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Regional expert Sophie Ibbotson shares tips for driving one of the highest paved roads in the world — and how to do it safely.
The route

The Karakoram Highway (KKH) officially starts just north of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, an uninspiring, planned concrete city.

The best thing to see here is on the outskirts — the Indo-Greek ruins of Taxila, the easternmost conquest of Alexander the Great. Much of the site has been excavated, and it makes for a good mid-morning break on your way to the KKH.

You know you’re on the right road when you see this sign: “Turn right for China; Straight on for the Khyber Pass.” The KKH winds through the corridor between Afghanistan and Kashmir but, fortunately, doesn’t suffer from the same security problems as its neighbors.

The Northern Areas state, which comprises most of the region, is semi-autonomous and the governor, though democratically elected, comes from a royal family that’s ruled here for the past 800 years.

Photo: Umair Mohsin

Over 20,000 petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings) have been found in the Karakoram mountains, and the best examples are near the town of Chilas.

The oldest, showing human figures, animals, and religious symbols, date from 3,000 years ago and are a short scramble from the road.

They were left by Buddhist pilgrims, traders, and travelers, a reminder that although the KKH is a 1970s construction, the road from China down to the Indian subcontinent was an important offshoot of the ancient Silk Road.

Gilgit, the Northern Areas’ provincial capital, is the place to watch horse sports. Gilgit’s polo team is famous nationwide, and matches against arch-rivals Chittral at Shandur Pass, the world’s highest polo ground, draw spectators from around the world.

Just out of town, a 7th-century standing Buddha is carved into a sheer rock face.

In northernmost Pakistan is the former Kingdom of Hunza, where people purportedly maintained a life expectancy of 130 years throughout the 20th century. They credit strong genes (inherited from Alexander the Great’s troops) and a lack of spices in their diet for their longevity.

Photo: Author

The kingdom’s old capital, Baltit, has a fort that saw visits from major players in the Great Game, including the legendary British spy Francis Younghusband.

Last stop on the KKH before the Chinese border is Khunjerab National Park, one of the few places in the world where snow leopards still run wild.

Khunjerab Pass, at 4,690m (15,400ft), is the highest international border crossing in the world. Whether you’re continuing on or turning back, take time to survey the incredible landscape, the absolute quiet, and the blissful isolation — you are, quite literally, on top of the world.

How to travel

This will be largely dependent on your budget.

The Northern Areas Transport Company (NATCO) operates a regular bus service up and down the KKH, but the buses are uncomfortable and, judging from the way they drive, this is probably your least safe option.

Baltit fort / Photo: mariachily

One step up is a private bus or small minibus: they don’t run as frequently and generally leave town only when they’re full, but your chance of reaching journey’s end in one piece is much better.

The best method, if you can afford it, is to go by car. Karakoram Jeep Treks International (a UK company) can provide a 4×4 and a driver-cum-guide, or you can always hire a car in Islamabad. Four-wheel drive makes the journey more pleasant but is not 100% essential.

Things to watch out for while driving are rock falls, which can take out large sections of road, the dramatic but deadly hairpin bends, and, of course, other drivers.

As stated, NATCO bus drivers have homicidal tendencies, as do some of the truckers, and many locals (two-legged and four-legged) wander along the KKH at dusk, seemingly oblivious to the presence of vehicles.

Where to stay

The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation runs a chain of rest houses with good quality, reasonably priced accommodation in many of the towns along the KKH.

Photo: Umair Mohsin

The houses usually have an attached restaurant and are good places to meet other travelers and NGO and government workers who can tell you what to expect ahead.

The Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslims who dominate the Northern Areas, owns the up-market Serena Hotel chain, which has 4-star pads in Gilgit and Hunza. Both have English-speaking staff.

In Hunza, the Darbar Hotel, owned by the Emir (king) of Hunza, is another good option and has a view across town and up towards the fort.

Keeping safe

Before traveling to Pakistan, get the latest travel advice from the embassies in Islamabad. The U.S. embassy (+92-51-208-0000) has a tendency to exaggerate security concerns, so compare their assessment with those of the British (+92-51-201-2000) or Canadian embassies to get a balanced view.

