In October of 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to south Asia. My main goal was to travel the length of the famous Karakoram Highway that stretches from the China/Pakistan border down to Lahore. Before reaching the highway, I started in western China. My trip would end in Delhi, India, via the Himalayan foothills. Here is a glimpse of my journey.
— Paul Segner, msnbc.com media editor
One of three remaining large-scale statues of Mao Zedong left in China in the People's Square of Kashgar. The monument is both a welcoming gesture and a not-so subtle reminder of who's in charge.
Welcome to Kashgar, a city founded over 2,000 years ago as an important meeting point of commerce along the Silk Road trade route. When I arrived, 25 percent of the old city had already been leveled. By the time the authorities are done redeveloping, most will be gone except for a small area set aside as a historical attraction. It remains to be seen how the collision of Kashgar's history with the modernity and assimilation preached by Beijing will work out for the locals.
After exploring the grounds of the Abakh Khoia Tomb, I came across this young girl playing in the street in Hanhao Villages, a suburb northeast of Kashgar.
Spending time at this teahouse was the first time I actually felt I had found what I was looking for in Kashgar -- away from fellow travelers (there were few); away from the omnipresent Chinese soldiers and their traffic stops, constant marching, and convoys weaving through traffic.
The teahouse fell mostly in the shadows, almost silent, with a dozen or so locals sipping tea, sitting on simple wooden chairs or reclined on several cushioned frames scattered around the perimeter of the room. Over my shoulder outside was the chaos of the noon-time market trading. Outside, buyers and sellers barked back and forth until I thought they'd come to fisticuffs. Inside, heads were turned towards a silent television.
This man is a musical instrument craftsman in the old city of Kashgar. From floor to ceiling were traditional Uighur instruments with others of a more western flavor mixed in. My favorite was the Tajik Rewab, which reminded me of a long-necked mandolin.
A Uighur gentleman stands among the crowds at the Sunday livestock market. Held in the Mal Bazaar, Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and newly arrived Han haggled over the price of goats, sheep and cattle. Even the market was feeling the unavoidable change sweeping across the province of Xinjiang. The market has now been moved to a large fenced area three miles outside the city proper. Its former location is slated for a more modern development.
Heading south from Kashgar, we quickly found ourselves deep in the foothills of the Pamir mountain range. I had come for the mountains and I was starting to get my first taste. The day would take us past Lake Karakul, located between China's two Pamir Mountain giants, Muztagh Ata, (elevation 24,758 feet) and Kongur Shan (elevation 25,325 feet). Waiting at the end was Tashkurgan. Before we arrived, we'd pass over the highest paved road in the world, Khunjerab Pass at 15,397 feet.
Tashkurgan was the last stop before crossing into Pakistan. Derived from the Uighur name, "Stone Fortress," the town is overshadowed by a crumbling fortress. Also called Princess Castle, the fortress is estimated to be 600 years old. Exhausted from driving, we decamped to a local restaurant and drank bottles of cheap red wine. A warm shower that night -- my first in awhile -- was spent staring at the unfinished electrical socket some builder thought would be a good addition to my shower stall.
Breakfast was pickled cabbage and cold rice porridge chased down with Sanka. We spent some time wandering around the valley floor. The yurt inhabitants were Kazakhs who had immigrated south and stayed at the welcome of the Chinese government.
The little kid in me loved the stretch of the Karakoram Highway as we drove (creeped) from Sust to Gilgit. It was playing in the backyard with Tonka toys writ large. I can't recall a stretch more than 500 yards long that was unscathed from rock slides or simply collapsing into the river below. This proved to be the case until we left the Hunza Valley days later.
In the photo here, a large Chinese bulldozer is moving up the road to clear what must have been a 100-ton boulder. What's not seen are the rock slides being set off by the vehicle moving forward. Sally, who I was traveling with, was looking through her camera view finder shooting the scene, oblivious to all around her, when a rock shot across her, waist level, less than two feet away. Had it hit her, it would have surely taken her over the edge.
Appearing every couple kilometers were large messages spelled out with painted rocks (seen bottom, center). Visible from a helicopter, they were messages of greetings and respect from past visits to the valley by Aga Khan IV. He is the current imam of the Shia Ismaili. People spoke of him in an almost fatherly way. Aga Khan IV, and his development network, is at the forefront of women’s education and historical preservation throughout the Hunza Valley.
Baltit Fort as seen from my morning hike down from the Eagles Nest Hotel. Our route wove along shepherd trails down through apricot orchards. On the way down we were able to see the ingenious irrigation system that allows for so much green in otherwise arid terrain. Reinforced with stone, mud-lined irrigation ditches would move parallel to the slopes, darting into gorges to draw from glacial runoff. Sluice gates would let farmers water their terraced fields.
Around 700 years old, Baltit Fort dominates Karimibad and the surrounding Hunza Valley. The structure was restored in 1996 with great help from the patron of the Hunza, Aga Khan IV.
Past where the Gilgit River joins the Indus River along the Karakoram Highway, the valley is barren with beautiful, simple suspension bridges spanning the river every 50 miles or so. The audacity of trying to build and maintain a major road through this area was driven home now. The constant slide areas were well behind us -- now it was the sheer scale of the project that was astounding. It's start and finish point are debatable, but the Karakoram Highway is the world's highest paved international roadway. Referred to as one of the engineering marvels of the world, its construction cost more than 800 lives -- Pakistani and Chinese alike.
A morning reflection of Nanga Parbat seen from Fairy Meadows. After a long, terrifying Jeep ride up a steep gorge, followed by an endless rocky hike through darkness, I arrived at Fairy Meadows camp exhausted, dehydrated and feeling like I was on the verge of hypothermia. The reward was this view in the morning. At an elevation of 26,660 feet, Nanga Parbat is the world's ninth tallest peak.
