The Karakoram Highway (KKH) is the highest paved international road and a major trade artery linking China and Pakistan at the Khunjerab Pass at an elevation of 4,733 meters. The highway is also a legendary tourist attraction encompassing a rich blend of historic landmarks, cultural diversity, and natural beauty – a thrill for adventure lovers.
Starting from Hasanabdal in Punjab province of Pakistan, the Pakistani section of the highway culminates at the Pak-China border at Khunjerab Pass. The entire highway passes through the rugged terrain of KPK, twisting northeast along the bank of River Indus, and glides through the Karakoram and Pamir Mountains until it meets the Chinese section at Khunjerab Pass. The Chinese section of the highway continues further along the Pamir Mountains to Kashghar. The Karakoram Highway is called the Friendship Highway in China. Yet, due to its rugged terrain, high elevation, and hard conditions in which it was forced through, it is sometimes referred to as Eighths Wonder of the World.
The total length of the KKH is approximately 1300 (810 mi) km, with 887 km in Pakistan and 413 km in China Though the new route does not follow exactly the old silk route but the track follows mostly the same region so it can be said as revive of the old Silk Route. It is estimated that each kilometer constructed cost a labor, both Pakistani and Chinese. The Chinese workers who died during the construction are buried in the Chinese cemetery or China Yadgar in Danyore near Gilgit.
Historically the Karakoram Highway was a caravan trail – one of the several branches of the ancient Silk Route that has hosted traders, pilgrims, warriors, and common men for several centuries whose movement along the route brought about tremendous changes in social, cultural and economic aspects of the lives of residents.
Construction of the Highway
Long before the Karakoram Highway or the KKH was constructed the northern areas (now Gilgit-Baltistan) were attracted by the Russians, Chinese, and the British merely due to its strategic importance yet the access to the region was a sheer challenge. The British being in power during the 1800s decided to sustain their authority by building an all-weather communication infrastructure along the Indus. Materializing the idea was not an easy task though. The British simply improved an old Srinagar foot track into a mule track at the initial phase and later another seasonal passage was devised through Chilas over the Babusar Pass to connect to the Kaghan valley which hardly remained open for 3 months a year during summers.
Following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, the Srinagar road was blocked permanently. It was the time when the northern areas were divided into several states functioning under the local rulers. In the year 1958, to build an all-weather road link between Swat and Gilgit, Indus Valley Road (IVR) was conceived. Its construction was started as a joint venture of the two governments in 1959. In 1966, under a Sino-Pak agreement, the government decided to develop the IVR into the Karakoram Highway. Near the completion phase, the construction work was discontinued due to financial constraints when the war broke out between Pakistan and India in 1971 but the valuable assistance from China made it possible to carry on.
At the initial stage, the KKH was to construct from Thakot to the Khunjerab Pass and then to be linked to the highway on the Chinese side. But later the entrance was shifted from Thakot to Hasan Abdal and the project was completed in 1979. The highway was opened to the general public in 1986. During the course of construction, about 800 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly in landslides, yet the unofficial toll is believed to be much higher.
Reconstruction of the Karakoram Highway
In June 2006, a MoU was signed between Pakistan’s NHA and China’s CRBC to upgrade the KKH with overall width expansion from 10 to 30 meters to accommodate heavy-duty vehicles even in extreme weather conditions. However, the construction was carried out but the width remained almost the same as the original.
During the course of construction, the Attabad incident took place on 4 January 2010 when a section of the highway was damaged by a massive landslide in the Attabad valley of Hunza, about 19 kilometers upstream from Hunza’s capital of Karimabad,. The landslide shaped the 23 km long Attabad Lake, interrupted the flow of Hunza River and general travel along the Karakoram Highway. Construction of the tunnels through a revised 24 km long route began in July 2012 and was completed in September 2015. The realigned route through newly constructed 5 tunnels and a bridge restored the road link between Pakistan and China.
Socio-Economic Significance of the Highway
The entire region being mountainous the highway slashes through the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan come within 250 kilometers (160 mi) radius. Essentially because of the enormously complex Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, KKH has strategic and military significance to these nations, particularly Pakistan and China. The construction of Karakoram Highway has not only enriched trade and tourism between Pakistan and China but has contributed significantly to the improvement in living standards of the local population. CPEC is expected to bring enormous economic gains to the region but China and Pakistan are planning to link the Karakoram Highway to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese-aided Gwadar-Dalbandin railway, which extends to Rawalpindi.
