The Karakoram Highway
When I tell people that my favorite country thus far has been Pakistan, I often receive horrified stares, as if I’ve just admitted that I enjoy licking squirrels or pooping in jam jars. But what people don’t realize is that Pakistan is more than just embassy raids and Taliban adventures—it’s home to breathtaking geological beauty, scintillating culture, and one of the greatest, most ‘undiscovered’ travel highlights of the world: a road trip along the Karakoram Highway.
The story of the Karakoram Highway starts over 80 million years ago, with a small island chain called Tethys adrift in the vast, primordial ocean. Tethys met a violent end when the tectonic plate of the Indian subcontinent detached from Gondwanaland, drifted into Tethys, and then smashed it into the subcontinent of Laurasia, tipping the island chain on its side, crushing it to shards of rubble, and then spewing the detritus skywards, creating the mighty Karakoram Range. Today it remains an active tectonic zone, elevating the north of Pakistan by five centimeters every year.
The Karakoram is the world’s densest concentration of high peaks and glaciers, and one of the world’s most visually stunning mountainscapes—abundant deposits of shale and granite form sharp, jagged structures like shards of broken glass, making the tallest of Alps look like dinky, little Fisher-Price mountains. For serious outdoor junkies, trekking the Karakoram and glimpsing K2 (the world’s second highest and most dangerous peak) is the mountaineering equivalent to getting wild felatio from Sara Underwood, in a spaceship.
Through the heart of this geological carnage runs the Karakoram Highway, tracing Marco Polo’s footsteps along the Silk Road—the ancient trade route that spanned the Orient, linking the imperial dynasties of Peking with the coffers of the Roman Empire. At the trade route’s heart lied the Karakoram, a pivotal crossroad between Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East; the artery through which spread three great faiths—Buddhism to the north, Islam to the east, and pasta to the west.
My journey up the Karakoram Highway had a much more practical reason than sightseeing; after a lengthy CIA interrogation and several whimsical near-death experiences, my merry Pakistan vacation had come to an end and I was ready to flee to China.
I met Mike Spencer Bown in Lahore, a fellow traveller on an epic twenty-one year mission to be the first person to extensively travel every country on the globe. As we were both heading in the same direction, we decided to team up for the Karakoram.
Our first stop was the former mountain kingdom of Hunza. The Karakoram is a dizzying cultural tapestry of twenty-four independent mountain kingdoms, each with their own language and culture, developed in isolation, but influenced by the Silk Road traders, the foreign invaders, the Hans, the Huns, the Afghans, the Arabs, the Mughals, the Mongols, the Kushans, the Pashtuns, and the British.
Baltit Fort holds prime real estate above Karimabad, the former capital of Hunza. Hunza was perhaps the most unpopular of the Silk Road kingdoms, due to their habit of raping and plundering all those who passed.
Technically, the Karakoram region is not territory of Pakistan, but an international No-Man’s-Land: when the British partitioned India, the governor of Kashmir (who was Hindu) was given the unenviable task of deciding whether Kashmir would be part of Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan. For two months he stalled. Would he pander to his own religious self-interest by joining India? Or would he respect his predominantly Muslim subjects by ceding to Pakistan? Or, would he find the bravery and honor to stand up with separatists and demand an independent nation of Kashmir?
He sided with India.
The people of Kashmir stormed Srinagar and India and Pakistan went to war…
…When the dust settled, Kashmir remained India’s, except for a consolatory sliver that was handed over to Pakistan, along with the Karakoram Territories and an emphatic “Maybe next time.” The terms of the ceasefire also stipulated that until a vote was cast for the people of Kashmir to decide, Kashmir wouldn’t *officially* belong to anyone. There has yet to be such a vote, and considering that India possesses enough nuclear weaponry to turn Pakistan into a glassy plain, there probably will never be a vote.
Pakistan remains patient though, maintaining that Kashmir still belongs to no one. Accordingly, the same applies to the Karakoram Areas—accepting the Karakoram as part of Pakistan would be accepting the treaty. Accepting the Karakoram would be accepting that Kashmir belongs to India. Accepting the Karakoram would be accepting defeat.
When the treaty was signed, Pakistan closed all passes to Kashmir and the Karakoram, and for the proceeding decades the Karakoram region fell into a state of isolation, cut off from the rest of Pakistan.
