The Karakoram Highway

The lands route most of the way from Rawalpindi to Gilgit follows the Karakoram Highway up the deep Indus River gorge. The best way to go by road to Gilgit is by following the Grand Trunk road west over the insignificant ridge called the Margella Pass, a place that the noted British historian Sir Olaf Caroe considered being the boundary between the South Asian subcontinent and Central Asia. Then you pass the turnoff to Taxila, and extensive series of archaeological sites from successive civilizations dating from 600 B.C to 600 A.D. that stood at the cultural crossroads of China, India, Central Asia, and the West. Next you swing south of Wah, a town favored by the Moghuls, who built elegant gardens and pavilions here in the sixteenth century. The route turns off the grand Trunk Road cluttered intersection


Three miles north of Hassan Abdal you enter the Hazara region of the North-West Frontier Province and continue past the bustling town of Haripur to Havelian, the railhead and official beginning of the Karakoram Highway. Next is the large town of Abbottabad, where a road branches east to the hilltown of Murree and its neighbors, the Galis, North of Abbottabad the road meanders through gentle hills in Hazara, a tranquil but very conservative area, Hereabouts you’ll pass through country with emerald green rice paddies, fields of corn, fruit trees, and pines. But after Batagram, the land begins to change: now the road twists downward in a drier canyon en route to its rendezvous with the mighty Indus River.

At Thakot (2,515 feet in elevation and 123 miles from ‘Pindi), the KKH leaves Hazara and enters Swat District, crossing to the right bank of the Indus over the first of the more than ninety graceful suspension bridges built by Chinese engineers that lie between here and the northern border. Not far from Thakot is the bustling town of Besham Qila.

The town of Pattan is Kohistan’s administrative center and was the hardest-hit village when an earthquake struck Kohistan in 1974, killing thousands of People. Here the Indus flows through a V-shaped gorge with scattered trees and small homes that cling to the steep, brown slopes as if camouflaged. The rocky hills are particularly steep in this part of the gorge, and in the 1960s road workers had to lower themselves down on ropes to drill and set the first charges of dynamite. Between four hundred and five hundred Pakistanis and Chinese lost their lives building the KKH, and more were killed in this stretch than anywhere else. All told, over fifteen thousand Pakistanis and ten Chinese worked on the KKH, they used 8,000 tons of dynamite, removing 30million cubic yards of earth and rocks to complete the road. The KKH was officially dedicated in 1978, but the last Chinese engineers stayed until late 1979, and up to 1981 foreigners needed permits to travel on the road. It will still be many years until the mountains stop moving onto the KKH, and you may conceivably find yourself temporarily marooned between two landslides.

Above Pattan the road crosses to the left bank of the river, and a little farther on, just before the river trends easterly, the Kandia Valley joins he Indus. Kandia is actually part of Swat District, and like upper Swat, it has some lovely wooden mosques. In there are about three passes between 15,000and 17,000 feet in elevation that lead from Kandia into the upper Swat Valley.

Near the Town of Sazin the blind turns and stomach-turning precipices below the road diminish as the valley widens, and scattered sandy beaches appear below on the riverbank. Almost directly across the river to the north of Sazin is the mouth of the Tangir Valley. Tangir and the neighboring valley of Darel, which debouches into the Indus 6 miles to the east, are known for their lush terrain high above and out of sight from themain valley.

East of Sazin the KKH leaves the North-West Frontier Province and enters the administrative region called the Northern Areas. You will be traveling in Baltistan now. The principal town in this west-to-east part of the Indus Valley is Chilas, an inhospitable and sun-bleached place. Here at Chilas (about 3,900 feet in elevation and 280 miles from Rawalpindi) the road descending from the Babusar Pass and the Kaghan Valley joins the KKH At Chilas is an up-scale hotel, called the Midway Hotel, where anyone may stay, but particularly people who are en route to the Shangri La Hotel in Baltistan.

The most interesting sites in the Chilas vicinity are various rocks where ancient petroglyphs can be seen. Over the past four millennia, Kushan, Buddhist, and Hindu Conquerers, merchants, missionaries, and pilgrims carved symbols and inscriptions onto various large boulders glazed dark brown by oxidation of their iron content. At the different sites you can see the likenesses of horses, serpents, ibex, stupas, and fugures of Buddha. These petroglyphs were made by some in triumph and by others ingratitude for safe passage.

East of Chilas this dry gorge becomes even deeper, because high above and out of sight to the south rises Nanga Parbat (26,650 feet), the western most peak in the great Himalaya Range, a mountain so gargantuan it is more a range than a single massif.

