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Speeding Down the Mekong
The Road to Pakistan
Taking the Plunge in Thailand
Worshipping the Eye in Vietnam
Ghosts of Gloucester
Love the Mojave
Moroccan Insomnia
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M o r e   Stories . . .

The Road to Pakistan
"The game of life is not so much in holding a good hand as playing a poor hand well.”

H.T. Leslie

By Vance Ikezoye - It is Tuesday morning, and I am alone with an empty bus.

We both happen to be in Kashgar, an old Silk Road town in far western China. I had come thousands of miles to visit a market located here. Not just any market, mind you – as far as old markets go, the Kashgar Sunday Market is the Super Bowl. For over a thousand years, traders from the surrounding countries of Central Asia have assembled for a frantic day of buying and selling. With goods ranging from hand-made mousetraps and two-humped camels to the latest Sony electronics, I witnessed merchants speaking commerce in dozens of different languages.

On the other six days of the week, Kashgar is just a little town in a big desert. I had plans to trek to K2 in Pakistan. To get there, I expected to take my bus over the Karakoram Highway. Built with the help of the Chinese, the KKH, as it is known, crosses some of the highest and most demanding terrain in the world. The literal high point of the trip is Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 15,528 feet. The bus trip from Kashgar to the town of Sost in Pakistan takes two days, covers a distance of 317 miles, and costs about 30 US dollars.

My bus is scheduled to leave this morning. To make sure I don’t miss my ride, I arrive early. With nothing else to do, I sit on my backpack, next to my empty bus, waiting for a sign that I am in the right place.
I relax as others begin to arrive with their possessions.

One serious-looking man singles me out, walks up, and demands my passport and ticket. No uniform. No badge. But he acts like he’s in charge, so I hand over my documents. He browses them and then orders me to put my backpack on the roof. He tells me there is a one-bag rule. I can bring only one bag inside the bus with me and everything else must go on the roof.

The Road to Pakistan, by Vance Ikezoye
Kashgar deal making, by Vance Ikezoye

While traveling, we are frequently faced with decisions like this. In opposition to our lives back home, on the road we sometimes have to decide when it is prudent to break the ”rules.” On the one hand, I have an official giving me an order. On the other hand, I imagine my backpack, with all of my belongings, flying off and rolling down some cliff. I hesitate, check my locks, and then grudgingly hand my bag up to the boys on the roof of the bus. I climb down and find my now-smiling official waiting with his hand out. He says I must pay one US dollar for each bag on the roof.

A crowd of 30 passengers has assembled around the bus, waiting for the door to open. Each passenger has boxes and bags of stuff piled all around them. With my new understanding of the rules, I climb on top of the bus to retrieve my bag. I scramble down and get back into the crowd.

At last, the door of the bus opens, and like a dam breaking, the crowd surges forward. It is a pushing match, but as I meld with the mob, I am sucked into the bus.

Once inside, the passengers scramble for seats. People are tossing blankets, bags of food, pots, pans, and empty suitcases through the windows. The stuff is piled haphazardly onto seats near the back of the bus. The few backpackers on board head to the rear and attempt to organize the mess to recover places to sit.

The passengers comprise a diverse mix - Han Chinese, Pakistani men with baseball caps, Chinese Tajik traders, covered Muslim women, and six backpackers. I take a seat next to an old Chinese Tajik man. Our eyes meet and we appraise each other. No words are needed - simultaneously, we both break out with broad smiles.

The bus begins to move. I feel that familiar sense of anticipation – I’m on the road again. I look forward to Pakistan and new adventures awaiting me there.

We stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Using my broken Mandarin, I ask the bus driver what time the bus will leave. He replies, “After we eat.” Of course, I mutter to myself.

The backpackers sit down at one large table with some of the other passengers. Each group carries on conversations in their own language, as if the other groups didn’t exist. After our short lunch, we all pile back into the bus. We leave the flat terrain and begin the climb into the mountains. We are officially on the KKH. The air begins to cool. The bus winds through incredibly steep canyons as we follow a ”road” that would challenge a Humvee. The bus groans in first gear as it bumps along through dry creek beds.

The Road to Pakistan, by Vance Ikezoye
Karakoram Highway View, by Vance Ikezoye

I gaze at the scenery that is so different from the muted deserts of the past month. The road follows a raging river with the color and consistency of chocolate milk. Jagged peaks rise straight up into a cloudless blue sky. I am mesmerized and find myself sticking my head out of the window like a dog.

Late in the afternoon, we stop at Kara Kol Lake, high in the mountains, and three of the backpackers get off the bus. The place is green, the lake a deep blue, but a persistent cold wind blows. There is an overpowering sense of isolation. Their bags are dumped out the window. They wave goodbye as if being sent to prison. I am relieved that I am not getting off here.

The sun has long since set when we arrive at a small town called Tashkurgan. It’s the Central Asian version of Fort Apache – a lonely outpost, hundreds of miles from the closest Chinese city. The bus stops at a hotel that the Lonely Planet guidebook describes as filthy. The passengers all go in - They obviously haven’t read the poor reviews. The two remaining backpackers and I decide to look for something better.

The town seems deserted. We walk down the ”main” street and pass a few locals sitting outside on chairs. They stare at us with intensity, but without revealing their emotions.

We arrive at the Pamir Hotel, which is described by the guidebook as the nicest place in town. The Chinese staff is gathered around a small black-and-white TV, watching a World Cup soccer match. We quickly negotiate a room at a reasonable price - the staff wants to get back to the match after all. The three of us share a relatively nice dorm room with a working television set. We congratulate ourselves.

Then, we discover the bathrooms. The toilet flushes intermittently. The floor is wet and the bathroom looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a decade. I have to hold my breath. After I wash up, I notice that the back of my shirt is soaked. Some unidentified liquid has been dripping from the ceiling. Unfortunately, the source of this mystery is another bathroom on the floor directly above. I fear this unknown liquid but realize the only way to solve this mystery is to smell my shirt. I decide that this knowledge is not worth the price.

The next morning, we skip the bathroom, and head back to the bus. We go through another minor panic since no one else is waiting. Luckily, the bus is still there. Last night, risking more embarrassment, I asked the driver when the bus would leave. He told me the bus would leave at 10AM Beijing time. It is 9:30 AM. We sit and wait.

The rest of the passengers suddenly materialize as if beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. We participate in the ritual push to get onto the bus, and I head to the back. I find my Tajik seatmate has saved my place. He greets me with a warm smile and offers me the window seat.

The bus begins to move. We go about a half-mile and stop. It is the Chinese customs checkpoint. Everyone and all of our belongings must get off the bus. The boxes on the roof need to be taken down.

We file into the customs building. The Westerners are quickly shuffled through. I look back at the rest of the passengers and their piles of goods. The Chinese customs officials look very stern. I am grateful that for once I’m not the focus of their attention. The officials dissect every box and bag.

I am standing in front of the last Chinese official. He is examining my passport. Despite my travel experience, I get nervous going through customs. I tell myself to relax. The official speaks in Mandarin. I say my most used Chinese phrase, “Wo bu dong” - I don’t understand. He reveals a slight grin and asks me the same question speaking much slower this time. Now I understand. He has asked about my ethnic background. I answer in Mandarin that I am Japanese-American. He nods, stamps my passport, hands it back, and says goodbye. Relieved, I say thank you.

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