Karakoram Highway - November 24th to 25th 2016

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To understand our situation at this stage of this adventure, you have to know three things:
1. the border between China and Pakistan closes on November 30th until 1st April because of bad weather. For those who think it is exaggerated to close the unique border between two countries for 4 months, think about this: the border is located at an altitude of 4800 meters! (on the Western part of the Himalayas!),
2. there is only one road crossing the border called the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which is a paramount axis for trade for China and Pakistan. It is actually one of the paths of the Silk Road! and is one of the highest paved routes in the world,
3. the last big city before the border, Kashgar was already under bad weather when we came there… It was not supposed to be snowing there, but it had started to snow the day before we arrived!

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Only our footsteps at the bus station

So the bus station with buses to Pakistan was empty (no bus AND not a living soul), there was a large cover of ice on roads, and nobody seemed to know anything about how to go to Pakistan. “Nobody but… the Pakistanis!” we thought. Hopefully we got the name of a hotel in Kashgar where we could find few Pakistanis staying there, Seman Hotel. So we went there. First we found the most friendly people ever, and second they told us that they were also going back to Pakistan in the next few days, that it was easy, and we just needed to show up at a specific place to ask for sharing a car to the last city in China, Tashkurgan. It was not so simple but one morning we managed to find this place (after a few misunderstandings with Chinese people) and find a car! Actually the car we shared was a pick up that stopped to a market on the way to board loads of gas bottles (nice when you know you are going to drive on a frozen road for 300 km with an ascending elevation of 1500 meters) and tons of vegetables (at least we wouldn’t die of hunger). When we think about it, riding through the Silk Road in a truck full of goods was our way to perpetuate this trading route! We were with two other passengers, one of them not very talkative and one of them a friendly man from Tadjikistan, who was going back home. Nobody spoke English, and the Tadjik man tried to use his smartphone translator to speak with us. We said at least ten times that we wanted to go to Tashkurgan and not Tajikistan, the driver seemed to understand but we were still a bit worried at the beginning of the ride that we were not all going to the same destination… What worried us even more was that our driver was obviously avoiding something on the road (police checks?), leaving several times the main road to go back after making detours. After one hour drive we stopped for lunch and the Tadjik man, Rajabali, invited us to the restaurant (and even paid the restrooms for us!).

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Rajabali, Alex and the pick up

After that the road started to go up, icier than ever, but our driver looked like he knew what he was doing. We stopped on the mountain to unload the gas and the vegetables in a building in the middle of nowhere. When leaving, our driver realized that the pick up, unloaded, was not heavy enough anymore on the frozen road, so he stopped so that we put some big stones at the back! After a few kilometers driving slowly on ice and under the clouds, we were suddenly dazzled by a ray of sun and arrived on a perfectly dried road! We were above the clouds, at 3500 meters high! Viewing all these mountains around us, and lakes, and sand dunes, it was amazing! We suddenly understood why the Karakoram Highway was called the 8th Wonder of the World!

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We drove on a large valley until Tashkurgan, amazed by the mountains around us and the camels and yaks grazing. The driver left Rajabali in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, besides a road going to Tadjikistan. Actually in this region, China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan come within 250 km of each other! Tashkurgan is in the middle of a plain surrounded by mountains, it has got only two main roads and everything is reachable by walk. In Tashkurgan guess what, the hostel we wanted to go to was closed and the hotel we were leaded to by a Chinese woman was horribly expensive. So we started to wander around the few blocks of the city and suddenly we were greeted by two people on the road who appeared to be Pakistanis. One of them invited us to his Pakistani restaurant in front of which we were actually stand, and the other one leaded us to a hotel just next door, clean and with an acceptable price.
After checking in our room we went back to the restaurant and had our first Pakistani meal, simple but good, lots of vegetables and flat breads. The restaurant owner, Rehman, was also a guide and he told us about lots of things to do in Pakistan! When going back to our hotel we met at the entrance a Pakistani man, Tajammul, who greeted us and told us he was happy to meet us because he had been in China for two weeks and he found that the people there were not very friendly! He advised us to come early for the bus to Pakistan the day after because he had missed it once. And that’s what we did!

Taking the bus to Pakistan was not the easiest thing, we arrived very early at the Chinese immigration building, where you also buy the tickets for the bus. It was all closed and we waited for 2 hours in the freezing cold (coldest moment of our trip ever). A girl from Hong Kong arrived, she was also backpacking like us. The first traveller we had seen for a long time. Pakistani people started to gather around with loads of goods, huge bales, suitcases… We started to be afraid we would not get a seat in the bus. When the office open, everyone rushed with their passports to get the tickets! Hopefully the officer saw that we had been waiting for a long time and took our passports among the first ones and handed them back with the tickets. We would go to Pakistan today!!

After a long wait, we started to gather around the bus, loading the goods. Some minivans arrived to take the passengers and goods that could not fit in the bus. The bus was quite old with sleeper seats, not very comfortable for a day trip. There was a last military check, where we surprisingly experienced Chinese gallantry when the Chinese officer said “Ladies first” leading the Hong Kong girl and I to board the bus first. We were all allowed to get on the bus and we started the trip. The trip was fun, chatting with Pakistanis especially Tajammul we had met the day before. There were bags everywhere on the floor and people smoked a lot! After a driving through a beautiful valley, we started the ascension to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest border in the world. I think I will never forget this moment when we crossed the gate, and all the Pakistanis cried out in a single voice “Long Live Pakistan!”.

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Arriving at the gate
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Crossing the border
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Our few kilometers in Pakistan were punctuated by laughs, ibex spotting (they live at very high altitude), stunning snowy landscapes, and email address exchanges. So that after a few minutes in Pakistan we had enough invitations to fill all our stay throughout the country. What a difference with what we had experienced so far in terms of hospitality!

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We arrived in Sost in the middle of the afternoon, waking up from the dream road. Even if the border is at the Khunjerab Pass, it is in Sost that our passports were checked and the precious Pakistani stamps applied inside.

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The gate keeper at Sost

Then, our new Pakistani friends invited us to join them in a minivan which dropped the two of us and the Hong Kong girl in Passu where we wanted to stay for the night. We left them, promising we would see each other again, still amazed how good it feels to be in this country I was afraid to go to at first.

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