Karakoram Highway

Written By: Faiz-Ul Haq

Many wars have been fought on the battlefield, many in the mighty oceans but there have been very few that were fought diligently with Mother Nature. The making of Karakoram Highway was a war itself which took nearly 20 years for completion taking 810 Pakistani and 82 Chinese workers, dedicating their lives for an unimaginable path envisioned by the leaders of the respective countries to build the ‘Eight Wonder of the World’.

Karakoram Highway (KKH), also known as the Friendship Highway was constructed on the Pakistani side by the Frontiers Works Organization employing Pakistan Army Corps and Engineers as well.

The legend of the KKH is long and spectacular. Everybody has heard of the legendary Silk Road. As the legend goes, it was the road where silk was transported from China to Europe. There was not just one Silk Road. In fact, there were many. The Karakoram Highway, as we know the road nowadays was one of those Silk Roads, runs approximately 1,300 km from Kashgar, a city in the Xinjiang region of China, to Havelian, located in the Abbottabad District of Pakistan. An extension of the highway meets the Grand Trunk Road at Hasan Abdal, west of Islamabad, Pakistan. It was always a hard and unsafe road. And even today, it's still a tough track.

The souls that paved the way for the Karakoram Highway due to an unpredictable topography still seem to flicker amongst the sharp moving shadows of the rocks and the almost countless but crumbly glaciers embellish its existence. There has always been a long pass into, and out of China over what is sometimes called the 'roof of the world' but in ancient times it was a very unsafe pathway.

Starting near Rawalpindi, the bitumen sealed motorway winds through gently rolling, sandy foothills for approximately one hundred and twenty kilometers before intersecting the Indus River. It then twists along the Indus eastward to within forty kilometers of the town of Gilgit.

Between these two points, the road sometimes takes on a 'roller-coaster' feature as it dips into, and out of the Indus's wide river bed. The final dip is at this forty kilometers point when the road joins the Gilgit River and continues to within twelve kilometers of the town of that name, then turns north, crossing the Gilgit River to join the Hunza River. The town of Gilgit is twelve kilometers off the actual Karakoram highway and is reached by a fairly smoothly laid and slightly inclined tarred road.

Although the Karakoram Highway inclines upwards the whole way to the pass it's not until you get close to Gilgit that you begin to feel as if you are in mountains. Even so, the town is only at one thousand, five hundred meters (approx. five thousand feet) elevation and there is still a feeling of being in desert. The barren, dust laden and tan colored hills that surround the area give the impression of being made from sand, however, it only takes a ride of a couple of kilometers north from Gilgit for one to get the impression of being in 'real' mountains - very high, and very sheer mountains.

This is not to say that the actual road itself is steep - it's not. It's just that the demarcation between the almost sand dune like foothills, and the seemingly abrupt line of six to eight thousand meters high glacier and snow plaited mountains is almost overpoweringly awesome.

The road then accompanies the Hunza River through these mountains, climbing gently almost all the way to the 4,700 meter high Khunjerab Pass. At the top of the pass, two tall memorial stones show that dividing line between political Pakistan, and political China. Both countries’ respective customs and immigration posts are some kilometers away on their respective sides of the pass. Sust, the Pakistan customs post located before the peak and the Chinese customs post at Taxgorgan is established.

The pass also separates two differently named mountain ranges, the Karakoram Range (on the Pakistani side), from the Pamir in China. Within these two massive ranges, there are other named but smaller clusters of rugged mountains and a quick glance at a map can confuse one as there is no illustrated way that one can separate one range from the next.

On the Chinese side of the pass the road is given a different name by the Chinese, who call it, loosely translated, 'The Big Pakistan/China Friendship Road'. This continuation of the Karakoram is also smoothly finished and well graded. It scrolls up and down through generally wide valleys for approximately four hundred and fifty kilometers to the camel market town of Kashgar, which is in the mostly Taklamakan desert filled Chinese province of Xinjiang.

As most travelers consider the Karakoram highway and the Big Pakistan-China Friendship Road to be one and the same. All Chinese roads have designated route numbers and periodic 'kilometer' markers tell you what numbered road, or track you are on at any given time, for example, the Chinese side of the Karakoram road is route number 314, and you can stay on this route half way across China.

The actual kilometer numbers on the stones don't seem to make any sense, and they certainly did not usually reflect accuracy as compared to both of our cyclometers, which always came out to within a hundred or so meters of each another at the end of every day. The numbers on the stones often showed a ten or fifteen kilometer difference to our daily total.

Nevertheless it is a great achievement by both Countries for completing such an arduous job collectively. It is by far the greatest endeavor by the people of Pakistan and China. The Karakoram Highway holds great Strategic importance and has enhanced trading ties with China. The effort, resources and determination not only brought us the gifts of commerce but a long lasting friendship with China.

‘Long live Pakistan and China as neighbors as friends.’

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