Karakuram Highway - Twentieth Century Miracle

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Karakuram Highway - Twentieth Century Miracle, Nancy hatch Dupree
Published in Khyber.ORG on Sunday, July 24 2011 (http://www.khyber.org)

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Karakuram Highway - Twentieth Century Miracle

Nancy hatch Dupree

Publishing Date: Sunday, July 24 2011

Note: This article was written in 1981 and hence any reference to prices and hotels are obviously different. Other than the Atabad landslide which has severed road network to Khunjerab, the remaining route is the same as written in this article. The pictures used in this article are recent and where borrowed, have been cited accordingly.

The Task

A 500 mile metalled dual highway snakes through awesome mountains where four giant ranges with peakes averaging 20,000 feet meet and cross. This task took twenty years. At the peak period of its construction 24,500 courageous Pakistanis and Chinese laboured to turn a dream into a miraculous reality.

For many centuries caravans have braved these tortuous mountains treading precariously along paths providing short cuts between the great caravan towns of Central Asia and the rich markets of the sub-continent. However, the trails were hazardous, angry rivers were horrigying to contemplate, and nature's storms caused even the most intrepid to quail on the high passes and in the desolate gorges.

In 1947 travel in and out of the area could have been described almost as it had been 15 centuries earlier by the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hsien in 390 AD. "The way was difficult and rugged, running along a bank exceedingly precipitous. When one approached the edge of it, his eyes became unsteady; and if he wished to go forward in the same direction, there was no place on which he could place his foot; and beneath were the waters of the river called the Indus."

Start of the Highway

The Karakuram Highway through Baltistan
July 2001 by Gert Wrigge & Anton Oettl

A Picture taken from site of Basha Dam (2007)

Near Sumbar Nallah (2007)

Winding Road near Raikot (2007)

The new nation of Pakistan was determined to end the isolation of the Northern Areas. As early as January 1959 one battalion of Army Engineers went to Swat to construct a 155 mile Indus Valley Road along the Indus River to Chilas. Two weeks were spent covering just 25 miles before work could even commence. The footpath was so narrow that donkeys could not pass and soldiers carried their supplies on their backs. Even the compressors needed to run the rock-drills had to be dismantled so that the men could carry them.

In 1965 the more ambitious KKH project was born. This envisioned a two-lane paved highway for heavy traffic which would reach as far as the Khunjerab Pass on the border of the People's Republic of China. Now, for the first time since the heyday of the fabled Silk Route which flourished from the 2nd through the 8th centuries AD, the fertile plains of ancient Gandhara and the Punjab were to be linked with the equally fabled Central Asian cities of Tashkurgan, Kashgar and Urumchi, a railhead leading to Beijing. A joint agreement for the construction of the KKH was signed by Pakistan and China in 1966.

Rawalpindi - Abbottabad117 km73 mi2 hours
Rawalpindi - Taxila turnoff25 km15.5 mi1/2 hour
Taxila - Hasan Abdal20 km12.5 mi1/2 hour
Hasan Abdal - Abbottabad72 km45 mi1 hour
Road Tax Rupees 2/-
Road Distances - Rawalpindi to Abbottabad

Abbottabad - Gilgit517 km321 mi10 1/2 hours
Abbottabad - Basham Qila157 km98 mi3 1/2 hours
Basham Qila - Gilgit358 km223 mi7 hours
Road Distances - Abbottabad to Gilgit

Gilgit - Karimabad112 km70 mi3 hours
Karimabad - Nagar8 km5 mi1 hour
Road Distances - Gilgit to Karimabad

Gilgit to Khunjerab Pass and Return642 km400 mi12 hours
Karimabad - Khunjerab Pass209 km130 mi3 hours
Karimabad - Hallegush21 km12 mi30 minutes
Hallegush - Pasu35 km21 mi45 minutes
Pasu - Khunjerab Pass round-about121 km75 mi3 hours
Road Distances - Hunza to Khunjerab

Again, the Army Engineers were entrusted with this project. To alleviate the problems encountered in building the Indus Valley Road, however, a semi-autonomous body called the Frontier Works Organization was raised to supply logistic support.

