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Karakoram Highway (KKH)

The Karakoram Highway known by its initials KKH, also known as N-35 or National Highway 35  or the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway (also a part of the Asian Highway AH4) is a 1,300-kilometre (810 mi) national highway which extends from Hasan Abdal in the Punjab province of Pakistan to the Khunjerab Pass in Gilgit-Baltistan, where it crosses into China and becomes China National Highway 314. Karakoram Highway has been described as one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. KKH provides a cross country road trip from Hasan Abdal, Pakistan to Kashghar.Karakoram Highway Pakistan

The highway connects the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa plus Gilgit-Baltistanwith China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The highway is a popular tourist attraction and is one of the highest paved roads in the world, passing through the Himalaya, Hindukush and Karakoram mountain range, at 36°51′00″N 75°25′40″E at maximum elevation of 4,714 metres (15,466 ft) near Khunjerab pass. Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it is often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In recent years the highway has sought to become a ‘niche’ adventure tourism destination although Pakistan attracts both international tourists and domestic ones.Among the tourist destinations in the country, KKH is deemed as the “third best” by The Guardian. The road has given mountaineers and cyclists easier access to the many high mountains, glaciers, and lakes in the area. The highway provides access to Gilgit and Skardu from Islamabad by road. These are the two major hubs for mountaineering expeditions in the Gilgit–Baltistan.

The Gilgit–Baltistan Administration of Pakistan and the Xinjiang Administration of China have signed an agreement to issue border passes to their permanent residents. This pass is valid for a calendar year and is used to travel through Khunjerab Pass only.

Naltar Valley, Fairy Meadows, Hunza valleys are the most scenic valleys accessed via Karakoram Highway. The valley offers snow clad mountains, sky high peaks, alpine ski slopes, high altitude lakes, glaciers and mountain passes.

Karakoram Highway (KKH) History

The Karakoram Highway, also known as the Friendship Highway in China, was built by the governments of Pakistan and China. It was started in 1959 and was completed and opened to the public in 1979. Pakistan initially favored routing through Mintaka Pass. In 1966, China citing the fact that Mintaka would be more susceptible to air strikes recommended the steeper Khunjerab Pass instead. About 810 Pakistanis and about 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly in landslides and falls, while building the highway. Over 140 Chinese workers who died during the construction are buried in the Chinese cemetery in Gilgit. The route of the KKH traces one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Road.

On the Pakistani side, the road was constructed by FWO (Frontier Works Organisation), employing the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer-in-Chief’s Branch of the Pakistani Army completed a project documenting the history of the highway. The book History of Karakoram Highway was written by Brigadier (Retired) Muhammad Mumtaz Khalid in two volumes. In the first volume the author discusses the land and the people, the pre-historic communication system in the Northern Areas, the need for an all-weather road link with Gilgit, and the construction of Indus Valley Road. The second volume records events leading to the conversion of the Indus Valley Road to the Karakoram Highway, the difficulties in its construction, and the role of Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers and their Chinese counterparts in its construction.

The Highway

The highway cuts through the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates, where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistancome within 250 kilometres (160 mi) of each other. Owing largely to the extremely sensitive state of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway has strategic and military importance to these nations, but particularly Pakistan and China.

On 30 June 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Pakistani National Highway Authority (NHA) 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 metres (33 to 98 ft), and its transport capacity will be increased three times its current capacity. In addition, the upgraded road will be designed to particularly accommodate heavy-laden vehicles and extreme weather conditions.

China and Pakistan are planningto link the Karakoram Highway to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese-aided Gwadar-Dalbandin railway, which extends to Rawalpindi.

On 4 January 2010, the KKH was closed in the Hunza Valley, eliminating through traffic to China except by small boats. A massive landslide15 kilometres (9.3 mi) upstream from Hunza’s capital of Karimabad created the potentially unstable Attabad Lake, which reached 22 kilometres (14 mi) in length and over 100 metres (330 ft) in depth by the first week of June 2010 when it finally began flowing over the landslide dam. The landslide destroyed parts of villages while killing many inhabitants. The subsequent lake displaced thousands and inundated over 20 kilometres (12 mi) of the KKH including the 310 metres (1,020 ft) long KKH bridge 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) south of Gulmit.

It is highly questionable whether the lake, which reached 27 kilometres (17 mi) in length in 2011, will drain. Goods from and to further north were transported over the lake by small vessels, to be reloaded onto trucks at the other end.  In July 2012 Pakistan began constructing a revised route around the lake at a higher elevation with five new tunnels, with total length of 7.12 km, and two new bridges. The work was contracted out to the China Road & Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and was completed in September 2015—see Karakorum Highway Realignment (China-Pakistan Friendship Tunnels) below.

Karakoram Highway KKH Pakistani section

At 806 kilometres (501 mi) in length, the Pakistani section of the highway starts at Abbottabad, although the N-35 of which KKH is now part, officially starts from Hasan Abdal. 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. The western end of the Himalayas, marked by the ninth highest peak in the world, Nanga Parbat, 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. Some of the highest mountains and famous glaciers in the Karakoram can be seen in this section. The highway meets the Pakistani-Chinese border at Khunjerab Pass.

Karakoram Highway KKH Chinese section

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 kilometres (50 mi) and then turns west to enter the Gez (Ghez) River canyon between Chakragilmountain 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 checkpost and small settlement at Pirali, and then the Khunjerab Pass, beyond which is Pakistan, the Khunjerab River and Hunza.

Karakoram Highway KKH Mountains and glaciers

Karakoram Highway provides the pathway to expeditions for almost all peaks in Gilgit–Baltistan, Kashmir and several peaks in XinjiangChina. The region includes some of the world’s largest glaciers like the Baltoro and Siachen Glaciers. Five of the Eight-thousanders(mountains taller than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft)) of the world that are in Pakistan are accessible by the highway. The notable mountains that can be directly seen while travelling on the highway are:

  • Nanga Parbat, Gilgit–Baltistan, 9th highest of the world at 8,126 metres (26,660 ft)
  • Rakaposhi, Gilgit–Baltistan, 27th highest of the world at 7,788 metres (25,551 ft)
  • Diran, Gilgit–Baltistan, most dangerous mountain in Pakistan
  • Shishpar, Gilgit–Baltistan,
  • Ultar Peak, Gilgit–Baltistan,
  • Tupopdan, Gilgit–Baltistan, also known as Cathedral Peaks near Passu

Many glaciers can be seen while travelling on the highway:

  • Minapin Glacier
  • Passu Glacier
  • Ghulkin Glacier
  • Khunjerab Glacier
Karakoram Highway KKH Rivers and lakes

Several rivers and lakes are made accessible by the highway. These include:

  • Indus River
  • Hunza River
  • Attabad Lake
  • Gilgit River
  • Khunjerab River
  • Karakul Lake in Xinjiang (China)
Karakoram Highway KKH Rock art and petroglyphs:

There are more than 50,000 pieces of rock art and petroglyphs all along the highway that are concentrated 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 locals. The earliest date back to between 5000 and 1000 BC, showing single animals, triangular men, and hunting scenes in which the animals are larger than the hunters. These carvings were pecked into the rock with stone tools and are covered with a thick patina that yields their age.

Karakoram Highway KKH Weather

The KKH is best travelled in the spring or early autumn. Heavy snow during harsh winters can shut the highway down for extended periods. Heavy monsoon rains around July and August cause occasional landslides that can block the road for hours or more. The border crossing between China and Pakistan at Khunjerab Pass is open only between 1 May and 31 December.

Map of Karakoram Highway (KKH)

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