Featured Image: Nanga Parbat, the ‘Killer Mountain’ 8126 metres, from Fairy Meadow, 1995
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 2 April 2021
This is the first article in travelling the Karakorum Highway series. The others are: 2 The Lower Karakorum Highway, 3 Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain, 4 Extreme Polo in Gilgit, 5 The Hunza Valley, 6 Rain, Danger Sust, 7 Passu Paradise. The Kashgar Sunday Market article is also relevant.
The Karakorum Highway (KKH) in 1995
The Karakorum Highway (KKH) runs from around Rawalpindi in Pakistan to Kashgar in China a distance of about 1300 km, through some of the highest mountains and deepest valleys in the world.
The KKH is sometimes called the eighth wonder of the world as a tribute to the engineering feat when it was constructed. Like similar roads in similar regions, for example Nepal and China, the KKH requires extensive maintenance to keep it open. Nowadays, in China there are endless spectacular engineering feats, high bridges and roads that make the KKH seem old-fashioned.
The KKH threads its way through a ‘knot’ of four great mountain ranges: the Pamir, the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush and the [western edge] of the Himalayas, all of them part of the vast collision zone between [the Asian and the Indian tectonic plates]. (Lonely Planet)
The highest peaks near the KKH are Nanga Parbat (Himalaya 8126 metres or 26,660 feet), Rakaposhi (Karakorum 7790 m), Batura Peak (Karakorum 7785) Mt Kongur (Pamir 7719), un-named peak at the head of the Passu Glacier (Karakorum 7611), Muztagh Ata (Pamir 7546), Malabiting (Karakorum 7450), Haramosh (Karakorum 7400), Ultar Peak (Karakorum 7388).
There are many others slightly lower. In the Northern Areas of Pakistan there are about three dozen peaks over 7000 metres. K2 (Karakorum 8611 m or 28,250 feet), the second highest mountain in the world, near Skardu is not far from Gilgit in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
The Karakorum has four glaciers over 50 km long. One the Batura comes down to the KKH at Passu.
The KKH road links Pakistan and China around the Khunjerab Pass (4730 m or 15,520 feet). The pass is open theoretically from 1 May to 31 December, but this of course varies.
From Abbotabad on, the KKH winds mostly through narrow gorges on the Hunza, Gilgit and Indus rivers, which flow into one another down from the Khunjerab Pass. There are many bridge crossings across seemingly endless tributaries. The deepest and narrowest gorges are on the road from Abbottabad to Gilgit. The gorges open out somewhat above Gilgit. The climate at the bottom of the gorges is unbelievably hot and oppressive in summer.
‘It is like an oven’ said the gloomy bank manager from Dasu who travelled with us on a ‘Wagon’. The heat radiates from the cliffs thousands of feet above and is reflected down into the bottom of the valley. Although heat rises, it does not rise quickly enough. We met some walkers who had walked down from Fairy Meadow near Nanga Parbat base camp to the Raikot Bridge. The soles of their boots had melted on the black rocks. They regretted not paying for the jeep.
On the Chinese side the mountains are more rounded and the landscape mostly a rolling plateau with broad valleys.
Construction of the Karakorum Highway (KKH)
Despite the fanfare surrounding the current Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi’s strategic and economic plan, the KKH shows that the Chinese were thinking of this a long time ago.
The Lowy Institute in 2017 says that the Belt and Road Initiative is primarily directed at China’s neighbouring countries, but is also motivated by domestic economic challenges. It is perhaps ironic that close and distant parts of the initiative outside China are perhaps being stymied by China’s own aggressive external foreign policy and its treatment of Hong Kong and the Uyghur population in Xinjiang (the terminus of the KKH). See my article on the Kashgar Sunday Market.
The Karakorum Highway known by its initials KKH or N-35 (National Highway 35 in Pakistan), also known as the Friendship Highway within China, was begun in 1959 in a warming of relations between the two countries. The KKH was opened to the public in 1979, but on the Chinese side the Ghez River canyon road-cuts and bridges were only completed in 1988 and paving completed in 1989. Maintenance is a huge and endless job.
We came back from Kashgar with a young Scottish engineer, who was working on cliff stabilisation in Hong Kong. I remember asking about how to do the same thing on the KKH. He just shook his head. Cliffs in Hong Kong and Australia are manageable. On the KKH, there is nothing you can do. The cliffs and also the mountains above them are just too formidable. The endless erosion fans going down towards the rivers and on any flat plateaus highlight the problem.
