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The Karakoram Highway

My experiences on the KKH have been as diverse and varied as my experiences on the actual treks. I’ve been up the KKH with busloads of hyper students (140 to be exact) from LUMS who even after 24 sleepless hours still had the stamina to sing. I’ve doped myself out on sleeping pills to avoid the lewd Pushtoon music that blares all night long completely out of synch with the disco lights inside the bus. I’ve had my body mauled as I try to squeeze my six foot six frame into a seat designed for a four foot two person for seventeen hours. Then there was the time when I was hitching a ride and I got picked up by a van full of tablighi mullahs who wanted to convert me to what I suppose they considered was the proper Islam. Or the time when Atif Paracha and I were given a ride on the roof of the jeep of a local prince (Raja Bahadur Ali of Gulmit). And the time when I waited for hours along the highway during a relentless downpour, mentally and physically wasted after a harrowing descent from Rakaposhi Base Camp (Taghafari) during a storm. A van sped by and when it didn’t stop I hurled every abuse I could think of. After a few moments, I saw it reversing and the driver came and picked me up. I almost cried.

I’ve made lasting friendships on this road. Ilyas Khan and I first met at a roadblock at Nomal while waiting for the debris to be cleared. We became instant friends and I traveled with him down to Rawalpindi. The first year I was at LUMS, I only really got to know my students after we had spent a day in the bus together. The formal and stuffy relationship between student and teacher gave way to camaraderie and a jovial and periodic ‘sirrrrr, are we going to die?’ or ‘sirrrrr, are we there yet?’ or ‘sir do you know this song?’ as we’d launch into the latest number from the Pakistani pop music scene.

You get the picture. The stories could go on and on and maybe one day I’ll actually sit down and write my tribute to the KKH and all that it has taught me. But the point I want to make here is this: The KKH isn’t your typical soulless highway linking the Northern Areas to the lower reaches of the country. Rather, it’s a rich tapestry of people, cultures, languages and diverse mountain landscapes. People and languages change every few hours amidst the continuously changing scenery. The KKH is the only road I can think of where you could be in the middle of a searing hot desert in the morning, drive by Nanga Parbat a few hours later, and by late afternoon be in the lush green valleys of Hunza. The next day you could be in China.

Short of flying (and good luck to you if you plan on flying to Gilgit–Getting there and away and Skardu, Baltistan during the summer months), the KKH is your only route to the Northern Areas. This is our resource guide to this grand road that connects Rawalpindi to the Northern Areas.

This page deals with getting to Gilgit. For information on travelling to Skardu, Baltistan in Baltistan check out the Baltistan resource page. For Hunza and Gojal, please refer to the page on Hunza.

Leaving Rawalpindi
Bus Services: Rawalpindi to Skardu

There’s no shortage of transport companies that run along this route. The pick of the lot is Silk Route that operates comfortable, clean, air-conditioned buses. Silk Route is at 051-5479375/5470900 (Rawalpindi) and 0572-55234 ( Gilgit–Getting there and away ). Two buses leave daily from both Gilgit–Getting there and away and Rawalpindi bringing you to your destination by early morning the next day. The fare is about Rs. 400 one way. Tickets sell out quickly, so book at least a few days in advance. The buses make a stop every three to four hours. In ?Pindi, buses leave from the main bus station, Pir Badain.

If Silk Route is sold out and you’re in a rush or you’re on a really tight budget then there are other options. We used to rely on Sargin, but as of last summer (2001) the service seems to have taken a nosedive. Yasir Khokar and I took their bus to

Then there’s the rest. The government operated Northern Areas Transport Cooperation (NATCO) runs daily buses to

Regardless of which bus you take, there are a few things that you ought to keep in mind. Keep bottled water with you and something to munch on is also a good idea. The buses do stop for tea and meals but the stops (with the exception of Silk Route) aren’t fixed. Many times you may be delayed for long hours because of roadblocks and these vehicles have a nasty tendency to break down very often. Most of these buses will stop at local bust/truck hotels so if your picky about what you eat, carry food with you. Unfortunately you may not have a choice but to use the washrooms available at these places.

