THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY is a 800 mile road from Islamabad , Pakistan to the Western Chinese city of Kashgar. Winding through some of the most rugged terrain in the world, it was built over 20 years by Chinese and Pakistani road crews at a cost that was staggering in terms of time, money and lives lost. Nearly 500 Chinese and Pakistani workers were killed during the construction. It is generally accepted to be one the most incredible engineering projects of the century.

The Karakoram Highway was completed in 1978, inaugurated in 1982 but not fully open to foreigners until 1986. For the bold beauty of the mountains it winds through and the breathtaking views it offers the Karakoram Highway has few equals. It passes within earshot of great 25,000 foot peaks like Nanga Parbat and Rakaposhi. Along the entire length of the highway, but especially around Chilas, there are Buddhist rock carvings.

Travel on the Karakoram Highway is not for the weak hearted. The mostly two-lane road hugs mountainsides and features it share of hairpin turns and stream crossings. Avalanches and landslides crackle in the distance. Landslides of rocks and scree periodically bury trucks and kill people. From time to time buses, trucks and cars form drop off the sides of the cliffs. Some wrecks are visible. There are no shoulders and vehicles sometimes have to skirt within inches of sheer drop-offs into the valleys and rushing rivers below. Some people say "It can take an hour to travel just one mile on the Karakoram, and only a second to depart it."*

The road it is not as treacherous as it once was but it can still be pretty hair raising especially during the monsoon season in the summer. Sections of the road are paved but many parts are dirt, gravel, broken asphalt, and unstable macadam with huge potholes. The road is open in the summer but is often closed other time of the year. It can be closed for weeks by floods and landslides. Spring is the avalanche season. Floods and landslides occur in the monsoon season.

The Karakoram Highway was reportedly built as a "symbol of Pakistan-Chinese friendship and cooperation" and hailed it as a means of promoting tourism and bring mountain tribes into the mainstream. But there is no denying the road's strategic military importance was also an important consideration. Neither Pakistan or China have traditionally been on friendly with India and both fought Himalayan wars with India, The silkworm missiles that China got in trouble for selling to Pakistan came via the Karakoram Highway, whose bridges are constructed to handle heavy military equipment and tanks.[Source: John McCarry, National Geographic March 1994]


Traveling and Working on the Karakoram Highway

Most travelers go by bus. Some do it by bicycle. Buses from Islamabad stop at the Chinese border where passengers change to a Chinese bus to Kashgar. Buses from Kashgar stop at the Chinese border where passengers change to a Pakistani bus to Islamabad. The buses on the Karakoram are covered with tassels and bright colors. Foreign tourist sometimes travel by sitting on the roof.

Traveling on KKH after the monsoon season one traveler wrote in the International Travel News, "Huge landslides had washed away entire villages, killing thousands of people. The road was completely gone again and again as we traveled...People of all ages had collected with their picks, shovels and bare hands to clear the road and in many cases cut new roads into the hillsides. ¡̊ Many landslides are produced by the tremors and earthquakes that rock the area. In 1987 a huge landside washed-out a huge section of road. Tourist were airlifted out of Gilgit and the road to took months to repair and open.

Much or the repair and construction work on the KKH is done by the Pakistani army. Some of the bridges along the Karakoram highway used watched over by armed guards, not because the bridge was of any particular strategic importance but because, with the scarcity of wood, they were worried somebody would steal the wooden planks.¡â

Before modern bridges were built some rivers were crossed by dicey bridges made with cables constructed of twisted birch twigs, Some of these bridge can still be fond in remote areas. They are quite scary to cross especially when a strong wind is blowing. Across the Indus are a variety of footbridges, cable cars and rope walkways.

Route of the Karakoram Highway


The southern part of the road winds along the Indus river, sometimes rising 4,000 feet above it, and the northern part follows a branch of the old Silk Road. Rock carvings from a variety of people bear witness to the number of culture that used this route for trading over the centuries.

The Karakoram Highway formally begins in Havelian, a town 52 miles north of Islamabad, and passes through the Kohistan, Gilgit and Hunza valleys. Part of the road follows the Batura glacier, rated as one of the world's largest valley glaciers.

In northern Pakistan the Karakoram Highway penetrates the Hunza Valley. Here the scenery is spectacular and the sky is lapis lazuli blue. Along the way are guest houses that offer basic accommodation and serve chapatis, curried chicken and potatoes. Near the Chinese border the road has been blasted in the sides of sheer cliffs. Far below is the Hunza Rover.

