Karakoram Highway – A Thoroughfare

‘Sir! … sir jee!!’ I felt an abrupt intrusion into the nap I was hardly in for a couple of hours. It was this Havildar sitting next to me in the bus who went on with the awakening attempt number two; ‘O sirjee! wake up and look out!!’. Occupying the window seat as I struggled to regain consciousness, managed to throw a cursory look outside. The moon was lit and its cold light was beautifully silhouetting the hills. The Havildar now with a firmer tone and almost a pushing gesture said, ‘not here sir! look out and down!’. Still trying to figure out the particulars about my whereabouts, I reached out of the window to be able to glance downwards and got startled to find that down below was a thin, very thin line in silver tone that seemed to move. Trying to make the sense of it all, dear reader, I discovered that what appeared to be a thin silver line was in fact a river (Indus to be precise) whose grandeur had shrunk to a tiny stream. Pitched dark it was down there as the moonlight got intercepted by the hills, and a focused look (being in full senses now) revealed that darkness was in fact due to the hills that sharply fell into a deep, deadly deep ravine. At that moment, looking down below on the tiny silver stream in the pitched dark, the real perspective of depth disclosed itself on my eyes and with it came that chilly feeling of being exposed and vulnerable to such a terrible landscape and, dear readers as is bound to happen under such circumstances, something took turns in my stomach! For the remaining night on that eventful journey, I was left awake and praying for making out safe and alive, while my companion Havildar and other passengers of the bus slept like dead on their seats.

Karakoram Highway, a.k.a The Silk Route, has always been a fairytale in my world. One of my early life fantasies was to travel on this “Shahrah-e-Resham”. The passion might have been fueled by the telecast of Pakistan China joint media productions (PTV – 1980s) to commemorate the Pak-China Joint venture of building KKH or there might be other obscured reasons down the memory lane. As a cadet in the Military Academy out on a number of map reading exercises on the peripheries of Mansehra, sitting atop one or the other hill, whenever I glanced at those distant silhouettes of Kohistan skyline, I always imagined the finely cut out face of the Karakoram Highway in that partly green as well as rugged landscape. Years later during my days of posting at Abbottabad, one of the frequented weekend outposts was Shinkiari, a town further north of Mansehra on Karakoram Highway (I remember that the Officers Mess of Junior Leaders Academy there was favorited by Amelia who was 5 by then). As one enters the town of Shinkiari there is this ‘inviting mile-board’ announcing the distance to the ‘dream lands’ of KKH in bold letters. On occasions as we drove past the mile-board, I with all this insistence and excitement of a beguiled kid tried to convince my better half to extend the drive beyond Shinkiari, at least upto the 75 kms Thakot Bridge over The Indus. Desperately I tried to impress and infuse that urge to drive upto the bridge, through phrases excerpted from Tarar Sahab’s travelogues that the Thakot Bridge on River Indus was such a majestic feature and it bore on its shoulders, those miniature dragon head’s chiselled out of stone, a typicality in the Chinese masonry. All this imagination and unsuccessful attempts were just enough to give me a heartache that was to persist lest one day I call it a ‘go’.

The Inviting Mile-board: snapped ahead of Shinkiari
A truck plying on Karakoram Highway | Snapped near Dasu

My first encounter with ‘hitting the road’ for KKH was back in April 1998, when as a newly commissioned Lieut, my first posting was announced to be at the Siachen Glacier. The incident, dear reader, with what the current post begins, is excerpted out of the same travel that got materialized as we embraced a nothing less than 24 hour long trip from Rawalpindi to Skardu in the public transport (Masherbroom Coach it was from Pir Wadhai Bus Stand) thanks to three consecutive cancellations of PIA flights owing to the unpredictable weather. On that night, it was the cleverly crafted mischief of my companion Havildar (being the veteran of the routes and in full confidence that I was one novice on those faraway lands) that made me stay awake for the entire night sincerely praying for not falling off into Indus on every reckless turn the coach took on those tricking and dangerous curves of Kohistan Hills. I stayed on my toes and cursed in the heart of my heart that Soldier for putting me into such ordeal, but the feeling gradually got subsidized as I got used to it and then, dear reader, after the lapse of a part of the night, I saw the dark being faded away in the first starlight of the dawn. I saw the obscured of the landscape getting revealed in a slow and dizzy manner that is characteristic of the mornings, my eyes sliding across and staying glued to the snow-capped peaks as these typically are at the onset of spring and it was there in the wilderness of Chilas stretch that my heart skipped a beat. The landscape of my (lifespan) dreams revealed itself upon me shining under the first and virgin rays of sun and left me spellbound and as proved later on, it was eventually to result into my heart tying an eternal knot with the bridal beauty of the region people now call Gilgit Baltistan. Ladies and Gentleman, with full sanity of my mind and heart, I acknowledge that dawn to be the best dawn of my life and that feeling to be the best I’ve ever had both awake and in my dreams; and with the same sanity in place, my dear reader, I acknowledge that how dearly grateful I am to the Havildar who chose to be seated next to me and through his crafted trick making it possible for me to fall in love with the land I was travelling to for the very first time.

The Mighty Indus confined by Towers of Kohistan | A little ahead of Pattan
The Beautiful Vale of Pattan

I was to ply on KKH for more than a couple of times in subsequent years during my subsequent posting tenures in Gilgit Baltistan. These road travels were to fuel my desire of driving on this majestic road with a feeling of being in control with this opportunity to explore the immediate surroundings. Having failed in my attempts to drive out beyond Shinkiari while being at Abbottabad, the opportunity was to present herself in the very next year, when my regiment got posted from Sialkot to Siachen Glacier and was to move by road. I was stranded out of the convoy being under treatment for a surgery at CMH Sialkot and had to report to the Glacier later on after recovery. The euphoric stage you are in during the post operative days and that tranquillizing doze of regular pain killers if you are operated on one of the body joints are ideal for anyone of my wits to lose control and I did lose this useless asset. For endless hours lying on my bed, with my mind still enveloped in the typical dizziness my heart played its tricks and cleverly crafted a plan. A plan to reach out to KKH; a plan to be in full control while plying on KKH; a plan to drive Solo from Sialkot to Skardu in a car I had very dearly owned by then and branded ‘Rani’
A Suzuki Mehran VXR….

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Imran Saeed

I am a teller of old tales. History, folklore, military, and more. Mostly covering Pakistan, my homeland, but also the Great White North, where I am currently settled.
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Noor Rauf Rathore

Why is the car always feminine? I remember my dear friend Zeeshan owned a white suzuki Mehran VXR, also named ‘Rani’ and then there was a red one also called something similar. My cars were always “cars” (but my cat was Bo-Bo).
I’ve never been to Skardu. Or Gilgit. (insert sigh here). Maybe someday… Maybe I’ll get the best dawn of my life someday.

Noor Rauf Rathore

In that case I shall name my car Mark (because I think Mark is a cool name)! Hopefully, I’ll get to visit Skardu, with Mark.