Travelling the Karakoram Highway from Pakistan to China

Article by  John McGovern

As a traveller fascinated by China and its borders, I’ve already traversed most of this huge country’s extreme crossings, including North Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal. A few still elude me, but if you were going to ask me which is the most worthwhile, I’d have to say the border with Pakistan.

The Karakoram Highway goes for over 1000 kilometres from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, to Kashgar in Xinjiang, a Chinese city closer to Tehran and Damascus than it is to Beijing!

Pakistan itself is more than worth a visit. If you want an easy holiday, then the Philippines and Thailand are just one flight away, but if it’s travel and adventure you want, there’s no need to look further than Pakistan. Flights from Xi’an change in Urumqi before heading to Islamabad, which is where I found myself this autumn.

6-1Before tackling the Karakoram Highway head-on, I headed down to Lahore, mainly to see the Pakistani-Indian border at Wagah, where these two nuclear-armed militaries face off in a much more confrontational way than even North and South Korea! Lahore has much more going for it though in terms of quirkiness. Its alleys are famous (more accurately, “infamous”) for street doctors and dentists, and if you ever want a haircut done by fire then this is the place.

Starting the road trip along the Karakoram Highway though one of the larger places along the way is Abbottabad, which is mainly famous for one thing: being the place where Osama Bin Laden was holed up and eventually discovered. As we had tea in a local café, one of the local patrons started discussing Abbottabad’s most famous former resident with us. “You know, Osama was a great neighbour to have. When he lived here none of us even knew of his existence, and when he was gone, our city became famous!”

The real beauty of the trip along the Karakoram Highway lies in the mountains, which are even more stunning than a visit to Tibet. We passed through the region where the Himalayas meet the Karakorum and the Hindu Kush, eventually arriving in the Hunza Valley, a region of ancient forts, archaeological structures and a strong (but extremely welcoming) people, who are quite frankly amazed to see a tourist of any kind, and who will gladly share a cup of tea and a smoke of a pipe.

6-3We passed into China through the Khunjerab Pass, straight into southern Xinjiang where the natural beauty does not recede. The stunning mountain background of the perfectly still Karakol Lake could not stand in greater contrast to the hustle and bustle of Xi’an. One of the Uyghur sheep farmers offered me a cigarette and we started talking. “You know, my sons have all gone to the cities, one is even in Xi’an. They think my life is backwards and hard, but they can’t even speak their mother tongue well. For me, I don’t disagree, it is backwards and hard. But every day I stand by this rock and I have a cigarette while looking at the lake, and to be honest there’s nothing more a man needs.”

By now you’ve probably heard of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one belt, one road, taking Chinese soft power and cheaply made goods throughout the Eurasian land mass, and bringing back natural resources amongst other things.

But have you heard of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)? Probably not, but it has potential consequences for this part of the world. China has its eye on the Pakistani port of Gwadar, and freight heading both ways along the highway is increasing.

One of the goals is to make Kashgar, China’s most Muslim city, “the Shenzhen of the West”. True enough, most of the old town has already been pulled down – for “health and safety” reasons.

6-2It is quite likely that as Chinese economic and soft power reaches out its borders and through its neighbours, and indeed as globalisation sinks its roots in to the furthest corners of the world, that the natural beauty and the local culture will change completely, which is probably the very essence of the contradiction of travel.

One thing is certain though—it’s best to enjoy the Karakoram before it’s too late.

Young Pioneer Tours will be journeying the Karakoram Highway in September 2018:

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