More Travels on the Silk Road-Karakoram Highway
The first week of October, when we were in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, we hired a driver and car, and had him take us up the Karakoram Highway to Tashkurgan, near to the Pakistan border. Some people (probably engineers!) refer to this road as “the ninth wonder of the world.” (Wikipedia) The highway follows the old Silk Road, and Marco Polo traveled through here, but not on a paved road!
What makes it so special? The Karakoram Highway, or the KKH, is the highest paved international road in the the world (although the pavement is not continuous, when you reach Pakistan!). It is 15,397 feet at its highest point at Khunjerab Pass. It is over 800 miles long from Kashgar, Xinjiang, China, to Abbottabad, Pakistan. The highway was a joint venture between China and Pakistan, started in 1959. completed in 1979, and opened to the public in 1986 (Wikipedia).
As you can see from the map, the KKH runs close to Tajikistan (about 10 km), also near to Afghanistan, before entering Pakistan. The highway follows the Gez (Ghez) River on the China side, up through beautiful red mountains,
It is part of the Himalayas. The Karakoram Range is the most glaciated mountain range in the world, having 28% to 50% of its mountains covered in glaciers (the rest of the Himalayas are about 8-12% glaciated, the Alps 2.2%). This area has been referred to as the “Third Pole,” because the only places with more glaciers are the North and South Poles!(Wikipedia) . The Karakorams also have the highest concentration of 8km peaks anywhere in the world. K2, the second tallest mountain in the world is in the Karakorams. (Wikipedia)
The road is subject to many landslides from runoff from snowmelt and rain during the summer. We saw much construction of new highway, and cleanup of landslides. The road is closed during the winter except to large vehicles like buses.
There is much mining of iron ore and coal all the way up, so there are many large trucks, hauling things down.
We arrived at Lake Karakul, a beautiful turquoise lake surrounded by yurts. Around the lakes were wandering camels, yaks, hikers, horse-riders. You can hike up into these mountains, but we chose viewing them from the highway.
There are not lot of people living in these mountains. The ones there have come from Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, the other ‘stans, and speak their own language, not Chinese. some live in houses of stone (lots of building material around!) or some live in yurts.
You can stay in a yurt quite cheaply, and have locals prepare food for you, but it is pretty rustic! The “outhouse” is a true “out” house, just a few rocks stacked up around a hole in the rocks! We “opted out” of staying overnight in a yurt, even as romantic-sounding as it was; we stayed in a hotel. It was much more comfortable, and warmer, too (and the bathroom was nicer!)!
We stayed in a hotel in the town of Tashkurgan, the closest town to Khunjerab Pass and the Pakistan border. Its elevation is about 3600 meters, or 11,800 feet. It is the site of an ancient fort, built over 1400 years ago. It was built by a Tajik king of long ago. The area was used in the film The Kite Runner, as it resembles Kabul, Afghanistan.
From Tashkurgan we drove back down the Karakoram Highway back to Kashgar. We saw an iron ore truck overturned and almost in the river. We heard the driver had fallen asleep.
We got see the beautiful red, gray, and brown mountains again on the way down, against the crisp blue skies. We would have to agree the Karakoram Highway is in fact a “wonder.” We enjoyed our trip on the KKH. A few more images…