Karakoram Highway: An Engineering Marvel Travel / Travel Blogs

A road that is considered the Eight Wonder of the world. A highway which highlights the heroics of those great workers, who gave their lives for completion of a daunting task. A journey passage that contains mesmerizing scenes and sites, which leaves one astounded. A travelling channel, which signifies how historical and withstanding Pak-China relationship are. It is none other than the Karakoram Highway (KKH), which is without a doubt an engineering marvel, if described in easy words.

The Karakoram Highway connects Pakistan and China across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass, at a height of 4,693 meters (15,397 ft). Also known as the highest paved international road in the world, the Karakoram Highway links China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions, and for adventure-lovers it also serves as an important tourist attraction.

The construction of this amazing road was started in 1959, which was finished and opened for public in 1979. The governments of Pakistan and China collaborated for this historical project, in which almost 810 Pakistanis and nearly 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly due to landslides and falls. There is a Chinese cemetery in Gilgit, where the Chinese workers are buried, which died during construction of this highway.

Whenever the difficulties with which this road was made are analyzed, it practically looks an impossible task. However, the whole world salutes the courageous workers of both Pakistan and China, who put their lives at stake to complete this 1300 Kilometers long highway that has been expanded over the hills, canyons, valleys and rivers. Nearly thirty million cubic yards of rock blasting and earthwork, over eight thousand tons of explosives, eighty thousand tons of cement, and plenty more other material sand that too in thousands of tons were used in building of this vast highway. It has been reported that nearly fifteen thousand men of the Pakistan Army and the Chinese workers, worked shoulder to shoulder through one of the most complex landscapes in the world, and strived under the most difficult situations. There is a general observation that more than five hundred persons that is about one person per mile, lost their lives in this road building process. From the Pakistan side, the road was constructed by FWO (Frontier Works Organization), employing the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers.

The passage of the Karakoram Highway traces one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Route. For many centuries, trade groups braved these tortuous mountains, stepping dangerously along the goat tracks and narrow paths, occasionally providing short cuts between the great caravan towns of the Central Asian and rich markets of the subcontinent. Nevertheless, the paths were too dangerous along with fuming rivers, too horrifying to ponder many a times. The storms and avalanches caused even the most brave to draw back on the high passes and in the barren gorges. It was in fact, the great Han Empire of China that extended its control towards this part of the world and controlled roads leading through it. The most important item of trade in which China was interested at that time was the export of Chinese Silk, and therefore the popularity of the name. The Silk Route crossed the Tarim basin in its westward extension through Central Asia, to meet the markets in the Mediterranean coast. Throughout the highway, there are more than 50,000 pieces of rock art and petroglyphs (pictogram and logogram images) that are resolute at ten major sites between Hunza and Shatial. The carvings were left by invaders, traders and pilgrims who passed along the trade route, as well as by the locals. The earliest date is back to between 5000 BC and 1000 BC, showing single animals, triangular men and hunting scenes in which the animals are shown larger than the hunters. These figurines were filled into the rock with stone tools and are covered with a thick gloss that yields their age.

The Karakoram Highway is unofficially known as the KKH. Within Pakistan, it is formally known as the N-35, while within China it is known officially as China National Highway 314 (G314). It is also a part of the Asian Highway AH4. The Pakistani section of the highway starts from Abbottabad. Although the N-35 of which KKH is now part, officially starts from the Grand Trunk Road, N-5, at Hassanabdal. The highway meets the Indus River at Thakot and continues along the river until Jaglot, where the Gilgit River joins the Indus River.

This is where three great mountain ranges meet: the Hindukush, the Himalaya and the Karakoram mountain ranges. The western end of the Himalayas is noticeable by the ninth highest peak in the world ‘Nanga Parbat,’ which can be seen from the highway. The highway passes through the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, Gilgit, and continues through the valleys of Nagar and Hunza along the Hunza River. The region includes some of the world’s largest glaciers like the Baltoro Glacier. Apart from Nanga Parbat, four of the eight-thousand peaks (mountains taller than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft)) of the world that are in Pakistan, are accessible by this highway. The highway meets the Pakistan-China border at Khunjerab Pass.

The Chinese section of the Karakoram Highway follows the north-south Sarykol (Yellow Lake) valley just west of the Tarim Basin. The road from Kashgar goes southwest about 80 Kilometers and then turns west to enter the Gez (Ghez) River canyon between Chakragil mountain on the north and Kongur mountain on the south. From the Gez canyon the population becomes Kirgiz. Having climbed up to the valley, the road turns south past Kongur, Karakul Lake, and Muztagh Ata on the east. Below Muztagh Ata, a new road goes west over the Kulma Pass to join the Pamir Highway in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. The main road continues over a low pass (where the population becomes Tajik) and descends to Tashkurgan. Further south, a valley and jeep track leads west toward the Wakhjir Pass to the Wakhan Corridor. Next the road turns west to a check post and small settlement at Pirali, and then the Khunjerab Pass, beyond which is Pakistan, the Khunjerab River and Hunza.

The significant aspect of this highway is that it cuts through the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates, where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan come within 250 Kilometers of each other. Acknowledging the tourist attraction of this route, the renowned British national daily The Guardian, ranked Karakoram Highway as the third best tourist destination in Pakistan.  The best time to travel on KKH is in the spring or early autumn. Heavy snow during severe winters can shut the highway down for extended periods. Also, heavy monsoon rains around July and August cause occasional landslides that can block the road for hours or more.

On June 30, 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Pakistani Highway Administration and China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) to rebuild and upgrade the Karakoram Highway. According to SASAC, the width will be expanded from 10 to 30 meters (33 to 98 ft), and its transport capacity will be increased three times to its current capacity. In addition, the upgraded road will be designed to particularly accommodate heavy-laden vehicles and extreme weather conditions.

Here, it is important to mention the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC), which is a development megaproject that aims to connect Gwadar Port in southwestern Pakistan to China’s northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang, via a network of highways, railways and pipelines to transport oil and gas. The economic corridor is considered central to Pakistan-China relations and will run about 3,000 Kilometers from Gwadar to Kashgar. And keeping in view the strategic importance of this project, the Karakoram Highway is definitely going to play a huge part in it.


Ahmed Raza is a frequent traveler and loves cricket. He is a graduate in Journalism and works as Assistant Travel Editor for Kluchit.com

Fahim is a kluchit member