The Karakoram Highway – stunning scenery, warm-hearted people and massive construction projects

Before coming to Kashgar I had never heard about the Karakoram Highway. This changed when one night in the hostel I met a lovely elderly British couple. They told me about their travels and mentioned that their recent trip to the Pakistan border along the Karakoram Highway was one of the most amazing things they have ever done in their life. This is when I knew I had to go.

The Karakoram Highway (known informally as the KKH) is said to be the highest paved international road in the world. It was built by the governments of Pakistan and China. Construction started in 1959 and was completed and opened to the public in 1979. The route of the KKH traces one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Road. In the construction process many people lost their lives, mainly in landslide and falls. The 1,300-kilometer long path runs from Kashgar almost to the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

And I was not the only one interested in this trip. The next morning a minivan was waiting outside our hostel and 7 of us (plus driver) were on our way. Our trip would take us to the border town Tashkurgan, a journey of around 400 kilometres.

After around 1,5 hours we stopped in a small town called Upal. It became obvious that all tourists travelling the Karakoram Highway stopped there. The main street was lined with little restaurants and food stalls. There was actually not much to see. We did however, use the time to buy some freshly baked nan bread, which came straight out of the oven (you stick the bread dough on the stone walls of the oven and wait for it to turn light brown and crunchy). It tastes AMAZING!

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We then continued our journey. Soon after leaving the town of Upal the road conditions got worse. For the next 100+ km we mainly had to drive off-road, due to construction work. While the scenery around us got more and more beautiful, we also realised that there was a massive construction project going on. Huge pillars were being erected, deep holes were being dug – everywhere were construction workers. What was going on?

Apparently the idea is to transform this dusty, bumpy road into a modern mountain highway. All of this is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a network of roads, railway and pipelines between the long-time allies. For this project China is pouring $46 bn into Pakistan. Pakistan hopes that it will create jobs and spark economic activity. They also see in China a strong ally, particularly against their arch-rival India. For the Chinese, the relationship has a geo-strategic significance. It give them the shortest access to the Middle East and Africa and is widening its geopolitical influence and possibly its military presence in the region. And as the Forbes magazine puts it: One thing that is certain though, if Pakistan thrives from these projects, is its debt to China: The Pakistani elite will have no choice but to cater to the interests of the Chinese government. Obviously, these kind of deals are not alien to the Western world either….

But back to my trip:

The further we continued our journey, the more spectacular became the scenery. Red mountains, turquoise lakes, snow-capped mountains. It was all there.

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There were also quite a few military checkpoints. Once we all had to leave the bus, enter a building where we had to show our passports, before we were able to continue the journey.

With an increase in altitude the temperature dropped. While Kashgar’s elevation is 1250m, Tashkurgan is situated at an altitude of 3000m.

Although we were being promised a few photo stops, we had a hard time convincing our Chinese driver to stop the car. He was clearly not in a good mood and it did not take long before he and our two Chinese fellow travellers bonded, and formed an alliance against us Westerners – or was it us forming an alliance against them? Anyway, there was definitely some animosity going on and it did not really help when we (Westerners) started discussing China’s politics. Our Chinese travelmates clearly did not share our opinion.

When we finally arrived in Tashkurgan in the late afternoon it started snowing. The sandals I was wearing were now clearly a bad choice. Tashkurgan (40.000 inhabitants) is the final major town before crossing into Pakistan. The town itself is not really worth visiting, but it has a beautiful stone fort, grasslands and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We also realised that in Tashkurgan Chinese flags were attached to every street light pole along the Karakoram Highway and apparently there is a strong military presence, due to its important strategic function. The local people yet again looked very different to the ones in Kashgar. Most people in Tashkurgan belong to the Tajik ethnic group. I even saw some ginger haired and fair-haired people.

20150907_180856_Richtone(HDR)20150907_180914_Richtone(HDR)More delicious bread

For dinner the Western allies went to a hotpot restaurant where we ordered an amazing Yak hotpot to warm us up – earlier on we had been caught in a sleet storm while visiting the stone fort.

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The next morning I woke up to the sun shining on my face. There is no better way to wake up for me.

After breakfast we went to visit the grasslands just outside of Tashkurgan. It was a cold beautiful morning with the mist still hanging over the grasslands. There were hardly any other people and as I was approached by a tiny local woman, I was sure she would be asking for money or would want me to buy a piece of the latest collection of local jewellery. But I was wrong: all she wanted was to say hello and show me which of the yurts belonged to her.

