From Asia Times
On top of the graceful Baltit Fort, overlooking the Hunza Valley's Shangri-La-style splendor, it's impossible not to feel dizzy at the view: an overwhelming collision of millennia of geology and centuries of history.
We are at the heart of Gilgit-Baltistan, in Pakistan's Northern Areas, or -- as legend rules, the Roof of the World. This is an area about 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) crammed with spectacular mountain ranges and amidst them, secluded pristine valleys and the largest glaciers outside of the Polar region.
The location feels like vertigo. To the north, beyond the Batura Glacier, is the tiny northeast arm of Afghanistan, the legendary Wakhan corridor. A crest of the Hindu Kush separates Wakhan from the regional capital Gilgit. Xinjiang starts on Wakhan's uppermost tip. Via the upgraded Karakoram highway, it's only 240 km from Gilgit to the Khunjerab Pass, 4,934 meters high on the official China-Pakistan border.
What used to be called the Russian Pamir, now in Tajikistan, can be seen with naked eyes from one of the peaks of the Karakoram. To the east, past Skardu and an arduous trek that may last almost a month, lies K2, the second highest peak in the world, among a mighty group north of the Batura Glacier (also known as Baltoro), which is 63km long
To the south lies Azad ("Free") Kashmir and slightly to the southeast what locals define as Indian-occupied Kashmir. The former King of Kashmir agreed to be part of India after Partition in 1947 but troops were airlifted to the northern state and after a year of fighting, India went to the UN. A temporary ceasefire line was established in 1948 and runs down from the Karakoram towards the Nanga Parbat -- the killer mountain, dividing Kashmir into two virtually sealed halves.Massive mountain ranges
Driving across the Karakoram Highway (see part 2 of this report) we were face to face with three massive mountain ranges running in different directions. The Karakoram roughly starts where the Hindu Kush ends and then sweeps eastward -- a watershed between Central Asian drainage and streams flowing into the Indian Ocean.
The Himalayas start in Gilgit and then run southeast through a cluster of high peaks, including the Nanga Parbat, directly on the Islamabad-Gilgit air route (flights by turboprop only take off if weather around the Nanga Parbat allows).
The Karakoram and the Himalayas are like an extension of each other, while the Hindu Kush starts in southern Afghanistan and ties up with the Karakoram north of the Hunza Valley. Within a radius of roughly 150 km from Gilgit and Skardu, there are no less than 90 peaks towering over 8,000m.
Strategically, this is one of the top spots on the planet, a protagonist of the original Great Game between imperial Britain and Russia. So it's more than appropriate that here is exactly where a protagonist of the New Great Game, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), actually starts, linking western China's Xinjiang to the Northern Areas across the Khunjerab Pass.Karakoram politics
CPEC is the supreme jewel in the Belt and Road crown, the largest foreign development or investment program in modern China's history, loaded with way more funds than years of US military aid to Islamabad.
And we are indeed in Ancient Silk Road territory. Looking at the millenary trail parallel to the Karakoram, lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Development Foundation, it's easy to picture the great Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang traversing these heights in the 7th Century, and naming them Polo-le. The Tang dynasty called it Great Polu. When Marco Polo trekked in the 14th Century, he called it Bolor.
Early last month, I was privileged to drive on the upgraded Karakoram Highway along CPEC all the way from Gilgit to the Khunjerab, and back, with multiple incursions to valleys such as lush, pine-forested Naltar, Shimshal (manufacturers of sublime yak wool shawls), Kutwal and receding glaciers, such as Hopper and Bualtar.