In this area you are north of Nanga Parbat in the second deepest gorge on earth, as measured from the peak to the base of the valley. (the Arun Valley, in eastern Nepal, from the summit of Makalu to the Arun River, is the greatest vertical drop.) It is utterly incongruous to drive up this ovenlike gorge in summer,, knowing that nearly 4 miles above are shimmering snowfields. At Riakot village, the Raikot valley joins the Indus. From the village a road angles up a steep ridge and leads up the valley as far as a hotel, the Shangri La. A long day’s walk above the road ahead takes you to the pastures called Fairy Meadows, below the Raikot Glacier. Just upriver from Raikot, the KKH crosses to the north (right) bank of the Indus. Now the Indus Valley bends to the north, and as you move away from Nanga Parbat you can begin to see its snows miles above the valley floor. The large Astor River empties into the East Side of the Indus in the lower portion of this northerly trending area. North of the Astor River and also on the east bank of the Indus is the sun-bleached town of Bunji, headquarters of the Northern Light Infantry. The KKH crosses a clear tributary stream on a suspension bridge, then passes through the town of Jaglot, where the road from Bunji and the Astor Valley crosses the Indus to join the main KKH.

Not far north of Jaglot the Gilgit River joins the Indus from the west. Here in a parched wasteland is a brief stretch of road where you can look right at the junction of these two mighty rivers. In summer the waters from the Gilgit River are a grayish black, while the Indus is light brown in hue. From here on, the KKH follows first the Gilgit River, then the Hunza Valley to the road’s terminus on the border with Sinkiang, China, at the Khunjerab Pass. A mile up the Gilgit Valley, the road to Baltistan diverges northeast from the KKH, crossing the Gilgit River on its way up the Indus. It is uncanny to think that just 10 miles away up the Indus gorge the river bends to the southeast and continues from there in the same direction for some 500 miles to its source north of sacred Mt. Kailas in western Tibet.

The KKH continues almost due west along the Gilgit River Valley, crossing dry alluvial fans, and in a dozen miles passes south of the Bagrot Valley, a tributary nala with a road that leads directly north to the southern base of rakaposhi, the 25,550 foot peak overlooking the main oases of Hunza. Soon you see a long suspension bridge over the Gilgit River that leads to the town of Dainyor with its many green fields, located at the mouth of the Hunza Valley. The KKH crosses that bridge, carrying on into the gorge of the Hunza River. Five miles beyond the bridge up the Gilgit Valley lies the large, prosperous town of Gilgit.

The town of Gilgit 4900 feet in elevation and 365 miles from Rawalpindi. It is a place travelers must pass through and pause at on the way to or from their excursions in Hunza, or between Chitral and Baltistan, but it is not a destination in itself, Particularly in the hot midsummer months. In the past, the town was alternately fought over, plundered, and ignored.

Near Gilgit is a Buddha carved into a stone face, a remnant of the era over seven hundred years ago when Buddhism held sway across much of what is now the North-West Frontier Province, the Northern Areas, and Afghanistan.

Ghizar Valley is the westernmost extension of the Gilgit River and provides the road link between Gilgit and Chitral. Ghizar was ruled alternately by the Khushwaqt clan of Mastuj and its own raja in the town of Gupis near the mouth of the valley, 68 miles west of Gilgit.

Leaving Gilgit, your vehicle skirts the airport runway on the East End to town, then passes the suburb called Jutial and crosses a few dry alluvial fans. Joining the KKH, the road turns north, crossing the Gilgit River on a large suspension bridge and passing through the large oasis of Dainyor, a town where many Hunzakuts live. Beyond Dainyor the road curls in and out of several nalas, entering the lowest reaches of the Hunza Valley, here a dry, rocky, and uninspiring V-shaped gorge.

North of Rahimabad your vehicle barrels along at the base of the rock ridges that are the western most outliers of Rakaposhi. Across the river lies Nomal at the base of the Naltar Valley, and north of Nomal on the West Side of the gorge you can still see some fragments of the original road clinging to a series of impossibly steep precipices and cliffs.

A forty five-minute drive from Gilgit, the valley opens up and the Hunza River bends to the east, now north of the Rakaposhi massif. To the north across the valley you can see the irrigated fields of Chalt 6560 feet, a town that was formerly part of the state of Nagar.

As the KKH continues up valley beyond Chalt, it remains in Nagar as long as the road lies on the south bank of the Hunza River. Not far beyond Chalt on the northern side of the Hunza River is the former boundary of Hunza State. The Jeep bridge at Sikandarabad (“Alexander’s Town”) gives access to the northern side of the river at the Bar Valley, and soon another bridge leads off the KKH to the village of Maiun. The KKH crosses several streams that tumbel down the flanks of Rakaposhi, Just minutes below the mouths of the glaciers that spawned these tributaries and seconds before they disappear into the Hunza River. One such glacier, the Tole, is known for supplying ice to cool the soft drinks sold in Gilgit (that’s why your cola had pebbles in it). The road enters Hunza proper as it crosses to the north side of the river and passes through the village of Hini. Here you have a classic, postcard-perfect view, albeit somewhat foreshortened, of 25,550foot Rakaposhi, the “Crown Jewel of Hunza,” towering over the Pisan Glacier. This is as close to the peak as the vehicle bound viewer will ever get. Rakaposhi, like Tirich Mir and Nanga Parbat, is believed to be the home of fairies who may play tricks on humans when people get too close to their snowbound homes. The peak is also called Dumani, a Shina name meaning “Two Princesses.”

