Karakoram Highway Photo Essay and Guide

A guide to the middle portions of the Silk Road

General comments: The road is bikeable to Gilgit, at about 5000 feet, until quite late in the year and the gorgeous treee colors and cool temperatures are a welcome change from the blistering heat in Indus Kohistan in the summer. Gilgit is quite a mountain town and has plenty of services, and is probably worth a full days visit...but only once.

Road conditions are rough everywhere and very rough in many spots. Landslides and rockfalls pock the road and are a threat to cyclists: Several times small rockfalls came very near me..south of Gilgit and south of Dasu. Traffic is very light on the road most of the time, especially as you get north of Gilgit itself. By evening you have the road to yourself in many cases.

For those taking buses to avoid the Kohistan Kids: Northbound riders should go at least as far as Thakot on their own...there are GORGEOUS forested hills between Mansehra and Thakot that will calm your eyes, and a challenging steep climb to over 5000 feet. Southbound riders, while tempted to hop a bus in Gilgit, are well advised to ride further south to Gonar Farm: The scenery remains quite beautiful and Nanga parbat looms in the distance as you appraoch Telechi.

I wild camped along the road numerous times.....4 times in the ten days. I had no trouble but tended to set up camp when it was almost dark. It is better to camp on someone's land with permission...it is safer.

Day by Day Log

DAY ONE: Mansehra to Thakot features gorgeous forested switchbacks, and views of snowcapped peaks in the Swat/Kaghan valleys adjacent to you. Grades here are actually the steepest anywhere on the KKH exchept for near the Khunjerab pass itself. The wind whispers in the pines, the forests are clean and plesant, there are waterfalls and cool dells to rest in and camp in if you wish. I stayed overnight in Thakot at this wonderful Five star hotel shown here. I swear the walls had not been washed since the time of Genghis Khan. But the folks were friendly and the food was good, and I slept well. Some riders might continue on to Besham Dale which has more services, but I found the hills enough from Mansehra that I stopped at this point. There are small towns between the two that also offer food, hotels, and a few banks. Enjoy the greenery...for the next few days riding you have the grim rockfaced cliffs of the Indus river that only us Geologists could love.

DAY TWO:Thakot to Dasu. Many cyclists will find this strecth dull with its bare rock walls and the road hanging on the cliffs of the deep canyon of the Indus. There is alot of up and down riding here but little net gain in elevation. Kids throwing rocks from the steep cornices on both sides of the roads is a serious problem. Several chunks lobbed at me could easily have broken a collarbone or cause serious head injury. The risks are real and the locals not particularly inclined to stop it...most see it as a cute joke. Cyclists must weight the risks carefully in the this region. Don't discount the erosion rockfalls and those dislodged by the mountain goats, either. One tactic is to hug the canyon wall and hope the rocks, therefore, are shielded by the cliffs direclt above you, but this is not always an option. Aagain..think carefully of the risks of cycling in this region. I had several near missses.

DAY THREE:Dasu to Chilas. More canyon clinging but the scenery does open up a bit. Less problem with rocks but the threat really is throughout the emtire KKH region..even near Gilgit I had a few farmboys toss things. The weather here at this time of year (mid november) is cool air and warm sun, with very chilly nights. Careful obsevers might gain some appreaciation of the cutting power of the Indus and the side streams that pour into it by looking at just how deep and stark the side ravines are. Also notice that the tributaries are much less silted than the Indus itself. In some places these silts have formed 'beaches' and dunes blown into fancy shapes by the fairly persistent winds. By the way the wind for me was generally UP the valley, toward the Khunjerab pass, at all points, no matter how the raod twisted and turned. This did make riding in the cold more tolerable as the wind chillfactor was NOT a factor.

DAY FOUR: Chilas to Gonar Farm. I give Chilas the 'All this way and this is all there is???' award for the highway. I was in the town itself, saw a sign that said "Chilas 3 Km" and rode on looking for more. There was no more and I was so outraged at this stupidity I rode on and had lunch at a small cluster of stalls many kilometers ahead. The rock walls continue. But, as you bend north on the road again, the snowy peaks of Baltistan surrounding Haramosh (7397m) loom on your right hand side. There are gorgeous terraces along the river lined with trees and fields aflame with color and the tawny brown harvested crops. Apples are everywhere, cool and biteingly sweet in the early morning air. North of Gunnar Farm i camped near the highway engineers maintenance point. Not far further north of this station are a few hot springs the steam in the early morning chill. I washed in these springs but remember that such springs can carry dangerous bacteria or even viruses, so be careful about exposing sensitive mucus membranes of your eyes and mouth to the water unless you have thoroughly soaped it.

DAY FIVE: Gonar farm to Gilgit: Ah...what a prelude to the beauty to come, and for me i thought it couldn't get prettier than this. A dashing preliminary to the climax of peaks you will see on the route to hunza. Looking south you can see the complex of peaks surrounding and including Nanga Parbat itself as you climb to Telechi amidst corridors of trees, in flaming autumn yellow, on both sides of the road. Glances up side valleys also reveal snowy summits, many of them unnamed, and frosty glaciers. Gilgit tiself, at a height of about 5000 feet, is in the base of a bowl of peaks that catch the sun with varying effects throughout the day..don't miss the red of sunset on the peaks southeast of town. i rested in Gilgit one day (it was my birthday, November 15!!!) and bought some warmer clothing for the Hunza valleys ahead. Gilgit is a nice town but it could be much better if, of course the everpresent garbage and filth, human and animal, were not so everpresent in the small town streets and fields. In the summer the stench must be amazing and I am not sure that having seen Gilgit once, that I would want to see it twice.

