Murder on the Roof of the World
My travels along the China-Pakistan border
ZIAD HAIDER, DEC 20 2013
On June 22, 2013, murder occurred on the “roof of the world.” Ten mountaineers were killed at the foot of Nanga Parbat—the world’s ninth-tallest peak, located in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region on the border with China where some of the world’s tallest mountain ranges converge. The victims included American, Chinese, Lithuanian, Nepali, Pakistani, Slovakian, and Ukrainian nationals, and the audacious attack shattered a rare sense of calm in Pakistan’s northernmost corner, bewildering locals. Members of the Pakistani Taliban doggedly scaled the heights to the mountaineers’ camp at an altitude of 15,000 feet and stormed the tents in the dead of night dressed as paramilitary police. One media outlet’s coverage flashed a haunting image of vulnerability: an orange tent on the mountain slopes bathed in moonlight.
Five days later, I boarded a plane to Gilgit-Baltistan.
I had set out to complete a journey I began 10 years ago: to traverse the mighty Karakoram Highway (KKH) connecting China and Pakistan. A decade earlier, I had traveled along the 800 mile-long KKH from Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region to the border with Pakistan. My travels became my college thesis—an analysis of the relationship between China, Pakistan, and Xinjiang’s restive Uighur Muslims in light of the traffic of militancy, drugs, and arms from Pakistan to Xinjiang. I argued that the KKH, a symbol of Chinese-Pakistani friendship, had proven to be both a blessing and a curse.
Now I set out to complete the journey from the Pakistani side in a week-long trip by plane, car, and boat. Once again, I discovered how lofty international relations and local communities intersect on the KKH—from tales of a “new Great Game” between China and America and infrastructure woes along the Pak-China Economic Corridor, to remarkable strides for women’s empowerment and development in communities keen to plug into China’s prosperity. I wound my way up through a land of glaciers, ibex, and snow leopards to the Khunjerab Pass at 14,000 feet—one of the world’s highest international border crossings. All the while, I was shadowed by the murder on the roof of the world.
I began my journey in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. I was lucky. The flight to Gilgit is frequently canceled due to inclement weather; travelers can be stranded in the purgatory of Islamabad for days on end. As the plane taxied and took off past military hangars, a reminder of the ever-fuzzy line between Pakistan’s civilian and military realms, the pilot pointed out the breathtaking convergence of three towering ranges that swiftly surrounded us: the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas. White knuckles gripping the seat, I alternated between awe and fear as the pilot deftly maneuvered among them, buffeted by unrelenting winds. As the plane reached cruising altitude, the pilot proceeded to outline the blood-stained route below: Abbottabad (where Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011), Mansehra (where seven people were killed when gunmen attacked the office of an NGO in 2010), Babusar (where 22 Shiite Muslims were pulled off buses and shot in a sectarian hail of bullets in 2012), and Nanga Parbat, in its gory majesty.
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