This daunting terrain is no easy place to scratch out a living. Some years back I journeyed from Rawalpindi, in the north, to Kashgar, in Xinjiang province in western China. The only road is the Karakoram Highway, one of the world’s most unlikely and astonishing engineering marvels. Following a portion of the ancient Silk Road, the Karakoram Highway winds its way through the impossibly rugged Karakoram Mountains, home to the world’s second tallest peak, K2.
The ‘KKH’ as it’s known by many, is hardly a highway by any western standard. In many parts, it is barely wide enough for one vehicle to get through. Cut along the nearly vertical walls of the Karakoram mountains, very little of it is paved. Constant washouts, landslides and rockfalls make this one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Drivers misjudging a patch of road bed have slid off the edge, taking their load of people or goods crashing down into the raging Hunza or Indus River hundreds of feet below.
As if that weren’t enough to steer one away from making the journey, there is also the matter of lawlessness in this part of the world. Once known as the ‘Northern Areas,’ These northern borderlands, now called the ‘Gilgit-Baltistan Autonomous Territory,’ ‘have remained essentially ungovernable. The Pakistani government has long tried to assert national authority in this region but deep tribalism and the forbidding terrain have stymied these efforts.
As such, tribal law operates in the absence of civil law, which mostly means no law. Add in the threat of Islamic terrorism and it’s clear that the same journey today would probably be unwise. And that’s really too bad because this is one of the world’s most spectacular journeys. (more…)