The Karakoram highway is soon to be at the centre of a Chinese building boom – and it’s beautiful
A highway from a city in the middle of the Pakistani flatlands through the mountains to China doesn’t sound very interesting. But it’s stunning. It’s fascinating. It is the Karakoram highway, and China has just announced a $900billion investment plan centred upon an extension of the highway to the Arabian Sea to ease China’s trade with Europe.
The announcement of the Belt and Road initiative by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has confused people so far. The Road will actually be an oversea shipping route, while the Belt will be a network of tarmac running through the countries of central Asia. Even with the odd choice of terms, it will be a twenty-first century Silk Road and it will transform the lives of millions of people.
Kashgar is the starting point in China for travelling the legendary highway. The story of the Karakoram highway, or the KKH, began in the late fifties as a joint project between Pakistan and China, and was based on their joint hostility towards India. The China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, as the entire stretch between Kashgar and Abbottabad was called, was meant to be a military road kept strictly off limits to foreigners.
However, in the spring of 1986 Pakistan announced that they would open the road to everyone, thereby creating up a backdoor for foreigners to Xinjiang province in China as well. One of the foreigners who jumped on the opportunity was the British historian William Dalrymple. He and a friend headed north through the Khunjerab Pass that same year, an adventure he wrote about in the book In Xanadu – A Quest. From the pass, at 4,693 metres above sea-level, the Highway makes its way south to where it meets the Grand Trunk Road just west of Islamabad.
The first town one arrives at, on the Pakistani stretch of the Karakoram highway, is Sost. It’s a small town built around one main street with stores selling everything from food to tyres. Small signs give directions to hostels, internet cafés and money changers; everything one needs just after arriving in a new country. If Xi is able to pull his initiative off – it has taken four years to reach this point – towns such as Sost will no longer be truck stops but hives of trade and industry.
There are plenty of hiking trails through the hills around the highway. A trip to the Hanging Bridge is one and climbing to the many glaciers are others. But it was impossible not be astounded by the beauty of the Hunza Valley and its surroundings. From the huge terrace of our hotel, we could see snow-capped mountains to the left and to the right and the valley sweeping down in front of us. In the distance, one could barely make out the KKH as it left the valley and continued on.
Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road that “the road is life” – a quote that may have become a cliche in travel writing. But it is the best one to use for the KKH. The KKH is not only life, life is happening on the road. All the time. Sheep, restaurants, vendors, farmers – all take up space on the narrow two-lane tarmac as it follows the hills and valleys, all of them with their own agenda and direction.
The restaurants by the roadside reek of the smoke from grilling kebabs and freshly boiled rice. It is a smell that mixes with the diesel fumes from the trucks and buses, and one that means Pakistani omelette, mango juice, tea, and a sorry excuse for coffee. Tea is the rational choice, there’s no question about it. But coffee is a non-negotiable breakfast ingredient for me. Bad coffee is always better than great tea.
Somewhere between the Hunza Valley and Gilgit, the atmosphere changes. These are more insecure areas, which is why it is fairly rare for travellers to go the entire stretch of the highway. Most people fly to Gilgit and travel around the northern part of Pakistan from there. Or they start in Kashgar, travel overland to Gilgit and then fly to Islamabad.
We were taken by police escort for half a day on our travel into Besham. While passing through through the town, one policeman climbed into our car. He was equipped with a very visible automatic rifle. Presumably, the Pakistani government is hoping that the extra cash flowing through the region will help the situation, and that some of the Chinese investment will be spent on security.
The last part of the road is in many ways as impressive as the beginning. Winding roads alongside the Indus River with spectacular views and never-ending life along the highway. But the feeling is different. This is not an area where the guides want to make long stops and definitely do not walk far from the car. It is understood that we are to keep a low profile even if it is not considered dangerous. This is a conservative part of the country and we are westerners stopping for a coffee just a few miles from where Osama bin Laden was shot.
After two long days travelling from Gilgit, we reach the end of the highway by late afternoon. The intersection is probably the least scenic place on the entire highway, but it is still special. For now, it is the end of the road. We stop for a few pictures of the intersection before merging onto the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad.
In the latest edition of Lonely Planet’s travel guide for Pakistan, published in 2008, more than a hundred pages are devoted to the KKH. What was true then is far from being true now, and will certainly change beyond recognition in the future. The road will be reformed; life will adapt. The Karakoram highway will have turned from being a dirt road for the military and locals, to a two-lane blacktop, and into an artery along which money will flow from China, through Pakistan, to Europe and back. If Xi is able to pull his plan off, the highway of tomorrow will have a dam and much-needed electricity, and fibre-optic broadband will be laid all the way from the flatlands via the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar. And, by then, Lonely Planet will surely be back. You want to beat them to it.