In 1967 work started simultaneously from Thakot, Chilas, Gilgit and the Khunjerab Pass, separated one from the other by distances of 145-260 km (90 to 160 miles). Between these points there was no road to transport heavy machinery. The Pakistan Air Force was, therefore called upon to lift ten thousand tons of machinery and stores to strategic points. Casualty evacuation was carried out by a fleet of helicopters located close to major work sites.

Progress in some areas was measured in yards rather than miles per month, so difficult was the task. In addition, because the ranges along this 500 mile stretch were of different geological ages and the rock formations so complex, each outcrop demanded a specific drilling and blasting technique.

Silk Route Travel Map

Eight thousand tons of explosives were expended to blast the KKH through nature's defences. To complicate the problem, glacial moraines and unstable scree deposits had a disconcerting habit of collapsing without notice, taking the road with them. The famous Pattan earthquake, end of December 1974 for instance, caused large landslides, blocking the road for two weeks. Landslides caused by earth tremors or rains cause the road to be closed for periods. Glaciers also added to the problem, advancing to knock out concrete bridges and forming massive mudflows to chew up the highway.

There are 24 major and 70 smaller bridges along the route, all of which had to be built according to different ecological prerequisites. Because of high flood levels, deep gorges and fast flowing rivers, each bridge required a specific design: there are plate girder bridges, prestressed bridges, reinforced concrete arched bridges, and suspension bridges.

To combat all these natural obstacles during the peak period of construction 9,500 Chinese together with 5,000 Pakistanis struggled between Havelian and Thakot, and another 5,000 Pakistanis assisted in the logistic services manning hospitals, workshops, warehouses, and transportation fleets. Of these 24,500 men some 400 gave their lives in the building of the KKH.

The official opening of the KKH took place on 18 June 1978 at Thakot. One engineer commented, "As I now drive down this super highway I honestly cannot believe we really did it." All those who travel the KKH must echo his sentiments.

Permission to travel on KKH must be obtained from the Tourism Division, Government of Pakistan, Islamabad, whether one travels by private car, taxi, or bus. Permission usually requires 4 days.

To travel the entire length of the KKH takes a minimum of two very long days of driving by private car from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, 13 hours Gilgit to the Khunjerab Pass and return to Gilgit 13 hours. The bus from the Pir Widhai Bus Station, Rawalpindi takes approximately 15 hours to Gilgit, with one stop enroute.

Minibuses ply between Gilgit and Karimabad, Hunza. There is no regular public transportation from Karimabad to the Khunjerab Pass. PTDC jeeps may be hired for this trip ad the Chinar Inn, Gilgit. Hiring charges are:

  • Rs. 5 per mile
  • Rs. 50 per day
  • Rs. 50 per night haltage

A more leisurely itinery taking 5 days permits short visits to Taxila and Hasan Abdal and a picnic lunch at the Moghul Gardens outside Hassan Abdal, with a night stop at Abbottabad from where one may return to Rawalpindi via the beautiful wooded ranges known as Gallis and Murree.

Beginning of Adventure

The KKH adventure begins at Rawalpindi (altitude 514 m or 1687 feet), heading west along the Grand Trunk Road constructed by Emperor Sher Shah Suri. Caravanserais and forts stood at regular intervals along this royal highway; their ruins, such as those at Sangjani, picturesquely dot the landscape. At the Margalla Pass, cut during the reign of the Moghul Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), a portion of the ancient cobblestone paving may yet be seen. A monument in memory of General John Nicholson, one of Britain's famous early frontier administrators, towers above the pass. He fell during the siege of Delhi on 22 September 1857, aged 34.

Soon after the pass, a sign marks the turnoff to the historic valley of Taxila which was acclaimed through many centuries as the most splendid caravan city on these plains. Alexander the Great tarried at Taxila's Bhir Mound in 326 BC. Taxila was the seat of learning and art during the Buddhist era. The site and the museum are fascinating.

A major imperial Moghul camp site at Wah, 43 km (28 miles) from Rawalpindi, was developed into a Moghul Garden with magnificient plane trees by order of the Emperor Akbar. Tapering cypress trees, so beloved by the Moghuls, line canals through which cool waters once flowed between elegant, romantic pavilions and cascaded into large reflecting basins. Fish swum in these waters and the emperors delighted in adorning them with golden rings and pearls hung from their noses.

