Hitchhiking with Police Escort Through Taliban Controlled Kashmir

On my hitchhiking journey along KKH (Karakoram Highway) from the Chinese border towards Islamabad, I hitched a truck from Gilgit in the late afternoon. The driver did not speak a word of English but I could see that he was a simple and kind-hearted person. We ate some water melons together. The road looked rather lonesome as it was during Ramadan.

We passed several police checkpoints and at one of them I had to register and show my passport. There a policeman, with a machine gun hanging on his neck, shook my hand happily and said in Chinese that there were Taliban in front and this whole area was not safe and asked if I would need police escort. I said no since I would be with a local driver inside a truck, safe enough supposedly. He wished me good luck and we continued with our journey.

Before it got dark, I was lucky enough to behold the gigantic landscape along the road. This was the place where the three biggest mountain ranges converged — Karakoram, Hindu kush and Himalaya. The mountains were as huge as planets. They looked dry, brown and steep. The only slices of green were along the yellow river running in the deep valley along the road and among the green from time to time some villages appeared.

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When it got pitch dark the driver said something to me, obviously as a question. I did not understand a word but just instinctively nodded. He stopped in a very small place in the mountains and got out of the truck. I had no idea what was gonna happen but I had trust in him and after hitchhiking for some years, I had already forgotten what “worry” meant. 😉 About 5 minutes later some serious-looking people came over to me with torches, some of them were old men with huge beards and one in a sort of uniform said that he was a policeman and signed me to get out and follow him. So I did. I then realized that my driver was telling me if I would like to stop and find a place to sleep since it was late. When I got out the truck, I saw the driver standing there. I shook his hands heartily for the journey, where I witnessed the magical landscape of Kashmir.

Then I followed this group of old muslim men and armed policemen to a yard, in front of which there were military fences with sharp spearheads. The wall was covered by barbed wire and there were watch towers guarded by armed policemen. The light was very dim and it was intolerably hot. When I got into the yard, surrounded by this group of people who did not speak English but obviously wanted to help, I noticed that further away from us there were some topless guys playing cards under a dim light. I could not hear or see them clearly, but I had the feeling that they were not Pakistani. When I went up, I saw this bunch of Chinese guys with the accent of Henan province, highly concentrating in their card game. I smiled and said as naturally as if I had knew them for a long time:”Playing cards (in Chinese of course)?” 🙂 😉

There started the communication. They were a group of about 20 Chinese workers, all from Henan province, working on the road here. That was a project (KKH extension) donated by Chinese government to the Pakistani people and their company was responsible for that section. This fortified yard was built as their settlement. It was a weird thing. Chinese people could be so indifferent and untrusting if I met them inside China, but if I met them abroad, they were always so kind-hearted and helpful to their fellow countrymen.

They hosted me and cooked for me in this settlement. Since that area was heavily influenced by Taliban, The Pakistani government sent many armed policemen to protect them, 24 hours/365 days. At night when I was sleeping there were still policemen on duty just on our roof and I heard them turning. When they went to work on the road, there would be tens and even hundreds of armed policemen with them. The locals all held firearms and if you happen to walk into their yards without their permission, even if just to ask for direction, they would shoot you. The living condition there was really harsh, simple and boring. These Chinese workers normally did not go outside after work, but simply stay in the yard. They kept some very cute rabbits and ducks, walking and jumping around in the yard, like there was nothing to worry about. If they happened to have to get outside, there would be at least two policemen accompanying each of them. The place was near the K2 mountaineering track where several foreign mountaineers (a few Chinese included) were killed by Taliban just last year.

One Chinese man who cooked four eggs for me said to me worriedly:”What on earth are you running around about? Last year there was a kid from Hunan province who passed here also, with his bicycle and was soon found dead just 3 or 4 km down the road from here”. I assured him that my safety was better since I was hitchhiking, with at least one local driver and always inside a truck.

They prepared a bed in one of their rooms for me. In the same room there was this young lad who joined this company only about 2 years ago and this was the first project he worked on. He told me that just a few days ago because the Chinese president Xi Jinping was visiting Pakistan, the Pakistani government strengthened the security measures here. Understandably, if any Chinese workers were killed during the visit, it would be a huge embarrassment for the Pakistani government. During that period, instead of armed policemen, the army took over there. Instead of two, if any Chinese worker needed to get out of the settlement, each of them would be accompanied by four fully armed soldiers.

The power supply was extremely unstable and most of the time, insufficient. Every second I saw the light bulb jumping from super dim to almost dark and the next second rather bright and then super dim again. If you tried to charge your camera battery there, three times later your battery would be ruined. It was humid, hot and stifling. I was sweating like a pig, but hey, I can not complain. I had a bed and even an electric fan, which worked at its lowest speed.

The next morning, because of Ramadan, the Chinese went to work at about 5am, when it was already bright outside. I said goodbye to them and wanted to continue hitchhiking towards Islamabad. The moment when I packed everything and walked out of the fortress, the armed policemen outside came up to me with friendly smiles and asked what my plan was.

“I am going to continue hitchhiking to Islamabad.”

No, according to some agreement they had with Chinese government, no Chinese citizens were allowed to walk alone within some 200 km around the fortress. They had to be protected. I could imagine that this agreement was made for the safety of the Chinese road workers but it also applied to me. They were kind, friendly and very helpful. Actually I think the Pakistani policemen I met were the friendliest in the 55 countries I have travelled to.

Eventually an armed policeman hitchhiked with me from the settlement to the next police post. That took about 4 hours…… At this post another policeman stopped a truck for me and a local hitchhiker and I went on further with my journey. That was my first time to hitchhike with a police escort.
(sorry for the length……)
Peace, peace and again peace, love, hugs and kisses from Pindi, Pakistan!! 🙂 XX

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