As if matters couldn’t get worse for the people of the Karakoram, the government of Pakistan deprives them the right to vote. Perhaps it’s karma after centuries of harassing the Silk Road. Either way, the people of the north are still really, super pissed off about it and many don’t consider themselves Pakistani. Instead, they remain subjects to the local mir of their mountain kingdoms.
Trekking is Pakistan’s top draw card and as you travel along the Karakoram Highway, you can feel the presence of the tourism industry (i.e. we saw three other white people there).
We attempted two treks; both were spectacular; both went terribly awry. This was the first of the treks, when we hiked up to a high altitude meadow, only to discover that the only guesthouse had gone out of business, leaving us stranded on the mountain with no food or shelter.
As is the theme of travel in Pakistan, the hospitality of its people never fails to surprise you. A local shepherd lent us his tent, cooked up a pot of chai, and shared his last piece of naan with us for dinner. Supplemented by a handful of dried apricots Mike had in his pocket, this was our only sustenance for twenty-four hours.
As spectacular as the geological and cultural offerings may be, one of the greatest attractions is the highway itself.
Linking Islamabad in Pakistan with Kashgar in China, the Karakoram Highway is one of the most epic building projects since the Great Wall, snaking 1,200km through the Karakoram and Pamir Mountains, and demonstrating the grand vision and disregard for life that exemplifies Chinese engineering. An average of one worker died for every kilometer of road, due to landslides, heat, winter, accidents, and working in such a nightmarishly inhospitable terrain.
We hadn’t even driven two hours north of Hunza before the road abruptly vanished into a massive lake. Evidently highway maintenance is a war of attrition, as nature constantly reclaims the road. We later learned that a landslide in 2010 dammed the river, transforming the entire valley into a massive, high altitude lake.
We were herded out of the bus and onto a boat carrying chickens, boxes, and women in veils, which ferried us for one hour to the road on the other side of the lake.
The proliferation of shale around Passu manifests itself in ethereal spires and cones, creating an almost fantasy, Tolkien-esque mountainscape. Add to this fact that bearded, robed Pashtuns are reminiscent of Gandalf, and women in black burqas kind of look like Ring Wraiths, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d somehow slipped into Middle Earth.
One of the most dangerous moments of my trip occurred on our second trek. We attempted to hike around Zard Sar (Yellow Top) Mountain, but by late afternoon, the sun was fading, we could see a storm approaching, and we’d barely made it half way around the mountain. Perhaps we’d followed the wrong path…
Enter this guy, who lived in a hut with his goats on the far side of Passu glacier. After trying to lure us into his hut for tea, he told us that Passu was two hours away—just climb straight over the mountain.
We made it about four-fifths to the top before the terrain crumbled into loose, treacherous scree. The final ascent was a breathless, white-knuckle scramble—make one false step and down the mountain you fall.
We later learned that a few years back, a tourist had fallen to his death attempting this climb.
Atop Zard Sar, we found a sprawling, windswept plateau, carpeted with tiny marine fossils and dwarfed, high altitude wildflowers.
From Passu, the road strikes north for the highest cluster of peaks, traversing the 5,000-meter Khunjerab Pass into Central Asia.
From the Khunjerab, the highway descends through the Pamir Mountains to the steppes of Xinjiang.
In the shadow of Mt. Muztagh Ata, Mike and I were invited to stay with a Kyrgyz family in their Yurt—an experience that proved fascinating, eye-opening, evocative, cold, wet, sort of awkward, and unforgettable.
While Xinjiang belongs to China, it has more culturally in common with the ‘Stans of Central Asia—a land of Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks; yurts, yoghurt, and obligatory mutton three times a day.
Waking up early, we set off for our last day on the highway. Slicing through the Pamirs, the mountains slowly diminished, degrading from black granite to red sandstone, until they vanished into the sands of the Great Taklamakan Desert. Mud mosques appeared, and signs scrawled in Uighur and Mandarin Chinese too, as the highway unfurled across the desert like a red carpet. Green shimmered on the horizon, blooming into a verdant oasis, and by mid-afternoon, the Silk Road city of Kashgar appeared before us like a mirage.
Welcome to China.
For more photos and videos, click the Photo Travelogue tab at the top of this page.
For an ill-fated travel tale involving the mountain tribes of Burma, check out the story “The Wrong Pancake“
For more information about the Uighur people of Xinjiang, watch the Wednesday Wandering video “The Former Nation of East Turkestan”