The Karakoram Highway (often abbreviated to KKH and sometimes transliterated as Karakorum) is the highest paved international road in the world; it connects Western China and Pakistan. It is one of the very few routes that cross the Himalayas and the most westerly of them. Historically, this was a caravan trail, one branch of the ancient Silk Road. From 1959 to 1979, the Chinese and Pakistani governments built a highway.
The highway has become an adventure tourism destination and ranked as the third best tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian newspaper. It is the highest border crossing in the world, at an elevation of over 4,800 metres (roughly 16,000 feet) in the Khunjerab Pass at the border. For comparison, Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe, is 4810 m and Mount Whitney, the highest point in the 48 contiguous US states, is 4421 m.
It may be the ultimate challenge for the devoted cyclist. There are organised bicycle tours, and several books about bicycling this route. Although as travel to Pakistan has declined because of terrorist attacks, the number of tours has fallen. It is a trip that is possible to undertake independently, although consideration should be given to the heat and altitude if travelling unsupported.
The border is not open for cyclists. Instead, you can board the bus in either Tashkurgan (China) or Sost (Pakistan). From the Pakistani side you can cycle up to the pass, but not over it. You will have to return to Sost to take the bus!
- See also: Cycling in China
The highway runs roughly north-south across the Karakoram mountain range and through the Khunjerab Pass at the border. In Pakistan, it runs from Abbottabad to the border through the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. After the border, it runs across part of China's Xinjiang province to Kashgar.
Its construction was started as a joint project of the two governments in 1959 and completed in 1979; the highway was opened to the general public in 1986. About 800 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly in landslides and falls, while building the highway.
In China, the KKH is known as the "Friendship Highway". Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it has also been called the "Eighth Wonder of the World".
The Wakhan Corridor leads into the area from Bactria or central Afghanistan and historically this was a minor trade route. However, it is almost certainly not a feasible route today. It is in Afghanistan, which is a very dangerous country; the terrain is difficult, and there are neither good roads nor border posts where one could legally enter China or Pakistan.
The Karakorum Highway or KKH is a two-way all-weather road in Pakistan, except for the Khunjerab Pass which is closed from January through to April due to heavy snow. Landslides that can block the road for hours or more are common at some places during the monsoon season (Jul-Sep).
Some parts of the highway, e.g. the areas between Besham and Chilas in Pakistan and the desert areas on the Chinese side, are very hot during summer; the temperature can reach 45°C (113°F).
Taken together, these factors mean that the KKH is best travelled in the spring or early autumn.
You can travel by simply any means, cycle, buses, bike, car but the most used method is hopping on to vans which is affordable as well convenient. Some say it is one of the scariest roads in the world because of the potential steep falls of hundreds of metres off the unprotected road edge on one side with unstable mountains on the other side that are likely to cause landslides during harsh weather. Sometimes the road gets so narrow in some places that only one vehicle can pass at a time, while the other waits on the very narrow edge of the road. You'll see lots of wrecked heavy vehicles. Most of the treks are located on the Pakistani side.
If you wish to use the highway to cross borders, get the visa of the other country beforehand; otherwise, entry at the border will not be granted. Entry will not be granted to those on cycles. You must be transported on a motorised vehicle, so take a bus from a nearby town to cross this frontier.
Road condition edit
The state of the highway itself varies considerably over its 1300 km length. The road from Hassan Abdal starts off in good condition, however by the time the highway starts to climb in to the Kohistan district it deteriorates significantly. From roughly Besham to Chilas the road hugs the side of the river valley, with the raging Indus river below. The road is narrow and bumpy and is being actively worked on in places, with large and high consequence drops just off the edge of the road. Traffic travels at high speed, and accidents are common. Care should be taken on this section if you are driving or cycling. Work is being done as part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor to upgrade this section of the KKH, so the quality and width of the road should improve in the coming years.
After Chilas, the road surface dramatically improves and is mostly smooth asphalt or concrete all the way until the China border.
The highway on the Chinese side is generally good, although as of 2019 there are frequent and irritating road excavations to contend with after Tashkurgan. The landscape is also more plateau like on the Chinese side, so you mostly lack the perilous cliff edge situations you find on the Pakistani section.
Get in edit
The Pakistani section of the highway officially starts from Hasan Abdal, 50 km northwest of Rawalpindi, while the Chinese section starts from Kashgar, a major city in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Karakoram Highway is officially known as the N-35 in Pakistan; and China National Highway 314 (G314) in China.
Although the highway starts in Hasan Abdal, the usual jumping off point is Gilgit. In fact you can jump in from anywhere between. If you want to start from Gilgit, you can take a PIA flight from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan to Gilgit, the flight is simply unforgettable as the plane flies around Nanga Parbat as well as around K2, and you can see 82 peaks of Pakistan that are over 7,000 m.
