Featured Image: Harvesting wheat, Taxila, near the Museum and Archaeological Site, Lower KKH, 1995
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 3 May 2021
The Lower Karakorum Highway: Taxila, Abbottabad, Khagan Valley and the Alai Valley
I wrote in the last article The Karakorum Highway why it was still important to write about a trip undertaken in 1995. It was soon difficult and dangerous to travel the Karakorum Highway (KKH) after 2001 until not that long ago. The landslide in 2010 that created Attabad Lake closed the KKH and made it hard to travel on the KKH for some years. The changes in Kashgar covered in another article on the Kashgar Sunday Market and China’s repression of the Uyghur population have made Xinjiang problematical for the responsible traveller. And, eventually the new upgrades to the whole KKH may make the trip no longer adventurous. The towns mentioned are no longer the same, whereas in 1995, they still retained some of the flavour of the 19th century British colonial entry into the region (mainly because the Northern areas had been neglected for years by the Pakistan Government).
As I concluded in my last article, 1995 was a more innocent era and we need to remember rather than to lose reminders of our recent past.
We flew to Lahore from Thailand on 28 April, 1995. I’d encouraged Denise to undertake the KKH when we took a year off in 1995. As I said in the last article:
I‘d always been fascinated by Hunza and Nagar kingdoms when I first heard about them in 19th century British colonial writings. Although not in Tibet, they symbolized a sort of Shangri-La beautiful, remote and exotic. Subsequently, I’d heard about the Karakorum Highway or KKH and thought it would be marvellous to travel up it to China.
We both subsequently read William Dalrymple In Xanadu for inspiration, though we didn’t stay with British ambassador’s or the Wali of Swat while setting out.
The Lower KKH
Taxila (4-7 May)
We took a bus from Lahore to Rawalpindi and another local bus to Taxila (37 km) arriving in the late afternoon on 4 May, the beginning of our KKH adventure.
Taxila was in those days a village surrounded by pleasant agricultural lands. The Youth Hostel, a lovely old building outside the village, was run by a charming but garrulous old man as chowkidar (caretaker). The surrounds of the world heritage site were beautiful. Across the road was the Taxila museum — magnificent — with the archaeological ruins just beyond. (It was slightly run down in a smaller building then, but with magnificent treasures well-displayed.)
Taxila was first excavated between 1913 and 1934. It was the site of three cities on the Peshawar plain known historically as Gandhara. The first city dated from perhaps 3600 BCE and also the early Harrapan period of 2900 BCE. It was conquered and ruled by the Achaemenians (Persians) from the 7th century BCE until conquered by Alexander. Alexander the Great founded the second city but kept it only a short while from 326 BC. Alexander was followed by Mauryans, Chandra Gupta and Asoka. Then from, the 2nd century BCE it was a Greco-Indian kingdom annexed by the Bactrians, until conquered by the Kushans. The Kushans built the third city in the first century CE. The Gupta Empire occupied Taxila in the mid-4th century CE but thereafter the city declined.
The art and culture were influenced by the Greeks for centuries. Gandharan art is a mixture of Greco-Buddhist styles. Asoka converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. I was amazed at the mixture of Greek and Indian art in the marvellous statues in the museum. It was my first experience of the Gandharan style.
While we were in Taxila we shared the accommodation with a young Muslim, Mohamed from Birmingham, whose forebears hailed from Pakistani Kashmir, where he was heading next to visit relatives and his parents’ birthplace. We don’t know if Mohamed was radicalised by his later visits or the reverse. We got on well with him, though we had great trouble understanding his Brummie accent in English. He spoke Urdu well and we have no idea whether his accent was pure or difficult. However, Mohamed was not having a great time in Taxila. The locals weren’t treating him well and we intuited that it was because of the colour of his skin. He was very dark. This was exacerbated when we arrived because we were treated as royalty in comparison through no fault of our own. The chowkidar muttered about Mohamed and heaped unwarranted praise on us!
It reminded me of why Pakistan invaded East Pakistan in 1971 and lost it. The bottom-line was population-size. The west Pakistanis did not want to be ruled by small dark Bengalis.
Abbottabad (7-9 May)
From Taxila we went to Abbottabad on 7 May (where Osama bin Laden was killed fifteen years later, see Abbottabad article). Then we visited the wonderful Kaghan Valley on 9 May and the even more exciting Alai Valley on 14 May, arriving in Gilgit on 18 May 1995.
Our purpose at Abbottabad was to hire a forestry bungalow on Lake Saif-ul-Muluk above Naran in the Kaghan Valley, but were told that late snows had made this impossible. We didn’t quite believe them and decided to go to Naran regardless.
