Driving the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan
Commonly labelled as “the 8th wonder of the world”, The Karakoram Highway is truly one of the world’s great road trips.
In September 2018, this author traveled the entire route & more, all the way from Lahore in the Punjab to the highest border in the world between Pakistan and China. This is what he saw.
Lahore: The Cultural Capital of Pakistan
The Punjabi capital city is arguably Pakistan’s most colourful and vibrant city. It’s an incredible assault on the senses in the best kind of way.
Surprises await you around every street corner. Street dentists, barbers, doctors, buskers call this home and welcome you with open arms to their city.
Lahore is not the starting point of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan but a visit to the country cannot be completed without a trip to the cultural capital.
Before hitting the road north make sure to tick off a couple of must do’s in Lahore. Perhaps the most famous day trip is the India-Pakistan Wagah border closing ceremony. This daily flag lowering ceremony attracts thousands on both sides of the border for a colourful show of nationalistic fervour. If you’re looking for a more intimate border closing experience then check out the Ganda Singh Wala border 45 minutes to the south of Lahore. It’s a much smaller affair and you’ll likely be the only foreigner in attendance.
Back to Lahore, don’t miss the iconic Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort. Use the rest of your time to wander the streets, drink chai and soak up the vibe.
Islamabad: The Starting Point of the Karakoram Highway
Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad is unlike any other city in the country. The planned city is a calm and leafy oasis away from the more chaotic, neighboring twin city of Rawalpindi.
Islamabad boasts the world’s 5th largest Mosque and some of the nicest green spaces and museums in Pakistan. It’s also more or less the starting point of the Karakoram Highway so be prepared for steep hills and cooler weather from here on.
The Karakoram Highway
The Karakoram Highway, also known as the KKH or Highway-35, runs over 1,300km all the way to the Khunjerab Pass north of Gilgit. It then crosses the border into China to become the National Highway 314. It is the highest paved road in the world with a maximum altitude of 4,714 meters.
Construction of the road began in 1959 and was completed 20 years later in 1979 resulting in the deaths of over 1000 workers from both Pakistan and China. Due to the engineering feat it became known as the 8th Wonder of the World. Today it is a vital link for trade between the two countries and will eventually link China to Pakistan’s seaports.
Weather wise the road is best traversed in Spring or early Autumn. Heavy snow can make it unpassable in the winter and monsoon rains can cause dangerous landslides in the summer months.
The gateway is Islamabad which has good flight connections to all major regional hubs and is the base for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Our Karakoram Highway Tours start from Lahore in order to experience a different side to Pakistan.
You can also choose to fly directly to Gilgit from Islamabad if you want to skip the long road journey and fly direct into the most beautiful part of the region. The flight offers incredible views of K2, Nanga Parbat and most of Pakistan’s highest peaks. The pilots point out the largest mountains and purposely fly low to maximize the viewing potential.
The Hunza Valley
Arguaby the jewel in the crown of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan is the Hunza Valley region.
It’s main town of Kariminbad will become your base to explore the region. Take a few days to hike gentle peaks in the area or even take on the mighty Rakaposhi at over 7,700 meters. It’s also home to two UNESCO World Heritage forts which offer the best views in town – The Baltit and Altit forts.
The locals here are Ismaili, a small branch of Shi’ism. This is a rather liberal form of Islam so cultural restrictions are lower here compared with the south.
The Husseini Bridge
Cross it at your own risk! The Husseini Bridge is not for the faint hearted. It’s one of the most dangerous bridges in the world for a reason. Connecting villages on both sides of the river, seasoned locals skip and jump across it on a daily basis. Whatever you do, don’t look down.
End of the line
Not far from Husseini Bridge lies the town of Passu and it’s incredible jagged ranges. Further on and you’ll end up at Sost and the Chinese border. From here either turn around and head back the way you came or continue onto Xinjiang province in Western China. You’ll need a pre-arranged visa for this of course.