The little village of Sust in northern Pakistan is the very last stop before the Khunjerab pass that stands gigantic at 4700 meters in the high Karakoram Mountains. It is also the entry point into China. This is the land of the last snow leopards. Within less than 40 miles a bird could also be in India, Afghanistan or Tajikistan. For me Xinjiang, in the Far East region of China is the aim. The pass is closed most of the year, lying under heavy snow at sub-zero temperatures, and on May 1st it officially opens. I am in Sust since a few days, sleeping on the floor in the kitchen around the open fire with at least a dozen others. This is a check post point and life is tough. It is cold, smoky, food is scarce. We are a handful of westerners, a few colourful people from Tajikistan and some traders from the nearby regions. We are all on our way to Kashgar.
An old bus with tinted windows is stationed there by the still frozen river; it will drive us to the Chinese border as soon as the road is clear. Every morning since a few days we inquire desperately as when we are going to move; and today is April 30th already. But the weather forecast doesn’t look good, the pass is apparently out of reach and so we must wait.
The next morning a couple of traders from Urumqi are engaging with the bus driver in a heated discussion. Impatience is in the air. They want to leave today!
What happened then I never knew, but I suspect that some baksheesh was paid and so the bus was suddenly ready to go.
We all got in and off we were.
The ride is one of the most spectacular I have ever experienced. I was used to sit on the roof of buses during my journey north in Pakistan, and it was an intense yet delightful place to be during the peak of the March heatwave; but here there was no chance. It was dry and cold, snow was covering everything around and we were slowly moving above the 4000 meters line.
After a couple hours the bus suddenly stopped and we were all told to get out.
That was it! The road was actually no more accessible, and in fact we should never have left in the first place. Snow was getting thicker and we had no choice but walk the last bit!
How long was the last bit we had absolutely no idea.
And so on May 1st 1989, I wrapped myself with all the clothes I had and covered my head with a yellow Shiva scarf. Of course I was a hippy and the idea of sunscreen or sunglasses or a hat had never even occurred to me. I put my pack on my back and up we walked. We were less than 20 people, from such different places, on such different trips, but here we were, moving step by step, up and up and up. I remember an English man who was travelling with his Hong Kong girlfriend. She seemed so exhausted and unhappy and she had 2 suitcases! He was a big guy and I still see him carrying that luggage on his head leading the way while his girl was threatening to just stop and sit on the snow. I remember an older lady from some remote village in Tajikistan; she had come to Pakistan for some medical treatment and was now on her way back home through those high mountains. Two men were taking turns to help her up. It was totally surreal and I felt in a movie from a different time. The air was getting painfully thin, the sun was bright and blinding, but the nature and the high pics all around were so absolutely breath-taking.
I cannot remember how long we walked. It was one step at a time, one breath, another step, and another breath…
This very moment was all there was. How we got here was a mysterious unfolding that only the divine could possibly make sense of. I recall the feeling of being completely one with life and the magic it is made of. I recall that sense of being in the hands of something infinitely bigger than my little self. I recall the awe in my heart in front of so much beauty. As the amount of oxygen was diminishing with every step so was the holding of the mind; everything became lighter and a strange sense of emptiness was pervading the air. Life was being lived, fully and dangerously. In that moment there was no thought about tomorrow and the feeling that I could die here and then was an obvious possibility; and yet in that moment I felt more alive than ever, more present than ever and in touch with something that clearly would never die.
We finally all made it to the top and crossed over to China. By foot. On the snow. At 4733 meters above sea level!
The long overnight trip to Kashgar was excruciating. I was snow-blind.