If you get even the least bit car-sick then keep motion sickness pills with you. Remember the further back in the bus you sit the more susceptible you will be to jolts along the way. Anything you stow in your baggage goes onto the roof of the bus so forget about accessing it till you reach your destination. Medication should be a carried on person. In the summer months the KKH highway is pretty warm even at night so you do not need to keep warm clothes on you.

Self Hire
: For those traveling in a big group, a private hire may be worth looking into. A 22 seater Toyota Coaster charges about Rs. 6,500 up till

Hitch Hiking
Depending on how you define hitching a ride, hitch-hiking on the KKH is a pretty easy, but also a pretty stupid thing to do. If you stand on the highway and flag down vehicles, chances are that you’ll get picked up by a bus or a van in a relatively short amount of time. That’s what makes hitching easy. But it’s also a pretty stupid thing to do ? you may as well just go to the bus station and get on a bus to your destination ? it’s going to end up costing the same anyway and you’ll probably save time. The great thing about Pakistan is that local buses leave all the time and not necessarily on a schedule. When a bus fills up, it leaves. Simple.

Of course, there are often times when the nearest bus station may be a few hundred miles away and hitching is your only option. This often happens if you finish your trek at a remote location and have not prearranged to be picked up by a vehicle. I’ve been in this situation many times and on the whole, my experiences have been pretty positive. Most of the time, one gets picked up by buses or vans that have an empty seat, space on the roof or somewhere to hang off of on the sides. As a rule of thumb, hitching a ride north of

The Route
The KKH is a single-lane highway that was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s by the Pakistanis and the Chinese. In theory the road is paved but parts of it keep getting washed away by landslides so the going isn’t easy. The road passes through extremely barren terrain so don’t expect lush green valleys and alpine flowers along the way. If your idea of mountain beauty is greenery then you’re better off in Murree or it’s yuppie counterpart, Nathiagali.

Even under ideal conditions, the KKH is a hard road. A half dozen towns are scattered along the highway; besides these the KKH is a mountain wilderness. Limited services are available along the road. If the lines are not down, you may be able to find a Public Call Office. Medical facilities are non-existent. If you are driving yourself always check for the availability of petrol and diesel ahead. In case of a car breakdown, you’re in trouble. Accommodation along the road is basic, as are eating-places.

Contrary to the impression that you may have gotten above, the KKH does not really begin in Rawalpindi, but Mansehra. Rawalpindi to Mansehra is a four to five hour drive, passing Taxila and Abbotabad. Unless you’re really into the Gandhara Buddhist civilization, Taxila is a dump. This entire stretch of the highway is quite dull really. Rawalpindi to Taxila gives the impression of being one continuous semi-urban, semi-rural sprawl, which indeed it is. The scenery improves a little by the time you reach Abbotabad, but not by much. After Abbotabad, the road becomes heavily forested and winding.

The buses that depart from ?Pindi in the late afternoon usually make a very quick stop for tea/prayer around Abbotabad, but prefer to continue past Mansehra and onto Beshaam for a rather late dinner. If you leave ?Pindi at four expect to reach Beshaam anywhere between 10 and midnight depending on how stoned your bus driver is and whether he hasn’t slept for 48 as opposed to 72 hours.

Beshaam is interesting. For the first time you get the impression that you’re finally getting somewhere. Beshaam is when the KKH meets the Indus and in the daytime the first view of the river is remarkable. Just prior to Beshaam is a spot that sees regular landslides (I spent a lifetime here during one trip down to ?Pindi).

For a good view of the Indus head down to the PTDC Motel which is a few kilometers before Beshaam when coming from ?Pindi. Like all PTDC Motels, this establishment is secluded from the town proper. For people opting to stay in Beshaam this would be a safe, albeit expensive, option. Otherwise it’s a good place to grab a cup of tea or breakfast. In May 2000, when 140 of us went trekking, we just showed up and demanded breakfast for four busloads of people. The staff, though surprised, obliged. Our belated thanks to them.

