Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

Frankly, I was not enjoying the journey. We were halfway up the Karakoram Highway (KKTI), a long slash1 in a perpendicular lunar landscape of gigantic proportions forming the world’s most fearsome major road. Halted at a police roadblock, we could hear two feuding sects firing shots across the chasm ahead of us.

Boulders had been levered on to our path from the great brown scree above, so we turned back to the one-street village of Komila to find a teahouse until the all-clear signal came. My guide Rayaz, his brother Vager and our driver Azad ordered samosas and green tea while I strolled out of earshot to rehearse a vital discovery in my Urdu phrasebook: Ahista chalaiye gari—drive slowly.

For many of its 500 miles the KKH teeters precariously above the sinuous grey torrents of the Indus River. Safety barriers are rare and rockfalls, wandering goats and lunatic oncoming truck drivers frequent. Azad, a tall and ever-smiling Stevie Wonder lookalike with permanent dark glasses, was intent on getting us to our destination in the far North of Pakistan in time for supper. Thus the musical chimes4 emitted from the dashboard of our dusty white Corolla whenever we exceeded 100kph rang intermittently throughout the dazzling day.

The fighting herdsmen were dispersed after a couple of hours and we moved on, under jeep escort at first, to Gilgit. The scenery became more exaggerated around every hairpin5 as the stony highway skewered and roller-coasted to the point at which three of the world’s highest mountain ranges—the Himalayas, Karakorams and Hindu Kush—slam into each other6. Azad, his accelerator foot now about an inch higher, reached the hotel long after dark. The chef had given us up and gone home and I accepted the blame for a meagre meal7 of plain omelettes produced by a sympathetic porter.

The Pakistanis bill8 the KKH as ‘a 20th-century miracle,’ opening only in 1978 after 11 years’ work and the deaths of 3,000 labourers. It follows the line of the historic silk route from China to the sub-continent. Until its completion, travel in the region was mainly by camel and pony.

The reasons for driving a motor road through such hostile terrain are debatable. The truck caravans between Pakistan and China roll just once a year, while the northern tribesmen and their families continue to live at subsistence level in a manner unchanged by centuries.

The road crept along the side of intimidating cliffs, the boiling river8 far below. Stunning views of Rakaposhi, a 25,551ft shimmering pinnacle of ice and rock, were a dangerous distraction. Suddenly the gorge opened out into a fertile valley walled with terraces of maize and millet and orchards of apricots and peaches. Past the Hunza ruby mine, we turned up the mountainside and along poplar and plane lined dirt tracks12 to a village, Karimabad, that must remain indelible on any memory. Here, if it exists at all (although an inn farther back on the KKH claimed the name) was Shangri-la.

The Hunzakuts are the friendliest of people, and their apparent longevity due to gold in the water is legendary. Perversely we ordered Coca Colas at a new rest house13 and started back for the Punjab plains where the KKH slides through rice paddies and sugar cane fields and the potent aroma of wild marijuana rises from the roadsides.

After a rush-hour tour of Lahore I was convinced of Azad’s driving brilliance. At the airport I gave him a tip of 200 rupees and indicated that he should buy himself some new dark glasses, since one lens was badly cracked—a defect14 which had added to my concern on the KKH. He lifted off his shades for the first time to reveal one shading eye and one badly bloodshot. He grinned and held up a solitary finger. ‘Only one eye?’ I asked. He nodded.

(adapted from Roger Ratcliffe’s ‘On the Edge’)


1 Why is the Karakoram Highway described as ‘a long slash’?

2 Explain what was happening while the writer was at the police roadblock.

3 What did the writer do when the others were in the teahouse?

4 What was the purpose of ‘the musical chimes’?

5 What does the writer mean by a ‘hairpin’ in this context?

6 Give another expression for ‘slam into each other’.

7 Why did the writer accept the blame for the ‘meagre meal’?

8 Why does the writer use the word ‘bill’ in this context?

9 Why was the KKH built?

10 Why is the writer sceptical about its usefulness?

11 What does the writer mean by ‘the boiling river’?

12 Explain the phrase ‘poplar and plane lined dirt tracks’.

13 What was perverse about ordering ‘Coca Colas at a new rest house’?

14 How important was the ‘defect’, and what were the writer’s feelings about it during the drive?

15 In a paragraph of 70–90 words, summarise the dangers faced by the writer on the KKH.

Sample Answers

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