Tourism Potential along the Karakoram Highway (KKH)
The Karakoram Highway has sought to receive international recognition and is now ranked as a niche adventure tourism destination. From Hassan Abdal (about 50kms from Rawalpindi city) the dual carriage asphalt ribbon leaves dusty plains of Punjab and enters through the lower Himalayas of Hazara district while heading north winding through several interesting natural and historic sites until the Pakistan section of the road meets the Chinese part at Khunjerab border in upper Hunza valley.
The Pakistani section of the highway is connected through more than 90 small and large bridges while making the way through the junction point of three mighty mountain ranges – the Karakorams, the Hindukush, and the Himalayas – and also the high Pamirs in Gilgit-Baltistan. From Hasan Abdal the highway winds through many beautiful spots up to Thakot where it meets the Indus River. The highway further traverses parallel to the Indus River for almost 300 km to the junction point and joined by the Gilgit River. The highway then passes through Gilgit after almost 40 km, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, where Gilgit River is joined by the Hunza River and continues through the valleys of Nagar and Hunza for another 280 km before it climbed to Khunjerab border.
The entire 887 km section of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan from the plains of Punjab to the culmination at the Khujerab border, the land is extremely diverse and rich in tourist attractions – from the272 BC edicts of Ashoka in Mansehra to the world’s highest metal border at Khunjerab Pass encompassing a blend of attractions including rocky and snow-crowned mountain peaks, glaciers and rivers, tiny mountain valleys and terraced fields, fruit laden orchards and serene pastures, hiking trails and challenging treks, the junction point of three mountain ranges in the world and the collision point of Eurasian and Indian plate, people with diverse cultural background speaking different languages and dialects, and the four distinct seasons manifesting a diverse range of natural colors. The Karakoram highway is a paradise for cyclists and bikers to explore thoroughly.
Major Attraction along the Karakoram Highway (KKH)
To begin with, the historic 4-yard thick and 16 yards high fortress in Haripur (Now serving as police station); then Major James Abbott’s historic city – Abbottabad; the 272 BC edicts of Ashoka of Maurya dynasty inscribed on three large boulders in Mansehra; more than 20,000 pieces of rock art and petroglyphs dating back to between 5000 and 1000 BC concentrated at ten major sites between Shaital and Hunza; access to Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat BC, stunning views of Nanga Parbat (The Killer mountain and 2nd highest in Pakistan 8,126m high); Junction point of three mountain ranges; Kargah Buddha and Henzal Stupa near Gilgit town; attractions in Gilgit city; Chinese Graveyard and ancient rock carvings in Danyore; Monument in Rahimabad; Collision point of Eurasian and Indian Plate near Chalt; Sections of ancient silk rote along the highway; Rakaposhi View Point; Altit Fort & Baltit Fort; Duikar; Karimabad town, Altit old settlements, and ancient village of Ganish; Haldikish; Attabad Lake and Borit Lake; Passu Cathedrals and Batura Glacier; scenic views of Rakaposhi, Diran, Golden Peak, and Lady Finger; Hoper valley and Hoper Glacier, Passu valley and glacier, and the tiny terraced valleys along the gorge leading to Khunjerab, and the Hunza River, Gilgit River and Indus River are all part of this beautiful journey.
The KKH was ranked as “third best tourist destination” in Pakistan by “The Guardian”. It provides mountaineers and cyclists easy access to the attractions along the highway including mountains, glaciers, and lakes and also to interact with people. The highway also provides access to the two major tourist destinations –Gilgit and Baltistan – which host the highest mountains and longest glaciers outside polar region besides manifesting wealth of attractions.
For travelers along the KKH, there are sufficient food and accommodation arrangements. The major stopovers recommended are at Besham, Chilas, Gilgit, Hunza, and Sust where tourists can find standard accommodation at a reasonable price. There are also several short excursions to the nearby mountains, glaciers, and valleys one can carry out between Gilgit and Khunjerab. The best time to travel along the KKH is between April and November. The border at Khunjerab remains closed from the end of November until the start of April every year.