ATTABAD LAKE, PAKISTAN – In their rickety boats, they’ve carried nearly everyone and everything that traveled between central Pakistan and China for the past 5½ years, including bodies, rare gemstones and fugitives.
But the work of these mountain boatmen in northern Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region may be coming to an end.
In 2010, deep in the Himalayan Mountains, a landslide sent a village-size chunk of rock crumbling into the valley. It blocked the rushing rapids of the Hunza River, creating a new lake that flooded more than 150 houses as well as the Karakoram Highway.
With no other way for vehicles to cross the mountains, passengers and cargo had to be ferried across the water in handmade wooden boats. Although the trip was often a joy for tourists, the hour-long ride was a major hassle for truckers, smugglers and local residents, some of whom had to cross the lake several times a week.
But in mid-September, after several years of construction, Chinese engineers completed four large tunnels along the south shore of the 13-mile-long lake. As a result, traffic can again flow on the newly diverted Karakoram Highway, which may doom the livelihoods of hundreds of boat operators and day laborers who had become mainstays of the local economy.
“We are going to lose 50 percent of our business, probably more,” said boat operator Malik Shah, 47. “Maybe the tourists will still come for us, but we do not know that, so maybe not.”
The 20-foot boats are colorfully painted with the same mosaics for which Pakistani trucks are famous. They are powered by two engines, and steering wheels from junked cars control six-foot rudders.
On each side of the lake, where the highway abruptly disappears under the water, the boats wait for customers who pay fares of $3 to $5.
Before the tunnels opened, cars and sport-utility vehicles drove directly onto the boats using boards as ramps. People might be crammed in along with restless cattle, stinky chickens or noisy goats. But when traffic was light, passengers could relax as their boats glided past snowcapped mountains, the sputter of the engines churning the water surprisingly therapeutic.
For trucks, however, Attabad Lake was, literally, the end of the road. They were too heavy to be carried by boat, so the trucks’ cargo had to be offloaded at the shoreline. It was packed onto a boat and reloaded onto another truck at the other end of the lake.
The process took hours, creating dozens of jobs in a part of Pakistan where many families survive on just a few dollars a day.
“It was fixed, permanent income,” said Ikram Ali, 32, who made about $350 a month offloading the trucks. “Now, I wonder if I will stay penniless for days.”
Although Attabad Lake initially was as deep as 350 feet, silt from glacial runoff has been gradually settling to the bottom. This summer, boats were increasingly running aground near the shoreline.
“It’s filling in,” said Riazullah Baig, a local tour guide. “In another 10 years, it may just be a riverbed again.”