The scenery is indescribable. As we slowly bump down this 1300km road in a colorful semi-truck with Urdu music blasting it’s hard not to get wrapped up in this amazing journey. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable, dusty and at time’s dangerous route, but it’s one that will stick with you forever.
The Karakorum Highway is a classic traveler’s trail that is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, The Karakoram Highway. This ancient trade route whispers hints of its former glory with its grand crumbly forts, magical traditional villages and legends of Marco Polo. Travellers who undertake this journey will not be disappointed. The Karakoram Highway will change those who dare to undertake its path, venture here and join the elite travelers who have done so!
The starting point on the Karakoram Highway is the ancient Silk Road Town of Kashgar. Technically Kashgar is in the Chinse provinces of Xinjiang, but very little here beckons that you are in China. Predominantly Muslim, the people of Kashgar speak Uyghur a Turkic language. Being in Kashgar you will feel very far from Beijing and you are! Technically you are closer to Jerusalem than to Beijing.
Sights of Kashgar, Xinjiang
Afaq Khoja Mausoleum
Constructed in 1640, the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is a splendid example of Xinjiang Islamic architecture it is also the holiest Muslim sight in Xinjiang. The graveyard is a fascinating walk, many of the tombs date back hundreds of years and are carved from stone!
Kashgar Old City
This is probably the main reason why most come to Kashgar. Unlike many places in China, Kashgar’s old city is still a place where many live. The decrepit buildings make way to bustling street markets and flat bread bakeries. Getting lost you could be fooled that you are actually in the Middle East at times!
Kashgar Night Market
The Kashgar night market is where you can try all the Uyghur delicacies, including noodles, spicy fish, and every part of a goat imaginable. It’s oozing with character giving a real authentic Silk Road feeling.
Kashgar Livestock Market
Nomads from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Xinjiang all gather here on Sundays to sell livestock. You can see cows, fat tail sheep, two hump camels, and even yaks from Tibet up for sale here. It’s also a suitable place to see all the different traditional outfits worn by the people of this region!
Karakul Lake is one of the most stunning high-altitude lakes in the world. Karakul sits at a dizzying 3,645 m and is shadowed by the mighty Muztagh Ata (7,546 m). Small yurt villages dot the shores in the summer and are home to a nomadic Tajik minority who migrate here in the summers for greener pastures.
Karakul Lake Sights
Karakul Tajik Yurts
It’s well worth it the stop overnight on the Karakoram Highway and stay in a traditional Tajik Yurt. You can hike, horseback ride, and even rent a motorbike to venture up the mountain passes. Staying with a family ensures a cultural learning experience and you will get to try the Tajik specialities like Yak Butter Tea.
Tashkurgan and the Khunjerab pass
This is the last stop on the Karakoram Highway before entering Pakistan. Tashkurgan is a small Tajik community with a massive fort that dominates the city. Here you get your first taste of Pakistan as many Pakistani immigrants have opened restaurants here. I have tried to hike around here several times, but because it’s so close to the border I was arrested and brought back to town.
Getting to Pakistan – Welcome to one of the strangest borders you will ever cross. Tashkurgan is a 125km to the Pakistan border located near the Khunjerab Pass. From Shina’s immigration post in Tashkurgan you must show your Pakistan Visa and Chinese Visa. Your bags will be checked thoroughly and you will have to pay for a Chinese Government issued border transport bus which will drive you to the border. Once you reach the border you will have to be checked at Pakistan Immigration which is very simple and then get on another form of transports into Pakistan.
Sights of Tashkurgan
Tashkurgan Fort’s history dates back to the ancient Silk Road times. Guarding the passage between Afghanistan and Tibet. It’s incredibly picturesque and has an almost haunted feeling to it. This is the first of the major forts on the Karakoram Highway.
This is the famous pass along the Karakoram Highway where you will officially leave China and cross into Pakistan. The Khunjerab pass sits at 4,693 m and is surrounded by snowy peaks, getting here you will feel like you’re on top of the world. The bus usually stops for a few minutes, so you can grab that ever essential selfie.
