By Erwin Franzen
(for the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus in the 1980s.)
( My editor insisted that I use a somewhat impersonal style in this
article and did not allow me to write it up as a personal experience,
which, of course, it was. I wrote this after returning to Islamabad from a
two-week trip to Baltistan in January 1988. This is the unedited
ISLAMABAD — In the winter, when the weather is bad in the mountains,
taking a bus on Pakistan’s perilous Karakoram Highway (KKH) can be every
bit as exciting as a game of Russian Roulette.
There is nothing like a rough ride of four and a half hours on the
back of a four—wheel-drive pickup truck on a bitterly cold winter
morning for the traveller to appreciate the awe-inspiring grandeur and
desolation of the Karakoram mountain range, which contains the greatest
concentration of high peaks anywhere and is regarded by geologists as
one of the most unstable but also most fascinating features on the
Along the 100-kilometre dirt road through the wild gorges of the
Shyok and Indus rivers from Khaplu to Skardu in Baltistan one cannot
help feeling that the enormous bleak rock faces, the jagged,
snow-covered peaks poking into the clouds, the eerily frozen waterfalls,
the huge boulders strewn all around and the vast scree slopes must
belong to some distant uninhabitable planet but not to this earth. All
of this spells danger. Under a gloomy, leaden sky, with the sun’s rays
unable to break through thick clouds that hide the high mountain tops,
there appears to be a veiled threat of impending disaster.
From Skardu, a small town in a wide, sand-covered valley at 2,300
metres, the road continues along the Indus River through dangerous
gorges for about 500 kilometres before turning east away from the river
on its way to Rawalpindi. If one travels on a public bus, this trip on
the KKH has to be made in two stages. It involves a seven-hour journey
from Skardu to Gilgit followed by a gruelling sixteen-hour trip to
Rawalpindi on a different bus.
For four days from the end of 1987 until the first day of 1988 heavy
clouds hung above Skardu Valley and hid the many 5,000-metre mountain
peaks surrounding it on all sides. As the small airport in the valley
had no radar, all flights were cancelled. The sky looked as though there
was worse weather to come, so it seemed that there was no choice but to
court disaster and take the bus.
Everyone in the packed, gaily-painted bus appeared to be in good
mood when the journey began on the first day of the new year. The
gloomy atmosphere outside did not affect the passengers for a long
time as the bus sped on the asphalt road to the western end of the
valley, then moved slowly over a narrow suspension bridge across the
Indus and entered the gorge.
Compared with the bleakness of the grey, brown and black tones of
the massive rock formations on its sides, the river was a pleasant
sparkling green colour — almost inviting save for the fact that it was
at times separated from the road by several hundred metres of sheer
For most of the way the road appeared in good condition except for
only one or two spots where part of its foundation had collapsed and
plunged down the precipice into the Indus far below, leaving a gaping
hole. The driver was quite agile and avoided such death traps easily. At
least two small bridges spanning gaping chasms above raging tributaries
of the Indus appeared rather dilapidated. The driver accelerated,
apparently anxious to cross the bridges before they collapsed.
Some eighty kilometres before Gilgit a number of boulders the size of
large cars had broken off from a gigantic rock formation that hung
threateningly above the road. The road was hopelessly blocked. A
maintenance crew was already at work preparing the area for blasting.
A little farther west, high above the road on a steep scree slope
that seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky, two local shepherds
herded their sheep and goats down as quickly as they could. The workers
had signalled to them to come down because the blasting might make the
scree come alive and cause a huge landslide. The shepherds wore roughly
cut pieces of goatskin wrapped around their feet and ankles in lieu of
shoes. They could perfectly well have fit into a Stone Age setting, with
nothing on their bodies to show that they lived in the 20th century.
Luckily for the travellers, the three heavy blasts that were required
to break up the boulders did not bring down any more rocks although
cracks appeared in some huge slabs that hung precariously above the
road. A lone bulldozer took more than two hours to push the debris over
the edge into the Indus. Darkness fell soon after the road was cleared.
The bulldozer then headed west on the narrow road at a snail’s pace,
and the bus driver had no choice but to follow at the same speed for
some time. The driver quickly became irritated. He tried to pass the
bulldozer several times but there was not enough space.
A military officer ran up on the road from behind the bus and knocked
on the driver’s side window. The two exchanged some angry words. The
driver had been ordered to pull the bus up to the edge of the precipice
to allow a military truck to pass. He did so but complained bitterly.
