A new Great Game is unfolding in Central and Southern Asia. As China rapidly expands its global network of trade infrastructure in the region, Pakistan finds itself in a pivotal position, courting Chinese investment in infrastructure on the one hand and the financial support of western global institutions on the other.
Travelling by raft down the Hunza River, my companion Edmund and I have set out to follow the course of the Karakoram Highway, which has recently received major investment from China. We want to learn what this newly completed project can tell us about future infrastructure developments, and how they might play out on the ground.
If you trace the Indus River on a map from the Arabian Sea, up past Karachi, and past the capital, Islamabad, you come to a fantastic landscape of mountains, lakes, forests and rivers. This is Gilgit-Baltistan, located in the disputed territories of Kashmir and Jammu in northern Pakistan. We have come here to raft down the Hunza river, one of the many tributaries of the Indus. Running parallel to the modern Karakoram Highway, the highest paved road on Earth, the Hunza River rises just shy of the Chinese border.
We’ve come here to test the water. Pakistan has long been an adventure tourists’ paradise, with the highest concentration of 7,000m-plus mountains anywhere in the world (including K2). Yet since 9/11 foreign tourism has dropped significantly, and Pakistan’s ambiguous stance on the conflict in Afghanistan has done little to counter the trend.
Whether we’re the first to attempt to raft the length of the river is anyone’s guess. It’s quite possible people have tried this before back in the 70s, and there are even tour operators who will take you out in big rafts for some of the flatter sections. Either way, there’s no information about river conditions online, and a reasonably thorough scan of travel literature from the area sheds no further light on the matter.
The only way to find out is to try. So it’s with an enormous sense of trepidation that we lower our flimsy packrafts into the turbulent waters just above the town of Sost and bid our farewells to the contingent of policemen who cheerfully wave us off.
Ancient and modern
We drift down the Hunza River in northern Pakistan, caught between time. On our left is the modern Karakoram Highway, recently upgraded by Chinese investment; on our right the whisper of the Old Silk Road, now little more than a crumbling footpath for tourists.
Edmund and I have done this type of expedition before, in Afghanistan, rafting virgin rivers at high altitude. It requires caution and recklessness in equal measure. Every few hundred meters we have to get out of the rafts and scout the river ahead to make sure it is safe. We are constantly trying to read the river ahead, looking for signs of danger, but often the river is flowing so swiftly we find ourselves in trouble before we have a chance to react. It is impossible to predict the future and all we can do is cling on to our paddles, dig in and hope for the best.
There’s a similar fatalism among the people we speak to here, a sense that they are being swept along by wider geopolitical currents over which they have no control. Pakistan needs foreign investment and China wants better access to export markets. People living in the Hunza Valley seem to have little say in the matter either way. Although the newly upgraded highway has made it easier for people to travel here, it has encouraged mass domestic tourism on an unprecedented scale with serious consequences for the environment and local communities. “We are losing our culture,” laments an elder in one village we pass through. In three short years he has seen the advent of electricity and mechanised agricultural equipment thanks to the roads, bringing huge improvements in quality of life and income. Yet with improved connections to the rest of Pakistan, younger generations are moving away and villages are seasonally flooded by tourists from other parts of Pakistan.
As we travel down the river, we see bus-loads of tourists thundering up the Highway leaving a wake of dust and discarded cans of Mountain Dew. “Of course, there are environmental concerns,” says a government official in the regional capital of Gilgit, “but mass domestic tourism brings important revenue to these communities.”
A few days later, we speak to a Ranger in the Shujerab National Park, just below the Chinese border. A small boy in expensive clothing has thrown a coke can on the floor a few feet away from a bin. The Ranger waits for the boy to leave and bends wearily to pick it up. “They haven’t been educated, these outsiders. They don’t know any better,” he says. I wonder what China’s dream means to him as he monitors the numbers of visitors to the park each season.
Tourism has certainly brought much-needed revenue to the area. Hotels and restaurants have sprung up alongside the road at an astonishing rate, and more buildings are under construction everywhere we go.
It all happens very quickly. We’ve scouted the river ahead to make sure of our lines through the (very mild) rapids. Leaving a gap of at least a hundred meters between us, we push off feeling very confident. As soon as we hit the difficult section we’ve just assessed, we are flung into the water, one after the other. I just about manage to haul myself half back onto my raft in time to see Edmund plunge into the same fold in the river. I watch in horror as his raft flips over and Edmund disappears beneath the surface. I try to paddle ashore, but my raft is full of water and I’m being drawn into another set of rapids. I chance another glance over my shoulder and see that Edmund is struggling in vain to cling onto his upturned raft. I just about get myself ashore in time to see Edmund, now fully separated from his raft, being swept downstream. I’m hyperventilating with the effort and adrenaline. Miraculously, Edmund manages to swim ashore, but his raft and equipment continue to barrel down river.
We reassess and agree that Edmund should take my raft to catch up with his own. He jumps back in and disappears around a bend in the river. For almost three hours we are separated, neither knowing what condition the other is in. We are stranded on the wrong side of the river without mobile phones, without water and without our rafts. Fifty meters across the river is the Karakoram Highway and the certainty of rescue. I imagine that Edmund is wrapped around a rock downstream, and try to think what I will say to his parents if the worst happens. I spend hours trying to cross the river but to no avail. Eventually, I catch sight of a policeman on the far shore and wave for his attention.
Back on track
It transpires that the police, having seen two rafts floating face down in the river, mobilised a search party along the valley and had been frantically trying to find us for the last couple of hours. There are tears in their eyes when they finally pick me up and I am equally relieved. I see Edmund on the other side of the river now too, surrounded by a coterie of onlookers and policemen. He tells me later that he managed to cross the river himself and flag down a car to look for me.
Later that day, we find ourselves filing an official incident report at the local police station, feeling very sheepish. With the greatest respect, charm and courtesy they listen politely as we recount our story. They ply us with soft drinks and cake and promise to help find our missing equipment. It’s a far cry from the images of Pakistan we see on the news. True to form, we spend the next day in a police car scouring the river banks for our equipment. In fact, we spend the next three days trying to find our equipment, with the help of local boy scouts, school children, and village residents. News of our debacle has spread down the valley at an astonishing rate, and we’re welcomed with smiles (sympathetic and wry) wherever we go. By luck, we manage to find everything except the bag containing our camera equipment, which is a real blow to our film-making ambitions. Yet, we still have a GoPro and an iPhone, so all is not lost.
We continue down the river much more cautiously until we finally reach the regional capital in Gilgit. It has been a month of extraordinary excitement and hard work, but we made it one piece (minus one camera, two radio microphones, one sleeping bag, one pair of shoes, a roll mat…). The Hunza Valley is experiencing change at a much faster rate than ever before thanks to the newly improved Highway, and it will take careful policy and planning to balance the need for generating income with the needs of protecting the environment and local communities.