I had visited the Khunjerab Pass many years ago, in the era before the September 2001 attacks, and clearly remember the tough but awe-inspiring jeep drive up to the highest border crossing in the world. On the way, we encountered European and American cyclists and learnt that the route along the Karakoram Highway (KKH), from Gilgit to the Chinese border, is considered the ultimate journey for cycling enthusiasts.
With the advent of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) slated to pass through this route, many changes have taken place. The highway is smoother and wider and it now takes just three hours from Hunza to the Khunjerab top. When I last visited Khunjerab it had taken us six. The journey time has been shortened by a series of amazing tunnels built by the Chinese.
Last week, I made the journey for a second time. We arrived in Hunza the day before we were to travel, to find all the hotels crowded with tourists. “This has been a very busy season. Hunza is now flooded with domestic tourists from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. All the hotels are packed. It is great for local businesses but I wish the Pakistani tourists would not litter the place,” said Shehryar Khan, the son of the Mir of Hunza who runs his family’s Darbar Hunza hotel in Karimabad.
“The Japanese tourists who come in fall and spring (to witness the cherry blossom season) are so much more conscientious about protecting the environment,” he told me. The Japanese have a great fondness for Hunza, and they treat these mountains with the utmost respect. Around one million tourists visited Gilgit Baltistan last year, and that number will probably be surpassed this year.
The next morning we took off for the Khunjerab Pass in our land cruisers. There was no need for little jeeps we were told, as even Suzuki cars can now go up to the top of Khunjerab. Soon after leaving Karimabad we reached Atabad Lake, formed after a massive landslide hit the Hunza River in 2010. The landslide blocked the river, flooding many homes in Gulmit and the surrounding areas. Since then, the waters of the lake have been allowed to flow down by making a small outlet and there are plans to produce electricity from a powerhouse on the lake. We stopped at the first lookout point, having enjoyed the quick ride on the newly carpeted KKH, which mercifully now has metal fencing around the cliff edges.
The waters of the deep lake were a stunning cobalt blue and many cars stopped for tourists to take selfies with the lake as a backdrop. The five seven-kilometre long tunnels that cut through the towering mountains were built by the Chinese in record time and opened in 2015. They are part of the 24 kilometre long portion of the KKH that was damaged by the landslide dam. These tunnels are the reason why so many tourists are now visiting Khunjerab Pass; from 2010 to 2015, one had to cross the lake by boat.
The tunnels were truly exciting to cross – no leaking ceilings or muddy walls. We were soon speeding by the dramatic Passu cones or “cathedral peaks”, and the gleaming Passu glacier right above the KKH, which periodically floods the road with its melting waters thanks to the warming effects of climate change. This is probably the most scenic part of the drive in the area known as Hussaini. We stopped to take pictures of the stunning landscape as many other cars whizzed by, many of them headed to the Khunjerab Pass.
After stopping for tea in Sost, the last border town, we were officially inside Khunjerab National Park. Since it was Sunday, we were told we would not see the large 22-wheeler trawlers that come down from the Chinese side to offload their wares at the Sost Dry Port above the main bazaar. “We get around 12 to 18 of these large trawlers daily, except Saturdays and Sundays, and they come to the dry port and then go back to China. There are not that many Chinese tourists yet but we are expecting them,” said Shabbir, owner of the newly-built Hotel Tibet in Sost. The number of trawlers is expected to increase to 100 per day, which would most certainly cause traffic jams in this part of the KKH. And then there’s the issue of the diesel fumes spewing out of these large vehicles. Already, the lower hanging glaciers in this region are melting fast because of warming temperatures, black carbon spewed by vehicles, and burning of biomass in stoves.
Khunjerab Pass lies uphill around an hour from Sost. Our car had to register at a check-post and we bought entrance tickets for Khunjerab National Park. There were no brochures or other handouts to tell us about the park that was created in the 1970s on the recommendations of George B Schaller, an eminent biologist, to protect its wildlife. A proper management plan for Khunjerab National Park began to be implemented in 1998 and today the park has its own directorate and staff in place, managed by the provincial wildlife department of Gilgit-Balitistan. But they are really not doing a good job. I was shocked to see that all the wildlife had disappeared near the KKH. The Ibex and little golden marmots that would peak their heads up to look at passing vehicles were nowhere to be seen.
“There are just too many vehicles going up now, starting from 6am until it gets dark, and no one stops them,” explained Karamat Ali a local from Hunza, who works as a documentary film-maker. “Since 2015, tourists have been coming up daily and no one tells them what they can or cannot do inside a national park. They have scared off all the wildlife. The ibex would come early in the morning to drink water but they no longer come. Then there is all the garbage people dump everywhere”.
When we reached the top of the egg shaped pass, I was shocked to see all the changes. A large car park has been built and a truck was selling tea and biryani in plastic containers, which tourists would toss away.There were very few rubbish bins. Instead, the streams near the border area are full of plastic and I heard they recently buried a great deal of it in a landfill on the pass.
Nearby, a group of young men were picnicking outside their vehicle, blasting music and hooting their horn. The once verdant grassland of the pass, dotted with small ponds and covered with patches of purple coloured flowers, is just a memory of the past. Tourists trample on the fragile grass as they go exploring every which way, dirtying the ponds and cutting all the remaining flowers. There is even a newly-installed ATM machine on the pass. Will a shopping mall follow?
We walked to the border check-post, today a gleaming metal structure built by the Chinese. Just a metal fence separated us from China, and friendly Chinese tourists on the other side were taking pictures of us while we photographed them. There were plenty of waves and smiles. Some vehicles with special passes were allowed to go through. A large blue signboard pointed out the distance to Kashgar and Urumqi, citis in Xinjiang, while the distance to Pakistan’s Gilgit and Islamabad was noted on the other side . The air at 4,700 metres is rather thin and too much exertion can cause headaches.
After taking pictures at the border post, people hurried back to their cars. The biryani truck was doing a roaring trade with piping hot tea and coffee. “I come every day with fresh biryani,” the owner told me, insisting I try some. There were no biryani trucks or ATM machines on the Chinese side. Indeed their fenced side of the grassland looked greener and cleaner, resembling a wilderness. We really have to do more to protect our side of the CPEC. Why does our development have to wreak such a heavy cost on the environment?