A bustling bus stop bazar greets one at Hasan Abdal, a pilgrim site since at least the 7th century AD. when Chinese Buddhist pilgrims offered homage to the Serpent-King Elepatra who dwelt within its limpid springs.

The holy Muslim shrine of Baba Wali Kandahari, at Hasan Abdal, known during the 15th century as a spiritual confidant of kings, crowns the high hill on the eastern edge of the town.

At the foot of the same hill spring-fed pools enhance the Sikh Gurdwara (temple) of Panja Sahab enshrining an impression of the hand of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of the Sikh religion in 1499. Panja, meaning five, refers to the five fingers, the hand, of the saint. Thousands upon thousands of Sikh pilgrims continue to visit this gurdwara every year to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi during the month of March.

Behind the raodside restaurant bazar, there is a colourful general bazar. On the way to it one passes the gardens containing the mausoleum of Hakim Fath Gilani (d. 1589) and his brother Hummam (d. 1595) two stellar nobles of the court of the Emperor Akbar who visited the mausoleum in February, 1590.

One leaves the Grand Trunk Road at Hasan Abdal and continues in a north-easterly direction through lush fields which are a blaze of yellow in the spring when such oilseed crops as mustard, sesame and rape blossom. Five km (3 miles) from the turnoff a toll gate marks the entrance to Hazara District, the northern-most district of the North-West Frontier and the only district of this province which lies east of the the Indians who opposed Alexander in the mountains north of Gandhara.

Two large towns lie beyond. The large commercial town of Haripur 35 km (22 miles) from Hasan Abdal was founded in 1822, four years after this area had been annexed by the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). It was named after its governor, Sardar Hari Singh, and functioned as the district headquarters until the administration was transferred to Abbottabad in 1853.

At Havelian (22 km. 14 miles from Haripur) and imposing bridge spans the Dor River and the road immediately begins to climb, rising in 15 km, (9 miles) from 766 m (2513 feet) to 1222 m (4010 feet) at Abbottabad. Along this section you will note that many graves are planted with narcissus and frequently decorated with glittering tinsel, a charming custom distinctive of this area.

The picturesque city of Abbottabad is surrounded by timber forested ranges rising to heights of 1524-2743 m (5000-9000 feet). This city takes its name from Captain James Abbott, the first British Deputy Commissioner of Hazara from 1847-1853. The army cantonment laid out by Captain Abbot became the headquarters of the distinguished Punjab irregular frontier force, dubbed the "Piffers". The Piffers (Frontier Force Regiment since 1903) have enjoyed the reputation of being a corps d'elite ever since it was raised in 1849, and are still based at Abbottabad where the Pakistan Military Academy is also located at Kakul.

Abbottabad has a large, very colourful bazar and numerous comfortable hotels. An alternate return route from Abbottabad to Rawalpindi may be taken through the beautifully wooded ranges known as Gallies and via Murree.

Morality Edicts

Leaving Abbottabad, the KKH winds through gentle hills thickly planted with pines and fruit trees. On entering the township of Mansehra (26 km; 16 miles; 35 minutes) take the left fork for Gilgit; right fork leads to the Kaghan Valley.

Fourteen edicts issued by the Mauryan King Ashoka (ca 257 BC) are inscribed on three massive boulders on the northern slope of Mansehra. Signs on the KKH explain these morality edicts abolishing the slaughter of man and beast, recommending kindness, good deeds, and self control.

The large town of Batagram, north of the Naudiar Water-shed (73 km; 45 miles; 1 1/2 hours from Mansehra) offers a small hotel and petrol. Beyond Batagram the road crosses a ridge from which one sees a sturdy mountain wall at the end of a narrow cleft. Twisting and turning the road descends for 20 miles seeking an exit from this rocky chasm where the green terraces are replaced by sparse grassy clumps and scrub. At the end is the Indus River. Here a marker identifies the 2163 m (7100 feet) mountain on the opposite bank as Pir Sar which some say is the famous Rock of Aornos where Alexander fought Swat's chieftains in 327 BC.

