Day 18: Sust to Kunjerab.

Sust,Koksil, Kunjerab National Park, Kunjerab Plateau.

Distance: 86km, 11th July 2000

Route: There is a check post at the north end of Sust. Those making a day trip to the Kunjerab Pass may have to register here, the KKH to China travels north, entering a narrow canyon about one kilometer above Sust. Here, the Chapsuran Valley joins the Hunza river from the west. A further four-kilometer north is a petrol station where most vehicles stop to fill up. A little further along the canyon, a jeep road leads off to the west along a side valley for 17 kilometers to Misgar (3,708 metres).

Above the junction of the Chapsuran and Killik valleys, the Hunza river is referred to as the Kunjerab river. The KKH follows this narrow gorge in a northeast direction, before turning north at the Kunjerab river’s confluence with the Ghujerab river. The bridge here marks the entrance to the Kunjerab National Park, the road here is still a very gentle incline.

Beyond Dih is a section of road that is particularly susceptible to landslides and flooding. Beyond the slide area the Barkhun Nala at Barkhun joins the Khunjerab river.The road climbs gently to the check post at Koksil, which also has some abandoned work camp buildings. Koksil to the Khunjerab Pass is 17 kilometers.

After Koksil, the KKH gains altitude rapidly, climbing through a series of twelve tight hairpin bends. Look out for golden marmots along this section of the road. Having climbed significantly, though the series of hairpin bends, the KKH reaches the Khunjerab Pass (86 kilometers from Sust). From the Khunjerab pass to Tashkurgan is a further 125 kilometers.

Travelogue:

We were all up early the next day and looking forward to the drive to the “Top”, when we were greeted with bad news that the road was still blocked and it would take a few hours before it was cleared later in the morning. We decided to drive up to the blocked portion of the road and wait it out there. I drove up to the slide area at twelve in the afternoon to find a few vehicles already waiting in que. There were four Italian couples who had recently retired and had driven all the way from Italy en-route to China. They were patiently waiting for the FWO bulldozer to clear the slide. It was great talking to them about their journey, may be one day we will follow in their footsteps. Mr. Butta was still going full throttle with the bulldozer and had reduced the slide to a couple of meters from almost a furlong since yesterday, he was all geared up and determined to open the road by two in the afternoon.

The public in our group was getting a bit frustrated and despondent after waiting for an hour and many futile attempts were made to convince me that we should head back to the hotel. I had decided that if the road was opened by three in the afternoon it would give us enough time to reach the top and get back, so I was waiting for Mr Butta and his team of hard working boys to deliver.

Dr.Bhutta and family were pushed for time, he had to get back to Gilgit the same day as he was delivering a lecture the next day and he could not afford any delays. He decided to cross the landslide with his family and risk the falling rocks, very courageous of them, but then you see the reward would be to set foot on the highest road crossing on earth. They managed to cross over by pulling each other across. We were all worried as to whether he had found transport on the other side for the rest of the journey to the top.

Shortly after one thirty Biba and Najeeb decided to head back to the PTDC motel. I had a difficult time keeping the rest of the group together. They were all getting fed up and anxious as the time ticked away and the will to drive on was fading. I was determined to keep them together and to drive up to the Top as soon as the road opened. I had been to the Top once before and had experienced the feeling of being on top of the world. I wanted my friends to experience the same feeling, it is quite extraordinary, as those who have been up there know.

While waiting for the slide to clear and watching the bulldozer at work pushing the rubble into the flowing river, huge clouds of dust would rise up as the loose earth was moved and dropped into the river. I sat with the Italian tourists and shared notes, they were adventurous people who had traveled the route from Quetta and Zhob and were heading into China. Sure enough by two in the afternoon Mr Butta had the road cleared and we were heading towards the Top, there was another slide up ahead but that would be cleared by the time we would get there.

The road travels along the river and at times is almost level with it, the roar of the water is deafening and it is difficult to hear anything else except the sound of the water gushing by. The road travels through some enchanting forests to open up into a barren wilderness which exist at heights above the snow line. The shrubs become grasslands and then the pebbly desert of the plateau. We met Dr Bhutta and family while they were traveling back in a van towards the landslide area where they had left their vehicle. The road winds up in gradual bends before the last vertical assault of about twenty-km, which is a hairpin climb to the top. At this height my Casio watch and the Landcruiser’s altimeter go blank, they can only read upto 4000m and we are now above 4500m.

The smell in the air of heather is rife as I rest after hectic attempts to take close-up photographs of the golden marmots of Khunjerab, and it is hard to breathe in without effort at this height, The sound of the marmots chirping in the distance catches ones attention. They are all over the place and I have a field time taking pictures of them. Then we head towards the pass. Just short of the pass there is snow on the sides of the road and the kids want to have a snow fight so we stop for a while and let them have fun. Snow in July is unique to us, we enjoy the cool freezing temperature of the ice. Najeeb and the boys have caught up with us, Biba has decided to stay behind. We reach the top and the weather is moderate it is neither overcast nor sunny. The snow has melted on the plateau and the only snow left is the glacier to the left. We walked up to the Chinese side of the border and took plenty of photographs. The Italians have also reached by now and are crossing over to the Chinese side, we exchange Email addresses and say good-bye. I gathered everyone together and made them stand next to the pillars that mark the border for the group photograph. The feeling on the top of the Kunjerab plateau is quite unique. It is as if you are standing on top of the world, the peeks around you are all at your level and only pointed Apices of the mountain are above you, here the peaks are at an average height of above 20000ft. As Dervla Murphy wrote:

’ Here the present is so simple and satisfying ? and so full of peace and beauty – that one is more than willing to pretend nothing else ever existed or ever can exist. Each day I seem to feel more deeply content and inwardly stronger, as though the uncomplicated joys of traveling through these mountains were a form of nourishment’.

After a short walk back to where the vehicles were parked, we started to head back towards Sust hoping that the road would be open and that there would be no more slides along the way. We reached the PTDC motel by seven in the evening. Dinner was late that night and we all went to bed content on having accomplished our goal. We have all been very lucky this time, no one suffered from altitude sickness.

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