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Risking it all
Pakistani truckers' perilous journey
Meet the men who navigate arguably the world's most dangerous road in order to ferry goods to remote mountain villages.
Last Modified: 15 Feb 2012 08:44



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 240km long and forms the only supply route to the small villages in the Chitral valley in northwestern Pakistan.

It is a road where even the slightest error can be fatal.

The 20,000 inhabitants of 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 this mountainous region.

The trucker's quarter provides most of the jobs here - drivers, mechanics and assistants of all ages work daily amid the dust and pollution.

Hell's Road

Twenty-three-year-old Kamara is a successful businessman who owns two trucks. One is laden with two tonnes of sugar meant for a 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," says Kamara, introducing Dawoud's brother Khalid.

$60 is the average Pakistani salary. But since few drivers would accept the risks of the Lowari Pass for that money, Kamara offers a $90 bonus each way - an 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 explains.

The truck is ageless, with the odometer permanently stuck at 776,000km. Dawoud and Khalid have decorated the truck in their own fashion - with photographs of the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto forming a collage alongside those of the Indian movie stars young Pakistanis idolise.

'There is no future'

The first hazard of the journey emerges as soon as the truck reaches 2,000 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.

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," Dawoud explains.

"But for now, we still have to cross the peak, which is 3,100 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, his 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 is more hopeful: "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."

Crumbling mountains 

The brothers brace for the hardest part of the ascent, where melting snow causes avalanches and landslides. They manage to climb 1,000 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 2,800m the lack of oxygen causes drowsiness and concentrating becomes a chore - 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 there is not a truck making 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 from 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, even 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 during the month.

Death tunnel

Chitral is the largest town in the valley, and pretty much operates as a giant 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 via a 10-kilometre passage that runs through the mountain and was 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 owns a Jeep for the drive up from Chitral to Parsan, where the 1,500 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 start to lift. Some of them help place stones on the riverbed for the vehicle to cross easily.

Finally, after the 10 hours it has taken to cover the perilous 35km trek from Chitral, Hadji reaches Parsan still smiling for having cheated death, yet again.

 


Click here to watch more episodes of Risking it all, an action-packed series that follows people around the world who take extraordinary risks to earn a living.
Source:
Al Jazeera
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