As the road wound uphill, the sultry weather made way for cool, fresh air. After months of sweating in cotton shirts, we changed our gear to fleece jackets, socks and hiking boots. As we checked off the big, chaotic cities of Abbottabad and Mansehra, more of Pakistan’s northern wilderness opened up. Towering rock walls limited our views to what was in front of us until, after a curve, valleys suddenly appeared in view, after which the mountains closed in again. Below the road a river thundered, and basic, flat-roofed houses of mud and brick clung precariously to mountain slopes prone to landslides.
The Karakoram Highway (also known as the KKH) is an impressive feat of engineering. Called the Friendship Road by the Chinese, it was built in the sixties and seventies to connect Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, with Kashgar in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. The 800-mile road runs through the practically uninhabited mountain ranges that meet here: the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindukush. Construction and maintenance of the KKH have cost the lives of many road workers, and even today the road is not without danger because of landslides and falling rocks.
Yet, to travelers the Karakorum calls out: “Drive me, explore me; marvel at my views! Stop for a hike through villages, across a glacier or climb a summit. And don’t forget to stop at Chilas, to study drawings that were carved in my rocks thousands of years ago!”
Amidst a landscape of gray and brown stone, the town of Gilgit offers everything travelers, hikers and mountaineers need. It has hotels and guesthouses, shops for second-hand hiking gear, a market to stock up on fresh supplies, and restaurants serving Pakistan’s popular karai dish, a stir-fry of meat with lots of spices, eaten with naan. After two intense days on the road we took a break here, strolled along the streets, watched polo matches, and planned the next phase of our journey.
The road meandered further north. We met few other travelers. Mountains rose higher and higher, their flanks covered with patches of snow that would stay throughout the summer. Along the side of the road people were drying apricots on flat stones or on baskets; they are a nutritious food to help the inhabitants through the winter. Karimabad is by far the most scenic town along the KKH. It is a popular tourist destination because it serves as a base for treks, such as the two-day hike we went on from Karimabad’s famous Baltic Fort to Ultar Meadows.
A bit farther north we thought we would have to turn back: a wall of snow was blocking the road. However, locals had already created a bypass and so we shook and bounced over a rough section and turned up the main road again. By the same token the road may be closed all of a sudden due to landslides or floods. Always calculate extra time when traveling the KKH!
We stopped at Borith Lake, just south of Passu, another popular place to hike or get a feel for the famous Hunza way of life. The Hunza people are known for, among other things, their longevity. Driving the KKH is as much about driving the section itself as getting out of your car and exploring on foot. So also here we wandered through the village, where houses alternated with vegetable gardens and children frolicked in the street while yaks lazed in the adjacent dry riverbed.
Rivers raged through ravines interspersed with wide valleys, where green vegetation suddenly flourished. The last stretch, up to the Chinese border, is arguably the most bewitching, running through Khunjerab National Park. The road snaked higher and stopped being asphalt when it had to find its way through a so-called snow canyon – a narrow section through ‘walls’ of meters-high snow. The snow canyon had been created only days earlier; it was the beginning of May and we were the first travelers to drive here that year. Not much later we stood on the highest border crossing in the world, at 15,400 foot: the Khunjerab Pass.
Article by Karin-Marijke Vis.