How to: Drive Pakistan’s Karakoram highway
Regional expert Sophie Ibbotson shares tips for driving one of the highest paved roads in the world — and how to do it safely.
The routeThe 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. 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. 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 travelThis 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. 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 stayThe Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation runs a chain of rest houses with good quality, reasonably priced accommodation in many of the towns along the KKH. 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 safeBefore 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.
- 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.