From now on the road hovers above the Indus which cuts relentlessly through the mountains, gathering the turquoise waters of melting snows and galciers. At Thakot (alt. 766 m; 2513 ft; 4 km; 2.5 miles beyond Pir Sar) one makes the first of many crossings over the Indus and heads for an area appropriatedly called Kohistan, the Land of Mountains. There is a large bazar at Basham Qila (28 km; 17 miles; 1/2 hour above Thakot), the headquarters of the Kohistan Development Board.

After Basham Qila the road bugs the hill on the right bank; on the left cliffs tower high, their faces hidden by scrub and low grasses. Despite the difficult terrain, villages and terraced fields doggedly cling to the precipitous hillsides.

Passing Pattan (44 km; 28 mi; 45 min. above Basham Qila), administrative centre of Kohistan, the road bores through the mountain rock. Here, because there were no footholds, the road builders had to climb ropes and pitons to place the blasting charges, but in spite of the ruggedness there are periodic roadside bazaars.

A Panoramic view of Dasu, Kohistan

Two and a half hours above Pattan once crosses into Gilgit and the scenery changes dramatically. Gravels and sands marking the position of the Indus millennia ago now sit high on starkly bare slopes streaked with geological deposits of silvery-gray, green, pink and violet hues. Only occasional oases gleam like emeralds. Summer temperatures run high and can reach 118 degrees F (47 degrees C) but rushing spring waters offer welcome refreshment.

The general isolation is broken at Chilas, and after the town of Jaglot (only 50 km; 31 mi; from Gilgit) villages again sprawl across the hillsides. At the foot of Mt. Haramosh (7397 m, 24,270 feet) the Indus is joined by the Gilgit River which the KKH follows northward.

Road Approaching Jaglot (2007)

Site Marking the meeting point of three great ranges of the Karakoram, Himalayas, and Hindukush (2007)

Boulder Fields and Petroglyphs

The KKH has enticed scholars to explore its terrain with remarkable results. The early history of the Northern Areas is still hazy, but new discoveries offer tantalizing glimmers into an excitingly eventful past.

This rich saga is being partly unveiled through the study of petroglyphs backed into the dark copper-red patina glazing the water-smoothed faces and rounded recesses of boulders scattered along the water-ways, from the rock-strewn plains west of Chilas north to Hunza, and west to Gupis. The petroglyphs appear singly on small rocks, or in exuberant profusion from various periods on massive outcrops. Many cluster beside ancient river crossings as prayers and expressions of gratitude for safe passage. The designs are so varied that it is possible to trace the passage of kings and conquerors, politicans and merchants, missionaries and pilgrims over 2000 years.

Petroglyph's along the road to Gilgit
Image Credit: Rob Burton

Pre-historic Giant near to Chilas
Image Credit: Rock Carvings and Inscriptions along the Karakorum Highway, Heidelberg Akademie der Wissenschaften

Symbols sacred to pre-historic, Buddhist and Hindu ritual abound, but the ibex predominates. For millennia this graceful mountain goat symbolized fertility, and figured predominantly in rituals associated with life sustaining hunts. Drawings of bulls and horses in the 4th-3rd centuries BC style of South Siberia suggest that horse riders from Central Asia established small kingdoms along this trade route to the rich markets of Gandhara's plains.

Figures in Parthian dress and inscriptions naming Kushan kings point to the extension of Gandhara's rulers into these hills to protect this branch of the Silk Route between India and China, which was at its busiest from the 1st-3rd centuries AD under Kushan rule. Petroglyphs of sacred Buddhist stupas attest to patronage of Buddhism; Hindu symbols emerge with the rise of militant Hinduism in Gandhara. After Central Asian Hephthalites displaced the Kushans, they added their tribal signs to these sacred boulders.


The KKH has restored Gilgit to its former position as a major depot on the trade route to Central Asia. After travel along the Silk Route became unsafe a little over a thousand years ago, scant trade moved through this area. When the British defeated the Sikhs in 1846, Gilgit was included with Kashmir in the territory they awarded to the Hindu Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh. Dogra forces were garrisoned at Gilgit in 1851 and in the late 1880s the first mule track was constructed to tie Gilgit with Kashmir.