Inform your embassy’s consular department of your planned itinerary and contact details on arrival, and keep them updated of any changes so they can find you in an emergency.

Once in Pakistan, common sense and cultural sensitivity are the best protection. Avoid large crowds, particularly religious celebrations and political demonstrations, as these events are most likely to be the targets of terrorist attacks.

Keep your distance from uniformed officials, notably the police and army, as they too may be targeted by militants.

Although you don’t need to wear Pakistani dress, be aware of cultural norms and adhere to them to avoid drawing unwanted attention to yourself. Both men and women should wear long, loose trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and women should cover their heads with scarves when visiting religious sites.

You may also feel more comfortable covering your head when traveling through traditional areas. The best advice is to observe those around you and do as they do.

Women should not worry about traveling alone in Pakistan. Crime is relatively low and a bigger problem than sexual harassment is simply being ignored.

Although not widely spoken in rural areas, many educated Pakistanis and those who have regular dealings with tourists do speak a little English. Culturally ingrained hospitality means that people always do their utmost to help a visitor, and friendly advice is usually accompanied by an invitation to tea.

Other considerations
  • You will need to get a tourist visa before traveling to Pakistan. Apply to the Pakistani embassy in your home country at least one month before you want to go. For U.S. nationals, the cost of a single-entry Pakistani visa is $120, obtainable through the offices in D.C.
  • If you plan to bring your own car to Pakistan, it will need to be imported on a carnet issued by your country’s automobile club. This will ensure you don’t have to pay import duty.
  • Pakistanis theoretically drive on the left side of the road, but this is treated more as a suggestion than a rule.
  • If you want to drive the full length of the KKH, which finishes in Kashgar, you’ll need a Chinese visa too. You can apply for this in your home country or from the very efficient Chinese embassy in Islamabad.
  • The Khunjerab Pass closes Dec 31st – May 1st. These dates can be extended depending on snowfall, so plan your trip accordingly.

Community Connection

For more on-the-ground stories from Pakistan, check out Tales From The Frontier Of Expat Life: A Memsahib In Pakistan. Or, another mountain road trip guide is Himalayan Motorcycle Diaries: Guide to the Road from Manali to Leh.

About The Author

Sophie Ibbotson

Sophie lives and works in Central Asia, where she writes about politics, culture and economics and advises the Kyrgyz Government on how to co-operate with everyone else.

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  • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

    The KKH is one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever done. My husband and I once drove it in a Toyota Vitz, a vehicle that is NOT suggested for the KKH. I prefer taking the NATCO AC bus or flying, although when you fly you miss the amazing views. Great to see someone publishing on Pakistan!

  • http://www.tracingtea.com Sophie

    I actually drove the KKH by auto-rickshaw, thus proving that if you are sufficiently bloody minded, anything is possible!

  • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

    By rickshaw! How far did you go, and how long did it take!? We only made it to Karimabad in the Vitz. After that the elevation and the terrain was too much and we were dreading driving back. Our major problem was that the vehicle was too low. We’d have been better off in a Suzuki Mehran, or pretty much any other car. Would love to see a story about doing the KKH by rickshaw. That’s crazy! I’ve done the road back and forth several times, and I’ve never seen a rickshaw past Beshan.

  • http://www.tracingtea.com Sophie

    Your wish is my command! Overland Journal published my article on the KKH by rickshaw in the fall of 2009. I am trying to post a copy online and will then post the link on this message board. We got all the way up to the Khunjerab Pass, and then travelled on to China and into Kyrgyzstan. It was, apparently, a world first for an auto-rickshaw!

  • http://wheretherebedragons.com Tim Patterson

    Wow – how did you get that snow leopard photo?!

    • http://www.tracingtea.com Sophie

      Cameramen make wonderful bait when dangled close to a hungry leopard! Picture was taken on a Nikon D3 with a 70-200 lens

  • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

    As of March 2010 the road from Upper Hunza north to China has been cut off by a major landslide and the creation of a lake which has washed away several villages and submerged about 5km of road. It is unclear when this area will become passage again by vehicle.

