Last Monday saw some excited passengers board a luxury bus in Lahore and leave for a distant destination across the country’s international border in the north to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. This journey across the picturesque Karakoram Highway (KKH) takes around 36 hours to complete, which includes a stopover at a passenger pickup point in Islamabad, customs and immigration formality at the Pak-China border in Sost, as well as security check and dining at various points along the route. Some of the time is also spent sleeping at night.
The first passengers to embark on this route on November 5 were rightly overjoyed. Their first stop was Islamabad, where others would join them for onward travel. The bus picks up passengers only from Lahore and Islamabad mainly for security concerns.
The buses, plying this Lahore-Tashkurgan county of Kashghar in Xinjiang province of China and back, are owned by North South Transport Network (NSTN), a private company authorized by the government of Pakistan. China’s communication ministry is also on board with Pakistan’s ministry for foreign affairs also kept in the loop.
The company eventually intends to operate four buses a week. But currently their service is restricted to twice weekly, at Rs13,000 one way and Rs23,000 return per person. The fare also covers the cost of beverages, food, onboard entertainment and wifi.
In view of the strengthening ties between Pakistan and China and huge investments coming under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, this facility is named the CPEC Bus Service by the company. After passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, the bus enters China through the Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved international border crossing in the world, and makes it final stop at Tashkurgan in Kashghar. This point is around 120 kilometres from the Pak-China border. The passengers have the option of staying here, taking the Chinese road transport or train to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang or any other destination in China.
Urumqi is a popular destination for Pakistanis as it is the hub of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative and a major industrial centre. It is the city where the first branch of a Pakistani bank was opened. Being a Muslim majority area, Pakistani businessmen find it easy to settle here or enter into business partnerships with locals. A large number of Pakistani students are also settled in the city. Many Pakistanis are married to Chinese women in Xinjiang. Easy availability of halal food is an added attraction.
There have been talks in the past to start such a bus service but unfortunately the idea could not materialise. One major reason was the grave security risk. However, NSTN officials claim this aspect has been taken care of this time. They say the security situation has improved because of the measures adopted to secure the CPEC route.
There are four cameras installed inside the bus that relay live images and footage to the central control and command centre of the company. An armed security guard is on the bus and the staff is supposed to be in constant touch with the security personnel and policemen posted along the route.
The company claims that the public response to this initiative has been overwhelming — they are finding it hard to accommodate all the travel requests.
Qamar Ijaz, Operations Manager, NSTN tells TNS that they have also been approached by a large number of businessmen for cargo purposes and tour operators for joint tourism packages. “These services cannot be offered as the company only provides transport, visa is a passenger’s responsibility and cargo service is not offered,” he adds.
A passenger is permitted luggage weighing up to 20kg free of cost. Other requirements include, a valid passport, valid visa, CNIC, original invitation from China and a ticket. The ticket can be bought online, through the ‘bookme’ app or from company office in Liberty Market, Lahore.
The launching of the bus service is being questioned as the route might close down as soon as snow falls. The Khunjerab Pass normally closes down for a couple of months in peak winters. Due to this reason, the company is not confirming bookings and advising the aspiring passengers to keep other options open.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has protested against its launch, saying it passes through a disputed territory.
Though the journey time is too long, people believe the possibility of seeing picturesque landscape, snow-capped mountains and water bodies, and stopping over at different places will make it recreational. The bus will be stopping at Mansehra, Besham, Chilas, Gilgit, Sost and Khunjerab.
Zeeshan Rafiq, a Pakistani studying in China, says, “The return airfare from Lahore to Urumqi may wary between Rs80,000 and Rs100,000. The bus charges Rs23,000 till Tashkurgan, from where travellers may take land transport to Urumqi. This option suits businessmen who come for market surveys on limited budgets.”
The images of Pak-China buses circulating on social media are deceptive. They are not as luxurious as the pictures depict. The exterior is of one bus and the interior of another. There are single rows of seats on both sides of the bus.
Qamar Ijaz, Operations Manager at NSTN, tells TNS they have launched a complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against people behind this mischief. “We are using luxury buses of Higer company that have 36 seats and two beds at the end. The beds are for the two drivers to take rest on their turn or any passenger who feels tired and wants to stretch.”