This photo shows the village adjacent to our cabins. The meadow in between was a large field given over to rival groups. The Brits in our group, Rory and Kevin, volunteered their services during a cricket match. They acquitted themselves well, but everything fell apart when the game was overrun by riders training polo ponies.
This summer school was built to provide education for the children of the families who would move up the valley for seasonal grazing of their herds. Teachers rotate in on three-month contracts, staying with a local family in the village outside our camp. I read Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" prior to my trip. To actually see a little schoolhouse like this tucked away in the most remote of valleys was an amazing experience. The two little guys seen here would spend their afternoon late after school watching in envy as the older boys of the town mastered horses and practiced polo on the wide meadow next to our cabins.
What a change a couple days makes -- broad daylight, a different Jeep, feeling that heading downhill afforded us more control. The ride up days ago was the scariest event of my life. It was dusk when we finally set out. Our Jeep kept overheating, so we'd stop. Before we could ask what was happening, our driver would climb out, throw a rock behind a rear tire and pop the hood. The track was about six feet wide. One side was cliffs straight up, so close you couldn't open the door where we stopped. The other side, about a foot wide, then a sheer drop down a ravine maybe 600-800 feet to a river unseen. Having the Foreign Office notify my mom I was dead in some gorge in Pakistan actually entered my thoughts. We were on a corner when the rock started to slip, we got lucky, we rolled backwards into a tire rut. That was when I contemplated abandoning the Jeep and to just start hiking. Around a corner, Atta the guide appeared. More white-knuckling, we finally made the trailhead. All that was left was a two-hour hike through darkness to Fairy Meadows.
Traveling southeast from Besham toward Lahore. This was a common scene as we skirted the edge of the Swat District and headed on. Security problems kept us from staying in Besham instead driving further on, a 14-hour day on the road to an alternate location. Besham is a dodgy little place near the trunk road feeding into the Swat Valley. Reports from the home office were that militants had filtered back this way, moving in the opposite direction from the masses headed toward refugee centers that grew daily following the fighting. From this point on, through numerous checkpoints, we always had a police commando on board.
We had been wandering down the aptly named Food Street in Lahore looking for lunch, when a torrential downpour forced us to make a hasty choice and duck inside. The 100-degree temperatures and matching humidity shortly drove me back outside. The rain had stopped, and the bus boys were pushing the standing water out of the first floors with giant squeegees. I was standing outside enjoying a cigarette when I heard a creaking noise, a rusty chain being dragged through a pulley. Looking for the source, I turned to see a small door rise up to reveal a furtive figure eyeing me up. I spent what seemed like ages waiting for him to emerge, but he stayed in the shadows.
Built by Aurganzeb, a great Mughal ruler, Badshahi is one of the largest mosques in the world. Fifty-five thousand worshippers can crowd the courtyard and main hall of this mosque. The courtyard enclosed by these walls is over 250,000 square feet.
Endless doorways are seen in the perimeter of Badshahi Mosque. The scale of it was deceiving. Past the ablution chambers, it opens to a wide space that is so large it shimmered like a mirage in the heat. The red sandstone-clad exterior is set off by tower tops shaped like onions. We had seen the mosque the previous night while dining atop Coco's Cafe, an old "haveli" converted into a restuarant. Its artist owner has his oil paintings strewn about every floor as you climb a narrow marble circular staircase to the roof top tables five floors above.
Adjacent to the Badshahi Mosque complex, Lahore Fort was a sweaty blur. I stood watching an honor guard clad in heavy grey woolen overcoats stand at attention at midday. A third of our group dropped out from the heat and didn't even make it into the fort.
Hennaed Denizen of Amritsar. Beautiful man, my favorite portrait of the trip. Gawking, sweating, stumbling over each other as we were trying to find the Golden Temple, this gent just sat on his bicycle and let us spill around him.
Walking to the Golden Temple, I spied two legs down an alley. Midday nap I hoped, and not something more serious.
While my group was half splashing and skidding, trying to queue to see the Guru Granth Sahib, I was being frisked by Sikh guards and summarily kicked out for having a pack of cigarettes in my pocket.
Through that mist, beyond the prayer flags strung between trees, was the Dalai Lama's residence. I was having morning tea in my room at the Chonor House. Though not the end, it felt like my trip was drawing to a close. We still had a night train to Delhi, but the quiet days I spent here seemed to settle my memories of the long days through Pakistan. I went from sensory overload, to nothing much to do but watch the monks come to and fro.
McLeod Ganj, in Upper Dharamshala, is the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile. A couple of main streets straddling a hillside, the town is bustling, yet subdued. I spent a day photographing little niches where devotees had placed scraps of printed prayers and rocks adorned with scribbled writings. These were left by Tibetan pilgrims walking the Kora ritual circuit around the Tsuglagkhang Complex, the Lama's residence and monastery.
Two women sit observing afternoon prayers. The Jama Masjid Mosque was built by Shah Jahan, whose son built the Badshahi mosque of Lahore.
Dating back to 1656, Jama Masjid is the principal mosque in Delhi, and the largest in India.
This is my favorite scene of India I captured. The color of her sari playing off the shrub above, parallel lines with the bottom off-kilter. It must have been 110 degrees and 90 percent humidity, I was walking downhill on the last day of the trip. We had a whirlwind 15-hour visit to Delhi before we flew home. Not enough to get a feel for anything, but just enough to leave me sweating and wanting to pack it in. We were walking back from the Presidential Palace when I stopped to watch this family moving slowly through the heat uphill.
For those interested, I traveled with a small outfit called Wild Frontiers, based in London. Information about the company can be found here, •Wild Frontiers