While having lunch at a mud-built, thatched-roofed hotel, at the crossing point of Hoshab (the road junction where N-85 and M-8 of CPEC meet), en route to Gwadar, a friend said, “The hotel owner might appear to be poor today but one day, when the CPEC road will become fully functional, his lot will certainly change.”
It has been speculated that when the road becomes functional, a long trail of vehicles will stop here en route to Gwadar or Khunjerab and further on to Kashgar, as parts of this route are already under construction. Upon hearing my friend’s comment, I decided to embark on a solo journey on this 2,463-km road to see the route that has drawn much media attention.
In Gwadar, from atop the Koh-i-Batil (a protruded steep ridge with a height of 449 feet) the view of Gwadar town and sky-blue waters of the Arabian Sea is surreal. In the distance, one can see fleets of fishermen boats buoyant in the water while, towards the north, the neighbourhoods below are a conglomerate of mud and concrete houses with narrow lanes. On the western bay, the newly-constructed road looks appealing while the deep sea port lies on the east bay. A myriad of signboards of developers and builders can be seen everywhere as plots are being marked at a fast pace.
Travelling from Gwadar to Turbat on the 180 km-long M-8 is now safe, thanks to intermittent check-posts. Turbat (Kech) is the historic, second-largest city of Balochistan, famous for its dates as well as the fort of Meer-i-Kalat — a relic of Sassi-Punnu’s legendary love story at the Kechkor riverbed.
Intrigued by the hype one man traverses the 2,463km western CPEC route to see what the fuss is all about
From Turbat, we continued our journey towards Hoshab on the M-8 motorway. Both sides of the road are barren and stony, punctuated with splashes of beautiful greenery and date-groves where there are settlements. The houses here are mostly built with stones and mud (mediaeval with a touch of modern facilities). Travelling in this belt a few years back was a herculean task.
Hoshab is at a distance of more than 100 km from Turbat. Here, the M-8 is planned to extend towards Khuzdar-Ratodero via Awaran as the eastern CPEC motorway, but work on this section has not yet begun. The other branch of the road called N-85, takes off towards north from Hoshab and heads to Panjgur-Surab. This road is completed and connects to Quetta.
From Hoshab, we continued our journey towards Panjgur. This section of the CPEC road has facilitated and connected the people of Makran very well. There is no dearth of lovely landscape views while travelling on this section of the road. Near Balgadar a beautiful playa (a chalk-white dry salt lake) can be seen on the side of the road. Before entering the Panjgur valley, the N-85 passes through central Makran ranges. The markets in Panjgur are full of Iranian items due to its proximity to the border. Panjgur is also famous for its delicious mouth-watering varieties of dates whose origin can be traced back to Basra, thanks to the olden days’ caravans.
The length of the CPEC section from Hoshab to Surab is 440 km. At Surab it merges with the Quetta-Karachi highway or the old Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) highway. I took public transport from Panjgur for Quetta which is 510 km away. This is where my solo travel began. As my planned journey was the western CPEC road, I opted for a bus-ride from Quetta to Abbottabad via Zhob, moving on to Mansehra and further on to Besham.
At Besham, the hotel manager told me that taxis are available at any time, buses at midnight and coasters at the crack of dawn. I woke up at 3.30am, having slept for only four hours that night. As there was no electricity, I lit a candle and freshened up in its flickering light.
The route to Dassu was scenic. On the proposed site of Dassu Dam, the road was closed due to construction work in progress. As I perched on a rock to take a few pictures of the gorgeous Indus River that flowed with a gushing sound, I suddenly heard a voice: “Sahib! Be careful, the stones are slippery,” I turned to see the cleaner of the coaster cautioning me.
The distance from Besham to Gilgit is 415 km but due to the twisting mountainous track and risky turns up and down, we reached Gilgit around sundown. It was a scenic but a perilous route, one mistake by the driver can plunge the vehicle about a hundred feet below in the river, with absolutely no chance of survival.
From Gilgit to Hunza the road passes through scenic valleys and craggy snow-clad peaks. Here, though the mountains are not as verdant as the ones in Kohistan, Hazara and Kashmir, they are gigantic and snow-draped, from which torrents of water gushes forth towards valleys and ravines below.
After travelling for two hours I reached Aliabad. The landscape, including the turquoise Attabad Lake, was breathtaking.
Close to the Pak-China border, the Sost valley will function as a major transit town for Gwadar port. The idyllic town is divided in two parts by the beautiful Hunza River. A hanging bridge transports people, cars and jeeps from one side to the other.
In Sost, I went for a walk in the evening along with Faizi Nazar, the owner of the hotel where I had checked in, up to the dry port on the high rock. Instead of taking the road, we climbed the steep rock which takes a bit longer. Faizi was quick and agile in climbing despite being in his 70s. He showed me the dry port where goods are dumped by the trucks coming from China. We had some tea here, with the flags of Pakistan and China fluttering in the backdrop.
I spent that night at Sost. The next morning, I hired a taxi for 4,000 rupees for the Khunjerab Pass. Before leaving, Faizi Nazar advised us to take some dried apricots along with us because altitudes can make you feel giddy and munching on something helps, and bottled water as well.
The distance from Sost to Khunjerab Pass is 70 km. It is a winding mountainous road with snow-clad peaks in the distance. At the pass, there is a stream with pristine cold water and grey sands; the water is so clear that pebbles are visible in its bed. Midway, the Khunjerab Wildlife National park is located, where Akbar, the taxi driver and I stopped for a few minutes to look at the wild goats, through a fixed telescope. En route, we also saw yak herds grazing on the mountain sides.
After one-and-a-half hours, we were at the Khunjerab Pass gate. The scenery here was picturesque and awe-inspiring. On the four sides — even in May — there was glittering snow and glaciers. A National Bank of Pakistan ATM sits atop the pass with a signboard claiming it to be the world’s highest ATM. The Chinese waved at us from their side of the gate and we waved back.
We drove back to Sost and the next day I went to Karimabad, Hunza, where walking through the narrow streets, I reached the Baltit Fort. The guide of the fort was an amiable man who told us about the history of the fort and its importance for Hunza in those days. Another fort, the Altit stands on the bank of the Hunza River, which appears from the top of the fort like a minor canal. Here too, a guide told us stories about the fort.
As I had to leave for Gilgit that day, I went through the town quickly. Its bazaar is built on both side of the road on the slope. In Hunza, I saw women running shops, which is an unusual sight in other parts of Pakistan.
After lunch, I packed and checked out for Gilgit, as I planned to stay one night there before leaving for Rawalpindi by bus. In the evening I went to a gem shop and bought a few stones as gifts for friends and family as the northern areas are known for precious stones.
Early next morning, I took a bus for the tiring 18-hour journey. The bus stopped at Besham and I enjoyed dinner which is included in the ticket. I reached Rawalpindi, and checked into a hotel. The next day I set out for Quetta.
Entailing a variety of landscapes such as snow-covered mountains, fast-flowing rivers, barren and dry streams, hills and desert-like swaths of land, my 2,463-km journey from Gwadar to the Khunjerab Pass mainly on the western CPEC road was rife with interesting observations and experiences. It gave me an opportunity to see firsthand the future potentials and connectivity now present. The road from Gwadar to Khunjerab on the western route (mostly an off-the-beaten one) will add to the itinerary of the people who are fond of seeing a spectrum of landscapes and cultures and especially those who love long drives. Once it is fully connected with a functional port, it will be the longest and most enjoyable travel route, traversing Pakistan from the north-east to the south-west.
Mumtaz Ahmad is a travel writer
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 7th, 2018