Aptly nicknamed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Karakoram Highway cruises over the world’s tallest mountain range between Pakistan’s capital Islamabad and Xinjiang in northwest China. On the way, it passes the 15,700-foot-high Khunjerab Pass, making it the world’s highest paved road when it was completed in 1978 by the governments of Pakistan and China to connect the countries. The mostly well-paved architectural delight coasts through the planet’s most breathtaking mountain ranges — the Himalayas, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush Mountains — which add high alpine majesty to the highway’s functional appeal. Add in picturesque villages, suspension bridges, and treks, and you have the most bewitching road trip in all of Central Asia. Here’s how and why you should visit.
How to get to the Karakoram Highway from Islamabad
The official length of the KKH stretches from Hasan Abdal, some 30 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, all the way to Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. The bulk of the highway is paved and generally thought of locally as the nicest highway in Pakistan, though it can still be treacherous during the summer monsoon season. Nearly any type of wheeled vehicle can be seen there, including bicycles.
Even though I spent four months in Pakistan in 2019, I never quite made it to the Karakoram Highway, or KKH, as it’s known. After finally making it back to Pakistan in April 2021, I wasted no time going to the KKH. Spring blossom season was peaking, so I hopped on what would prove to be a more than 20-hour journey to reach the “iconic” portion of the Karakoram Highway — the stretch traversing the mountainous and beautiful region of Gilgit-Baltistan.
It’s in Gilgit-Baltistan’s stunning Hunza Valley that the 800-mile Karakoram Highway offers up some of Pakistan’s most beautiful vistas. There are a few options to get to Gilgit City, where the KKH begins to get exciting. The first is the night bus from Islamabad for just under $20 on the government-owned NATCO bus line. Buses depart from the primary bus terminal, though you should inquire locally for departure times and specifics as they change frequently.
Flights are also available from the Islamabad International Airport for about $95, with daily departures at 6:00 AM and 9:40 AM, and occasional other departure times available. You can also reserve a spot in a private car for close to $30; you’ll need to inquire locally with your lodging provider for specific booking details. Lastly, if you’re comfortable driving on the left side of the road in challenging conditions, you could also drive yourself on the 12-hour journey.
Being a budget backpacker unaccustomed to driving on Pakistani motorways, the bus made the most sense. Yet it wasn’t without its fair share of interesting moments. Landslides, construction, a host of carsick passengers, and the fact that we were traveling at night made the journey less than smooth. But the moment the sun began to rise I found myself surrounded by giant, glorious mountains that erased any memories of the past who-knows-how-many hours. And to think I wasn’t even yet anywhere close to the main attraction.
How to travel along the Karakoram Highway
Traveling by motorcycle is the most picturesque way to explore the KKH. Pick one up at Gilgit Bikers in Gilgit or Karakoram Bikers in Danyor, with options available for guided tours if you have time and prefer a local guide. If you’d rather go at it on your own, allow five to seven days to complete a tour from Gilgit to the Khunjerab Pass and back. Consider starting near Chilas or Gilgit. The portion of the Karakoram beforehand isn’t that exciting, and it’s draining to drive on two wheels.
If you plan on exploring the KKH without your own vehicle, be prepared to hitchhike. Luckily, it’s relatively safe and easy to do along the highway. Private passenger vehicles regularly pick up hitchhikers and drop them farther down the road, and while you should of course use your judgment when hailing and accepting a ride, this can be a great way to pick up local tips on what to see (and what to avoid). Unlike in other regions, buses do not really ply farther than Aliabad, so stock up on supplies there or in Gilgit and have enough for your journey.
While hitchhiking, I routinely encountered people who were happy to drive far beyond where they planned to go to get me to my destination. People living in this region are exceptionally friendly and have grown accustomed to tourists since the highway opened to international travelers in the late 1970s.
You also have the option to pay for a taxi (they exist in all villages and towns) or hire a private driver to take you anywhere you want, whenever you want to go. This will be particularly useful if you’re planning on making your way to the famous Khunjerab border with China and don’t want to hitchhike. Keep in mind that even though Pakistan is usually a very affordable country to travel through, this option will be pricey — plan to pay at least $30 per day or more, particularly if traveling with more than one person.
Where to stop along the Karakoram Highway
You could drive from Gilgit to the Khunjerab Border in one long day, but this is an excursion you should dedicate a few, or many, days to. If you do have more time to spend, don’t feel like you must visit all of the Karakoram Highway’s epic stops in order. After my long bus journey to Gilgit, I then made it to Aliabad, headed to Hunza via a shared van, and from there to the picturesque village of Ghulkin, Gojal, in Upper Hunza. After exploring, I then backtracked and went both farther north and south days, and eventually weeks, later. However you explore them, here are the must-see stops along the KKH.
