Of all the places I’ve visited, Pakistan has to be one of the most enigmatic. Its brief history as a nation-state has been marked by turbulence. Since independence from Great Britain and the subsequent partition with India in 1947, Pakistan has been involved in several wars with India. It also endured a civil war that saw East Pakistan secede to become Bangladesh. There have also been military coups, political upheaval, and an ongoing struggle with terrorism.
Pakistan is also in the club of nations with atomic weapons, a fact that has rattled the nerves of many world leaders, given the volatility of the neighborhood. The country shares borders with Afghanistan, India and China, in what has to be one of the most rugged corners of the globe.
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.