The Kaghan Valley (9-13 May)
Eid al_Fitr is a major Muslim Holiday at the end of Ramadan in May. We’d seen signs of it in the parading of beautiful animals for sale in Lahore. In Naran, on our return from trying to reach the lake in the snow, we saw four men drop a cow and begin to butcher it expertly in minutes.
The Kaghan Valley is off the KKH, Naran is around 82 km from the highway. It is a popular tourist destination, as it is not that far from Islamabad and Rawalpindi. At that time it was a tiny village more for accommodation than a settlement.
I wrote of the first part of the journey through Balakot to Kaghan in my journal:
The journey was up a beautiful valley of green, the road winding along precipitous slopes above the raging Kunhar River. Much of the time there was a drop of from 50 to 300 m to the river, with soaring hills of pine and snow clad peaks above. …
We were travelling in a Toyota Hilux inside a cage like arrangement in the utility tray, with several other people goats and supplies. I had noticed that the tires at the front were completely bald. Suddenly, we went into a skid towards the river. The driver had braked and swerved to avoid an old woman leading a goat and the tires were sliding on the loose gravel verge. There was no way out of the cage except at the back. I thought I was going to die!
I clutched the old Pakistani man beside me with claw-like intensity right on the sensitive part of his knee. He didn’t flinch. Was he impervious or terrified?
‘Distilled almost to jelly by the act of fear.’ (Shakespeare, Hamlet) I said to Denise later: ‘I’d have preferred for the driver to have run the old woman down. They should train their drivers not to swerve for old women and goats. Sacrifice them for the greater good.’
For the rest of the journey my pleasure was tinged with fear.
We had a quick snack at Kaghan at 4pm. For the last leg of the trip we had to hire a jeep with two couples one Swiss and one Pakistani because of the snow. (The Pakistanis were a mixed marriage Christian/Muslim and had to be careful, as if outsiders knew they might be killed.) The head of the valley the Babusar Pass (4145 m, 13,600 feet) was closed and would be for weeks. We didn’t want to go that way anyway as the folks on the other side aren’t friendly.
Naran was our first taste of real mountains close up and we really enjoyed climbing up the steep slopes in the snow. Everything was beautiful including the pine forests. I remember hearing rockfalls and avalanches quite close but not near enough for concern. Although out walking we did have to cross the paths of old avalanches according to my notes and it was dangerous.
We tried to climb through snow to Lake Saif-ul-Muluk. It was not easy. Our Swiss friends made it but they were younger, fitter and more acclimatised than us. We almost got there. But, Denise wanted to turn back. We saw them running down the steep slopes afterward, as if running down shingle slopes. Some young Pakistani male tourists, who were mucking around in the snow, were also impressed and they emulated them. We thought the Pakistanis might well kill themselves by falling onto the rocks below.
Naran is at 2400 metres and the lake at 3300 metres. Our boots were saturated, after six hours of walking. So we had to wear sandals with our thickest socks in the evening. We ate with the Swiss. Freezing, but a decent adventure all the same.
When we arrived, in Naran it was a ghost town, as it was all next day. The following day everything had transformed, the shuttered old sheds had suddenly transformed into shops. There were decorations. The gutter stream on either side of the street had sprouted tranquil pools filled with soft drinks, with tiny water wheels made of Coke cans and other decorations and flower gardens in the mud surrounds. Horses and goats were being brought up the road for the tourists to ride on. By late afternoon people were arriving.
Several other things were memorable. We saw transhumance for the first time (we’ve seen it often in Nepal since). Transhumance is seasonal nomadism, that is, moving flocks mostly of fat-tailed sheep and goats in this instance and some cattle, from their permanent winter dwellings to summer pastures. We also saw men pulling rough-hewn pine logs freshly cut down the chutes of avalanches: a dangerous occupation.
On the way out of town, when we left with our previous travel companions in another hired jeep, we were held up for an hour by the large avalanche of snow across the road with one lane cut through it. The traffic jam was immense and looked impossible to clear, as everyone was jockeying for their own passage. Yet, somehow sanity prevailed. Perhaps the locals quelled the hotheads and eventually we got across.
The Alai Valley (14-17 May)
I vaguely remember the guidebook and even William Dalrymple warning us about Kohistan on the left bank of the Indus. We arrived in Thakot about 4pm and were sitting, having tea having spread the word that we wanted to go to the Alai Valley. A tall sinister looking man approached us and offered to guide us up some mountain across the river. I could see us ending in a shallow grave.
