Pakistan borders China’s western hinterland. Urumqi the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region is one of the world’s furthest and isolated cities from the sea. But China is changing all that. In a exercise in expanding influence that is reminiscent of “The Great Game” that this region saw in the late 19th century when Russia and Britain vied for influence here there is a quest by China to cement its influence over Pakistan to the exclusion certainly of the Americans. From the Pakistan perspective having China strongly engaged makes not just economic sense but is logical geopolitically as well with the troubles of Afghanistan a source of constant friction to the north and of course India being an irritant via Kashmir to the south east. A strong Pakistan-China relationship makes a lot of sense economically too as we’ve seen as we’ve ridden northeast from Islamabad up the Karakorum Highway (KKH) to the Chinese/Pakistan border at the 4,800m Khunjerab Pass. To view Khunjerab Pass pictures click here
The Chinese have improved the road out of sight and the road from just north of troubled Chilas at the Raikot bridge all the way north to the border so it feels like being more on a Chinese than a Pakistan highway. And what’s more there are plans to expand the road to a dual carriageway. At first it seems a ridiculously elaborate investment on the part of the Chinese until you recognise the economic significance of what’s afoot. The idea is to provide an outlet for Chinese manufacturers being established on that country’s western front at Kasghar directly to the Arabian sea at the port of Gwadar, near Pakistan’s border with Iran. Chinese money has already built the port. From there it’s a quick flick up to the Suez canal for ships and into Europe. Another big project on the drawing board is a gas pipeline from Iran into Pakistan and up to Kashgar in China.
China’s economic might then, is having a distinctive influence on Pakistan and it’s clear the country will become part of the Sino satellite states in the region. As we rode along the KKH we saw graffiti saying “Welcome China, down with the USA”.
And even Mother Nature appears limited in her powers to arrest the Chinese juggernaut. In 2010 the newly improved KKH took a body blow from an absolutely massive landslide in the narrow gorge that encases the Hunza River at Attabad. Instantly a gigantic dam was formed and to the upstream side a lake of some 34 kms slowly formed over ensuing months formed drowning farms and villages before the Chinese construction crews managed to pierce the landslide and get the Hunza flowing again. But the road remains well under the lake and the only way we could continue up the KKH was to put the motorcycles on canoes, built for purpose by the villagers. Their ingenuity extends to being able to transport vans even by using two canoes as the pontoons of a catamaran and driving the vans upon planks crossed astride them. Their daring did hit limits at one stage last year however when they tried to do same with a truck and wind on the water led to the jerrybuilt structure tearing apart and the truck plunging to the bottom of the lake!
To view pictures of crossing Attabad Lake click here