Risking it all

Written By : Source: Aljazeera.net. The Lowari Pass begins in the Pakistani town of Dir and winds its way through the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Hell’s Road, as it is
17 Jun 2011 12:00

image Written By : Source: Aljazeera.net. The Lowari Pass begins in the Pakistani town of Dir and winds its way through the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
Hell’s Road, as it is known among locals, is 240 kilometres long and forms the only supply route to the small villages in the Chitral valley in northwestern Pakistan.
And, it is a road where even the slightest error can be fatal.
The 20,000 inhabitants in Dir make their living off the road, with tonnes of goods loaded and unloaded from trucks each day. Trucks are the only means of transport in the mountainous region.
The trucker’s quarter provides most of the jobs here – drivers, mechanics and assistants of all ages working daily amid the dust and pollution.
Kamara, 23, is a successful businessman who owns two trucks, one of it laden with two tonnes of sugar meant for the village in the Chitral valley. The truck is driven by one of Kamara’s best drivers, Dawoud.
“[Dawoud is] getting paid $60 a month and he works with his younger brother. They’re a very good team, very brave,” Kamara said, as he introduces Dawoud’s brother, Khalid, as his assistant for the journey.
The sum of $60 is the average Pakistani salary. Since few drivers would accept the risks of the Lowari Pass for that money, Kamara offers a $90 bonus each way, incentive younger drivers find irresistible.
Hell’s Road snakes through mountains and breathtaking corniches for hundreds of kilometres, and very few drivers manage to make it to their destinations within a day.
Dawoud, who has been a driver for 10 years, plans to make as many trips as possible despite the danger to take advantage of the bonuses. So he drives non-stop for hours on end.
“I have a very close relationship with my truck. It’s like my home. I eat here and sleep here. I spend more time here than I do at home,” he says.
The truck is ageless, with the odometer permanently stuck at 776,000km. Dawoud and Khalid have decorated the truck in their own fashion – with photos of Benazir Bhutto [the late Pakistani prime minister] forming a collage alongside those of Indian movie stars young Pakistanis idolise.

Hazards of the job
The first hazard of the journey emerges as soon as the truck reaches 2000 metres up the mountainous stretch. Melting snow forms torrents that slice through the road, dozens of metres at a time, creating holes and landslides.
Every trip damages the tyres further, cut up by the sharp rocks and already deformed. The Lowari Pass poses a series of problems.
Four years ago, faced with an increasing number of injured the Pakistani government financed the construction of a tunnel through the mountains.
“Look at this tunnel. We’ll soon be able to cross through the mountain, which will really make our lives and our jobs far less complicated!” says Dawoud.
“But for now, we still have to cross the peak which 3100 metres high and we never know whether we’ll make it or not.”
Dawoud says what he earns is barely enough to feed his family of three children, wife and mother.
“There is no future! We work, that’s all. This job has no future,” he says. “I earn barely enough to feed my family, so how do you think I’ll be able to afford a truck?”
His brother Khalid however jumps in to declare: “Me, I’m going to save up $45,000 and I’ll buy a truck. It will be full of decorations. As soon as I have the money I’m buying…!”
The brothers brace for the hardest part of the ascent, where melting snow causes avalanches and landslides. They manage to climb 1000 metres to a height of 3km within an hour, a challenge to even the most experienced drivers.
The truck struggles to clock 10kph on the steep climb. At 2800m the lack of oxygen causes drowsiness and concentrating becomes a chore, where the smallest movement requires a real effort and staying awake is a major challenge.
“Here we are at the peak. It’s very cold up here. Look down there… that’s what they call the area of 45 bends. The descent is just awful. Very dangerous because you need the brakes the whole time, and the brakes get over-heated,” Dawoud explains.
“Plus, it’s narrow and on the bends there’s not enough room for two trucks to pass. So, it’s vital to concentrate and never take your hands off the wheel.”
Negotiating the curves becomes a physical battle – the goal is to simply go downhill without ever stopping and pray that no truck is on its way up.
Dawoud owes his life to the perfect control of his truck. But he has no control over nature and is at the mercy of the sudden avalanches that sweep everything down their path.
One final bend and the brothers are finally in the Chitral valley, where the road is surfaced and protected by the foothills.
But there is bad news just a few kilometres further down in the valley where part of the mountain has slid onto the road making any further progress impossible.
“Look, the mountain is still crumbling. The road is completely blocked… it’s going to take that small tractor the whole day to clear a path through it. It is the only one in the valley,” Dawoud exclaims.
The brothers resume their journey the moment a temporary opening is made through the rubble, as the mountain continues to collapse.
Dawoud and Khalid finally make it to Chitral, nearly four days and 240km later. They rush to unload their consignment quickly and get back on the

road to make as many trips as possible for the month.

Death tunnel
Chitral is the largest town in the valley, and pretty much operates as a large warehouse for basic supplies that are later sold to villages dotting the mountainside along the frontier with Afghanistan.
One such remote village is Parsan, about 35km from Chitral.
Perched at almost 3,000 metres high, Parsan is small and completely hemmed in. The only way to reach the village is a 10-kilometre passage that runs through the mountain created about 12 years ago.
Locals call the hand-carved track the tunnel of death. The roof is unstable and falling rocks are a constant danger.
Hadji, 28, owns a Jeep for the drive up from Chitral to Parsan, where it’s 1500 residents survive by hunting, farming and raising livestock. He loads one tonne of goods and passengers for the perilous journey which begins with crossing a river on an ancient wooden bridge.
“This is an old bridge. It’s been repaired many times, but it’s still very fragile. I don’t like crossing it,” Hadji says. “Listen to the noise it makes! No one ever stops on it… they’re too scared!”
His Jeep passes without incident but the relief is short-lived. The river is swollen at the exit of the tunnel, making it impossible to pass through.
“We’ve now got a major problem. The current’s too strong to cross now. I don’t think we can make it today,” he informs his passengers.
As the waters begin to slowly recede, the spirits of those in Hadji’s Jeep begin to lift. Some of them help place stones on the riverbed for the vehicle to cross easily. Finally, after 10 hours to cover the 35km perilous trek from Chitral, Hadji reaches Parsan still smiling for having cheated death, yet again.

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