The Pamir in contrast is a range of rounded mountains with broad flat valleys nearly as high as the lower peaks and perhaps better described as a plateau. Hence, while technically difficult and also requiring endless maintenance, the terrain is much more forgiving than on the Pakistani side.
The road on the Pakistan side reminds me slightly of parts of the road between Kathmandu and Pattale that runs along the Sunkoshi River. The latter was constructed by the Japanese in recent years. When the bridges weren’t complete one had to divert up into the hills on precarious dusty roads for kilometres to circumvent the chasm. The technical problems are similar to the KKH. Although the gorge in Nepal is much broader and the cliffs less high, the endless tributaries and bridges are very similar. (See Pattale to Pikey Peak and Pattale to Juke.)
The workforce in Pakistan at any one time was about 15,000 Pakistanis and 9000 to 20,000 Chinese, with the Chinese working from the north and the Pakistanis from the south. About 810 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese lost their lives, mostly in landslides and rock falls. The highest toll was in Indus-Kohistan (lower KKH). Although it is rumoured that the Chinese toll was much higher and that bodies were repatriated covertly to China. About 140 Chinese workers are buried in the Gilgit cemetery.
All the 100 or so bridges from Khunjerab to Thakot were made by the Chinese. The face-saving official assertion that the Pakistanis did the rest ignores an almost total Chinese effort in Gojal and the Khunjerab (above Karimabad).
Recent Upgrade of the KKH
In 2006 an agreement between Pakistan and China was signed to rebuild and upgrade the Karakorum Highway. In 2010 a massive landslide closed the KKH 15 km above Karimabad creating a 22 km potentially unstable Attabad Lake. For a time the KKH was closed except for goods and people transfer on small boats. From 2012 a revised higher route began with five new tunnels and two new bridges. It was completed in 2015.
As part of a 2016 agreement, a USD $46 billion Economic Corridor for reconstructing and upgrading the KKH was set up. The work is now underway (costing $62 billion in 2020).
Historical Summary of the KKH Area
The Lonely Planet 1993 Guide to the KKH provides the following potted history of events relevant to the KKH region:
There are many relevant books on the KKH region, which I’ll introduce gradually in this series of articles. Those relevant to this particular article are in order:
1 John King Karakorum Highway: the High Road to China Lonely Planet 1993.
John King’s survival guide was a godsend to us without it we wouldn’t have done half the things we did. Reading between the lines John King was especially fond of the Alai Valley a rarely visited place. We loved our time there and thank him for it. The locals were armed to the teeth but fortunately very friendly.
In the Alai Valley in 1995 we asked whether they had many visitors, the reply was enlightening: ‘Yes, many. We had two Americans last year.’
On a walk we had tea and chatted to an assistant pharmacist. He kept talking about King John and we were somewhat surprised about delving into British history, until we finally twigged he was talking about John King. Somewhat apt we thought.
On the negative side, we found at Passu John King’s notes for the Yunz Valley trail were hopeless. Someone sarcastically noted that he was rumoured to have a gammy leg and hadn’t walked the trails himself. In the history of the British in the region, one frequently comes across negative or slighting comments about some of the various characters often by others at the time or by historians. It seems that the character assassination of social media came early to the Karakorum.
2 William Dalrymple In Xanadu: A Quest 1989
I read this book many years ago when it first came out. My interest in Hunza was all ready deep-seated and I knew about the KKH, but Dalrymple’s book was an inspiration to do something. At the time the author was only 22 and we were intensely jealous. Reading the book, one’s views of Laura his initial companion are negative, whereas Louisa is treated more kindly.
Continuing on the theme of negativity. I was in India in 2006 when The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 came out in 2006. Hindu academics were outraged at the new information Dalrymple had uncovered in the Delhi archives. They complained that he knew a little known language (Urdu) and that it was unfair!
3 Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier: Five Years’ Experiences and adventures in Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Chitral and the eastern Hindu-Kush, 1899
I reread Durand and some other books while writing this article. Durand’s book is a terrific description of the time and the country. He also details well the difficulty of upgrading the Kashmiri military, when he was agent at Gilgit and the important conflicts that arose at the time. I include a link below to downloading a free copy of the book. More in later articles.
In my next article I’ll write about our trip and the highlights in more detail. It was an extended visit to the Northern Areas of Pakistan and worth chronicling.