Yet, a few minutes later, we quite happily accepted a lift in a new ute with good tyres (open-backed one-ton truck) weighed down massively with bags of flour. The young man offered to take us the steep road to the saddle and over into the Alai Valley. A pack of people piled onto the back at the last minute and we felt privileged to be in the front seat. Although the front of the ute seemed suspended in mid-air by the weight in the back. At spots along the way the vehicle stopped and people plunged off, down slopes that I couldn’t have walked down. The view into the Indus Valley was stupendous. The road rose a kilometre above the Indus before one reached the saddle and the descent into Banna. There were some nasty landslips to cross in the last two kilometres to the saddle.
Reading between the lines in the Lonely Planet Guide, John King was extremely fond of the Alai Valley. John King says:
The 100,000 or so people of the beautiful Alai Valley are Pathans whose forebears were probably driven out of Swat in the 16th century. They had their own ruler or nawab and were mostly left alone until the late 1970s when the area was brought under NWFP control (enforced from the huge Frontier Constabulary stockade in the middle of the valley) and Nawab Ayub Khan was demoted to a parliamentary delegate.
In spite of the Pathans’ love of independence and the fact that everyone here is armed to the teeth, the change apparently came without bloodshed. In fact Ayub Khan (who lives in the village of Biarai) remains the valley’s effective leader.
Two disappointments of our visit were that we didn’t take up the opportunity to visit Ayub Khan when it was offered and that our stay wasn’t long enough.
The Alai river bridge across to Banna had been broken by floods in 1991 when a span fell into the river. One had to walk across avoiding the hole in the middle. All goods were carried across by hand. We had a small set back because the chowkidar for the rest house wasn’t available. One of our fellow passengers a matriculation level forester, took our bags and promised to put us up and give us dinner in his mud-floored hut.
Unfortunately, the local circuit magistrate or tehsildar heard of our plight and offered us accommodation. The magistrate’s local quarters was next door to the rest house we were booked into, but a third of his house had fallen into the river and it was rather makeshift. We were offered dinner and a room but it was an uncomfortable hospitality. He was slightly indelicate about Denise though not overtly — he’d probably never had a chance of conversation with a Western woman — and was a little too over-interested in our arrangements. His deputy the naib tehsildar was a tall religious ascetic, a nice person. But, he was difficult for us. He couldn’t understand why we didn’t pray five times a day and he was desperately keen to interrogate us on Christianity. We had to dredge up our limited knowledge from growing up. We had long involved discussions with him pacing around the lovely garden. We’d already realised that in Pakistan we had to be married and Christian to boot. Trying to explain agnosticism or worse atheism would have been difficult and perhaps dangerous.
Fortunately, the chowkidar for the rest house turned up late morning of the next day and we managed to escape the tehsildar’s clutches into our own large room. Although we were nearly kicked out once more on our last night, as the ‘Minister’ his boss, with his ferociously armed body guards, turned up unexpectedly, but fortunately he left after lunch and we weren’t disturbed. The problem with government rest houses in South Asia is that this happens frequently. Rukmini and I were once kicked out of a rest house in Orissa, because a government Minister became suddenly expected.
One plus of knowing the tehsildar was that his court was held on the lawns outside both houses and we were free to kibitz openly. The local police brought prisoners forward in chains, whilst village leaders and concerned parties sat on the lawn and watched the events intently.
I felt sorry for the police. Their fortress-like stockade reminded me of police stations in Belfast in the early 1980s. Both, they and the locals knew it was all for show. Had the locals wanted, they could have over-run the police station in-a-minute. Later, in the Swat Valley we heard what happens there when local Pathans are irritated.
On the court morning, the tehsildar warned us not to venture out, as the locals were agitating and demonstrating against Indian Kashmir. We fortunately ignored him, as we had a wonderful day exploring the valley, and though we frequently saw armed groups and parts of the demonstration, no one was interested in us and we were received hospitably everywhere. My one regret was not demanding of one old man with a wonderful henna-dyed beard and an ancient rifle that he stop for a photograph. In retrospect, I’m sure he would have been delighted.
The Alai Valley was an oasis of calm in the sometimes stressful daily travel in Pakistan.
The Alai Valley is long and narrow with limited growing areas and tiny terraced fields amidst the rock and gravel. The river from mountains not far away provides the lifeblood for the community but it also frequently floods, which does much damage. The area is intensely beautiful, but I suspect that life must be tough as well. We saw water wheels in sheds in the fields for grinding grain very similar to those in villages in Nepal.
On the morning we left, we sat on a seat that looked like a bus stop in the wind and light drizzle. The locals said that we had to go back to Thakot to get to Besham, but instead we had a chai and decided to wait for a while to see if anything turned up. The man sitting beside me suddenly became excited. I noticed for the first time he had a huge hand-gun stuck in his belt at the back. A newish looking Toyota ute backed up fifty-metres and the locals excitedly grinning gestured us aboard. I tried to ask about price but no one paid any attention. The driver who picked us up had on a clean white cap and an immaculate clean light-coloured shalwar kameez. He looked most respectable, though a little sullen or severe.
