Karakoram Highway - from Havelian to Kashgar
They are centuries now that man dreams of achieving the clouds: day after day, the dream has become a strong ambition that, in modern times, has resulted in the construction of foolish architectures as skyscrapers, towers, plants... Karakoram Highway was completed entirely in 1978 and became the highest paved road in the world. 1200 km unite the Pakistani city of Havelian to Kashgar, China; 1200 km among steep cliffs, icy peaks, rivers and streams, unspoiled landscapes that take your breath away. The territory crossed by the Karakoram Highway is one of the wildest in the world, the road reaches an altitude of 4693 meters on Khunjerab pass, when the breath becomes short, crisp air pricks the skin and the sun burns the cheeks with no hesitation. Sense of peace, of absolute freedom, discovery and independence, the Karakoram Highway is linked to the ancient Silk Road traversed by travelers of every sort, by thieves, merchants, by vagabonds, slaves, armies and today also by hitchhikers and bicycle travellers.
Travellers on Karakoram Highway
With the construction of the highest road in the world, there have been many travelers venturing in Pakistan to travel the Karakoram, a communication way that needs continuous work and maintenance, especially during and after the monsoon season (which coincides with the months of July and August!). Travelers on foot, by bicycle, organized groups and mountaineers... with the karakoram Highway in fact, it has been created an easy access to the areas of Gilgit and Skardu, the two most important places to begin any expeditions in the mountains of northern Pakistan, where there are 5 peaks over 8000 m. In our virtual journey through the mountains of the Karakoram we'll meet other travelers and we will see their point of view, experiences and emotions experienced on the legendary road... Taking the karakoram Highway on foot is really challenging: the sun is warm, the ice and snow or water reflect the sun's rays, the air is thin and breathing becomes difficult, the road climbs into the mountains going through desolate areas, but no less impressive. The backpack will occasionally make we stumble, it weighs and drops of sweat run, at first slowly, then faster and faster, from the neck to the end of the back following a steady pace. Sometimes you get discouraged because for long minutes anyone passes and you feel alone, sometimes Nature gladdens our pace with some unforgettable images. On two wheels it is certainly not less demanding: the heavy bags slow down our progress and the ride is always unsteady. Luckly, water is never far away: you can just move to a river to cool off and drink what will seem the best water ever drunk before. You'll feel the weight of the tent on the rack, but you feel the joy of being able to sleep under a starry sky, in a place where there is no light pollution! The locals are surprised to see foreigners who hitchhike here, but curiosity invites them to stop... travelers are considered foreigners until they show their human, but not obvious, capability of interaction with those they meet, their determination to know what is different from everyday life without judging, the stranger turns into an authentic understanding person, in a friend.
Sharing experiences with other travelers, sharing glances, smiles and sharing few ungrammatical sentences with those who inhabits those places... will make you trip unforgettable!
Into the wild on the karakoram Highway
We are on the highest road in the world, on the border between Pakistan and China, close to some of the most inaccessible peaks. Starting from Havelian, 867 meters above sea level, in Pakistan, or if you prefer from Islamabad, the Karakoram Highway begins its journey north to Abbottabad and Mansehra where the landscapes are still expanses of countryside dotted with small towns. The civilization is still present and well established. Hills alternate with bare mountains. The villages and cultivated terraces attract attention with their graceful shapes and their bright colors. There are 124 km from Mansehra to Besham, but Indus river, faithful traveling companion and guide, has already appeared at the sight 30 km ago. The path will skirt its course for several miles until you reach the heart of karakoram. After Besham landscape changes: sharp and inaccessible peaks that accompanied us on the East, appear now on the West too, and small towns become tiny villages. Nanga Parbat with its 8125 meters, the mountain of fate, Messner's and many other climbers mountain, searches us from above to show her severe face. 131 km separate Besham from Sazin and then there are another 200 km to Gilgit, the capital of the northern territories of Pakistan and the gateway to the valley of Hunza. Waterfalls, rivers, streams, rocks: Nature reigns supreme in this wild part of the world. The sound of small landslides of rocks that tumble down the steep slopes and unstoppable waters are scaring, but this is also the charm of the karakoram Highway. In Gilgit, where namesake river flows into the waters of the Indus, this creates a large bend right there where chains of Karakoram, Himalayas and the Hindu Kush join together. Before you get here, along the Indus can be seen many testimonies of the past: Buddhist stupas, stone or simply graffiti left by traders, travelers and pilgrims here as well as along the Via Francigena, passed by the thousands. The small village of Chilas is accessible via a side valley of the karakoram Highway but you must be in possession of a special permit. In Chilas the inhabitants are conservatives Sunni and women are not considered at all, unfortunately ... In 2016, with the end of the construction of the Diamer-Basha Dam, Chilas and other villages of the valley will be submerged in water forever and will no more be able to offer travelers those amazing views of the Nanga Parbat. From KKH, numerous other valleys branch off and it would be exciting to visit them. Narrow streets lead to unexpected turquoise or emerald green lakes, around a bend comes a mountain covered with eternal ice, after a climb, you find yourself suddenly catapulted into the life of hospitable and welcoming villages. The peaks of Rakaposhi and Diram anticipate the arrival in Bul Das where Sumair valley branches off to the south in a contiuous follow of meadows and mountains. You skirt glaciers and rivers to get to Lake Attabad that you can also cross by boat. The KKH is winding and charming: in Passu, which is located near a glacier, lives a small community of Ismaili that every morning, awaking, has the most beautiful glimpse of the Cathedral Ridge. Travelling on karakoram Highway you'll then arrive in the vicinity of Dih where you'll cross the Khunjerab pass, the highest point of the whole road. The 50 km before the pass, wind through the Khunjerab National Park, a paradise on earth that still protects species at risk of extinction, such as the snow leopard and the Marco Polo sheep. From Pakistan to China, from the plateau to the pastures dotted with yaks. The name of the highest mountain on karakoram Highway derives from a Wakhi word, which means Valley of Blood and also indicates the language of some populations of the Pamirs. In China, the landscape changes, but not dramatically: the KKH runs along the border with Tajikistan and continues to spread among the highest peaks of the world, passing from Lake Karakul and Mount Muztagah. The language changes, faces change, but the hospitality is always the same. Travelling on the highest road in the world you can read "karakoram Highway, the eighth wonder of the world" and perhaps, after all, it is real...
Where to sleep and how
For travelers who usually prefer the adventurous journey with nights in a tent, find accommodation will not be a problem: Nature is your temporary home! At night can be cold, but with the right equipment, you can avoid all the problems related to cold and hypothermia. Of course, to sleep in a tent you have to find a suitable location, offset from the karakoram Highway or even in the garden of a house (after asking permission!). If you decide to enjoy wild camping, make sure you hide well because it could be considered an illegal practice (especially in China!). Never forget the adventure of traveling but always safe. For those traveling light or with a backpack and in general, for those unable to carry a tent along the karakoram Highway or side valleys, there are some small hotels or guesthouses in the villages. Otherwise you can directly ask for hospitality to locals and, often with great pleasure, they decide to host you.