The other option is the Prince Hotel on the other side of the town. This hotel is run by people from Hunza, and therefore seems out of place on the fringes of Kohistan. This is a new establishment, with clean, reasonably priced rooms, a hospitable management, and decent food. Prince Hotel has become popular with many guides traveling with clients up or down the KKH.

If you must break your journey, then it makes most sense to do so in Beshaam. Not only is Beshaam approximately half way, but from here it is conceivable to go straight to Hunza or Skardu, Baltistan without stopping in Gilgit–Getting there and away if you leave early enough. This would not be possible from ?Pindi.

There are plenty of other places to stay in Beshaam should you want to try them out. These are low-priced hotels in the middle of the town. I once spent a sleepless night in the seedy Paris Hotel. Despite the name, it didn’t have much going for it but at least it was cheep (Rs. 150 for three people). The middle of the town is also where you’ll probably eat if you travel by bus. No fancy fare here, you eat what is precooked. Later at night only a restaurant or two and gun shops are open, should you decide you need a weapon or ammunition in the middle of the night!

Beshaam is where the Kohistan region begins and continues pretty much up to Gilgit–Getting there and away . Without exaggerating the danger too much, it ought to be pointed out that this area isn’t the friendliest of places. While you probably will not come to any harm, this is not the sort of place you want to go for a long stroll. People in Kohistan tend to have abrupt and rough manners that have been conditioned by years of tribal isolation. If you get unnerved by people starring at you, this is not your town. Women travelers should be particularly careful by dressing conservatively, and a conservative dress is strongly recommended for men as well (for example, no shorts unless you enjoy being gawked at).

Remember that once you leave ?Pindi you are passing through traditional societies and there is no reason to expect that your value systems of dress or public behavior will be acceptable to local people.

From Beshaam to Dassu, the KKH hugs the West Side of the valley. You’re now traveling through some reasonably tall mountains with a sheer drop to the Indus, at times a thousand feet below. There is a little bit of greenery but the mountains get more barren as you head into Kohistan. Once again, depending on your driver it can take you two to four hours to get to Dassu. Dassu has even less charm than Beshaam and is considerably smaller. There is a PTDC with a nice view of the Indus (spent a night here many years ago), but Dassu isn’t the sort of place you would want to break your journey unless you really have to.

After Dassu you continue for another four hours along the winding road to Chilas. You’re now on the East Side of the valley. The road is as winding as before, and all remnants of greenery disappear. Just before Chilas the road drops down to the level of the river. This stretch along the KKH gets ridiculously hot during the summer. Indeed driving past sand dunes next to Indus is an odd, unforgettable experience. In good weather, you can expect a brief glimpse of Nanga Parbat from here.

Chilas is a major stop for all buses traveling to and from Gilgit–Getting there and away . Chances are you’ll stop here for tea if not breakfast or dinner. Chilas is the largest of the towns in Kohistan but despite this food choices are limited to one or two restaurants. It doesn’t make too much sense to spend the night so close to Gilgit–Getting there and away , but should the need arise, Chilas Inn and a more upscale hotel are opposite one another on the KKH. Chilas is inhabited by every insect species known to humanity and gets to be VERY hot by early in the morning. Nights are considerably cooler and the one night I spent on the roof of Chilas Inn was downright lovely.

People in Chilas are not known for their hospitality either so this is not a town where you want to wander around too much. Stay within sight of your vehicle and do not be tempted to stroll down to the Indus or scramble up a hill.

Four hours ahead is Gilgit–Getting there and away . Two hours after Chilas you’ll pass the Raikot Bridge, the start of the jeep track for Fairy Meadows. Another hour and you’ll pass through the surprisingly green military cantonment of Jaglot with stunning views of the Fairy Meadows . Another hour and you’re in Gilgit–Getting there and away .


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