Michele Dalla Palma takes us on a journey along the Silk Road. Where past meets present, the photographer and journalist leads us to discover the secrets of a natural environment shaped by history. With him on this adventure back through time is Dolomite, the brand that has always stood alongside those who love to live life with no limits.
The Silk Road: an exotic illusion that combines fantastic scenery, colours, scents and atmospheres, reinvented by each one of us in our own memories. As children we all read of the adventures of Marco Polo, that extraordinary traveller who set out from Venice six centuries ago to reach the mysterious court of the Chinese emperors. Our imagination has transfigured his emprises and turned them into something mythical. But the Silk Road is real. An extraordinary, endless artery that spans seemingly insurmountable elements of nature, massive mountains and raging rivers. For 2000 years, the Silk Road has been the umbilical cord that joins both northern and southern Asia with the west. A rare example of how fantasy and reality can at times become mingled and muddled together, blurring the outlines of the truth with the inventions of the mind.
The route of the Silk Road is still maintained and used today by the populations of villages perched on narrow sandy terraces and river bends, overlooking the valley that leads north into the heart of the Himalayan chain.
Meanwhile, half a century ago, Pakistan was born. In the early 1960s Pakistan's nascent political system was supported by Maoist China, which was hostile to India and saw a useful ally in Islamabad and its policies. Like the ancient Buddhist missionaries two thousand years before, the Chinese leaders noted that the simplest route by which to transfer heavy arms from Beijing to the new nation of Pakistan was along a corridor crossing the Khunjerab Pass.
In 1961, Chinese military engineers began the construction of one of the most impressive works ever created by humankind: the Karakorum Highway, which is passable even for large trucks. It was inaugurated in 1978, linking Kashgar, a Chinese outpost at the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert, with the city of Havelian, ninety kilometres north of Islamabad.
Despite all its discomforts, an adventure on the Karakorum Highway offers an unmissable and exciting journey into the history and nature of one of this planet's wildest and most interesting regions.
Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the history and the future of Pakistan: one a futuristic capital combining wide boulevards and architectural structures of glass and cement; the other chaotic, filled with scents of the east, alive and present. And these latter aspects prevail in the everyday life of this "difficult" state, torn between rigorously orthodox Islam and the people's desire to live and express their "Indianness", filled with tolerance and curiosity.
In the narrow streets of the Raja Bazar, the heart of the old city, among the thousand jumbled traders, colours, fumes and evocative, spicy smells, young boys and girls, some with veils over their faces, stop you to ask: "Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you think of our country?..." The simple, kind ways innate in the oriental soul, seeking contact, a fleeting moment's sharing that lasts but a few words. These encounters also take place regularly during our breaks in villages along the road, needed to give the lungs a moment's respite from the oppressive dust that clouds every metre of the Karakorum Highway like a sticky film.
A cross-section of humanity, impossible to describe, crowds the road lined with crooked, ramshackle buildings, stacked together cheek-by-jowl.
When you have already scented the first signs of the imminent, endless Chinese universe in the air, just beyond the Khunjerab Pass, there lies a valley where time moves more slowly. The last hidden kingdom, protected by gigantic walls of rock that scrape the sky, almost reaching 8000 metres, this is the Hunza Valley.
Despite British interference, the Hunza kingdom remained isolated and autonomous until 1974, and only when the Karakorum Highway opened was it incorporated into the state of Pakistan. Not even Islam, which had replaced the ancient Buddhist religion some centuries before, succeeded in changing the independent nature of this mountain people. Proud of their traditions, and in defiance of Quranic laws, the Hunza will not refuse the odd wholesome sip of the improbable "wines" that they produce locally using any fruit, and particularly blackberries and mulberries.
But what will fascinate any traveller who happens to pass this way are the rhythms, the atmospheres, the sincere expressions on the faces of men, women and children, who seem aware that they are the custodians of a great wealth of history and culture that needs to be preserved and treasured. An "ancient" world, framed by some of the finest mountains in the Himalayas: Rakaposhi, from its 7789-metre peak, dominates the cultivated terraces of Karimabad, but standing watch over the ancient capital there also stretches a magnificent crown of remarkable peaks that comfortably exceed the 7000-metre mark.
Michele Dalla Palma