Then the officer also ordered the bulldozer to get out of the way at the
next spot where this was possible.
The military truck sped on ahead, followed quickly by the bus, whose
driver appeared very angry and nervous all of a sudden. He was
determined to pass the military truck, which was already moving quite
fast on this perilous road with rock walls or scree slopes to the right
and a gaping black chasm to the left where in many places parts of the
asphalt had broken off and plunged down into the gorge. The bus driver
used his ear-shattering horn and flashed his lights wildly to drive his
message home to the soldiers.
Finally, they let him pass. But they stayed close behind and flashed
their lights as well, irritating the bus driver even more. His antics
behind the steering wheel became increasingly wild and on several
occasions the bus very nearly went over the edge of the cliff. Two
passengers sitting in the front abreast of the driver angrily warned him
to slow down. Others anxiously mumbled prayers. The angry warnings
seemed to madden the driver even more, and some other passengers urged
everyone to calm down. The atmosphere in the bus became increasingly
tense, laden with a strange mixture of anger and naked fear.
Suddenly, there was another bus in front and the angry driver of the
first bus flashed his lights to signal that he wanted to pass. The bus
in front slowed down but stayed in the middle of the road for some time.
When it finally allowed the first bus to pass its driver was fuming. To
make matters still worse, the other bus also stayed close behind and
flashed its lights. Many passengers on the first bus were terrified but
no one dared to approach the driver for fear of distracting him in this
extremely dangerous situation.
After what appeared to be an eternity, the valley widened and the bus
stopped at a petrol station. When the bus left the station after
refuelling, a teenage boy sat down on an improvised seat next to the
driver and this seemed to calm the man down. Later, he let the boy drive
the rest of the way to Gilgit. Although the boy’s driving was somewhat
unsteady from lack of experience, the passengers were relieved that the
bus was now moving more slowly and carefully.
Next morning, another bus with a few foreigners among the many
passengers left Gilgit on the long journey to Rawalpindi. The driver was
a man of about 50, clearly very experienced and skilful. But on this
trip the road was in very bad condition — and the weather turned worse.
There were scores of spots on the way where rocks of all sizes had
fallen from above and very nearly blocked the road. Often the space left
between the bigger boulders and the edge of the precipice was just
barely wide enough to allow the bus to pass.
Again and again, the bus lurched sideways as it moved slowly over
very uneven terrain past big boulders. Some terrified passengers, who
saw the gaping abyss come up from below their windows as the heavy
vehicle seemed close to the point of rolling over, leaned into the aisle
and looked the other way.
At one point, some rocks rolled away from under the wheels of the bus
at the edge of the broken road and the driver had to quickly steer the
vehicle towards a big pile of boulders away from the precipice. The
boulders tore into the side of the bus, causing minor damage, but
passengers later congratulated the driver on his presence of mind.
After a seemingly endless series of similar incidents, the passengers
felt relieved when the bus crossed a bridge on the Indus, hoping that
the worst was over. But then, shortly before dark, it began to rain.
Water is both a boon and a bane in the mountains. Local villagers
need it for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigation but it also
inevitably brings down boulders and mud, and it causes the landslides
that so often obstruct the KKH.
The bus drove on into the night on the wet road, dodging many more
fresh rockfalls. In one area, the going was slow over a stretch of at
least 20 kilometres where many landslides had completely blocked the
KKH for over two weeks in October. The road was still badly scarred and
the piles of debris on one side did not allow two vehicles to pass each
other along most of this stretch.
After the bus finally crossed the last bridge over the Indus and
headed out of the gorge, the driver stepped on the accelerator. As the
road was still dangerous, some passengers became concerned that the bus
was moving too fast. An Australian woman expressed her worries to a
Pakistani passenger who translated for the driver.
After more than 12 hours on the KKH the driver was clearly becoming tired
and it seemed that he was accelerating because he was afraid to fall
asleep. There were a few more hair-raising moments when the driver
nearly seemed to lose control of the bus in dangerous curves. But he
finally stopped and allowed a younger colleague to drive the rest of the
way to Rawalpindi.
It is by braving such a danger-filled winter journey on the KKH that
one can learn to appreciate the remarkable feat that the building of
this road represented. One can also easily understand how the KKH
claimed at least 500 lives during the 20-odd years of its construction
and many hundreds more in the last eight years since it was opened.