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And again, just in case anyone has forgotten in the meantime: We are still in China

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We then continued our journey back to Kashgar. The weather was beautiful and sometimes we managed to convince our driver (who pretended not to hear us) to stop the car.

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At one point, while trying to get away from the group to find a good spot to pee, I came across these groundhogs. Later on, we passed hundreds of them.

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Although this trip was only a 2-day trip, my Brazilian travel chum and I decided to stay one more night at a place we already passed the day before, called Karakul Lake, whose icy-cold waters are guarded by the snow-capped Muztaghata mountain (7550m).

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The only problem was that by staying there we had to organise the return journey to Kashgar ourselves. However, we figured out that a) we could take one of the few daily busses or b) we could try hitchhiking. It was just too beautiful to leave –  so we had to risk it.

There were no other tourists at Karakul Lake so the few local guys were all over us. Our communication consisted of a mix of bad Chinese and bad English, which was tiresome and hilarious at the same time. The guys told us that one of the best things to do around here was a motorbike ride to one of the glaciers. Even though I had no proper clothing and the motorbikes looked not entirely safe and well functioning (one of the guys later showed me with a big grin on his face that his bike only had one functioning break) we decided to go. It was all part of the adventure and sometimes you have to risk things, to experience the extraordinary.

It took us around 1 hour to reach the glacier. The first 30 minutes (where I already thought the road was actually quite bad and the driver was actually going way too fast) turned out to be the easy ones. At least there was still a trek visible. We had to stop the motorbikes a few times, because they were overheating. And sometimes me and the Brazilian had to walk up a hill (which took forever – the air was so thin that any movement made us gasp for breath) because it was too dangerous or the motorbike did just not have enough power. When after a certain point my driver announced that now the difficult part would start, I was thinking how much more difficult can it get??

When we finally arrived at the glaciers my hand were numb. Out of fear of falling off, I had held onto the motorbike very tightly, plus temperatures were probably somewhere around 0C.  We were now at around 4000m -4500m.

And here are some more impressions:

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On our way back we stopped at our tour guide’s sister’s house. A very simple house made out of stone – with one big room which was being used as a living room, bedroom and kitchen. All was being kept very clean and tidy and it was actually quite cozy. And again, I was amazed by the local’s warm-heartedness and hospitality. They offered us bread, yak tea and yak yoghurt – which actually has a very sour taste (very different to what I expected it to taste like). As one person put it: it tastes a bit like stomach acid mixed with lemon juice ;). Anyway, after a few bites my tastebuds slowly got used to this very different experience and I managed to finish my bowl (which was not a good thing, because that made them quickly refill it). The ladies were beautifully dressed and very polite – but also very shy. Sometimes they stole a glance at us and started giggling.

We then returned to Karakul Lake, where we would spend the night in a yurt. These yurts were actually only being used as tourist accommodation – most locals lived in small villages around the lake. Me and my driver from earlier on, who had a very keen interest in my jacket – he told me it was almost impossible to get a good jacket around there – struck a deal that if he let me ride his horse, I would give him my jacket. And here is the proof (I kept my jacket until the next morning though, in order not to freeze to death) :

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Later on, a few people came to the yurt. A woman was busy cooking dinner for us. The men were chatting to each other and entertaining us. I caught the last rays of sunlight, helping our guide to bring in his sheep and experiencing local village life.

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We had no electricity in the yurt and as soon as the fire in the oven went out temperatures dropped within minutes. I buried myself under 5 heavy blankets – which made me feel slightly claustrophobic – but still had difficulties keeping warm.

After a long cold night, I woke up to this:

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The last part of the journey turned out to be the most difficult one. Getting back to Kashgar was much more difficult than we had expected. Cars and busses were all packed with people. The ones which were not, did not stop. For the first 2,5 hours not one single car stopped. Later we were being told that only commercial vehicles are allowed to take passengers/hitchhikers. Obviously, there were quite a few military checkpoints on the way, so no one wanted to risk getting caught. When finally a school bus pulled up, we were relieved. A group of very friendly Chinese teachers who had been working for one year in Tashkurgan were on their way back to Kashgar and were willing to give us a lift.

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And this is the end of my Karakoram adventure – a truly amazing experience.

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