Pakistan's Karakoram Highway
(by Katie)

Highland Adventures: Pakistan

Do you love a challenge? Do the mountains beckon you with their overpowering beauty?  Are you up for a longish drive through the highest altitudes in the world?  Then the Karakoram Highway is a road you must travel sometime in your life.  It starts from near Islamabad and the dusty plains of Punjab, weaving through sparse green hills which give no indication of what's to come!

This is the high road to China, all of 1200 kilometers long, running through an impossibly difficult terrain...with raging rivers, precipitous peaks and deep ravines...blasted and bulldozed through mountains that are both forbidding and majestic. 

It follows a branch of the famous historical Silk Route, which connected South, East and West Asia, to the Mediterranean and European world, and parts of North and East Africa.  Country names have changed over time but it passes through Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and China.  This was the route that led to the exchange of goods and services as well as the cultural exchanges between the West and East in ancient times.

Now the Karakoram Highway serves to unite the independent mountain kingdoms to the plains of Pakistan as well as connecting South Asia with West and Central Asia. 

It takes you along the route through which the transmission of Buddhism to China and Tibet began, and to the famous Sunday bazaars at the Kashgar oasis where spices and exotic fruits rub shoulders with silk carpets and colorful pottery.  

Today, trucks and minibuses have taken the place of camels and donkeys travelling to the market, but an occasional horse rider may still be glimpsed on this stretch.

As the Karakoram Highway enters China, you will be presented with the astonishing sight of the highest peaks and longest glaciers in the world...beautiful mountain lakes nestle in valleys between ice clad mountains...the road in places has literally been gouged out of the massive cliffs around you.  At others, the road takes you over fragile looking suspension bridges over swirling rivers far below.  If vertigo is a problem for you, this trip will test your reflexes to the extreme.

For the fainthearted, there are many picturesque stops along the way...the Ganish village has been restored to its former quaint glory, where cool glacier melt-water is still used to store food.  The timber and stone watchtower, though a tight squeeze for anyone willing to climb it, is an interesting relic from the former days of war with Nagyr.

Then, there is Chilas with its fascinating Petroglyphs with hunting, and battle scenes, Buddhist stupas and the long-horned mountain goat, the ibex.  The 1st century inscriptions of conquests, the Buddha's life and the drawings of mythical animals and the life of Buddha are very striking.

The main landmark of Shigar village is Fong Khar, the fort and palace of the former Raja of Shigar.  It is now a luxury hotel and a museum showcasing the opulent lifestyle of Shigar's elite.  The palace built from timber and rock has a natural rock foundation and merges almost seamlessly into the mountainside into which it was built, on top of which are the ruins of an earlier fort, Sinigma Khar.

If you believe in fairies, go to Lake Saiful Mark, at 3200m above sea level.  Legend has it that Prince Saiful Mulk fell in love with a fairy who lived in the incredibly blue waters of the lake, and married her.  The fairies still live in the lake, which is surrounded by moody blue mountains, and if you are fanciful enough you may just meet them even today!

From mountains to glaciers, rock drawings to the wonders of the Silk Route, the Karakoram Highway is a fascinating experience for seekers of adventure with a touch of romance in their souls. 

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     By Carolynne Woods, © Copyright 2010-2020. International Travel   All rights reserved images and text