The Landcruiser drivers of the Karakorams are, according to Ahsan and Linda Iqbal, the NASCAR drivers of Pakistan. More than that, they are messengers – navigating the most dangerous roads in the world to bring 21st century news and information to their communities. Their ingenuity and initiative is awe inspiring. Ahsan and Linda give a picture into their lives:
The Jeep Driver
By Linda and Ahsan Iqbal
In the forgotten valleys of northern Pakistan, where the infrequent collision with the 21st century is heralded by the billowing dust from a Toyota Land Cruiser, the drivers of these mechanical beasts have taken on mythic proportions. The jeep driver is like the fighter pilot or NASCAR driver of the west.
The bright aquamarine, magenta and cobalt hues and colorful window decals of the jeeps and Toyota Land Cruisers are the first hint that these are not merely 4×4 transportation. These are carefully maintained steeds of the drivers that ply the most dangerous roads in the world. With an air of casual indifference the driver will navigate roads in Baltistan with barely enough room for the vehicle to fit with drops of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet to roaring torrents
The kids that run along side the jeeps as they roar through the villages have their favourites. They are, after all, the link to the bigger world bringing prized items like Mountain Dew, and cell phones, as well as more mundane things like flour and sugar. And merits of each driver are hotly debated by the locals whenever the driver has to show exceptional skill, such as fording a raging river.
At one point along the road to Thungol, our way was blocked by turbid glacial meltwater that had washed away the road. Locals and porters quickly excavated ramps that led down to the river fifteen feet below and back up again and a ford across twenty feet of angry river. Here the spectating began. As each 4×4 lined up to dash across the river and negotiate a steep turn and climb the makeshift embankment, the locals would comment on the drivers. “Oh, that is Ashraf. He is too cautious. Look at him slow down at the turn. Haji took the turn at speed and didn’t get stuck.” Commentary was accompanied by gesticulation to mentally move the driver along.
One of the jeep drivers complained about the high cost of maintaining his vehicle. He owns mules as well and makes more money off the mules that accompany the trekking expeditions rather than the motorized transport. He poured out his life story after bringing his little baby to Linda to examine since he had heard she was a physician. After Linda told him that the baby had to get to a hospital that day or face death, he quickly brought his wife and baby along for the jeep ride to Skardu from the far off village of Thungol. He refused to drive the vehicle himself even though he owned it because he feared he would lose concentration with his family inside and only took over once they got to more suitable terrain. He explained that parts were difficult to find and you had to have good mechanics who could fix the vehicles so you did not end up with wire and string repair which is known to happen.
The driver’s tolerance for the fear of their occupants is amazing. Jeff and I rode one jeep up the steep rode from Raikot Bridge to Tatu, probably one of the most hair-raising rides I have ever taken. My assistant rowing coach was so terrified that he loudly recited verses from the Quran all the way up as we bounced around on our seats and couldn’t wait to jump out when he was delivered safely.
The sense of deliverance when you get out is hard to overstate, and I often wondered how the drivers were able to put themselves in such a dangerous position day after day. Maybe they are not that different than fighter pilots.