The deadly Karakoram highway

July 22, 2016

We nearly died, I was sexually harassed and I peed on myself, sort of

taxi

The Karokoram highway is the road that leads from the city of Kashgar to Pakistan. It’s built in the middle of insane mountains, grasslands and rivers. Because it’s so far west, it borders or is located close to Kyrgistan, Tajikistan and obviously Pakistan, and many of China’s “minorities” live along the highway.

The highway is known to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Crossing it takes about 6-8 hours, depending on the vehicle, weather and time. It’s called the Karokoram highway, but actually it’s just small road. About 50 percent of the road is flat and relatively drivable. The rest of the road consists of gravel, holes and mud, making it pretty challenging and dangerous to cross, as the road is extremely steep, mostly unprotected and mudslides or rocks falling from the mountains are not uncommon.

Me and my friend planned a safe-ish trip along the highway by bus. Buses go once a day from the Kashgar busstation and many adventurous travelers took this option. It was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. The mountains changed color over time or turned into sand dunes, the rivers became a translucent light blue. There were many different tents, yurts and stone or clay houses along the way, along with all kinds of different people. Amazing.

The drive indeed was a little scary…alright it was very scary. We were basically catapulted in and out of our seats every minute. To avoid big holes the bus kept going from left to right and sometimes it got stuck on steep areas. But the driver seemed to know what he was doing and there were other cars going back and forth, plus the view was absolutely worth it.

We arrived at Karagul lake, a majestic lake next to the road, where we spent a night in a yurt among Kyrgyz people. The next morning we were supposed to go to Taxkorgan, but we wanted to enjoy our time near the lake for a while, so we hitchhiked our way there. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long, as a minivan with some other travelers stopped and took us there for basically next to nothing.

So far so good, right?

Taxkorgan was an interesting place as it was home to many Tajik people, and there were a lot of nomads in the distance on the grasslands surrounding the place. Good Pakistani food too. All was well.

We planned to go back to Kashgar and from there take a night train back to Urumqi to rest a few days (we had to go back to Kashgar because we rented mountain bikes there…which we didn’t use.. a whole different story..). The hostel told us there were minivan taxis going to Kashgar in the afternoon, so we wouldn’t have to leave early to catch the bus. Taxkorgan was another 100km further down, meaning the drive back would take 8-10+ hours.

This is where shit hit the fan.

Upon arriving at the taxi location, there was indeed a comfortable minivan. I put my backpack in the back, took a seat and ate something, while my friend waited outside for a bit. We had to wait for a 4th passenger (the van wouldn’t leave with less than 4 people). There were many different people surrounding the van, mostly Uyghur, discussing whatever in their native tongue. We had to show our passports to inspection at some point and as I got out, all of a sudden I saw a man grabbing my bag from the back of the van and throwing it in the trunk of a tiny old taxi. In Dutch I sort of indirectly spoke to the man and said: “what is going on, what are you doing with my bag.” I turned to my friend and told her I had a bad feeling about this and I asked her if maybe we could find another way to go to Kashgar. She didn’t really respond to my panicking and kept quiet, but I could feel her thinking the same thing.

After inspection we headed back to the taxi site and found we indeed had to take the car that was about to fall apart. As I got in the car I kept saying: “I don’t want this, this doesn’t feel right, I don’t like this at all…”

For the first hour I sat miserably in the middle of the backseat. I was upset that I didn’t just push through and found a different way to travel. I was also scared of the car, which was definitely not meant to drive on that unsafe road. My friend and an Uyghur man sitting next to me fell asleep as I continued panicking. Then I noticed the driver kept changing his seating position, while rubbing his eyes every now and then. Sometimes he drove straight into vehicles coming from the other direction and quickly dashed just before crashing into one. My eyes were wide open at that point and I pretty much stopped blinking with full focus on the driver; my friend was still asleep. I tried to calm down, telling myself that he was an experienced driver and everything was going to be fine. Then I saw him dozing off..several times. Sometimes he let go of the wheel, suddenly woke up, which startled him, after which he moved the car in all kinds of different directions trying to get control over the car again. This woke my friend up as well.

“The driver keeps falling asleep,” I told her. We feared for our lives as in the next 20 minutes or so we could’ve died 20 times. The driver was clearly tired and we still had like 8 hours to go. We discussed getting out and hitchhiking our way to Kashgar. When the driver took a small break on the side of the road to pee, I convinced my friend (who was also dying of fear) to get out and leave. We did. The driver and the other passengers tried to talk us out of it, but after 10 minutes they gave up and drove off.

