The Karakoram Highway often just called KKH, is a highway that runs about 1.300km (800 miles) from Abbottabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in the province of Xinjiang in west China.
The Karakoram Highway was one of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Today its the worlds highest international border at 4800m (16.00feet) at Khunjerab Pass.
While the Karakoram Highway officially starts from Abbottabad, a city that is famous for anything but the KKH in recent years. You will most likely start your journey from Rawalpindi. Rawalpindi is located 14km south of the capital of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.
Important: all long distances buses from the capital to around the country leaves from Rawalpindi, not Islamabad itself.
The bus station in Rawalpindi is huge, chaotic and dodgy, I got pulled aside by the security guards and hidden away at the back room, for my own safety they claimed, that was fine for me since I had more than 4 hours to wait for the bus north after I arrived from Lahore. I got offered unlimited tea and food from the security guards while I was waiting for my bus north.
There are at least 2 "VIP" buses and a minibus leaving north a day, they all leave Rawalpindi around 16.00, and arrives in Gilgit around 18.00 the next day.
I made the mistake of taking the minibus, while it was comfy enough, the "VIP" buses were much faster and offered a lot more legroom.
It will be dark outside before you are out the city, so you are not going to see anything before the next morning. The first part of the journey is in proper tarmac so it's no problem to get some hours sleep. We stopped at least 3 times for toilet breaks during the night and once for food.
Unfortunately it is pretty hard to take good photos trough the window of the minibus, the roads are bumpy and the windows are dirty. So instead of wasting battery is it better just to enjoy the view.
There are a few military checkpoints on the way where you need to go out and register and provide them with a copy of your passport and visa, it's really no hassle.
But then at the checkpoint just before the town of Chillas, you will need to go trough a proper security check, you will be taken to the side and taken portrait photos off you, fingerprints and you will even get assigned a PERSONAL ARMED GUARD WITH AN AK47 (Strickly no photos were allowed of my guard) the guard will accompany you on the bus for the next few hours...
It was just ridiculous. First i was sitting anonymously in one of the backseats of the minibus and then got moved to the front seat next to the driver together with my guard, if there were any bad guys in the area could they easily have spotted me a mile away in the front seat...
The armed guard will accompany you to just before Gilgit.
Gilgit is by far the biggest town in Northern Pakistan, and you are guaranteed to stop by here for at least one night. Gilgit is the transportation hub on the Karakoram Highway. It's from Gilgit you will have to arrange transportation to head east towards Skardu, West to Chitral or North towards China.
Gilgit is also the ONLY place in Northern Pakistan with ATMs that work with western bankcards. But they were out of money while I was there. Gilgit Town is not much to brag about.
You will most likely arrive in Gilgit just after dark (I did) so its a good idea to have an idea of where you want to stay when you arrive. The bus station is located on the southern edge of the town, and its a 10 minute taxi ride to the center of town where most guesthouses are.
I stayed in Medina Guest House, popular with travelers, a small double room with Squat toilet and an ice cold shower was 300PKR, less than 3 USD.
There is no reason to spend much time in Gilgit, its better to move on to Skardu or Hunza Valley. There is a jeep/minibus station where you can get transport to Hunza Valley, less than 10miniutes walk from Medina Guesthouse.
The road from Gilgit to Hunza Valley is nice and smooth with great mountain view all the time, the jeep will most likely drop you off in Aliabad, it's the main town in Hunza Valley, but this is not where you want to stay, you want to catch another jeep going to Karimabad. Its another 15-20min drive, its too far to walk.
Karimabad is overlooking Aliabad and the whole valley, Karimabad offers one of the best views in the world, and you can well understand why Hunza Valley is named the last Shangrila. I could easily retire and live here.
Karimabad is just amazing, it offers a 360-degree view of mountains, 2 Unesco Heritage site, extremely friendly and welcoming people and the best walnut cake anywhere in the world! and even decent moonshine.
One the best things to do in Hunza is to climb some of the hills surrounding the valley, meet the locals, and hike up to the Eagle Nest restaurant and hotel. The Eagle Nest is located on one a high hill overlooking the valley, the locals claim they can walk up there in less than 1 hour, it took me almost 3 hours, its steep, very steep, but it offers a million dollar view. Its the perfect place to watch the sunset while you're enjoying a good dinner.
When you're ready to leave "Shangrila" and continue your journey along the Karakoram Highway, the next stop is Attabad Lake, just about 1 hour north of Karimabad.
Attabad Lake got formed just back in 2010 when a massive landslide buried a stretch of 19Km of the Karakoram Highway, about 6000 people got displaced. Today the lake is about 21km long and more than 100meters deep, and the only way to cross it is with small boats that shuttle across the lake.
The ride across the lake takes about 40 minutes, and its absolutely freezing cold, but the Chinese are blasting their way trough the mountain these days, so you will not need to take the boat in the future while you travel along the Karakoram Highway.
