The wonder, magic and everlasting beauty of the magnificent Karakoram Highway
The magnificent Karakoram Highway (KKH), also called Zhongba Gongolu roadway, connects Kashgar in the Western Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China, with Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. Famously known as the Silk Road or Silk route, it took almost 21 years for the highway to be completed. Starting from Hassan Abdal in Pakistan and passing through Haripur, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Besham, Dasu, Chilas, Jaglot, Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Sost and Khunjerab Pass it ends in Kashgar in China.
The highway extends for about 550 miles through some of the most rugged and inaccessible terrains of Asia, passing through the Pamir, Hindukush, Kunlun mountains and the Karakoram range. The highway threads its way through valleys around the towering peaks of the Sarikool range (at the juncture of Pamirs and Kunlun mountains) before crossing into the Northern Areas (in the Azad Jammu & Kashmir) at the Khunjerab (Kunjirap) Pass. The road then winds through deep valleys in the Karakoram mountains until it reaches the upper valley of River Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The construction of the KKH was a major joint venture between Pakistan and China that began in 1966-67 and was completed in 1977-78. The total length (as per official calculations) of the Karakoram Highway is approximately 1,300 kilometres, of which 887 kilometres is in Pakistan and 413 km, in China.
It required the skills of about 24,000 workers to complete this massive project. Mudslides, rock falls, avalanches and unforeseen movement of glaciers in the region were a constant danger throughout the construction. Even after its completion, the highway continued to require heavy maintenance. Over time, its construction has had a notable economic impact on the Uighur, Tajik, and Kyrgyz peoples who inhabit the mountainous region.
It was not an easy road to make. In fact, the entire world was surprised when it was finally completed, as at one time even the world’s largest companies had refused to take on the project. A European construction company reportedly declared the construction next to impossible after an aerial survey. Given the harsh weather, heavy snowfall and landslides, the construction of this road was a miracle made possible by Pakistan and China, says Amjad Walli, a retired engineer who was associated with KKH construction.
The construction of the KKH was a major joint venture between Pakistan and China that began in 1966-67 and was completed in 1977-78. The total length (as per official calculations) of the Karakoram Highway is approximately 1,300 km, of which 887 km is in Pakistan and 413 km, in China.
This majestic joint venture was once called a killer project. According to a survey, 810 Pakistanis and 82 Chinese lost their lives during its construction. Around 8,000 tonnes of dynamite was used to cut the hard and rocky crate of the KKH and 30 million pieces of rocky mountains were cut down. Flowing along the KKH from Thakot, the Indus River turns towards Skardu. The area of Kohistan begins after Thakot, where water descends from distant heights.
As Kohistan ends, Chilas region begins. It consists of rocky mountains. The district of Chilas is an important area in Dia Mira, also known as the entrance to Gilgit-Baltistan. Chilas can also be reached from Naran via Babu Sir Top. After Chilas, the Highway circles around Nanga Parbat before making its way to Raikot bridge. This is where jeeps are rented to visit Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat base camp. A highlight of Jaglot is that the world’s three largest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram, meet here. No other place in the world offers such an amazing spectacle. From here one can reach Naltar, Ashkuman, Ghizer and Shandur by jeep. Beyond Gilgit begins the Nagar area, best known for Raka Pushi peak. One can see this gigantic peak from several places on the Karakoram Highway. Nagar and Hunza lie on both sides of the Highway. The areas of Hunza and Nagar are marked by high peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and magnificent rivers. Rakaposhi, Ultar, Batura, Kanyang Kush, Dastgil Sar, and Pasu are prominent mountains of this area. The last station of Karakoram Highway in Pakistan is located near Khunjarab at an altitude of 4,693 metres, making it the highest highway in the world.
Khunjarab features some animals not found anywhere else in the country. These include snow leopards, marmots, bears, yaks and markhors. The area has a fair share of rocky and barren mountain ranges and giant snowy peaks. There is an abundance of rivers, waterfalls, pastures, and glaciers. KKH is not just a road, it is a gateway to heaven.
Tourists now prefer to travel using the Highway. “We had an option to visit the Northern Areas by air but we preferred to go by road through the magnificent KKH and we were fascinated”, says Mariama, an EU citizen who travelled with a five-member group. “We would have missed the eighth wonder of the world if we hadn’t travelled via the KKH,” says a US national J Watson, who travelled along with his family.
The writer is an international tourism/ travel consultant and freelance journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]