China / Cover Story

High alert

By Cui Jia (China Daily) Updated: 2014-09-25 07:10

High alert 

Chinese troops walk hand-in-hand on the snow-covered Karakoram mountains to patrol the border between China and Pakistan. The border features the Khunjerab Pass, which is the highest paved international border crossing in the world and the highest point on the Karakoram Highway. WANG LIE/CHINA DAILY 

Chinese troops keep close tabs on terrorist threats at the Wakhan Corridor mountain border area, Cui Jia reports in Kashgar

Tang Zheng stood on top of the brick fort, at 4,300 meters above sea level on the Pamir Plateau.


Pakistani businessman Saifullah Baig has been trading via the Karakoram Highway for more than two decades.

He knows that the condition of the highway-the world's highest paved international thoroughfare that connects China and Pakistan-is crucial to business and people's lives.

The 1,224 km-long highway starts from Kashgar city in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and ends at the northern Pakistani city of Thakot, crossing the Karakoram mountain range through the Khunjerab Pass in the Tashkurgan Tajik autonomous county. It is also known as the China-Pakistan friendship road.

"Sometimes traveling on the road in Pakistan is like being in an airplane because the drop of the mountain is just too high. Looking from above, the cars at the foot of the mountain look like matchboxes. In certain areas, there are about 60 turns within 1 km of the road," Baig, 60, said.

The construction of the highway began in the 1960s. More than 700 Chinese and Pakistani workers lost their lives during the process.

Baig came up with the idea for his trading business after the highway was completed in 1979 and his wealth has grown steadily since. He is proud that his earnings have enabled him to send both of his children to study in the US.

The businessman mainly delivers handicrafts from Pakistan and ships China's silk products back home. Previously, it took 10 days to travel from the Khunjerab Pass to Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan. Now it takes about four days if there is no earthquake, mud avalanche or fatal traffic accident, Baig said.

Baig, who speaks fluent Mandarin, owns a house in Tashkurgan and holds a Chinese residence permit so he can focus on his growing business. He now transports more than 2 tons of goods to China to sell each time, compared to 600 or 700 kg a few years ago.

The Chinese and Pakistani governments have decided to repair and expand the road. The upgraded highway will be expanded to 30 meters wide and made suitable for cargo trucks. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2014. 

         High alert

A man from Pakistan and his goods receive border checks at the Khunjerab Pass. CUI JIA/CHINA DAILY

The political instructor of a People's Liberation Army company, stationed at the remote Wakhan Corridor in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, pointed to a snow-capped mountain in the distance.

His troops have been tasked to stop terrorists and religious extremists from sneaking into China from training camps in Pakistan, located on the other side of the mountain.

Tang, 26, said the corridor at the Tashkurgan Tajik autonomous county in Kashgar prefecture, which was once a bustling trade route for merchants on the ancient Silk Road, is now being used by terrorists to get in and out of China.

The Wakhan Corridor in China is actually a valley about 100 kilometers long, running from east to west, with the remaining 300 km in Afghanistan. At the very end of the Chinese side of the corridor lies the only connecting point between China and Afghanistan.

The narrowest part of the valley, which also borders Pakistan and Tajikistan, is less than 1 km wide. Local Tajiks say when a rooster crows in the corridor, it can be heard in four countries, which shows how the location is extremely important.

"With US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan and Pakistani troops constantly busting terrorist cells in their country, their job has become more important and tougher than ever as authorities fear terrorists might flee to China via the Wakhan Corridor," Tang said.

The old fort, which has become a seasonal outpost of the Mingtiegai company lead by Tang, was built by the Kuomintang army to secure China's border in the past. PLA soldiers now take turns to be stationed there from July to October as no one can pass the area when heavy snow seals off the valley.

From higher ground, Tang's men closely observe any activity in the corridor-a passage people must pass if they intend to enter China or Pakistan via the area illegally. Even the sudden movement of sheep or yaks belonging to the local Tajik herdsmen grazing in the valley will alert the troops because it might be caused by strangers. And having strangers in the area is not a good thing.

A surveillance camera powered by solar panels was installed on one side of the fort. On the other side, several scarecrows in PLA uniforms were set up facing the snow-capped mountain. Tang called them "false targets", which he said are as important as the latest military technology.

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