Saturday, January 26, 2013

In old days, there was a caravan track as long as 11,200 km. It spanned two continents starting from Rome, Italy in Europe and ending in Sinkiang China in Asia. Now that track has been replaced by modern roads but not formally a part of silk route.

Nevertheless the mystery about the Silk Road remains as the route passes through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. Busses, cars, trailers and brightly painted trucks have out-smarted the horses and camels. But snow -capped mountains, lush green valleys, rivers, lakes and road-side historical monuments have remained unchanged.

.Karakoram Highway (KKH) covers some part of the old route.  It links Pakistan with China.The route is briefly described in the paragraphs that follow.


KKH takes off from Hassan Abdal, a historic town, in Pakistan, primarily famous for a Temple containing a sacred rock with hand print of Guru Nanak Dev, founder of Sikh Religion. He was born at Nankana Sahib near Lahore in 1469 and died in 1539 after living 70 years. During this period, he traveled in the whole of Asia and some parts of Europe. Guru Nanak was first of the ten Guru. According to Sikh Religion all subsequent Gurus carried the same message as that of Guru Nanak.

He conveyed his messages through simple poetry:

"Let mercy be the cotton, contentment the thread, Continence the knot and truth the twist. O priest! If you have such a thread, do give it to me. It'll not wear out, nor get soiled, nor burnt, nor lost. Says Nanak, blessed are those who go about wearing such a thread."

He spent long time in meditation and discussion with Muslims and Hindus. He preached oneness of God. But he categorically said, "I am not a Hindu, nor am I a Muslim. My body and breath of life belong to Allah - to Raam - the God of both."

Besides, there are many tombs and meditation chambers of Muslim Saints particularly Baba Hassan Abdal, the place is named after.

The town itself is located by edge of Grand Trunk Road, a long road originating at Chittagong (Bangladesh) and ending at Kabul, Afghanistan after passing through India and Pakistan.

HARIPUR (520 m)

From Hassan Abdal, the highway proceeds ahead. The route is very scenic as it passes through a green valley. The area is rich in fruits and vegetable. There is an unending line of orchids laden with guavas fruit and red-blood oranges. The thickly forested mountains add to the charm.

Hari Pur Landscape
The first notable place is a Haripur City about 34 km away. It is located amidst many landmarks like 'ancient Buddhist University Town of Taxila and world largest earth-filled Tarbela Dam. A large industrial estate, Hattar is also in its vicinity with large factories producing fertilizers, cements and telephone equipments.

As one continues on KKH, the temperature drops down and becomes cooler. This is the wettest part of the country. The annual rainfall can go upto 71 inches. Snowfall is the norm in severe winter.

ABBOTTABAD (1.250 m)

After Haripur, the ascend becomes rather steeper as just 37 km away, one would be breathing at an altitude of 1,260 meters. The place is called Abbottabad which is surrounded by hills with breathtaking views. The weather becomes pleasant especially in the sizzling heat in June and July.

Abbottabad is the base camp for hiking and trekking. In addition, the city has top-rated educational and military training institutes. A casual stroll in the city would remind one of colonial era because of shady gardens, wide streets, clubs and church bells.

There are a large number of hotels, guesthouses and hostels to cater to the tourist traffic which remains flowing throughout the year.

The routes goes by Mansehra and Battagram. There are many archeology sites specially relating to Emperor Ashoka in the form of temples and rocky outcrop containing Ashokan inscriptions. Soon the road hugs Indus River.

KKH crosses the river through Thakot Bridge and then snails along it. But it turns narrow and gives the impression of dirt track This area is known as Kohistan which means "Land of Mountains" It looks like Scottish Highland as it is dotted with meadows, forests and streams. The journey becomes exciting and thrilling as one can see high mountains above and Indus River below. Besides, there are many worth-seeing places specially rocks carving and inscriptions left early travelers and pilgrims.

BESHAM (610 m)

After about 240 km since the start at Hassan Abdal, one reaches Besham. This is a good place to stay. Apart from private hotels and guest houses, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) has its presence as it maintaining a motel just on the edge of River Indus. One can have a spectacular views of the mountain with their lush-green terrace fields and water-falls. Since it is well inhibited area, it become alive every morning with cooking smoke oozing out from each & every house and usual hustle & bustle of vendors and shopkeepers.

A few miles beyond Besham, the KKH again crosses the river and switch back to southern side through Raikot Bridge, the largest on the entire route. Land changes abruptly from green forested mountains to treeless hills but it is only short-lived.
CHILAS (1,1265 m)

The road follows every twist and turn of the Indus River. About 190 km after Beshamn, the road meets Chilas which appears to be an 'oasis in a desert'. It is hot in summer and almost dry and barren. There is hardly any vegetation due to lack of top-soil. The landscape appears to be piece from the moon. Also, the road enters its most treacherous part as it turns into a dirt and broken asphalt track.

But Chilas has a unique charm. Here one can afford to have a magnificent view of the three highest ranges: Karakorum in the north, Himalayas in east and Hindu-kush in west.