Just beyond Ganesh village below Kareemabad, the KKH crosses the Hunza River on a large, graceful bridge. Within walking distance from the bridge right on the roadside is Haldikish (“Place of the Rams”), also known as the Sacred Rock of Hunza. This large rock has many carvings from different eras and in varying scripts. From here up valley for some distance the Hunza River flows in an arid, V-shaped gorge that is sparsely populated. In a few miles the riverbed curves to the north, and as you proceed along this deep gutter, the main peaks of the Karakoram tower above out of sight, for here the river is cutting between the highest summits of the range. Now you are entering the region called Gujal, the largest area within the Hunza Valley.

At shishkot the KKH crosses to the West Side of the river and soon reaches Gulmit (about 8,000 feet). Gulmit, within a lushly irrigated acreage of orchards and fields, was once the summer residence of the Mir.

Near Gulmit the valley widens dramatically. The KKH crosses the raucous streams of the Gulmit and Ghulkin glaciers, then passes the town of Sesoni. In this stretch of valley you begin to see Tupopdan, a multipinnacled ridge culminating in a 20,000-foot peak. Tupopdan is a giant pincushion of sheer, Knifelike spires, a sui generis mountain rising straight up from the plain and dominating this section of the valley. The Wakhi village of Pasu (8,500 feet elevation, 102 miles from Gilgit.

North of Gujal’s Batura Glacier, the KKH and the Hunza River enter a narrow gorge and squeeze by the western flanks of Tupopdan. The road continues through the narrow gorge, crosses the river to the east bank village of Gallapan, and reaches Murkhun. The high, now unused trail up to Karun Pir Pass and the Shimshal gorge climbs up the north side of the Kar4un Pir ridge from the wide nala behind Murkhun. Up valley 3 miles from Murkhun is the village of Gircha with a large spring of pure water. From Murkhun to Sost the valley widens dramatically, and you have an increasingly grand view of the precipitous northern slopes of the main Karakoram Range.

The village of Sost (9100 feet elevation and 125 miles from Gilgit) used to be a tranquil Wakhi village but has now become Gujal’s unlikely boomtown. The Khunjerab pass (or Khunjerab “Top” as it is usually referred to locally), on the border between Pakistan and China, has been crossed on the road by construction workers, officials and goods trucks since 1973. But on May 1, 1986, the Khunjerab was opened to foreigners and Pakistanis for travel between Hunza and Kashgar in Sinkiang Province.

A few miles north of Sost, the brown Kilik (or Misgar) Nala and the gray Khunjerab Nala join to form the Hunza River, each stream vying with the other to donate a more brackish contribution in summer when the glaciers up their respective valleys are melting. The second of the nalas forming the Hunza River is the larger Khunjerab, a Wakhi word meaning “the Red (or Bloody) Valley.” Here the KKH follows the river along the bottom of a narrow, utterly inhospitable canyon of slate and shale. Soon the road turns north into the smaller of two narrow gorges. This is still the Khunjerab Nala, and the valley to the east is the Ghujerab. At the junction of the two valleys you enter Khunjerab National Park, a preserve of over 800 square miles that was first proposed by the eminent wildlife biologist George B. Schaller in 1973 and established in 1975. At the bleak outpost called Dih (or Dhi),

At Kara Jilga (“Black Stream”) the road again turns north into the smaller of two streams and begins a series of switchbacks. Now you are truly among the rolling Khunjerab and Ghujerab uplands used by the Wakhi to graze vast numbers of sheep, goats, cattle, and yaks that they drive up-valley each year. Formerly the Mir reserved vast tracts in these upper meadows for his own animals. These 13,000 to 16,000 foot grasslands pocked with marmot burrows resemble the Pamirs over the pass to the north far more than they do the Karakoram. The Khunjerab pass is at 15,400-foot.

6 thoughts on “The Karakoram Highway”

  1. Hello Karim

    Its interesting to read. Could you tell us, what is the best time of the year to travel to Northen Pakistan including China through the Silk Route?

    cheers

  2. aap ki website mien jo pictures hien woh bari zabardast hien or un ko dekh kar ehsaas hota hay k ap logo ka group bohot adventures hay.in pics ko dekh kar mera bhi dil chahanay laga hay k mien bhi in places ka visit karo yaqeen nahi aata k pakistan mien itni beautiful places bhi hein, kisi din InshaAllah mien in places par zaroor jaon ga. i hope k ap apni website kuch or achi pics ka izafa karein gay bye………

    asad

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