The local princes paid Kashmir a yearly tribute in goats, grain, butter and gold-dust washed from the river's sands. According to Herodotus, gold-dust formed part of the tribute sent from this area to the Persian Achaemenids as long as the 6th century BC.

At the time of Independence, in 1947, the people of this area refused to accede to India.

The corps of Northern scouts, together with local freedom fighters, fought so valiantly that when a UN cease-fire was declared on 1st January 1949, Gilgit remained with Pakistan.

There are first class hotels as well as smaller ones in this fast-growing town seated in the shadow of magnificient Mt. Rakaposhi (7778 m; 25,551 feet).

The PTDC office is located at the Chinar Inn, opposite the Chinar Gardens beside the Gilgit River, spanned by one of Asia's longer suspension bridges, 183m; 600 ft long. Fine local woollen fabrics called patti may be purchased; a special store carries Chinese items. Polo games cause much excitement in October. The rules of the game are quite different from the standard rules. In face, there are no rules!

The fertile Gilgit Valley produces superb fruits, like tree-ripened Gilgiti peaches. Because the KKH permits modern machinery to move in, the valley's rich natural resources are now being more efficiently exploited.


Hunza River which joins the Gilgit River a mile below the town. The new bridge spans the Gilgit River at Daiynor, 8 km, 5 miles below Gilgit. After passing the Chinese cemetry where those who gave their lives for the KKH lie, and through a precipitous barren gorge, a series of small hamlets nestled within terraced fiels and fruit orchards appear opposite one another, on either side of the river. Formerly, each held a fort defending this access to Central Asia.

Hunza resented Kashmir's attempts to gain control and its rulers periodically expelled Kashmir garrisons, threatened Gilgit, and politicked with the rulers of Kashgar to the north, where the Russians were gaining influence.

Fearing Russian infiltration into their northern frontiers, the British took over direct political control at Gilgit in 1889. Incessant fratricidal intrigues in Hunza and Nagar made the area doubly insecure. This, coupled with the Mir of Hunza's consistent intransigenc einduced the British to march on Hunza in December 1891, where they fought a decisive battle at Nilit, 60 km, 38 miles beyond Dainor Bridge. After this the British garrisoned Aliabad until 1897 when Hunza became a princely state protected by the Government of British India.

The resplendant Hunza Valley sites among the highest mountains in the Karakoram Range, surrounded by tens of peaks 23-25 thousand feet (7000-7620m) high. Among the many frutis, 22 varieties of apricot reign supreme. The Mir's castle at Baltit above Karimabad is open to visitors. A rocky outcrop near the meeting of the Hunza and Nagar rivers is so profusely covered with petroglyphs that it has been named the Sacred Rock of Hunza.

Hunza to Khunjerab

To embark on a journey up the silk road is an adventure. While the time given from Hasan Abdal to Thakot which runs 163 km through an old settled area of Hazara Division, is five hours to which one can add the time spent on a picnic, lunch or tea on the way, these estimates apply only if there is no landslide obstructing the passage of the road.

A Road Block near Khunjerab (2007)

Landslides a frequent source of road-blocks
July 2001 by Gert Wrigge & Anton Oettl

The probability is much more likely after Thakot from where the new construction of the Karakoram Highway had taken place. Due to the geological formations in an earthquake prone area and the continous blasting of the rocks which went on for 15 years to make the road, the hillsides have not yet stabilised enough to withstand heavy rains. So it happens that without any advance notice, even long after rainfalls, slides occur and hold up the traffic. You may be caught in one or more than one of these and that may cause delays. Be prepared for it. Have water and anything else you fancy with you, especially when you are accompanied by children. Clearing of the road is done as quickly as possible. So don't forget - while you may now travel in a car or coach instead of on a yak or a horse, the journey into the most rugged mountains in the world is still an adventure which makes demands on your sense of humour and endurance and requires your whole hearted cooperation and love for the unusual.


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Karakuram Highway - Twentieth Century Miracle, Nancy hatch Dupree
Published in Khyber.ORG on Sunday, July 24 2011 (http://www.khyber.org)