DAY SIX: Gilgit to Rakaposhi Meadows. What a ride! What a road! What a country Pakistam can be....this is what cycling is all about. You squeeze your way out of Gilgit with snowy summits overlooking small towns orchards, adn gardens. Then the true Karakoram begin to loom, first on your left, and then as the road swings east into the Hunza valleys a dramatic curtain of rock is swept away and on your right the Rakaposhi Range rips into view. The temperature drops noticeably as you ascend thru this region, ratcheting lower with each series of switchbacks that brings you higher. Rakasposhi's grim north face, deep in shadow and crusted with snow and several glaciers, sends torrents of water across the raod. On your left, the broad Hunza valley with orchards, farms and terraced fields yawns below you. This part of the road, all the way to Sust, is rivalled (in my experience) only by the Icefields parkway of Canada for its sustained stretches of mountain beauty. You are not only in the mountain, you are climbing the mountains, riding along and across and thru the mountains. Many places in this region have a 360 degree panorama of lofty peaks, may over 7000 meters, most unnamed, and many unclimbed. The rock varies from dark volcanics to bright, almost golden color that recalls the Dolomites of the Italian alps. The towns below are quite attractive as well, by Pakistan standards.

DAY SEVEN: Rakaposhi meadows to 'Paradise Hotel' (south of Passu). Just when day six leaves you thinking you have seen it all, you continue to climb into a staggering stretch of peaks that constitute this section, and the actual crossing of, the Karakoram range. The road climbs in broad sweeps up to Altit with its forts, continuing the rock faces of bright yellow/tan. But the faces are far more sheer and the heights of course far greater than their Italian Dolomite cousins. The scene from Altit, with the deep valley strecthing across to Rakaposhi --even more dominating than the day before, now that the greater distance acents its true mass and height-- and continuing all around you with peaks that, by all rights, should be carefully named and ascended (but are neither!), is the highlight so far of my 17 month world tour. Again, only the icefields parkway and the high Pyrenees (shown here for comparison on the right) which I crossed last Spring, can compare with it. Yet thousands of feet beneath these peaks are meadows of golden flame, towns full of stalls selling apples in the chilly air of mid November. A staggering display of the beauty that results when rock, sky, ice, snow, and valley come together. Tears came to my eyes here...of sadness that I had to move on. I checked in at the Paradise Hotel as soon as the sun went behind the mountains and lost its heating power. You eat 3 times as much in this region: once to stay warm, once to climb, and once just for nourishment.

DAY EIGHT: Hotel to Sust: Only the Karakorams could offer a day to rival that of Day seven, so soon after. North towards sust a sawtoothed ridge of peaks appears. The massif looms larger and larger till the road pulls alongside, you ride through and finally over it! The only glacier to appraoch near the road appears on your left as you ride toward dassu. The final kilometers to sust see you snake thru a narrow gorge with rock faces and peaks so high above you that you must crane your neck and risk separating a few vertabrae to look at them while you are also riding. This portion was very cold as the breezes swept down the icy and snowy faces before they hit the road, and the deep gorge captured no sun. I arrived in Sust just before noon, having left my hotel a few hours before. The main chain of the Karakorams, Himalaya and Hindu Kush is now behind you. The climb to Khunjerab, while hiher in elevation by almost 2000 meters from here, is a broad arch with widely scattered peaks and lacks the drama of the last few days rides.
I arrived in Sust, a remarkably tasteless and slovenly town for such a otherwise pristine setting, and promptly took a bus back to my starting point. My overall verdict on the highway is that the highway is beautiful, bikeable and memorable in spite of itself...in spite of the filthy towns, the rough surfaces, the sometimes dangerous stretches, and the very questionable restaurants. I have done it once...but like Gilgit, I am not in any rush to do it again.

Final Evaluation and Comments

Riding early in the morning is colder by the air is cleaner and the newly fallen snow on the mounatin peaks is bliding white....water on the road may be ice crusted this time of year, so watch your riding in places where streams spill onto the the roadway....by midday local heating causes clouds to play games with the peaks, attractive but it may wrap them in a less picturesque white background or obscure them altogether..the wonderful kids who sometimes run with you for hundreds of feet chanting 'one pen! one pen!' are just a great source of amusement. Their bright cheery faces and pleasant demeanor are a real testimony to the character needed to survive in these hardscrabble, barren valleys....also they are a welcome tonic to the blank stares and rock volleys further south. Overall I rate the Karakoram (for its entire length, from near Mansehra to Khunjerab pass), as a seven on a scale of ten. The highway just cannot overcome its substantial mundane streches (Indus Kohistan), its hostile regions (same), and its slovenly services (everywhere). It doesn't have to be the yellow brick road to oz, but it doesn't have to be the pockmarked road to highest hell, either!. In all honesty and to end on a bright note, however, the strecth from Sust south to Gonar Farm rates a ten out of ten.
More photos are on the way when I develop my next roll of film. Hopefully they will be a bit better than these. 1