After four kilometres, I broached the subject of price again. He mulled this over carefully and said ‘char sua’. I repeated ‘char sua’ and he smiled and held up four fingers. I smiled too. 400 rupees was a lot of money to us (A$20) but we could afford it, whereas 500 or 600 would have caused us to ‘freak’. We did discuss it worriedly between us trying a bit of slang, saying that our Swiss companion Rolf would not have approved, but we resigned ourselves to the inevitable and decided to enjoy the journey. I think the driver understood more English than he let on.
We cheered up and surprisingly the farther we went, the more our companion cheered up too. He became quite lively. We all shuddered involuntarily when the sump or transmission hit hard on a rock, and then laughed with relief when it appeared no damage was done.
We stopped at a village half way to take chai. Poor Denise was escorted into a dim and dark shed, while I was allowed to peruse village life. I took a photograph of our driver and the village hangers on; and, seeing a man with a carbine I grabbed him for a photo too, still cursing myself for missing the old man with the red beard. By the time I’d focussed, I had another man with a semi-automatic rifle in the frame and a good photo. The semi-automatic seemingly vanished the moment the photo was taken and my fierce bandit became an unarmed villager, once more.
What happened at the end of our journey can only be described as the culmination of a rather elaborate practical joke, quite Australian in fact, on the part of the driver. I can imagine him chortling in his ‘mind’s eye’ the whole way down to Besham.
He dropped us on the KKH at the turn about one km out of Besham, with the two other passengers he’d picked up at the village who were in the tray at the back. Denise had to delve into her money belt and had to get back in the car to do so. As, I — the male — handed the wad of notes to the driver, he gave me a brilliant smile and handed half back (200 rupees). He’d savoured our concern by asking for char sua, perhaps an outrageous amount, but then happily gave us half back.
He drove off to the left, was so chuffed with himself, that five minutes later he returned up the KKH and took us and the other two all the way into Besham beaming.
Besham to Gilgit (17-18 May)
We tried to get a wagon in the late afternoon to no avail but were promised a lift in the morning. Travel on the lower KKH was still dangerous at night because of bandits. We could have relaxed in the morning but were loaded onto the wagon early after a hurried breakfast. Then we were driven around Besham for three hours touting for more passengers before departing. About twenty minutes into the drive some of the passengers became agitated, the driver stopped and we had to endure another twenty minutes while the passengers prayed.
The canyon walls were high and slide prone for the first part of the trip. We were mostly in dry country at the bottom of chasms, but we saw all that there was to see of the river fans of the tributaries we passed over and small plateaus of cultivation above and near the edge of the river. We passed Chilas, the Raikot Bridge, the turn off to the Astore Valley and Bunji, but were not versed enough in history to pay much attention. We did however, stop at Talechi and viewed the largest number of snowy peaks viewable from the KKH, including Nanga Parbat (8126 m) behind us and Rakaposhi (7790 m) ahead of for the first time.
We arrived in Gilgit that evening on 18 May 1995.
Key Words: Lower Karakorum Highway, Taxila, Abbottabad, Kaghan Valley, Naran, Alai Valley, Besham, Gilgit, Taxila Museum, Gandhara, Lake Saif-ul-Muluk, Talechi, Chilas, Raikot Bridge, Astore Valley, Bunji, Nanga Parbat, Rakaposhi
John King Karakorum Highway: the High Road to China Lonely Planet 1993
William Dalrymple In Xanadu: A Quest 1989
Wikipedia on Eid-al Fitr
The Taxila Museum looks much larger in current photographs and may not be quite as good as it was when it was small.
Wikipedia on Taxila
Wikipedia on Gandhara
The Gandharan statue pictured above is very similar to examples in the Taxila Museum.
The Kaghan Valley and Naran
Wikipedia describes Naran now as a medium-sized town, which is nothing like described above. Similarly, Abbottabad and the Alai Valley will have changed also.
The Alai Valley
The Alai Valley is called Allai Tehsil in Wikipedia (hence the magistrate is the Tehsildar) but there is not much useful information. The Alai Valley was affected by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. The best description is from John King in the 1993 Lonely Planet guide.
More recently Lonely Planet talks of the Alai Choar — a vast alpine meadow as big as the Alai itself which is a long day’s walk up the Nogram or Rupkanai rivers — you can camp there and even trek across into the Kaghan Valley. The choar was probably not accessible for tourists in 1995 nor was the trek to Kaghan. It is only accessible from May to August, and in 1995 in May would have been impossible because of the late snows.
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