A part of Himalayas Range is Nanga Parbat. It is ninth highest mountain in the world. About 8,125 m high, it is known as Killer Peak because of its long and knife edge Mazeno Ridge. (There had been many futile attempts, many resulting in death. Only in July 2012, two British Climbers succeed in scaling it from Mazeno Ridge).

GILGIT (1,454 m)

The road gradually gains height but one does not feel it until one reaches Gilgit. About 1,454 m high, it is a town hemming with activities. It has many attractions like a beautiful rock carving of Buddha and longest suspension bridge in the country. It is dotted with villages which are on a very steep grassy slope. The area is laden with fruits like apricot.

In May-October each year, there is a constant inflow of tourists both local and foreign. It is base for launching expedition to other places. One can see full-lorry loads entering or leaving the city. Not only passengers are jam-packed inside the vehicle, some are on the roof clinging to strapped luggage, while some hanging off the back. Often people call the city a paradise for trekkers, mountaineers and anglers.

HUNZA (2,438 m)

Further up and about 52 km away, KKH crosses the river and enters Hunza Valley. The area is most beautiful section of the highway. It is the right place to breathe the crystalline air. One is overwhelmed by the fragrant breeze coming from poplar trees and orchids of apricots, peaches, pears and grapes. The residents have a long life due to simple living, natural diet and unpolluted air.
Hunza is most frequented tourist resort for its unspoiled meadows, ancient Baltit Fort, Mir's House (the ex-Hunza King), 'Sacred Rocks' containing carvings of animals. One can have a fantastic view of Rakaposhi (7,788 m), Bubulimating (6,000 m) and other peaks. At night, in full moon, Rakaposhi glitters and charms the viewers.

Karimabad, the capital, has adequate tourist infra-structure  as it has plenty of  caf├ęs, hotels, motels, guesthouses, bookshops and tour agencies. In particular, a hotel called “Eagle’s Nest” is perched high on a hill and gives spectacular views of the area.

As one moves further, KKH become more spectacular. It rides high on the eastern side of the river. There is a beautiful village, Passu, in the backdrop Karakorum Cones. One can take a walk to Passu Glacier or have a thrill by crossing Indiana Jones like suspension bridge on Hunza River. It is a peaceful and quiet place.  The only sound one can hear is that of gushing river far below.

Sost (3,097 m)

 After leaving Hunza, KKH  skirts the edge of Baltoro Glacier and enters a narrow valley.  One feels a change in scenery. Houses are made from stone and not mud, the quietness is gone and replaced sharp noise from waterfalls or riverlets crashing down from glaciers,  local residents become more friendly and inviting the tourists to visit their homes. Animal grazing becomes the main occupation. One can see red-scarved shepherdesses watching the  animals.

A prominent town on the way is “Passu”.  Its location is ideal for being at the junction of several waters.  It has nice hotels and infra-structure for tourists and trekkers. Finally, one reaches Sost, the last town inside Pakistan. It is border post, 88 km before Khunjerab Pass. It is an immigration and custom checkpoint. Buses for China also originate here. One can see dust-laden buses returning from China.

Khunjerab Pass (4,733)

 Beyond Sost, there are no villages or human settlements on the way.    The road gains immense height in the last 18 km by getting 2 km of altitude. There are a lot of hairpin turns which result in headache, short of breath and feelings of dizziness. All these are sure sign of altitude sickness.

The route goes through Khunjerab National Park.  By sheer luck, one can see Ibex and Marco-polo sheep or even snow leopard.

It takes about 3 hours to reach the pass.  It is located between Chinese Pamirs and Pakistani Karakorum mountain ranges.  At 4,733 m, it is highest crossing in the world, about 810 km away from Hassan Abdal and  870 km from Islamabad.

One should not stop at the pass for more than 30 minutes. This is enough time to experience gusts of cold wind, an awesome view of mountains and grazing of yaks. One would enjoy a rare phenomena whereby one would feel being below or above the clouds.  Similarly, the color of mountain tops changing with the movement of the sun.

Those who have visa for China can cross the border to reach Chinese town of Tashgurghan, for completion of immigration formalities and spend the night. A major Chinese city is Kashgar about 420 km away.

 A brief about Karakoram Highway

The word "Karakoram" means 'crumbling rock'. This is true as the highway passes through unstable terrain. It is indeed the highest road in the world with a stretch of 1,300 km of which 806 km fall in Pakistan. It was opened for public in 1986.

Karakoram Highway (KKH) links Pakistan with China and covers roughly 12% of old Silk Route.  On the Pakistan side, it is known as N-35 and is rather narrow ranging from one-and-half to two lanes. It starts from Hassan Abdal and goes to China Border at Khunjerab. When one travels on this route, one can see signs of old trail and trading posts. Most of the passage is barren river valley going along high vertical mountains namely the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Himalaya.

Foreign tourists can explore, along the way, natural beauty and centuries old culture and traditions. There is enough infra-structure for benefit of the travelers like hotels, bazaars and ancient monuments. The passes are opened from May to November depending on weather as KKH is the highest paved-road in the world. The last point on Pakistan side is border post Khunjerab which as high as 4,693 meters. Due to its high elevation and problems faced in its construction, it is considered as one of the "Wonder of the World.