Kashgar marks the end of the 1,300km Karakoram Highway and the end of our journey. We’ve completed one of the classic travel journeys, following in the footsteps of the many traders, warriors, pilgrims and poets that have gone before us on this remote branch of the ancient Silk Road.
Depending on your perspective we’ve survived one of the world’s most dangerous roads or travelled one of the world’s most spectacular. Either way we mustn’t forget the heavy toll on the workers who built the modern day road in the 1960’s and 70’s. 810 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese lost their lives due to the high elevation and inhospitable terrain. Most from the landslides which continue to be a regular feature of the Highway, and the scars from which – where hundreds of tons of rock have plummeted down sheer mountainsides – are one of its defining characteristics.
We’ve traversed 3 of the greatest mountain ranges on the planet (it is one of the few routes that actually crosses the Himalayas), on the highest international road in the world and passed through the highest border crossing there is.
With mighty mountains come mighty rivers. The Hunza River is the Karakorum Highway’s companion from Gilgit north, but south of Gilgit it is the mighty Indus River. One of the longest in Asia, it’s headwaters are high on the Tibetan Plateau from where it flows through Ladakh in North-West India (where we have previously encountered it), then enters Pakistan’s eastern border and makes its way to Skardu, and across to Gilgit, before travelling down the length of Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The Indus is Pakistan’s water lifeline.
Fittingly for this trip the Indus is fed by the glaciers and snows of the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges.
There is no shortage of sources adding to the Indus’ might. Outside of the polar regions Pakistan has more glacial ice than anywhere else in the world, thanks to its more than 7,200 glaciers. Some are among the largest there are, and despite climate change causing glaciers around the world to melt, experts last year found more than 120 glaciers in Pakistan are stable or growing rapidly in a phenomenon they called the “Karakoram Anomaly”.
Quite simply Pakistan must be one of a very few places on earth where you can see 8,000m+ mountains like Nanga Parbat from the road, and lie in bed and gaze out at 7,000m+ peaks and 21km glaciers. It is as spectacular as you imagine.
The beauty of place, is matched by the beauty of people.
Everywhere you go the chorus you hear is “Welcome to Pakistan.” People will even shout it from cars and motorbikes as they pass. It is genuine and heartfelt. Pakistanis want you to enjoy their country.
Pakistan has a reputation for being an adventure destination. Like all travel it will take you back to the basics of life and push you out of your comfort zone, challenging you both mentally and physically, but that is why we go.
Pakistan taught us patience. Things happen but at a different pace. You learn to relax and roll with it, then wonder why you ever wanted to do anything else.
It also taught us compassion; small acts of kindness are constantly happening. We’ve travelled to a number of Islamic countries but never before seen the core Islamic principle of helping others so embedded in every day life. Even beggars are not ignored.
The biggest thing Pakistan will teach you though is what true hospitality and generosity are. An intrinsic part of Pakistani culture, Pakistanis are without doubt some of the most hospitable, kind and welcoming people you will ever encounter. It makes you realise most of us are so hugely privileged. It is truly humbling, and very grounding.
The Karakorum Highway is remote, tough and spectacular, and travelling in Pakistan is a special experience.
It needs no guidebook.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” – Mark Twain
Our favourite video of the trip:
Pakistan highlight reel: