- This article is an itinerary.
The Karakoram Highway (often abbreviated to KKH and sometimes transliterated as Karakorum) is the highest paved international road in the world; it connects Western China and Pakistan. It is one of the very few routes that cross the Himalayas and the most westerly of them. Historically, this was a caravan trail, one branch of the ancient Silk Road. More recently, the Chinese and Pakistani governments have built a highway.
The name is derived from the Mongolian for Black Range, when the Mongolians had their great empire, and was adopted later by their successor dynasty, the Mughals, who ruled India for many centuries.
In recent years the highway has become an adventure tourism destination and ranked as the third best tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian. It is the highest border crossing in the world, at an elevation of over 4,800 metres (roughly 16,000 feet) in the Khunjerab Pass at the border. For comparison, Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe, is 4810m and Mount Whitney, the highest point in the 48 contiguous US states, is 4421m.
It may be the ultimate challenge for the devoted cyclist. There are organised bicycle tours, and several books about bicycling this route. Although in recent years as travel as reduced to Pakistan generally through concerns over terrorist attacks, the number of tours has declined. It is a trip that is possible to undertake independently, although consideration should be given to the heat and altitude if travelling unsupported.
Unfortunately the border is not open for cyclists. Instead, you can board the bus in either Tashkurgan (China) or Sost (Pakistan). From the Pakistani side you can cycle up to the pass, but not over it. You will have to return to Sost to take the bus!
The highway runs across the Karakoram mountain range and through the Khunjerab Pass at the border. In Pakistan, it runs roughly North from Abbottabad to the border through the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. After the border, it swings West across part of China's Xinjiang province to Kashgar.
Its construction was started as a joint project of the two governments in 1959 and completed in 1979; the highway was opened to the general public in 1986. About 800 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly in landslides and falls, while building the highway.
In China, the KKH is known as the "Friendship Highway". Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it has also been called the "Eighth Wonder of the World".
The Karakorum Highway or KKH is a two-way all-weather road in Pakistan, except for the Khunjarab Pass which is closed from January through to April due to heavy snow. Landslides that can block the road for hours or more are common at some places during the monsoon season (Jul-Sep).
Some parts of the highway, e.g. the areas between Besham and Chilas in Pakistan and the desert areas on the Chinese side, are very hot during summer; the temperature can reach 45°C (113°F).
Taken together, these factors mean that the KKH is best travelled in the spring or early autumn.
You can travel by simply any means, cycle, buses, bike, car but the most used method is hopping on to vans which is affordable as well convenient. Some say it is one of the scariest roads in the word because of the potential steep falls of hundreds of metres off the unprotected road edge on one side with unstable mountains on the other side that are likely to cause landslides during harsh weather. Sometimes the road gets so narrow in some places that only one vehicle can pass at a time, while the other waits on the very narrow edge of the road. You'll see lots of wrecked heavy vehicles. Most of the treks are located on the Pakistani side.
If you wish to use the highway to cross borders, get the visa of the other country beforehand, otherwise entry at the border will not be granted. Entry will not be granted to those on cycles. You must be on a vehicle or either take a bus from a nearby town to cross this wonderful border.
The Pakistani section of the highway officially starts from Hasan Abdal, 40km northwest of Rawalpindi, while Chinese section starts from Kashgar, a major city in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Karakoram Highway is officially known as the N-35 in Pakistan; and China National Highway 314 (G314) in China.
The usual jumping off points are Kashgar on the Chinese end or Gilgit in Pakistan. But since the highway starts from Hasan Abdal, you can jump in from anywhere between. If you want to start from Gilgit, then you can take a PIA flight from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan to Gilgit, the flight is simply unforgettable as the plane flies around Nanga Parbat as well as around K-2, and you can see 82 peaks of Pakistan that are over 7,000m!
The Wakhan Corridor leads into the area from Bactria or central Afghanistan and historically this was a minor trade route. However, it is almost certainly not a feasible route today. It is in Afghanistan, currently a very dangerous country, the terrain is difficult, and there are neither good roads not border posts where one could legally enter China or Pakistan.
On the Pakistan side, the KKH starts (officially) from Hassan Abdal, a town some 50km west of the capital. The highway passes through Abbottabad, Mansehra and Besham. The highway runs along the left and right banks of the River Indus to reach Gilgit, passing through the towns of Kamila, and Chilas. The highway passes the Hunza Valley The Hunza was the original Shangri La that inspired the novel (and later movie). Hunza is known for its orchards, moderate Islam, welcoming hospitality and beautiful scenery.
From Hasan Abdal in Pakistan, the list of towns are (South to North):
- Hasan Abdal
- Raikot bridge - Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat
- Aliabad — Minapin Glacier
- Gulmit — Gulmit and Ghulkin Glacier
- Passu — Passu Glacier
- Khunjerab Pass (Pak/China Border) — Khunjerab Glacier
- Karakol Lake
From Gilgit to the Chinese border along the pass is generally safe with care. South of Gilgit, the population becomes increasingly Pushtun dominated and is likewise influenced by the situation in Afghanistan. In particular, Indus Kohistan is known for its inhospitable terrain and people. It is advisable directly fly from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu and focus on the upper reaches of the KKH.
General unrest, displeasure with the local police, government or local politics can sometimes create localised issues and difficulties. Watch everyone else, see how they are reacting and be wary that indiscriminate gunfire is a possibility even with arguments between individuals. with care and common sense, the valley and area is stunning visually, has friendly locals who are relaxed and are keen to interact with you. Near Karimabad there are troops stationed and visible, whilst further up the valley, there appears to be just local police.