Road Trip Guide: Navigating the Karakoram Highway, One of the World's Scariest Roads
Also known as the KKH, the Karakoram Highway is the world’s highest paved international road, hitting an elevation of more than 15,300 feet. Connecting Western China to Pakistan, the KKH is one of the only routes that crosses through the Himalayas. And while this 800-mile long highway is a popular tourist attraction, its steep inclines and head-spinning altitude make it one of the most challenging dangerous road trips on Earth.
How to Prepare
The Karakoram Highway can be an incredible journey, as long as you take the necessary precautions and heed weather warnings.
Much of the road trip is driven through remote lands, so be sure that your vehicle has passed all of its inspections and is well-equipped. Bring spare tires, extra gasoline, and a radio for additional safety. As always, check the forecasts, since the conditions on this highway can become dangerous very quickly. Many areas are prone to floods and landslides, for example, so do not attempt this road with a car that does not perform well in the elements. If you're renting a vehicle, you'll want to splurge on four-wheel or all-wheel drive.
Where to Stop
The Karakoram Highway runs north-south across the Karakoram mountain range and through the Khunjerab Pass. In Pakistan, your journey will take you through the territories of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Balistan. Passing over the border into China’s Xinjiang province, you'll eventually reach Kashgar (originally a major trade center).
Although the KKH officially begins in Rawalpindi, Pakistan the most popular starting point on the KKH is Gilgit, one of the larger mountain towns in North Pakistan. It's accessible by a short flight from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad (home to a buzzy new Harry Potter Cafe).
From here, the road through the Hunza Valley is nothing short of breathtaking, with spectacular views of the snowcapped peaks that guard the region. Pull over in Karimabad (a two to three hour drive from Gilgit) which overlooks the entire valley and is known for its exceptionally warm and welcoming locals.
The next stop along the highway is Attabad Lake, where the only way to cross is by boat (your car will, of course, be brought along for the 40-minute detour). The impossibly blue lake didn't even exist until a massive landslide in 2010 formed a natural dam.
After passing through the gorgeous Cathedral Ridge in Passu, you’ll want to stop next at the Baba Ghundi Ziarat. This popular Sufi shrine rises from the meadows in striking white contrast, and is rumored to have mystical powers. Travelers driving through in September and October will likely be joined by many others making a pilgrimage to the holy site.
Next, you'll drive through the Khunjerab National Park (where you will have to pay an entrance fee). Look out for rare Himalayan ibex and elusive snow leopards. Soon, you'll reach the highest point of the highway on the Khunjerab Pass.
From here, you’ll cross the border into China through an imposing stone gate. Note that you'll be required to go through customs, which can be quite time-consuming. To ensure a smooth entry, make sure you have all of your paperwork readily available.
Once you arrive in China, stop in Tashkurgan. This city's main attraction is an ancient stone castle that dates back thousands of years. For a small fee, you can climb one of the fort's watchtowers for impressive views of the surrounding mountainscape. Spend the night in an Uyghur Yurt alongside the Karakul Lake. It’s an affordable — and totally unforgettable — way to experience the stark landscape and untouched culture.
After as many as 20 hours of driving through treacherous mountain passes and isolated villages, your journey along the Karakoram Highway will end in Kashgar, a city in China’s region of Xinjiang. Once an imperative stop along the Silk Road, Kashgar remains a popular trading city. Visitors should take time to explore the Sunday bazaar, and admire the ruins of the Mor Pagoda: once an active site for Buddhist pilgrims.
Another highlight of Kashgar is the golden yellow Id Kah mosque. Worshippers gather here on Fridays and during one of the city's many religious festivals.
Good to Know
The Karakoram Highway is not a journey for timid drivers, nor is it a fit for travelers seeking luxury accommodations and amenities. But completing the drive is a humbling and gratifying experience — one that will certainly drive you outside your comfort zone — and provide unparalleled access to one of the world's most under-appreciated and rarely trod regions.