Life Along Pakistan’s Mountain Highway Where China Is Investing Billions Of Dollars

Home & Garden

Much is expected of Karakoram Highway which curls through the tall mountain ranges of northern Pakistan reaching western China. Both countries are renovating it seeing its potential as a trade route. Pakistan also views it as a way to consolidate control over territories contested with India.But for some of the 500 mile route it is barely a two way road carved out of the rock face that slopes sharply into valleys below. It is battered by rockfall, floods and earthquakes. A landslide in 2010 blocked a river and drowned about 14 miles of the road. In heavy snowfalls the road all but shuts down.The riskiest part is the last stretch to in karachi We can actually call this part of the road as a museum of geohazards says Sarfraz Ali a geologist who studies the impact of climate change on the highway at Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology.
The Karakoram Highway named for the spindly mountain range it traverses was a major feat when it was built between the 1950s and 1970s. Now the Chinese government has invested about $2 billion to rebuild a nearly 160 mile stretch of highway to replace the old Karakoram road between the towns of Havelian to Raikot. The final stretch is expected to be completed in March 2020.The revamp is a key project of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC in which China plans to invest over $60 billion in energy and transport in Pakistan. CPEC part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative has stirred controversy because neither country has offered clarity on the terms of the money or how much of it is loans.The Karakoram is open to much of the public but foreign journalists are required to get Pakistani military permission to visit its far-northern stretches. When NPR recently gained access its reporters found a road that has transformed communities along the way.These days vehicles cruise on the new highway north of Islamabad until they’re diverted onto the old route passing rivers and ancient Buddhist monuments and snarling by hectic markets. At night some stretches are lit by the fluorescent light of flophouses and chai stalls frequented by truck drivers.
At the Jehangir Khan Hotel owner Abdullah Zadran 28 says he would go out of business because the Chinese were rebuilding this section of the road as a multi lane highway outside of town.Waiter Abdul Ghafour 30 nods in agreement. My owner won’t keep me he says, worried about losing his $4 a day wage.He serves chai to Gul Ahsaan 60 a trucker who looks forward to driving the new road. My tires won’t burst and I won’t need to repair my truck he says gesturing to his vehicle. It is painted with birds and trees and adorned with bells and mini F16 model jets. He wants to fly his friend jokes.In a nearby town sports supervisor Qazi Ishaq 45 hopes the improved road brings tourists. He’s overseeing boys playing hockey cricket and soccer on a large field.
Girls don’t play sports in this part of rural Pakistan they rarely venture outside. Might a new road change these customs Our culture will not be affected Ishaq insists. Women in our area observe purdah he says referring to the practice of seclusion and veiling.As the Karakoram veers closer to China a few trucks are idling while yaks block the highway. Their herder Suhail Abbas says his fortunes have changed since a Chinese company repaved this section of the road three years ago. People now have money for meat he says grinning.

Locals are making money from tourism and are buying more yaks, Abbas says. This year he began with 500 and sold all but 32. People like it because they don’t eat anything other than grass he says sounding more like a hipster butcher than a grime streaked 23 year old shepherd. Before the road was fixed, he was selling barely 15 a year and was surviving on chai and bread.The bustle is apparent in the nearby border town of Sost where cargo trucks come from across Pakistan to collect Chinese imports processed at the local dry port. Dozens of men sit outside, waiting for dollar a day jobs unloading boxes. Mohammad Iqbal a 29 year old customs official says when he was growing up there was only one shop only one hotel.There were only buses carrying the pilgrims from China to Pakistan who had to go to hajj he says the first part of the journey to Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims mostly from China’s Uighur Muslim minority, no longer come. An internal matter he shrugs alluding to the widespread crackdown on the minority in China.
Curling toward the Khunjerab Pass vehicles dodge fallen rocks as they navigate narrow hairpin turns. Minivans ply the route suitcases piled on their roofs ferrying Pakistanis for study and trade in China. Tourists pose for selfies at the border.So far the road has not met expectations for increasing cross border trade says Andrew Small the author of The China Pakistan Axis. Instead the highway’s main purpose has been to cement the strategic partnership between the two countries. And it has potential military use he says. It improves the capacity for cross border mobility and for troop mobility to defend disputed territories under its control from India. The far north is considered part of the contested Himalayan territory of Kashmir although it is culturally and religiously distinct. Residents there do not identify as Kashmiri. Clashes between Pakistan and India in this part of the territory are rare.

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