I’d always been fascinated by Hunza and Nagar kingdoms when I first heard about them in 19th century British colonial writings. Although not in Tibet, they symbolised a sort of Shangri-La, beautiful, remote and exotic. Subsequently, I’d heard about the Karakorum Highway or KKH and thought it would be marvellous to travel up it to China.
Why write about a trip that was undertaken in 1995? The highway hadn’t been open to tourists that long. Much of the trip was difficult or dangerous after 2001 because of Taliban activities in northern Pakistan, particularly in the Swat Valley and adjacent areas.
The towns mentioned have changed and grown in the intervening years. Many of them will be unrecognizable. The destination Kashgar is no longer remote. The old town and its famous Sunday market have been virtually destroyed. The Chinese regime is reluctant to allow free travel within Xinjiang, because of its draconian suppression of the Uyghur.
1995 was a more innocent era in some ways, we need to remember and not lose reminders of our recent past.
Most people go up the Karakorum Highway in about two weeks and then travel on. We went up the KKH to Kashgar and returned by roughly the same route, taking over 2 months. The return trip should be about 2600 kilometres, but we took many side diversions and the trip was subsequently much longer in time and distance.
We began our trip up the KKH in Taxila (37 km from Rawalpindi), with its magnificent museum and ruins, on 4 May 1995. We were in Gilgit from 18 to 27 May. We arrived next at Karimabad in the Hunza Valley on 27 May. The weather was beautiful and Hunza was every bit as magical as I’d expected. We’d have stayed longer but on 30 May it turned rainy and cold and we left next day for the Pakistani border post at Sost. It had also rained for a couple of days during our time in Gilgit.
At Sost buses had left for China that day but had ended hemmed by landslides and rockfalls front and back. The border had been closed for a week. We’d experienced late snows earlier in the Kaghan Valley on the lower KKH. We were only stuck in Sost for two nights and arrived in Tashkurgan on 2 June. We stayed in Kashgar from 3 to 12 June and returned to Pakistan.
We finished our journey off the KKH between Mingora in the Swat Valley and Peshawar on the plains, 48°C when we arrived.
The Swat Valley was Taliban territory from 2007 to 2009. The Pakistan army launched a full-scale military operation against the Pakistani Taliban and announced its successful end in 2018.
I’ll finish by mentioning the difficulties of travel on the KKH. The food situation has probably improved, as perhaps has the risk of gastro problems.
Difficulties of Travel on the KKH
The KKH is officially open on 1 May but as mentioned above this is dependent on snow, landslides, rock falls and other factors.
Food and Gastric Troubles
Food after Taxila and the lower KKH was an issue. It was in general extremely variable and the hygiene frequently appalling. We survived on a vegetarian diet with occasional meat (mainly chicken sometimes mutton/goat), daal, chapatis or nan and whatever else could be gotten. We sought out yoghurt but it was frequently suspect and often dodgy.
In Gilgit, because climbers passed through, some Western supplies were available, such as peanut butter. The unbaked nan was pierced with a bunch of chicken quills bound together.We became addicted to eating nan straight out of the tandoor with peanut butter at Haidry’s tea stall. There were no fresh vegetables ever. Because Denise and I were on the road for such a long time in Pakistan, we got very thin and were often sick, despite being very careful about hygiene and the water.
It was a huge relief to get to China and to eat fresh vegetables (despite how they were grown) and quality meat. This is not a criticism of the Northern Areas. Transport of food was difficult. Tourism was limited compared with India.
For the locals themselves, the food supply was precarious. When we stayed in Chalt, we admired the fields of fresh beans and other vegetables, but couldn’t get any to eat. The local children said everything had to be dried for the winter.
The situation for the locals in Gilgit , and outside Gilgit in Hunza and Nagar, Punial and Yasin, seemed much the same as described by Algernon Durand in the 1890s.
The situation has probably improved today, but may not have for the locals.
It had rained for a day or so while we were in Gilgit. Rain is dangerous in the Northern Areas, because it loosens rocks and boulders far up mountain slopes.
We walked along an irrigation canal on the edge of the Gilgit valley, quite warily after the rain.
Earlier when we left Besham we’d been joined in the wagon by a young couple, an American boy and Canadian girl. She was beautiful, but had shaved her hair perhaps a sensible thing to do in Pakistan. She had the most stunning blue eyes. He was dressed in a khaki shalwar kameez quite nicely tailored and she wore a long loose scarf, baggy cotton pants over an over-sized t-shirt. Respectable dress for Pakistan. They opted to ride on the roof of the van on the wooden luggage boards. But, later the van stopped and the driver made them get inside, and shortly after small rocks began raining down upon the roof with a larger one occasionally.