At the Chinese Border, where road signs warn drivers to start driving on the right, the highway crests at Khunjerab Pass (15,600 feet) and then descends into the western deserts of China where it connects with the famous silk road caravan towns of Kashgar and Urumqi. On the way to Kashgar the highway skirts a lake in front of awesome twin peaks of Kungur and Muz Tagh Ata, both over 24,000 feet.

The Karakoram Highway on the Chinese side is now almost completely paved, making it is easier to get to Kashgar overland from Pakistan than most places in China. Covering the entire distance between Kashgar and Islamabad takes about 48 hours. Most of the region is desolate and empty. The road between Kashgar and Tashkurghan is dusty and long, passing through lunar landscapes with mountains in the distance. Web Sites : Wikipedia Wikipedia Map : John the Map John the Map Photos : Karakorum Highway Blog

Little Karakul

Little Karakul (near the small town of Subashi, halfway between Kashgar and the Pakistani border) is a beautiful blue green lake and one of the world's most incredible sights. Rising up from side of the lake opposite the road are two of the worlds highest mountains: 25,325-foot-high Kongur Shan and 24,325-foot-high Muztagata. Both mountains are encased in glaciers and clouds. Muztagata looks like an ice plateau that has been slightly tilted. Skiers have descended from its summit. Kongur Shan is comprised of many peaks and is considered by mountaineers to be more difficult to climb than Muztagata. Muztagata and Kongur Shan are part of the Pamir Range which extends into Tajikstan and is an area the Persians called the "roof of the world."

Little Karakal is around 11,000 feet above sea level. The lake is located in a long grassy valley populated by Kyrgyz nomads who graze their flocks of sheep and goats on high mountain meadows surrounded by barren hills, alluvial deposits and some of the highest sand dunes in the world. [Source: Ned Gillette, National Geographic, February 1981] Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books.

Tashkurghan (near the border Pakistan) is a one-street Tajik town, located at 12,136 feet, often visited by Pakistani traders who load up with cheap Chinese good and pungent Chinese liquor. In recent years the town has become a boom town of sorts, with restaurant, supermarkets and shops that cater to to service road crews, soldiers and Pakistani shoppers. From Tashkurghan you can get the daily bus to Khunjerab Pass and the Pakistani border town of Sust. On the grassy plateau beyond the town you can see the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and the Karakorums. Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books.

Between Tashkurghan and Khunjerab Pass the bus climbs on an asphalt road and passes through Chinese passport control and two military checkpoints staffed by soldiers from the People Liberation Army. As the road climbs some tourist suffers from altitude sickness.

Khunjerab Pass

Khunjerab Pass is a 15,600-foot-high pass between the Chinese and Pakistani border. Its name means "Vale of Blood," a reference to the violence that occurred during raids by bandits on the caravans. Said to be the highest border crossing on the world, the pass broad is clearing of rock and grass with some clouds, grazing yaks and ibex and snowcapped mountains.

Describing the route in 400 A.D. the Chinese pilgrim Fa Xian wrote: "The way was difficult and rugged, running along a bank exceedingly precipitous. When one approached the edge of it, his eyes became unsteady; and he wished to go forward in the same direction, there was no place he could put his foot, and beneath were the waters of the river called the Indus."

Khunjerab Pass is near where the world's five highest mountain ranges¡ªthe Himalayas, the Karakorams, the Hindu Kush, the Kunlan Shan and the Tien Shan¡ªall meet. Also nearby is 18,000-foot Karakoram Pass which was used by Bactrian camel caravans until it was in he 1950s. Six countries also come together here: China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan.

After Khunjerab Pass, drivers switch to the left hand side of the road. The road descends through one of the most spectacular gorges on the Indian subcontinent on a road blasted into the side of a cliff. The bus lurches from side to side as the driver descends the switchbacks and maneuvers around large boulders.

The journey from Tashkurghan to Sust takes all day. At Sust travelers get off the bus, pass through immigration and customs and hop on minibus for the ride into the Hunza Valley. Sometimes the Chinese border officials find irregularities in the paper work and try weasel bribes. Sust is occupied by members of the Wakhi Tadjik tribe. There are some treks and hikes that can be done from here.


Image Sources: Map from Wikipedia, photos from Mongabey.com and Perrochan.com

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton¡̅s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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