For those wishing to start the journey from Hasan Abdal, take Pakistan's longest highway N-5 — which runs between the southern city of Karachi and the northwestern city of Peshawar — or the Grand Trunk Road; both pass through Hasan Abdal. The nearby major city is Rawalpindi. Air-conditioned buses bound for major cities such as Peshawar or northern cities of Abbotabad, and Mansehra are plentiful and can drop you at Hasan Abdal but charge full fare, whereas non-aircondioned buses and vans leave at intervals of no more than an hour from Rawalpindi. Some may not be very comfortable. A bus journey from Rawalpindi may take not more than 1 hr.
The itinerary is presented here from south to north because the majority of KKH falls in the south.
Hasan Abdal edit
The historical town of Hasan Abdal is the starting point of KKH and the only town of the Punjab that is on the highway. It is where the two famous historical roads, Grand Trunk Road and KKH meet each other.
The town has Gurdwara Panja Sahib, one of the holiest places in Sikhism and a popular pilgrimage site for Sikhs who visit the town from all over the world especially during the Besakhi season.
20 km to the east of Hasan Abdal is the fascinating ancient settlement of Taxila. It is one of the most important archaeological sites of South Asia and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Taxila is on the Grand Trunk Road and is worth visiting. It makes a great side trip with plenty of accommodation and eating options available as well having a direct road connected to Haripur.
The land of Pashtun, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, starts here as well the ascending to hilly area. Haripur is some 30 km north of Hasan Abdal and 40 km north of its nearby town of Taxila. The town can be reached either from Hasan Abdal or Taxila but of the two routes to Haripur, the one from Hasan Abdal is mostly used by buses due to its wideness and is more convenient.
Some 25 km north of Haripur is the town of Havelian, the original starting point of KKH. Other than road, Havelian is the only place on the KKH inside Pakistan served by train station as well. A non-air-conditioned train Hazara Express calls daily. Train originates from Karachi and through various major cities in Punjab reaches Havelian.
Abbottabad is a city in the Hazara region of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in northeastern Pakistan
Kaghan Valley (alternative) edit
Balakot > Kawai - Shogran > Paras - Sharan > Khanian - Kaghan > Naran > Babusar Pass >
Major town on the highway that was a historically important stop on the Silk Road, and nowadays serves as the administrative capital of Gilgit-Baltistan. This is a good place to stock up on supplies and get some rest. It is well connected with its airport and has bus connections to most places in Gilgit-Balitistan, as well as further afield such as Islamabad and Kashgar.
Capital of Hunza, with many accommodation options and the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative list site of Baltit fort.
The ancient capital of Upper Hunza (Gojal) is a fairly small town on the KKH. Some historic buildings can be seen in the old town, and the backdrop of large mountains is impressive (especially the views of Tupopdan). There are several hiking options here, including to the Gulmit and Ghulkin glaciers.
Formed by a landslide in 2010, this 21 kilometre lake submerge a section of the KKH for 5 years. Now a series of tunnels have been build adjacent to the flooded valley bottom. Caution should be taken as although the road is in good condition, the tunnels are sometime unlit. The longest is 3.3 kilometers, so cyclists should be especially careful. The lake itself has a striking turquoise colour and there are tourist attractions on the northern shore.
A small village at the foot of a huge glacier. With the best views of the iconic Mount Tupopdan, Passu is certainly worth a visit. The famous Glacier Breeze cafe and the Paasu suspension bridge are also worthy attractions.
The final town on the Pakistani stretch of the KKH. Here you will need to get your exit stamp and organise transport in to China.
Here lies the Pakistan - China border at an altitude of 4693m. The scenery along the KKH between here and Sost, through the Khunjerab National Park, is incredibly dramatic, although the pass itself can be a little underwhelming. It is not possible to cross the border here if you are on foot or bicycle, you must return to Sost and get a bus.
Stay safe edit
The Karakoram Highway lies in one of the safer parts of Pakistan, but expect inhospitable terrain. The more you go north, the safer it becomes, especially between Gilgit and the border pass. South of Gilgit, the population becomes increasingly Pushtun-dominated and is likewise influenced by the situation in the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in particular the area around Abbotabad. If you're very much concerned about your safety, it is advisable to directly fly from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu and focus on the upper reaches of the KKH.
General unrest, displeasure with the local police, government or local politics can sometimes create localised issues and difficulties below Gilgit. Watch everyone else, see how they are reacting. With care and common sense, the valley and area is stunning visually, has friendly locals who are relaxed and are keen to interact with you. Near Karimabad there are troops stationed and visible, whilst further up the valley, there appears to be just local police.
Mind altitude sickness. Many people get symptoms already if sleeping at 2,500 m without acclimatization, while 3,500 m is regarded very high altitude in this context, carry an oxygen mask if you have chronic respiratory conditions or when you feel unwell.
Beware of Avalanches and landslides. Before thinking of going on the trip, check local reports and avoid adventuring if it rains or snows heavily. Extra caution is required in the winter. Carry a first aid kit just in case of an accident and obey suggested speed limits, which change with the season or weather events. Winds can be very strong and frigid, so carry a lot of warm clothing.
In Pakistan, they drive on the left, but in China on the right.