I suspected that a single rock on the head was probably the major cause of death in the Northern Areas, both today and historically, more so than landslides or snow avalanches.
Algernon Durand speaks of huddling in a small cave when caught out by a cliff at nightfall on a hunting trip, having avoided being ambushed and killed by Chilasis:
All night long above us we heard the roar of small stone avalanches, followed by silence as the stones shot into space a thousand feet above, and then by the rattle and crash as they struck the stream bed.
We heard this quite vividly in the Kaghan Valley above Naran.
Key Words: KKH, Karakorum Highway, Rawalpindi, Kashgar, Pakistan, China, Pamir, Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Himalaya, collision zone, tectonic plates, Nanga Parbat, Muztagh Ata, K2, Taxila, Abbottabad, Kaghan Valley, Alai Valley, Besham, Chilas, Fairy Meadow, Gilgit, Chalt, Karimabad, Hunza, Nagar, Sost, Khunjerab Pass, John King, Lonely Planet Guide 1993, William Dalrymple, In Xanadu, Algernon Durand, The Making of a Frontier, Tashkurgan, Passu, Swat Valley, Chitral, food, gastric troubles, falling rocks, landslides, avalanches
Karakorum Highway General
Basic information on the KKH in earlier sections is mostly from the Lonely Planet Guide and Wikipedia.
Information from dangerous roads.
Information from bucketlistly.
Belt & Road Initiative
Lowy Institute 2017 on the Belt & Road Initiative
Information on Eid al-Fitr
William Dalrymple In Xanadu
For a good copy of Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier 1899 go to the Books category on Mumtaz Hussain’s wonderful site Mahraka on the Cultural, History and Languages of Chitral and the local region based in Chitral. The books and articles are a wonderful selection of historical 19th C British Colonial history and other wonderful things!
Taliban in the Swat Valley
Danyor Suspension Bridge
Wikipedia on the Danyor Suspension Bridge. I remember crossing the bridge on a motorbike. The worst bit was entering the tunnel. The claustrophobic nature of the mud walls and the terror of hoping a truck wasn’t coming the other way.
Posted in Canberra
Thank you Tony. I loved reading this. Was unaware you had done this trip, and Denise. I am amazed. Now hoping to find a copy of In Xanadu on Amazon ASAP!!!
Thanks Teresa. Good to know that you don’t know everything about us! In Xanadu is a great read. Will reveal more in future articles.
An excellent article. How I wish to travel this route! I doubt that I will ever make the trip so I certainly enjoyed traveling this route by way of your experiences. I was last Xinjiang province in 2018 and it was oppressive and movement strictly monitored. I doubt if one could travel onto Pakistan from Kashgar now.
Thanks Lesley. Now that I’ve started I intend to write some more about our trip and the KKH.
I don’t envy you travelling in Xinjiang in 2018 and suspect it is even worse now. We didn’t realise how lucky we were to visit Tashkurgan and Kashgar in 1995 as also outlined in my Kashgar Sunday Market (https://breadtagsagas.com/kashgar-sunday-market/) article. The Karakorum Highway was marvellous in 1995.
At the moment I’m not sure if you are able to travel through to China from Pakistan but I haven’t been able to ascertain this. I did talk to a couple called Lost With Purpose who did the trip in 2017. They have published a 2021 update, but I’m not sure if their information is current.
All the best
Thanks for this wonderful overview Tony. While we travelled to Kashgar by road from Kyrgyzstan and then on east, we have never travelled the Karakorum HIghway. Very envious.
Thanks Peggy. It was an amazing trip and a more innocent world then. I’m not sure you can travel through to China at the moment, but hopefully things will open up again sometime in the future.
Thank you Tony, for making the marvellous Karakorum Highway route so ‘tangible’ for those of us less inclined to risk life and limb to visit such remote and rugged places. Your descriptions indicate how active is the mountain geology underlying the KKH, and how the residents must ‘dance’ with its precarious environment if they are to survive.
You referred to the Taliban’s presence on your travel route, and given your observation of how tough the human cultures have to be in northern Pakistan, I suppose it’s no surprise to you that the Taliban have in the last few days retaken Afghanistan.