This story started as an exploration of the speed of travel, but I decided that there was a story within that just about my traversing of the Khunjerab Pass. The Pass is closed for a part of the year simply because of snow, it sits at 4,693 meters (15,397 feet), and for the rest of the year is at the whim of politics. I made the journey in 1989, only a few months after the student protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent Chinese government crackdown. I would see results of that further into China, but right now sitting in the Pakistan border town of Sust there was no sign that anything was awry. The Pass was open.

The Khunjerab Pass sits on the Karakoram Highway which connects Pakistan with the city of Kashgar in Xingjang Provence. The first part of the journey would take me from Sust to the city of Tashkurgan, close to China’s then border with the USSR. Back in 1989, from my memory, Tashkurgan was not much more than a collection of buildings. The Wikipedia article that I linked to above has a photograph suggesting that it is much larger now. The article also says,

Tashkurgan has a long history as a stop on the Silk Road,

which suggests that my memory is not serving me well here and it might have been larger?

I first became aware of the the Khunjerab Pass through reading the book Danziger’s Travels, by Nick Danziger. A fascinating read if you can get your hands on a copy of the book. It is currently out of print. I decided that this was the way that I wanted to travel into China, through the Karakoram Mountains and Central Asia. For me at that time it felt like one of the last few great adventures, and doing it with local transportation felt like the way to go.

We, a collection of independent international travelers who had met up in Sust, and local people traveling between Sust and Kashgar, made the journey on a colourful Pakistan bus. It would take us two days to get to Kashgar.

At immigration before setting off the border officer gave me a fright, threatening legal action and to send me back down south as my paperwork was apparently not in order. I had heard that it was necessary to register with Pakistan immigration if one was in the country for over a month. On my travels to date I had met a couple of travelers who had registered, but the majority appeared not to have done so, and so not wanting to deal with officialdom where I didn’t have to, I chose not to register. Despite all but one of those in front of me at immigration not having registered, the official asked where my form was and on me replying that I did not have one, asked me why not! He put my passport behind the desk, threatened me with a journey south and got on with processing others in line. I wrote in my journal,

After a few minutes ‘playing’ with me, he gave me the exit stamp and shook my hand, it shook me up.

I remember a grin on his face as well.

With that behind me, I snagged a front seat on the bus hoping to get some good views as we climbed up to the Pass.

A snow-capped mountain range is visible through the windshield of a vehicle, framed by rugged, rocky terrain.

Again from my journal,

The road cut its way through a narrow gorge the dirty water, slowly turning crystal clear which it stayed most of the way to Tashkurgan. A couple of stops, army & check post people giving the driver money for alcohol from China. Most of the climbing to the pass was right at the end. The snowy peaks came closer, beautiful peaks complete with untouched virgin snow.The road was effected here more by landslides.

This traveler, and from my memory my fellow travelers were all hoping that the bus would stop once we made it to the summit of the Khunjerab Pass. We were very unsure whether this would happen though, as after all this was just a ‘local’ bus service and not a sightseeing tour. However, after a very steep and vertical climb up to the pass the driver did indeed stop when we reached the border separating Pakistan from China, at the Pass’s summit. Whether that was for the benefit of of the international passengers that he had on board or simply because he wanted to take a rest, I don’t know. Either way, the stop was much appreciated.

A colourful red and white Pakistan bus parked at the Khunjerab Pass. People walk around with snow covered mountains around
A Pakistan bus parked at the Khunjerab Pass.

I jumped out and played the tourist, elated that I had made it to this remote part of the world. On the edge of central Asia, and so rich in history despite its isolation.

A theme that ran through these travels for me was one of familiarity. I experienced a sense of familiarity with the land that I was traveling through, and a similarly with the peoples whom I encountered. But in that moment of arrival at the Pass, I was just very happy to have crossed into China via this route.

A sign in English and Chinese commemorating the opening of the Khunjerab Pass
A signβ€Œ commemorating the opening of the Khunjerab Pass.

From my journal,

The Khunjerab Pass was a plateau on which a couple of posts and guards were based. A green plain. We went crazy, acting the tourist, arm around a Chinese guard. I’d arrived and felt great.

My arm around a Chinese guard at the Khunjerab pass. Standing on the highway, a single lane road, with the snow covered mountains behind us
My arms around a Chinese guard at the Khunjerab Pass. I’m not sure he was as happy as me?

There was little there to mark the border apart from a couple of signs. I felt for the couple of Chinese guards positioned here, the isolation. Pakistani personal had got off lightly…there was no one from Pakistan positioned there. Nowadays, as this image from Wikipedia suggests, the border is a lot more obvious, and I assume that there are more substantial buildings around it? I was now at the highest point that I had ever visited, 4,693m (15,397ft), although I would break my own record later on in the trip.

Once back on the bus and moving again we started the journey down to Chinese immigration. We lost height quickly on leaving the pass. The road started off poor, I would guess due to the weather conditions at the pass, but soon after improved and was excellent from then on. Again, let me share from my journal,

Chinese workers were out here, in a beautiful wilderness in the back of beyond. The road dropped down onto an open plain of brown surrounded by mountains. At Pireli, Chinese immigration, we sailed through officialdom and waited a long time for the buses to load up and leave.

I mentioned this place Pireli in my journal, but can find no mention of it now online or on maps? Maybe it was a temporary immigration post that has now been reassigned somewhere else? However, I do remember a long wait there before we boarded the Chinese buses to Tashkurgan. My guess is that the Pakistan bus returned to Pakistan having picked up travelers departing China. It must have got back to Sust quite late, unless the bus hung around for a morning departure?

A person in a red shirt sits on the ground near a road with several others in the distance, under a bright blue sky with scattered clouds.
Waiting by the side of the road at the Chinese Immigration town of Pireli.

Sitting, waiting,I reflected on where we were. The stamp in my passport said China, but this was not an ethnic Chinese area. The peoples here are Uyghurs. Not too far away, over the mountains was not only Pakistan but also Afghanistan. With this being 1989 the Soviet Union was north of Afghanistan, surrounding Xingjang Province of China to the north east. Today the countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and to the north of that Kazakhstan have replaced the USSR to border the province. These countries' presence did not diminish the impression of vastness that this part of Central Asia left on me, indeed their presence possibly added to that sense. Sitting there waiting for the bus allowed me time to take in the expanse and isolation of where we were. That and this sense of familiarity.

A group of people and their belongings are sitting at the side of a deserted road, with mountainous terrain visible in the background, while another person walks on the opposite side of the road.
A group of travelers sitting by the road in remote Xingjang Province, waiting for a bus.