Riding High on the Karakoram Highway
With some of the world’s highest peaks, friendly mountain people, hidden valleys and a stunning turquoise lake, a motorbike trip up the Karakoram Highway of Pakistan, the world’s highest road accessible to vehicles, offers the adventure of a lifetime.
I steer off the highway’s shoulder and stop my front wheel on the edge of the cliff. Before me, the giant rock formations known as the Passu Cones soar from the desert moonscape all around me as if they were fangs in the jaw of a sleeping dragon. Perfectly jagged, razor-sharp rock cathedrals that dwarf me under the deep blue sky, and put the universe into perspective.
I’m riding a motorcycle along Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway, the 1300 kilometre-long link connecting the outskirts of national capital Islamabad to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Province. Carved out of the high-altitude valleys and mountains between Hindustan and the ancient Silk Road, the Karakoram Highway we know today opened in 1985 in a bet to improve transport along this far-flung, rugged corner of Asia — a favourite destination on the overland “Hippie Trail” that has connected Europe to India and Nepal since the 1970s.
Sadly, with Pakistan’s worsening security situation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the area became off-limits to tourism. But since 2018, thanks to the joint efforts of the government and local tour operators, the northern areas of Pakistan have returned a safe haven for adventurous travellers. If that wasn’t enough, Pakistan is now relaxing its visa requirements to welcome tourists: citizens of 50 countries — including the UK, several European nations, Thailand and Malaysia — will soon be able to travel to Pakistan without a visa. A new, facilitated eVisa system will also be implemented for most other nationalities.
Even if the Karakoram Highway starts near Islamabad, the most scenic stretch is in Gilgit-Baltistan between the town of Gilgit and the Khunjerab Pass, the world’s highest border between Pakistan and China. This trip can be comfortably completed in three to five days by renting a motorbike in Gilgit from one of several trusted local companies such as Karakoram Bikers (karakorambikers.com), Golden Peak Tours (goldenpeaktours.com.pk), or Saiyah Riders (saiyah.com.pk/riders).
Before exploring Gilgit's colourful bazaar, one should take a test ride south of town, where the Karakoram, the Himalayas, and the Hindu-Kush, three of the world’s highest mountain ranges, meet on one side of the Karakoram Highway. They all rub flanks on the confluence of the Gilgit and the Indus rivers, offering a first peek into the mind-boggling mountain scenery that awaits riders as they venture further north into the lower reaches of the Hunza Valley.
Gilgit is friendly enough for a stroll through the ancient bazaar nestled on a bend of the river. Sellers pile fresh fruits, endemic nuts, and the quintessential Pakistani menswear, the shalwar kameez, (a headscarf, long shirt and baggy trousers) on their makeshift stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops. Ten kilometres out of town is the Kargah Buddah: carved into a rock face above the Kargah Nillah Gorge, it’s one powerful reminder of how Buddhism once travelled with pilgrims and monks from the Indian subcontinent to the southern Silk Road and into China.
Leaving Gilgit behind, it’s a four-hour ride along river gorges, rocky desert and dry peaks to the towns of Aliabad and Karimabad, where the Hunza Valley proper begins. About 100 km north of Gilgit, a pit stop near Nagar offers stunning views from the base of 7,788 metre-high mount Rakaposhi. This eternally snow-capped giant is the world’s steepest rising mountain, with a 5,900-metre, almost vertical wall that soars just 11 km from the Hunza-Nagar River.
Nearby Aliabad, a one-horse town that rests on the two sides of the Karakoram Highway, lies in the shadow of Rakaposhi. It's a low-key alternative to more developed and touristic Karimabad, less than 5 km away. It’s here that the two UNESCO-inscribed ancient forts of Altit and Baltit testify the former splendour of the Hunza Kingdom. Their bastions, elaborate wood carvings and medieval turrets still offer incredible views over lower Hunza, with the ever-present snowy guardian Rakaposhi resting on the horizon.
No visit to Karimabad is complete without a ride up the narrow and steep mountain road that leads to 2900 metre-high Duikar village and Eagle’s Nest, one of the most dramatic viewpoints on the Karakoram Highway. At sunrise and sunset, a barrage of snow-capped peaks glitter with the sun, casting long shadows over the Hunza Valley down below.
After Karimabad, the Karakoram Highway keeps snaking through rockymountains and gorges until it stumbles upon the deep turquoise speckles of Attabad Lake in the Gojal valley. One of Hunza’s biggest attractions, this lake was born out of tragedy when a severe flood submerged a 16-kilometre stretch of the Karakoram Highway and nearby villages in January 2010.
Until 2015, when a series of Chinese-engineered tunnels returned road access to the region, all vehicles required to be ferried across the lake – a boon in disguise, for Attabad quickly became one of Hunza’s major tourist attractions, offering boating and camping facilities to an increasing number of local and foreign holidaymakers.
Riding onwards into Upper Hunza for less than an hour brings us to the majestic Passu Cones that took my breath away. Right before the rocks, the rugged Hussaini Suspension Bridge is another must-visit attraction: hanging precariously over the Borit Lake, it’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous bridges. With many missing planks and constantly shaking in the wind, it’s certainly a challenge for those suffering from vertigo.
Passu or the nearby village of Gulmit are recommended stops to take a day off the saddle and hike to the mouth of the Passu Glacier. This 20.5 km-long ice field stretches along a narrow mountain gorge until the foot of Passu Peak and makes for an adventurous side trip.
From Passu, it’s another long day riding to the village of Sost, the last town on the Pakistani side of the Karakoram Highway. Truth be told, this village has nothing much to linger on for besides being the starting point of one last cold ascent to 4,880 metre-high Khunjerab Pass, Pakistan’s frontier with China. The border gate, battered by glacial winds and invested by the strong high-altitude sun, resembles the entrance to an old-world castle.
Chinese driving laws make it hard to bring foreign vehicles independently into the country, so for most Karakoram Highway riders, the Khunjerab Pass is the end of the line. Twisted over my Suzuki GS150, I take a quick peek at the edge of China before braving the mountain winds again, all the way back to Gilgit. But with such incredible scenery, I won’t certainly mind another ride on the world's highest road.