Author: Prof. Engr. Zamir Ahmed Awan,
At the age of 19, I have the honor to travel between China and Pakistan through Karakorum High Way (KKH). During my study in China during 1980-1987, I use to travel back to Pakistan by road through KKH almost every year. Part of the road was still under construction or under repair due to damages caused by landslides and heavy rains. It was rather a long journey, yet adventurous and full of joy and entertainment. It provided me an opportunity to monitor nature closely and becomes part of my lifetime memories.
The magnificent Karakoram Highway (KKH), also called Pakistan-China Friendship Highway (Zhongba Youyi Gongolu), connects the ancient city of Kashgar in the Western Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China, with the beautiful modern city of Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. They are famously known as the ancient Silk Route, used by Chinese traders to their journey toward Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe. Due to the region’s unique topography, high-altitude mountains, snow-covered peaks, and tough terrain, it took almost 21 years for the Highway to be completed. Starting from Hassan Abdal in Pakistan and passing through Haripur, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Besham, Dasu, Chilas, Jaglot, Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Sust, and Khunjerab Pass, it ends in Kashgar in China.
The Highway extends for about 550 miles through some of the most rugged and inaccessible terrains of Asia, passing through the Pamir, Hindukush, Kunlun mountains, and the Karakoram range. The Highway threads its way through valleys around the towering peaks of the Sarikool range (at the juncture of Pamirs and Kunlun mountains) before crossing into the Northern Areas (in the Azad Jammu & Kashmir) at the Khunjerab (Kunjirap) Pass. The road then winds through deep valleys in the Karakoram mountains until it reaches the upper valley of River Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The concept of KKH was the novel creation of General Geng Biao, who was Ambassador of China to Pakistan in 1956-58. In fact, he realized the significance of road linkages between China and Pakistan to make convenient access to the Arabian Sea for China. He floated this idea and, after several years of struggle and lobbying, finally conviced Beijing.
The construction of the KKH was a major joint venture between Pakistan and China that began in 1966-67 and was completed in 1977-78. The total length (as per official calculations) of the Karakoram Highway is approximately 1,300 kilometers, of which 887 kilometers is in Pakistan and 413 km in China. KKH is considered a symbol of Pakistan-China eternal friendship.
It required the skills of about 24,000 workers to complete this massive project. Mudslides, rock falls, avalanches, and unforeseen movement of glaciers in the region were a constant danger throughout the construction. Even after its completion, the Highway continued to require heavy maintenance. Over time, its construction has had a notable economic impact on the Uighur, Tajik, and Kyrgyz peoples who inhabit the mountainous region.
It was not an easy road to make. In fact, the entire world was surprised when it was finally completed, as, at one time, even the world’s largest companies had refused to take on the project. A European construction company reportedly declared the construction next to impossible after an aerial survey. Given the harsh weather, heavy snowfall, and landslides, this road’s construction was a miracle made possible by Pakistan and China.
This majestic joint venture was once called a killer project. According to a survey, 810 Pakistanis and 82 Chinese lost their lives during its construction. Around 8,000 tonnes of dynamite was used to cut the hard, and a rocky crate of the KKH and 30 million pieces of rocky mountains were cut down. Flowing along the KKH from Thakot, the Indus River turns towards Skardu. The area of Kohistan begins after Thakot, where water descends from distant heights.
As Kohistan ends, the Chilas region begins. It consists of rocky mountains. The district of Chilas is an important area in Dia Mira, also known as the entrance to Gilgit-Baltistan. Chilas can also be reached from Naran via Babu Sir Top. After Chilas, the Highway circles around Nanga Parbat before making its way to Raikot bridge. This is where jeeps are rented to visit Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat base camp. A highlight of Jaglot is that the world’s three most prominent mountain ranges, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and the Karakoram, meet here. No other place in the world offers such a fantastic spectacle. From here one can reach Naltar, Ashkuman, Ghizer and Shandur by jeep. Beyond Gilgit begins the Nagar area, best known for Raka Pushi peak. One can see this gigantic peak from several places on the Karakoram Highway. Nagar and Hunza lie on both sides of the Highway. Hunza and Nagar’s areas are marked by high peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and magnificent rivers. Rakaposhi, Ultra, Batura, Kanyang Kush, Dastgil Sar, and Pasu are prominent mountains of this area. The last station of Karakoram Highway in Pakistan is located near Khunjarab at an altitude of 4,693 meters, making it the highest Highway in the world.
Khunjarab features some animals not found anywhere else in the world. These include snow leopards, marmots, bears, yaks, and markhors. The area has a fair share of rocky and barren mountain ranges and giant snowy peaks. There is an abundance of rivers, waterfalls, pastures, and glaciers. KKH is not just a road; it is a gateway to heaven.
Under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the KKH has been up-graded as Motorway, and most of the work has been completed. Only a small portion is under up-gradation and will be completed soon. The KKH is the lifeline for the people of Gilgit-Biltistan and the source of Economic activities. KKH is the main artery of CPEC, and its impact will be visible on the whole region as a beneficiary of trade between China and Central Asia, the Middle-East, Eurasia through the Arabian Sea at Gwadar.
Tourists now prefer to travel using the Highway. However, the option to visit the Northern Areas by air yet many people preferred to go by road through the magnificent KKH and fascinated. It is the eighth wonder of the world and should not be missed.
Author: Prof. Engr. Zamir Ahmed Awan, Sinologist (ex-Diplomat), Editor, Analyst, Non-Resident Fellow of CCG (Center for China and Globalization), National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, Pakistan. (E-mail: email@example.com)