Silk Route – a fairy tale like travelers’ dream route from Central Asia to the rest of the world. It existed as trade link between the East and the West around 100 BC and lasted until the 15th Century, when with the invention of ships, the trade became more cheaper and easier than the rugged mountains through which the Silk Route passed. Since mostly the traders from the West imported the Chinese silk, the route became to be known as the Silk Route.
Besides trade, the route was also used by the explorers, invaders, missionaries and philosophers.. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity mainly came to this region through this trade linking route. The Zero Point of the route started from Xian in China through the great Gobi Desert to Dunhuang, where it bifurcated via Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar and through Yarkand to Kashgar. It is from Kashgar that it entered the subcontinent over the Pamirs and the Karakoram Mountains. China and Pakistan became long time strategic friends when President Ayub Khan of Pakistan visited China in 1964 and soon both great countries realized that a north – south link from China to the Arabian Sea can become a reality with the revival of the old Silk Route. Thus in 1966, Pakistan and China agreed to construct the KKH – the Karakoram Highway. The KKH has opened up remote villages where little has changed in hundreds of years, where farmers irrigate tiny terraces to grow small patches of wheat, barely or maize that stand out like emeralds against the grey, stony mountains. One of the workers narrates an interesting anecdote about the remoteness of the area. When after lot of difficulties, a Pakistan Army jeep managed to reach a so far inaccessible village, a villager ran and brought a vase full of water and placed under the front of the jeep. When asked what he was doing, the villager innocently replied, “Sahib, your animal must be thirsty.”
The 1300 kilometres (800 miles) long KKH, or the N-5, originates from Hassan Abdal, a place some 45 kilometres from Islamabad on the Islamabad – Peshawar Highway, goes through Abbotabad, Manshera, crosses the River Indus at Thakot, on to Gilgit (through Besham, Pattan and Sazin) and then to Chilas, Hunza and Sost before crossing the Khunjerab Pass at the height of some 4800 metres (15,750ft) – the Zero Point between Pakistan and China. It then enters the high Central Asian plateau before winding down through the Pamirs to Kashgar, at the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. It is a marvel of human endurance, ingenuity and determination. Both Pakistani and Chinese workers and engineers worked day and night over some of the most formidable and inaccessible mountain ranges of the world, with deep gorges and torrential Indus running along the track with its full might. The Indus River flows northwest, dividing the Himalaya from the Karakoram. The KKH runs along the Indus for 310 kilometres of its climb north, winding around the foot of Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world. Not far north of Jaglot the Gilgit river joins the Indus from the west. The highway then leaves the Indus for Gilgit, Hunza and Khunjrab rivers to take on the Karakoram Range – where 12 of the 30 highest mountains in the world overlook the KKH. At Khunjrab Pass, the KKH proudly stands as the highest metalled border crossing in the world. En route to Khunjrab, before Gilgit, there is a road sign inviting the attention of the tourists to stop and see the the Hindu Kush mountains converge with the Karakoram Range, a part of the Himalayan mountain system. While traveling along the KKH, many a tourist wonder as to how the Pakistanis and Chinese ever get this road through? Since the road has been carved through a tectonic collision zone and still generally kept open.
The KKH is at its most spectacular between Ganesh and Gulmit. The road rides high on the eastern side of the river, twisting and turning round the barren foot of the Hispar Range, which boasts six peaks over 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). On the opposite bank, villages cling implausibly to the side of the 7,388 meter (24,240 foot) Ultar Mountain. Between the villages, grey screen slithers down to the river, looking in the distance like piles of find cigarette ash. Above, the jagged teeth along the ridge hide the highest snow-covered peaks from view. The KKH crosses back to the west bank at Shishkot Bridge, from which the view upstream of the serrated ridge of mountains above the river is one of the most photogenic prospects of the entire drive. From here to Tashkurgan in China the people speak Wakhi.
Since the KKH passes through some of the most rugged mountain ranges, which become rather inaccessible during the snow falls and the rainy season, one should plan to travel on the KKH in the spring or early autumn. Heavy snow during harsh winters can shut the highway down for extended periods. Heavy monsoon rains, around July and August, cause occasional mudslides that can block the road for hours or more. The border crossing between China and Pakistan at Khunjrab Pass is open only between May 1 and October 15 of every year. These days, the trade between Pakistan and China thrives and Pakistani traders frequent the KKH very often to go to Kashgar and bring back cheap Chinese cloth, decoration pieces and electronics, which have flooded the Pakistani markets from Peshawar to Karachi.
The Karakoram (the ‘crumbling rock’ in Turkish language) Highway is an incredible feat of engineering and an enduring monuments to the 810 Pakistanis and 82 Chinese who died forcing it through the world’s most difficult and unstable terrain, making it possible to surface on earth the Eighth Wonder of the World. Karakoram Highway has a strategic importance that overarches the whole region. It forms the Asian ‘high road’ loop that binds Pakistan and China and can also serve as a link between China and the Central Asian states. In 2003, the Silver Jubilee celebrations (1978-2003) of the construction of the road were held both in Pakistan and China. Pakistan Post issued a Re. 2 special commemorative stamp on the occasion. However the road was officially opened on 27 August 1982.
The 8 October 2005 7.6 Richter Scale earthquake badly damaged some sections of the Karakoram Highway and the road link between Pakistan and China was temporarily cut off, until repaired by the Pakistan army engineers. The building of Diamir Bhasha Dam in the Karakoram will also affect more than 100 kilometres of the KKH, for which re-alignment studies are always under way with the help of the Chinese.