    See video:
    http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2010/03/20103139058732947.html

    Where that lake is the KKH used to be! I’ll comment here with any updates. You should still be able to get to Karimabad without any problems, although goods shortages could be an issue with trade routes to China cut off.

    • angel

      Hi and thanks for the info.
      I am planning to travel from Islamabad through the KKH to China this July. I am not sure if there is a way since the landslide has blocked the road. Let me know your views on this.
      All the best

  • Tomas

    Hi

    I was wondering if it is possible to hitch a ride/s through the KKH. Doing it by short legs and staying in villages wouldn’t be a problem…

    thanks!

    • http://www.expatheather.com Heather

      Depends what you look like and what your language abilities are. If you wear local clothes, can blend in and speak some Urdu, then I think it could be done safely. It will definitely take less time to go by public bus, and doing that isn’t expensive at all. I think you’d pay more to hitch (people will expect something from you) than to just take the bus, and I wouldn’t really recommend chilling in any roadside villages between Mansehra and Gilgit (especially not Chilas) if you look like a foreigner.

      I wouldn’t recommend hitching for women in any circumstance.

  • Majid Hussain

    Must be a Great adventure, traveling on KKH on an auto-Rickshaw! Just Wow. I would love to read that article of yours.

    I am also an old lover of KKH and counted its miles through buss, jeeps, cars, aircrafts and yes on foot during my five trekking tours in Northern Ares of Pakistan. This year, I was planning to go up to the Boarder of China on my own car with my family. BUT the ‘Land slide lake’ has created a Lake of Doubts in my travel plan.

    As far a scenic highways are concerned, in recent years we have another outstanding highway developed in Pakistan namely Makran Coastal highway. I have traveled on it three times (recent one was just last weekend). The highway offers some spectacular views of amazing mountain forms and geological formations, rock shapes while crossing through the Buzi Pass and passes through Pakistan’s largest National Park i.e Hingol National Park. Although the terrain of the Balochistan is all the way different from what we see in northern areas but worth visiting. The drive up to the town of Ormara (around 343 kms, which is almost halfway between Karachi and Gawadar) is awesome as the road is superbly paved keeping the local condition of the terrain. The Hingol River delta is another attraction to tourists and the famous ‘Nani Mandir’ (commonly known as Hinglaj Temple) is another superb visiting place for tourists as well as devoted Hindu pilgrims. I am not sure if foreigners are allowed and safe to travel on this road but that can be confirmed.

    However, Ms. Sophie, looking forward for your exotic auto- Rickshaw adventure tales.

    Cheers

    Majid Hussain

  • Pingback: What NOT to Do in Pakistan

  • kashif

    Salam Majid
    Have you made your trip to KKH with your family on CAR.
    Is the KKH motorable through car.
    please update.

    AH

  • http://www.tracingtea.com Sophie

    The KKH is usually motorable by road but it is currently shut between Karimabad (Hunza) and Sost as an avalanche earlier in the year brought down a village and blocked both the road and the river. Demolition crews are still trying to clear the wreckage and repair the road but this may take some time more.

  • Kurt L

    My wife and I went up the KKH in 2007 in an ordinary Toyota sedan. There were some pretty rough areas and a bit of flooding….but passable. I believe it took about 22 hours from Pindi.

    We flew back from Gilgit….and it was good that we did as there was a slide that took out a half-mile wide section and took three days to reopen. We would have missed our connection in Lahore. (We sent our driver back to Islamabad a few days before our flight.) It is a wonderful area to visit and I would highly recommend the Eagles Nest Hotel in Karimabad.

  • Linn

    Hi
    We would like to travel the KKH but would also like to enter Tibet. Do you know if it is possible to enter from Tibet from kashgar?

  • Robert Page

    Hi

    All sounds amazing, do you know if it is possible to hire a jeep in Kashgar to take you south into Pakistan, do buses run regularly in this direction as well. Do you have any ideas of costs? Very grateful for any advice.

  • Mukhtiar Ahmad

    pakistan to mchina travel is good.

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