The absolute jewel of Pakistan on the intersection of four mountain ranges - from Lahore to China's Xinjiang province
We strongly believe that the Karakoram/Karakorum Highway simply is one of the best journeys in Asia or in the entire world for that matter. By implication, any serious traveler should consider to prioritize this journey once (or twice or thrice or…) in their lifetime.
This is a rather daring postulate. We have spent a month on the KKH and here is how we've gotten to this conclusion: With the world’s highest concentration of lofty peaks and long glaciers we saw some of the most mind-bending mountain scenery anywhere.
The whole Karakoram region is a geographical vortex between the Central Asian desert and the plains of Pakistan. It lies right in the middle of the collision zone of the Pamir, Kunlun, Hindukush, and Great Himalaya mountain systems, while China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan all come within 250km of each other.
Not surprisingly, the region is super rich with natural beauty and cultural diversity. It's a melting pot of experiences.
Location: Northern Pakistan, during 1 month
The route is not a superhighway (as the title suggests). Rather it is a series of smaller high roads following a branch of the ancient Silk Road that travels from Rawalpindi and Islamabad in Pakistan to the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar in China’s rural Xinjiang province via the 4.730m Khunjerab Pass, the mythical Hunza Valley and the trading post of Gilgit.
Despite half a dozen of languages, the entire region has sort of an identity of its own, defined by Islamic faith (many Shia and Ismaili), commerce, a demanding environment to live in, and a sense of alienation from greater China or Pakistan.
Travel is cheap. Going overland the entire 1300km can cost less than US$200 (a bit more as we prioritized semi-technical trekking along the way), and it took us one month. One thing Karakoram Highway travel doesn’t have, however, is predictability. In July and August, we experienced several unplanned delays due to rock falls, floods and mud. A too fixed schedule would have made us frustrated.
On a note, many westerners have exaggerated fears of travel in Pakistan, and of Islamic fundamentalism. During this journey, we chose to dress conservatively in shalwar kameez and we cultivated a beard to avoid insults to Islamic sensibilities. In return, we experienced repeatedly the true Islamic tradition of hospitality, which made this journey a pleasure.
For even more mountain-madness in Pakistan check our mountaineering in the Hunza Valley. For other travels into the Himalayas on the Subindian Continent check our travels on the Hippy Trail into the Western Indian Himalayas and our exploration of the Eastern Indian Himalayas and Bhutan.
Selected pics during this encounter:
We traveled overland from New Delhi and here we arrive on the border with Pakistan to experience the quite outlandish Wagah Border ceremony. Patriotic throngs flock here to participate in the spectacle while sceaming: Pakistan zindabad! Long live Pakistan!
Lahore is widely regarded as Pakistan's gourmet capital, and most menus are distinctly tailored to suit carnivorous palates.
In both Lahore and Islamabad we slept on the roof of our hostel. It was more cool during the night, and we had an amazing view. We could see that many local workers also sleep outside as many do not have money to pay rent.
A kaleidescope of people and merchandise
Many lovely inexpensive curry and kebab stands to fill your stomach
Buying kebabs for the bus journey on the first leg on the KKH.
Leaving Pir Wadhai bus station bound for Hazara and Indus Kohistan in the North-West Frontier Province
Village near Mansehra. This is a region of forested mountains with a series of broad, fertile valleys.
Stop here to do some trekking. The natural boundaries are the Indus River and the peaks of the Lesser Himalaya. There is a string of nice villages along the river where Hindko and Gujar people live.
The bus is starting to get into problems due to overheating of the engine. This happened several times and eventually the bus would simply give up and break down. Notice the vegetation to the left of Cristoffer. This is hamp (hashish) plants which grow freely in many parts of northern Pakistan.
...simply to kill time while taking a break
The beautiful Alai Valley is a conservative place with Pathan people who are instinctively hospitable.
Only boys are learning English and the locals expect that you as a foreininger dress modestly (shalwar kameez) and show respect for their Sunni orthodoxy.
Cristoffer is sitting on the roof of a minibus which we switched into due to the break-down of the bigger bus that we intially boarded. Upper Kohistan is where the real mountains begin to show up. Several sub-6000m peaks begin to emerge in the upper Indus Kohistan valleys.
Bridge breakdown, past Dasu. We had to wait for nearly half a day between Dasu and Chilas due to a major landslide which had covered a bridge crossing the Indus River.
Beyond Chilas in the south of the Gilgit Region you will start to seriously feel majesty of the Karakoram range. As you arroach the Astor Valley on the KKH, the mighty Nanga Parbat will slip into view. Technically, Nanga Parbat is the end of the Great Himalaya, while on the other side to the west and north the Karakoram starts.
Anders with view over Gilgit town during sunrise
Gilgit is a charming town and a good place to stop for a few days to relax, arrange hikes, do some shopping for traveling onwards, etc.
Abricot drying in the Chaprot Valley near Chalt. Come here to do fine day walks and explore the scenery. You can walk along mule tracks throguh summer villages to pastures.
People here speak Shina, Burushashki and Urdu, which makes it a little difficuelt to communicate. We however managed to buy local produce from the locals. Who doen't like the tast of freshly made buttermilk in warm weather during a demanding hike?
Boy in Chalt. Past Chalt are a string of lovely small villages on the way into the Hunza valley: Khizerabad, Sikanderabad, Jaffarabad, Nilt, Thol, Ghulmet, Nasirabad, Hassanabad, and Ganesh. These are part of the natural beauty centerpiece of the KKH along the Hunza River as the mighty Hunza Valley opens up.