Biryani at 4,700 meters: Khunjerab Pass

I had visited the Khunjerab Pass many years ago, in the era before the September 2001 attacks, and clearly remember that tough but awe inspiring drive on a jeep up to the highest border crossing in the world at almost 4,700 metres. On the way we had encountered European and American cyclists and learnt that this route along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) from Gilgit to the Chinese border is considered the ultimate journey for biking enthusiasts. With the advent of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor slated to pass through this route, many changes have taken place. The highway is smoother and wider, courtesy the Chinese. It now takes just three hours from Hunza to the Khunjerab top, whereas when I last visited Khunjerab it had taken us six. The journey has been cut down by a series of amazing tunnels built by the Chinese.

The wide and smooth KKH near Passu Glacier [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

Last week I got the chance to undertake the journey for the 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 the 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 a million tourists visited Gilgit Baltistan last year, and that number will probably be surpassed this year.

The tunnels built by Chinese above Atabad Lake [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

The next morning we took off for the Khunjerab Pass in our land cruisers. 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, which was formed after a massive landslide hit the Hunza River in 2010. The landslide blocked the river, flooding out many homes in Gulmit and surrounding areas and forming the majestic blue lake. Since then the waters of the lake have been allowed to flow down by making a small outlet and there are now 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 stunning blue waters of Atabad Lake [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

The waters of the deep lake were a stunning cobalt blue colour and many cars stopped here as tourists took selfies with the lake as a backdrop. The 7 kilometre long tunnels (a total of 5 here) 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, as 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 indeed one felt like one was in Switzerland. 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.

The entrance to the Khunjerab National Park [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

After stopping for tea in Sost, the last border town, we were officially inside Khunjerab National Park. We were told that since it was Sunday we would not see the large 22 wheeler trawlers that come down from the Chinese side to off load their wares at the Sost Dry Port located 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 as yet but we are expecting them,” said Shabbir, the owner of the newly built Hotel Tibet in Sost. He says that the number of trawlers is expected to go up to 100 per day – that would most certainly cause traffic jams in this part of the KKH and then there is the issue of the diesel fumes that would be spewing out of these large vehicles. Already the lower hanging glaciers in this region are melting fast because of warming temperatures and 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 (PKR 100 – USD 1 – for locals) for Khunjerab National Park. There were no brochures or other handouts to tell us about the park that was created in the 1970s upon the recommendations of an eminent biologist, George B Schaller to protect its wildlife. A proper management plan for Khunjerab National Park began to be implemented in 1998. Today the park has its own directorate and staff in place and is managed by the provincial wildlife department of Gilgit-Balitistan. They are really not doing a good job, as I was shocked to see that all the wildlife had disappeared near the KKH. Nowhere to be seen were the Ibex and the little golden marmots that would peak their heads up to look at the passing vehicles. Khunjerab National Park is one of the key biodiversity hotspots of Pakistan. Marco Polo sheep, blue sheep, Siberian ibex, snow leopard, brown bear, wolf, golden marmot, lynx, red fox and Cape hare are the key species found here.

“There are just too many vehicles going up now and they start going from 6 in the morning until it gets dark. 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 morning to drink water they no longer come. Then there is all the garbage people dump everywhere”.

The new Chinese border post [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

When we reached the top of the egg shaped pass, I was shocked to see all the changes. A large parking lot had been created to accommodate all the cars. A truck was selling tea and biryani in plastic containers. Tourists would toss away these containers after they were done. The streams near the border area were full of plastic garbage – I heard they recently buried a whole lot of it in a landfill on the pass. There were very few garbage bins.

The garbage dumped in streams on the Pakistani side of the border [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

Nearby a group of young men were picnicking outside their vehicle, blasting the music and hooting away. The once verdant grassland of the pass, dotted with small ponds and covered with patches of purple coloured flowers, was just a memory of the past. Tourists are trampling 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. Is a shopping mall going to follow?

The highest ATM in the world on Khunjerab Pass [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

We walked to the border check-post, today a gleaming metal structure built by the Chinese. There was just a metal fence separating 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 while on the other side the distance to Gilgit and Islamabad was noted. The air at 4,700 metres is rather thin and too much exertion can cause headaches.

Who wants to go to Urumqi at the border with China [image by: Rina Saeed Khan]

After taking pictures at the border post, people were hurrying back to their cars. The biryani truck was doing roaring business with its piping hot tea and coffee. “I come every day with fresh biryani,” the owner told me, insisting I try some. Clearly he has official permission to do this. There were no biryani trucks or ATM machines on the Chinese side. Indeed their fenced side of the grassland looked greener and cleaner. Their side of the Khunjerab Pass actually resembled 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?

A young Chinese tourist with a rather important message on her baseball cap [image by: Rina Saeed Khan

Courtesy: The Thirdpole