Frontline: Karakoram Highway - Rolling stones keep on blocking the long and winding road

IT LOOKS a hopeless task. Ghulam Nabi and 94 other men in shabby overalls are trying to clear a giant rockfall that has blocked the Karakoram Highway - the 1,000-mile long ribbon of rutted tarmac that stretches from the plains ofnorthern Pakistan over the Himalayas to the deserts of South- west China. There look to be around a million tons of rubble in front of them and Mr Nabi and his colleagues appear to have only one drill

It is a hopeless task. Though Mr Nabi and his friends may eventually clear this blockage they will never clear the road. More than a thousand men are deployed by the Pakistani army to do just that and they are never successful. In a Sisyphean effort they end up pushing boulders off the road only to see them roll down again somewhere else.

The reason for the Dantesque nature of Mr Nabi's labours are straightforward. For most of the Karakoram Highway's length it follows the young river Indus. Loaded with rocks and silt, the water batters its way through the Western Himalayas carving out a deep and unstable gorge as it sets off on its journey towards the Arabian Sea. The river undercuts the base of the mountains through which it cuts its course and, inevitably, they topple forward into the river. The Karakoram are the steepest and nastiest of all the various mountain ranges that make up the Himalayas and its landslides are as bad as they come

This year has been atrocious. The road was blocked throughout most of February and March by rockfalls in its southern section. Just when they had been cleared away news came in of another series of massive slides further north. So the earthmovers and the diggers and the hundreds of pairs of hands - the latter paid all of 4,000 rupees (pounds 55) per month - were redeployed.

The repairs are the responsibility of the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) which is part of the Pakistani army. They take enormous pride in their work and often paint the roadside rocks with their unit's title, crest and silly nicknames. Yet they are right to be proud. When the highway was built - between 1966 and 1978 - 450 workers died. It is still dangerous work and plaintive roadside memorials list the shahedin (martyrs) who died in the course of their duties.

Working on the "KKH" as it is known is a plum posting for the ambitious. "It's seen as a testing ground," said one senior FWO officer. "Sometimes the weather is so bad that even survival is an achievement."

It isn't all that safe for the users of the road either. All those who live along its length have stories of trucks or buses which disappeared when stretches of tarmac, weakened by the rain, simply gave way under their weight and dropped them into the Indus.

One hotel manager in Skardu told me he was haunted by the sight of 17 corpses being dug out of a landslide that he had watched crash across the road yards in front of his own vehicle. "It was amazing. One moment we were driving along, the next there was a wall of rock and mud in front of us and under it was a bus," he said

The KKH ends, at least heading south, not with a bang but with a whimper. Suddenly the dry, dusty gorges give way to pretty pine forests. The skies are blue and the trees a deep shade of green.

The road sweeps down to the town of Abbotabad where the whitewashed barracks with their polished artillery pieces look genteel and respectable in contrast to what has gone before. Just south of the town of Havelian the KHW officially ends at a long bridge over a dry river bed.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all