I was relieved and still pretty positive. It wasn’t going to get dark for the next 4 hours or so; there was plenty of time to find a suitable ride. There was also a police station not far ahead, a few small villages about a 2-hour walk away and we could always go back to the lake (also maybe 2,3 hours) and stay the night there. There were options.

After 15 minutes or so we decided to change our flip-flops to hiking shoes, since we figured this could take a while. Then a truck stopped. The driver didn’t speak Chinese, but he was heading for the Karagul lake. We were excited. My friend threw my backpack and her belongings in the truck while I quickly tried to gather my things.

Then the taxi came back.

Both passengers got out and started yelling at me to get back into the car. I looked at my friend in despair while trying to gather my stuff and listening to the two men yelling. Another truck stopped behind the one we were supposed to get in, honking to the other truck to get a move on. I covered my ears and started screaming: ” I can’t deal with this right now!!” From the truck my friend yelled to the two men that under no circumstances were we getting back in that car. At the same time she realized we dragged the poor truck driver into it..so she got out. While I was still trying to breathe, she kept telling the two men “no” while they continued arguing.

The driver and other passengers said there was a passport check along the way and they needed to take us there first; after that we were allowed to go wherever. We convinced them we were able to walk there. They drove off and waited at the police station. I slowly came to my senses, put on my hiking shoes and we walked our way there.

Upon arriving I told my friend: “you tell them whatever, I’ll take a picture of the license plate.” We found both passengers and the driver speaking to a policeman. Turns out it wasn’t a passport check, it was just a way for us to speak to the police. “It’s too unsafe, the driver can’t keep his focus for this long” me and my friend said. The policeman tried to reassure us everything was going to be fine: “This man is responsible for your safety,” he said as he pointed at the logo on the taxi, which was probably like an official taxi company or something. “We’re really not getting in again” my friend kept repeating. I turned to her and said: “how about we let him drive us to the lake and get out there, it’s not long and the driver seems pretty awake now.” The driver had a nervous smile on his face, being accused of sleep-driving at the police and all. After a few minutes we decided to get back in the car. The police made the driver promise to focus, drive slow, rest and for the other passengers to pay attention as well.

Seeing as how we threw a massive tantrum, the driver was indeed wide awake and drove safer than any other driver we had come across, meaning still unsafe, but reasonably ok, aka: we “nearly crashed” less than we would have if the police wasn’t involved…

We saw the lake pass by, then we passed all of the villages, then the main flat road ended, and darkness came sooner than expected. I was sweating like crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared before. We were driving on a dangerous road, downhill, crazy steep, unprotected, no light..One mistake and we would’ve crashed hundreds of meters into nothingness and there was plenty of wreckage along the way to prove that it wasn’t just irrational fear.

We made a stop at the actual passport inspection. The driver bought us a drink; he was clearly trying to better himself. I needed to go the bathroom, which in the middle of the mountains means squatting behind a rock. I was pretty used to squatting outside at this point, and seeing as how there were worse things happening, this was not an issue. Well..It wasn’t an issue until I accidentally dropped my pants into my own pee…completely soaked up to the knees.. I tried to fix it with tissues first. Then I stopped caring about everything, got up, pulled my pants down so that nearly everyone could see me in underwear, tied my headscarf around the front part of my waist, cardigan around the back: I looked fabulous. I tried to laugh it off, cracked some jokes. My friend was feeling sick and looked at me like: what the hell are you so happy about and “no, I’m not taking a picture..”

I got back into the car with my legs now uncovered. The Uyghur man sitting to my left thought this was a wonderful opportunity to grab my legs and ass. Since it was already dark and in the middle of the mountains there was no way to get out. I pushed his hands away and tried to tell him to stop in English (He didn’t really speak Chinese). My friend also participated in making sure his hands were visible on his own lap. At some point I put my bag in between us. He finally stopped. The rest of the trip he kept looking at me, hoping I would fall asleep. The creep.

We nearly crashed some more, we drove into a group of wild camels..but eventually, after 9 hours, we arrived in Kashgar. I think I maybe blinked once during the entire trip.

We walked back to the hostel in complete silence. Then I stopped, looked at my friend and said: “what…the..hell.”

“What…the…fuck” she replied.

 

 

The good news is: My pants are clean.

berg.jpg
Picture in the mountains along the highway (when all was still well)

 

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