There are plenty of jeeps and minivans waiting on the other side of the lake, some go all the way to Sost, but next obvious stop on the Karakoram Highway is the tiny village of Passu. Passu offers world class hiking around The Cathedral Ridge, but I was unfortunately there too late in the season, so all guides had ventured south for seasonal work in southern Pakistan.
Passu has a few guesthouses, and the locals are very welcoming, I got invited for Chai (Tea) everywhere I walked in the village.
Then next and last stop on the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan is the sleepy town, Sost. Sost is a typical border town, with traders from both China and Pakistan, typical Chinese merchandises and even Tsingtao, Chinese beer is easily available.
If you got some extra time on your visa and want to spend some extra days in Pakistan you can do an easy side trip to Chapursan valley. Chapursan valley is located less than 10 km from the Afghanistan border, it offers volunteer work and a homestay. The last village in the valley is Zood Khun, you can find a homestay run by the redoubtable Alam Jan Dario, horseman, musician and ambassador of Wakhi Tajik culture. As Alam Jan Dario runs cultural and adventurous treks on foot or horseback into the valleys and over the passes of his spectacular homeland.
Chapursan valley is mentioned in the book "Stones into School". The book is the sequel to the award-winning book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson's humanitarian efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
You will actually stay in one of the houses and with the family of one of the main characters in the book.
There is amazing hiking available around Chapursan valley, but I was running out of time, both on my visa and that the Pakistan/China border was closing down for the season...
There is one daily bus from Sost to Tashkurgan in China, you will do all your custom and paperwork with Pakistani immigration already in Sost, it takes a few hours. Have your yellow vaccination book ready, they will check that you got Polio vaccination.
The road from Sost to the border goes trough Khunjerab National Park, and you still have to pay the entrance ticket of 10 USD, even if you are just passing trough on your way to China.
The border crossing between Pakistan and China is on Khunjerab Pass at 4800m (16.00feet), officially the world's highest border crossing.
Immigration and customs on Pakistani side are straight forward and easy but very slow. The Chinese side extremely strict, I have crossed into China overland before from, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong and North Korea. And the Pakistan - China border crossing is nothing like those, you will have to empty all your luggage twice with sniffer dogs around, X-Ray your luggage, and then customs will go throu your camera and check EVERY SINGLE photo on booth your camera and phone, they will also go trough your Tablet/laptop and they will do this on everyone on the bus. It takes time, a lot of time. My bus was on the border for about 6 hours.
Since I was the only tourist on the bus, was I the first person they checked and let trough. They will NOT stamp your passport on the Pakistani - China border..
When everyone is done with immigration and everyone is back on the bus, 2 Chinese military guards will accompany the bus till it reaches the immigration point in Tashkurgan. The bus will do no stop, no toilet break!!! between Khunjerab Pass and Tashkurgan.
That happens about 4 hours later when you reach Tashkurgan, then you will have to clear customs and immigration again.
You will start the day from Sost about 9 am and you will be done with Chinese immigration around 1 am the next day.
There is actually an International Youth hostel in Tashkurgan, but its far from the Immigration House, so its better for you to follow most of the Pakistanis on the bus to a hotel that is called "Pakistani House" its less than 10 minutes walk from the Immigration House, and offers single room or single room with WIFI, the best hot shower you had since Islamabad for 30RMB..
I will continue this post from the Chinese side on its own post.
Additional info about Karakoram Highway.
The border closes down 1 December to around 1 May every year.
And more or less everything from shops, guesthouses, and transportation, shuts down around the same time, somethings earlier, somethings a bit later.
I did this trip from 10th to 30th of November. Most of the guesthouses started to close down around 15th November.
I meet a few tourists that were traveling southbound up to 27 November, but I didn't meet a single another tourist that was traveling North towards China after 20th November.
Northern Pakistan is extremely safe, it is even safer than most of Europe these days. The locals are very welcoming and open minded, I got invited for food, tea and even the local moonshine everywhere I walked.
The only ATMs are in northern Pakistan is in Gilgit, but they are often empty. So you are better off bringing enough cash for southern Pakistan. You can find money exchange in both Karimabad and Sost. Try to exchange your Pakistani Rupee into Chinese RMB in Sost, most shops can exchange your money. The bus from Rawalpindi to Gilgit was 1400 Rupees with student discount. Most guesthouses are 300 - 500 Rupee for your own room with bathroom.
Northern Pakistan offers unlimited world-class hiking and mountaineering, the best place to find a guide is in Karimabad or Passu. Paragliding is offered in Karimabad.
It is possible to teach English in some of the villages in the north, in fact, a few of the families invited me in for a cup of tea and dinner wanted me to practice English with their kids, both with their daughters and sons.
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This article is originally published in Unusual Traveler.