The Karakoram saga

by Ameer Hamza, Feb 26, 2005 | Destinations: Pakistan / Islamabad

If there is one road that attracts you again and again, it is the Karakoram Highway. Stretching 805 km from Havelian to the Pakistan-China border. It leaves the visitor with a question: is the road man-made? Yes it is, as the monument at the border announces to the traveller with its characteristic hyperbole:

'This is the story of those intrepid souls who braved the icy coldness, lack of oxygen and the devilish weather to build a miracle called Karakoram Highway.'

It is simply out of the question to relate all the stories attached to this magnificent road. For more than half of its length Karakoram looks like any other well-maintained road of Pakistan.

The real drama unfolds near Besham. Stunning mountains, hot springs, ravines and the gushing Indus bring out the real Karakoram image as soon as you enter Pathan territory.

One surprise after another greets you as you travel onwards. Manshera has those rare Ashoka rocks; Shinkiari has the largest collection of pheasants.

Before reaching Gilgit, people take Karakoram a bit lightly because the ravines are not as deep as they are in Naran Valley. All this changes quite dramatically once you reach Gilgit. The falls are magnificient and you don't feel like looking anywhere else most of the time.

The city of Gilgit is at a height of 1,454 metres. But it is surrounded by such gigantic mountains that it is mostly in their shadows. Gilgit for all the right reasons has traditionally been the trekker's last major town. You can tell this by entering into any reasonable hotel and seeing books, bags, comments, colourful tables, and foreign items in menu present.

From Gilgit, one can travel on a dirt road to Naltar Valley that looks like it is straight out of a book of photography. Camping is highly recommended, otherwise there is a reasonable hotel for the less adventurous.

While moving towards Hunza Valley one comes across many old, wooden bridges. Those with bold hearts can try crossing just for the thrill of it.

Right before Hunza, is the princess of mountains, the Rakaposhi that soars 7,788 metres above sea level and looks imposing in all its beauty.

Hunza Valley has Baltit and Altit Forts for those who have some interest in old structures. Down the road, at Ganesh, there is an old mosque.

At Passu, the first remarkable glacier appears. Adjacent to Passu is a series of jagged mountains known as Passu Cathedral. No other mountains of the Karakoram range can match their mysterious looks.

From Passu one can go to Sost, which is the last town of Pakistan. No one lives beyond this point, except for the most beautiful animals of Pakistan: the snow leopard, Marco Polo sheep, yak, and the Bactrian camel.

Khunjerab National Park is located 30 km from Sost. From the entrance of the park till the Pak-China border the ascent is the steepest on the Karakoram. Even the four-wheel drive coughs here.

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NOTE: This article first appeared in Pakistan's leading English newspaper Dawn, in the section The Review, as a Photo Essay. It is the copyright of the author/photographer.

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