Connecting China's Xinjiang region with Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan, the road is a popular tourist attraction. Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it is referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The Karakoram Highway is known informally as the KKH; within Pakistan it is known officially as the N-35, while within China, it is known officially as China National Highway 314. It is also a part of the Asian Highway AH4.
The Karakoram Highway, also known as the Friendship Highway in China, was built by the governments of Pakistan and China. It was started in 1959 and was completed and opened to the public in 1979. About 810 Pakistanis and about 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly in landslides and falls, while building the highway. The Chinese workers who died during the construction are buried in the Chinese cemetery in Gilgit. The route of the KKH traces one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Road.
On the Pakistani side, the road was constructed by FWO (Frontier Works Organisation), employing the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers. Recently, the Engineer-in-Chief's Branch of the Pakistani Army has completed a project documenting the history of the highway. The book History of Karakoram Highway was written by Brigadier Muhammad Mumtaz Khalid in two volumes. In the first volume the author discusses the land and the people, the pre-historic communication system in the Northern Areas, the need for an all-weather road link with Gilgit, and the construction of Indus Valley Road. The second volume records events leading to the conversion of the Indus Valley Road to the Karakoram Highway, the difficulties in its construction, and the role of Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers and their Chinese counterparts in its construction.
The Highway, connecting the Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan to the ancient Silk Road, runs approximately 1,300 km from Kashgar, a city in the Xinjiang region of China, to Abbottabad, of Pakistan. An extension of the highway southwest from Abbottabad, in the form of the N-35 highway, meets the Grand Trunk Road, N-5, at Hassanabdal, Pakistan.
The highway cuts through the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates, where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan come within 250 kilometres of each other. Owing largely to the extremely sensitive state of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway has strategic and military importance to these nations, but particularly Pakistan and China.
On June 30, 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Pakistani Highway Administration and China's State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) to rebuild and upgrade the Karakoram Highway. According to SASAC, the width will be expanded from 10 to 30 metres, and its transport capacity will be increased three times its current capacity. In addition, the upgraded road will be designed to particularly accommodate heavy-laden vehicles and extreme weather conditions.
China and Pakistan are planning to link the Karakoram Highway to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese-aided Gwadar-Dalbandin railway, which extends to Rawalpindi.
Since 2 p.m. on January 4, 2010, the KKH has been closed in the Hunza Valley, eliminating through traffic to China except by small boats. A massive landslide 15 kilometres upstream from Hunza's capital of Karimabad created the potentially unstable Attabad Lake, which reached 22 kilometres in length and over 100 metres in depth by the first week of June 2010 when it finally began flowing over the landslide dam. The landslide destroyed parts of villages while killing many inhabitants. The subsequent lake displaced thousands and inundated over 20 kilometres of the KKH including the 310 metres long KKH bridge 4 kilometres south of Gulmit.
It is highly questionable whether the lake, which reached 27 kilometres in length in 2011, will drain. Goods from and to further north are transported over the lake by small vessels, to be reloaded onto trucks at the other end.
At 806 kilometres in length, the Pakistani section of the highway starts in Abbottabad, although the N-35 of which KKH is now part, officially starts from Hassanabdal. The highway meets the Indus River at Thakot and continues along the river until Jaglot, where the Gilgit River joins the Indus River. This is where three great mountain ranges meet: the Hindukush, the Himalaya, and the Karakoram. The western end of the Himalayas, marked by the ninth highest peak in the world, Nanga Parbat, can be seen from the highway. The highway passes through the capital of Gilgit–Baltistan, Gilgit, and continues through the valleys of Nagar and Hunza, along the Hunza River. Some of the highest mountains and famous glaciers in the Karakoram can be seen in this section. The highway meets the Pakistani-Chinese border at Khunjerab Pass.
The Chinese section of the Karakoram Highway follows the north-south Sarykol ("Yellow Lake") valley just west of the Tarim Basin. The road from Kashgar goes southwest about 80 kilometres and then turns west to enter the Gez (Ghez) River canyon between Chakragil mountain on the north and Kongur mountain on the south. From the Gez canyon the population becomes Kirgiz. Having climbed up to the valley, the road turns south past Kongur, Karakul Lake, and Muztagh Ata on the east. Below Muztagh Ata, a new road goes west over the Kulma Pass to join the Pamir Highway in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. The main road continues over a low pass (where the population becomes Tajik) and descends to Tashkurgan. Further south, a valley and jeep track leads west toward the Wakhjir Pass to the Wakhan Corridor. Next the road turns west to a checkpost and small settlement at Pirali, and then the Khunjerab Pass, beyond which is Pakistan, the Khunjerab River and Hunza.
In recent years the highway has become an adventure tourism destination. It was ranked as the third best tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian. The road has given mountaineers and cyclists easier access to the many high mountains, glaciers, and lakes in the area. The highway provides access to Gilgit and Skardu from Islamabad by road. These are the two major hubs for mountaineering expeditions in the Gilgit–Baltistan region of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
The Gilgit–Baltistan Administration of Pakistan Controlled Kashmir and the Xinjiang Administration of China have signed an agreement to issue border passes to their permanent residents. This pass is valid for a calendar year and is used to travel through Khunjerab Pass only.
Mountains and glaciers
Karakoram Highway provides the pathway to expeditions for almost all peaks in Gilgit–Baltistan, Kashmir and several peaks in Xinjiang China. The region includes some of the world's largest glaciers like the Baltoro Glacier. Five of the Eight-thousanders (mountains taller than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft)) of the world that are in Pakistan are accessible by the highway. The notable mountains that can be directly seen while traveling on the highway are:
Nanga Parbat, Gilgit–Baltistan, 9th highest of the world at 8,126 metres (26,660 ft).
Rakaposhi, Gilgit–Baltistan, 27th highest of the world at 7,788 metres (25,551 ft).
Diran, Gilgit–Baltistan, most dangerous mountain in Pakistan.
Ultar Peak, Gilgit–Baltistan,
Tupopdan, Gilgit–Baltistan,also known as Cathedral Peaks near Passu.
K2,famous for being the second highest mountain in the world after Mount Everest.
Many glaciers can be seen while traveling on the highway:
Rivers and lakes
Several rivers and lakes are made accessible by the highway. These include:
Karakul Lake in Xinjiang (China)
There are more than 50,000 pieces of rock art and petroglyphs all along the highway that are concentrated at ten major sites between Hunza and Shatial. The carvings were left by invaders, traders, and pilgrims who passed along the trade route, as well as by locals. The earliest date back to between 5000 BC and 1000 BC, showing single animals, triangular men, and hunting scenes in which the animals are larger than the hunters. These carvings were pecked into the rock with stone tools and are covered with a thick patina that yields their age.
There are several transport companies in Pakistan that offer bus service between major towns of the highway and from Rawalpindi and Lahore. The largest company is Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO). Other companies are Masherbrum Travel, Silk Route Travel, K-2 movers, Anchan Travel, and Saeed Travel.
Bus service between Gilgit and Kashghar
On June 1, 2006, a daily bus service began between Gilgit, Gilgit–Baltistan, and Kashghar, Xinjiang, through the Sust and Tashkorgan border area.
The KKH is best traveled in the spring or early autumn. Heavy snow during harsh winters can shut the highway down for extended periods. Heavy monsoon rains around July and August cause occasional landslides that can block the road for hours or more. The border crossing between China and Pakistan at Khunjerab Pass is open only between May 1 and December 31.