.

Most travelers stop at the bazaar in Chilas, at least for a meal at a tea stall built around an open cooking fire. Newly butchered sheep, still dripping, hang from the roof. Customers eat shish kebab, mutton curry drowned in oil, and pita bread handed to them by a cook squatting on the ground. Tea is heated in an ancient samoar fueled by old car batteries. Your metal cup might be so rusted through that the hot tea will drip on your hand. Not to worry. The cook will take it back, patch it with dough and spit, and return it to you with a smile. Just outside, a local or even your driver might be answering the call of nature next to the wall of the teahouse. Better to turn you gaze to the distance, where 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat ("Naked Mountain") looms like a white wall with a spiky crown.

Past Chilas to Gilgit, the road rises steeply through green rice terraces; then it narrows and serpentines at the cliff's edge, with no guardrail. Cautionary signs urge, "Hurry makes a bad curry."

Gilgit is the caravan crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, and even now, people with curly hair but high Mongolian cheeks and slanting eyes speak three or four languages and wear a mixture of clothing styles. By Central Asian standards, Gilgit is cosmopolitan, having cinema halls, bookstores, travel agencies, and an international bank. English is spoken at several hotels. Morning and evening, Muslim prayers are called out in haunting solo; in between, the parade of drums heralds the polo games.

In Gilgit, five-day treks can be arranged to Nanga Parbat, the western-most mountain in hte Himalayan range. The hiking area is known for butterflies--a touch of miracle in this harsh land. Each day the terrain changes, from desert to alpine to glacial. Along the way, young women, prematurely aged with deeply grooved faces, farm rice terraces or herd goats in Fairy Meadow while their husbands sit under trees and smoke chillem in water pipes.

Fairy Meadow is an emerald jewel ringed by snowy mountains. At this elevation it is cold at night, yet young shepherds with chapped cheeks and hands wear only shirts and walk barefoot. A curious mother might peer out of a house, little more than an empty shelter with only a few straw mats and pieces of pottery--but the baby in her arms, wrapped in rags, wears silver bangles. As is customary in Central Asia, she may invite you in for tea.

Past Gilgit, the highway edges around glaciers to Hunza, land of the centenarians and source for James Hilton's "Shangri-La" of Lost Horizon fame, completely cut off from the rest of the world until the 1880s. Scholars speculate about the purity of its rarefield air, the vegetarian diet of the residents, their vigorous life at high altitude, and the mineral deposits; but the reasons for longevity are inconclusive. The orchards along the Hunza River smell of apricots, and a gentle peacefulness blankets the valley.

Then follows a bumpy, barren 12-hour ride from Hunza to Khunjerab Pass, at 16,000-plus feet, where passengers must leave Pakistani buses--wildly decorated with scenes of the Hindu Kush, the Khyber Pass, and Pakistani leaders--for Chinese ones. Pakistani bundles have been loaded on roofs, and because of overcrowding inside, people hang on the outside ladders of the roofs. Chinese buses are plain, clean, orderly--one person to a seat, thank you, and no one permitted to stand in the aisle.

Decorated with lions' heads, bridges on the Chinese side are stone instead of steel, the product of vast labor resources rather than high-tech engineering. Parts of the road are unpaved and graded by camels pulling crude wooden contraptions. In dried riverbeds far from any village, Chinese Muslims bow in prayer and solitude. It is a cold landscape with not a blade of grass growing.

Taxkorgan, the 2,000-year-old stone city of the Tajiks, is thinly populated now, and the Chinese government offers incentives to live there. In the November wedding season you might encounter buz kashi, a wild horseback game played with a dead goat or sheep stuffed with sand. Horsemen grab the goat from one another, shout fierce threats, whip their steeds and other players, and call it play.

Mount Muztagata and Kongur Shan, both well over 24,000 feet, comprise the Pamir Knot, a hub of several mountain ranges: the Karakoram; the Hindu Kush; the Kunlun; the Tien Shan, or Celestial Peaks; the Pamirs; and the Himalayas. If ever there was a rim of the world, it is here. A reflection of Muztagata in a lake is clear beyond belief, and thousands of horses, camels, yaks, and sheep graze in pastoral peace. The road sinks through the Gez Defile, where the world's largest sand dunes are sometimes covered with snow.

On the west edge of mighty and forbidding Taklamakan, a desert whose names means "you go in and you don't come out," Kashi is an ancient trading oasis, once the watering hole where caravans stopped to repair gear and fatten camels before proceeding to Russia or India. Today Kirghiz, Uzbek, Tajik, and Uigur merchants sell herbal medicines, fur hats, carpets, and melons. Aromas of roasting shish kebab and baking bread compete with burning camel dung. Tiny mosques dot every street. The plaintive call of Muslim prayer and the blacksmith's hammer ech down dusty rows of smoky stalls, just as they have for centuries.

From Kashi, Westerners can connect to other points in opening China. The traveler will leave behind a memorable example of man's tenacity in the face of adversity.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:road through the Himalayan and Karakoram mountains
Author:Vreeland, Susan; Kowall, Nazima
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1988
Previous Article:On the roof of the world; the vale of Kashmir.
Next Article:Tucson: all-season training ground.

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