Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Karakoram Highway

he souls that paved the way for the modern tarmac road named the Karakoram Highway still seem to flicker amongst the sharp moving shadows of the unstable rocks and the almost countless but crumbly lucent glaciers that constantly threaten it's existence. There has always been a long pass into, and out of China over what is sometimes called the 'roof of the world' but in ancient times it was a very perilous pathway.

Extant writings, etched in a fourth century A.D. Chinese travelers diary, record ' The trail was very precipitous, and vertigo accompanied us as we edged along it...' The path was certainly narrow, and often clung to the sheer faces of the many deep resonant gorges that still confine their turgid, animated rivers. Even today, one can still see vestiges of an old crumbling trail high up above the present road. Although it is not the same trail that this particular merchant scrabbled breathlessly along, if one scrambles up to it and edges along it for a few meters, one can experience the same feelings of dizziness and danger that the diarist wrote about.

The new wide metal led road also winds along high palisade like cliffs in some places, and sometimes short sections of the tarmac rumble down into the river below or become buried under tones of rock and mud. However a modern traveler on this modern road will not experience the same fear or vertigo as the ancients.

The present highway is also popularly called the 'Silk Route' by many romantics because it approximates the trail of what was once one of the many silk, jade and spice carrying caravan trails that congregated somewhere near Xian, in China, and terminated in the vicinity of modern Syria on the Mediterranean sea coast. Like long lines of exploring ants, determined traders, merchants, and adventurers wore a path through narrow gorges, high grass sheathed valleys, across waterless deserts, around 6,000 meter - and higher mountains, and over raging rivers in pursuit of barter.

Karakoram Highway The passage of time hasn't altered any of these geophysical conditions, nor were the reasons for building this new road (apart from its obvious military significance) any different from the ancients reasons for undertaking such a hazardous journey. The new road was built to facilitate trade between China and Pakistan.

Tourist literature published by the Pakistan Tourist Authorities states that the road took twenty years to build. The pamphlets also mention the amount of earth moved, rocks blasted out of the way and more poignantly, the number of men and women, both Pakistani and Chinese who died in this great joint engineering feat.

Although the brochures write that it 'took twenty years to build', the road is in fact never finished! Because of the uniqueness of it's geophysical surroundings, constant natural activity frequently destroys sections of the highway. A small army of workers are on hand to reroute the road and join the new sections to the ends of the undamaged highway. The road in other words, is constantly being moved!

Put very simply, the road meanders through an area where highly active tectonic plate pressure is causing mountains to grow faster than the elements can wear them down! Swift flowing rivers and the measurable movements of glaciers crush, undercut and wash away the sides of these same mountains contributing to the constant rock falls and landslides that changes the face of the land almost daily! This uniquely accelerated geological activity can be felt, seen, and heard if one sits quietly on any high vantage point for a few hours. The road is in fact an observable reflection of man's incessant, but unequal struggle against nature's transcendental power.

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