Passu and Gulmit, Pakistan
Welcome to Pakistan! Crossing into Pakistan the valleys become greener and the mountain scenery more stunning. This is where the adventure begins! The first valley you enter is Passu, the massive Cathedral Ridge is one of the most stunning ranges in all the Himalayas can be seen here. Continuing another 15 km you enter the small Wakhi minority town of Gulmit. Passu and Gulmit is easily one of the most scenic areas on the Karakoram highway route!
Sights of Passu and Gulmit
World’s Most Dangerous Bridge
This incredible bridge connects the villages across the massive Hunza River Gorge. As scary as this bridge seems it is one of the most vital needs of the village peoples here. Even though it’s dubbed the world most dangerous, if you watch your footing crossing it is exhilarating and safe.
Staying in a Wakhi Village
Climbing high above Gulmit there are small Wakhi villages with home stays. Here the few Wakhi families that host tourists also are experienced mountain guides who can guide you up to glaciers and other stunning villages. Try sending my friend Rehman a message on Facebook, his wonderful family was a highlight of all the Karakoram for me! Check his account HERE
Hiking to Glaciers on the Karakoram
Passu and Gulmit have several glaciers that take some tough hiking to get to. Push through the breathless high altitude and steep passes and you will be rewarded with some incredible Glacier scenes. You are almost guaranteed to run into Walkhi shepherds who climb to high altitudes for grazing.
Hunza Valley, Pakistan
The Hunza Valley also known as the Land of Immortals. This gorgeous valley is full of apricot orchards, crumbly historic forts, insanely beautiful Himalaya Mountains, and amazing people. Hunza is also known as one of the safest regions in Pakistan, trust me you will never want to leave the Hunza Valley. This stop on the Karakoram has ample activates for the outdoors and cultural activities as well, but the best thing is to just stop and breath in the fresh mountain air!
Hunza Valley Sights
Baltit Fort, Karimabad
One of The Karakoram’s more beautiful forts and a UNESCO Heritage sight is Baltit Fort. Baltit Fort sits high above on a hill in Karimabad and can be seen from all around the Hunza Valley. Baltit was the seat of power for the Hunza Empire and its interior shows signs of Hunza’s Buddhist past. The views from the roof are stunning.
Hiking the Fairy Meadows
The Fairy Meadow trail starts at Baltit Fort making its way past terraces of apricots and small stone houses. Leaving Karimabad you climb higher into the mountain pass above town. Here the trail follows a water pipeline. Parts of the trail are not for those who have a fear of heights! When you finally reach the Fairy Meadow you are rewarded with yet again more epic mountain views! There’s place for camping or you can day trip it.
The Eagles Nest, Karimabad
Located at one of Karimabads more expensive hotels is the Eagles Nest View Point. This view point is a great spot for sunset over the valley, there is a hotel café where you can try local food while taking in the views. Try the apricot chicken!
The largest city and commercial capital along Pakistan’s Northern Karakoram Highway is Gilgit. As the call to prayer echoes across the city, the streets fill with colorful trucks and locals wearing traditional clothing begin to appear all around you, Gilgit is a shock for those coming from the north. Famous for its vicious polo games and the first real introduction to what the rest of Pakistan is like. Gilgit is buzzing with energy, has chaotic bazaars and feels worlds away from Hunza even though it’s only a few hours away.
Gilgit, Pakistan Sights
Locals in Gilgit take polo very seriously. Attending a polo match is a quintessential Gilgit experience. Polo here however is much more violent, players use their sticks as weapons and it’s not rare to see players taken away in stretchers! The crowds here sure do go wild.
This is where you get the feel of how chaotic and wonderful Pakistan really is. Locals adorn much more conservative clothing while haggling over spices and electronics. The bazaar is also a great place to pick up a traditional Pakistan sherwani outfit. Locals love it when you blend in!
Karakoram Highway Travel Information
Locations: China and Pakistan
Guide Book: Lonely Planet Pakistan and Lonely Planet China
Top Tips: Do not rush this journey and plan for things like border closures as it happens often.
Posts: See more Pakistan Posts Here!