Fairy Meadows & Nanga Parbat Basecamp — The first must-see is located off of the Raikot Bridge and along one of the world’s most dangerous (unpaved) roads. Fairy Meadows is the most talked-about tourist destination in Pakistan by those actually in the country. While not directly on the highway, but rather just off of it, the meadows can only be reached via a very bumpy Jeep ride, which segues into a two-hour hike. Once you arrive, you’re rewarded with views of Nanga Parbat that seem unreal, as though they’ve been pulled from a science fiction film. If you’re fit and feeling adventurous, you can hike to the Nanga Parbat base camp to really get to see this “killer mountain” up close.
Rakaposhi Basecamp – Another must-see is Rakaposhi, yet another massive mountain that peaks at over 25,000 feet in elevation. Beginning from the village of Minapin, you can hike to its basecamp for some of the most incredible views in Pakistan, looking down from the high alpine to valleys below. From Gilgit, Minapin takes about two hours to reach, and the hike itself is best done as part of a minimum two-night trip. The route up to the basecamp is very steep, and I was glad I broke it up into pieces. The first scenic camping spot is about two to three hours from the starting point, and from there another two-ish hours to the base camp. The best thing about this hike — aside from its legendary views — is that the two camps are manned, and renting a tent and sleeping bag as well as having all your food prepared for you is possible, unlike on some other treks.
Karimabad — This is quite possibly Pakistan’s most charming town. Located above Aliabad and easy to access, Karimabad is postcard-worthy, complete with stone streets, ancient forts, and very good Pakistani food. Essential stops include the Baltit and Altit Forts and the Eagle’s Nest Viewpoint. If you’re feeling up to a steep sunset hike, check out the Queen’s Monument, which is situated high above Baltit; the views of the sun setting over the high country are spectacularly colorful.
Attabad Lake — Beauty born out of disaster is the next logical stop on your Karakoram Highway road trip, a place that, no matter how many photos you’ve seen of it, will still leave you awestruck. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that the lake was born of a tragic incident. The bright-blue lake was formed in January 2010 after a massive landslide destroyed two villages and many lives. As the landslide cut off the flow of the Hunza River, the lake that you see today was formed. Numerous hotels and “glamping” sites have popped up around the lake, but I recommend visiting it as just a day stop. If you want to do more than just look at it, water sports such as jet skiing and boating are available for hire.
Gulmit — This medium-sized village in Upper Hunza’s Gojal district is right on the KKH, and it’s worth a stop for two reasons. The first is Ondara Poygah. In 2021, residents of Gulmit undertook a massive feat to construct a stone staircase all the way to the top of Ondara Fort, a historical landmark that’s been in the region for hundreds of years. The view from the top is impressive, to say the least, and makes the climb up the few thousand steps worth the effort. Gulmit is also home to a carpet factory run entirely by women, and tourists are encouraged to visit to learn more about — and support — what they do.
Ghulkin — This village neighboring Gulmit was my home for over a month, captivating me with its numerous hiking trails, headlined by the day hike up to Passu Glacier, and the views they offered. The village is set far above the road and can be reached by a winding drive up from the “Jannat Ghulkin” sign on the KKH.
Hussaini Suspension Bridge — This fear-inducing span across the Hunza River provides amazing views. The bridge was renovated relatively recently but can still induce chills in those afraid of heights. The Passu Bridge is located downriver and can be reached from the road or a one-day trek that goes through a summer settlement.
Passu — As you progress farther down the KKH, you’ll pass two charming small towns. The first, Passu, is a village known for its massive natural landmark, the Passu Cones, also called the Passu Cathedral. The drive towards them, as they loom ahead of you, is perhaps the highlight of the entire KKH. Passu is also home to one of the best restaurants in Pakistan, the Yak Grill, which serves up various fresh and delicious yak dishes.
Sost — If you plan on making it all the way to the border or beyond, you’re going to have to stop in this second town, Sost. The small market town is the last stop before the border, and while there’s nothing much to do there, you can also get off-the-beaten-path by taking a detour to Chipursan Valley, a remote valley about four hours by Jeep from the bazaar. Tour operators including Hunza Explorers offer Jeep tours in the area.
Khunjerab — A road trip up the Karakoram Highway wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Khunjerab, which refers to both the national park that surrounds the Khunjerab Pass and the famous border at an elevation of over 15,000 feet. The national park is full of opportunities to spot rare wildlife like blue sheep, yaks, marmots, and ibex. You’ll also be able to take as many pictures as you like at the top and say you visited the world’s highest ATM.
Crossing the Khunjerab Border
If you’re planning on seeing the entirety of the KKH, then you’re going to need a Chinese visa. The border is open for travelers to cross (outside of COVID-19 border closures) on weekdays from April to October. Keep in mind that, unlike when coming from China to Pakistan, you cannot cross on your own and must be accompanied by a Chinese guide until you reach the city of Tashkurgan. The Chinese authorities will also go through each and every single photo on all of your electronic devices, so hide anything inappropriate.
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed from the border until Tashkurgan, despite some seriously camera-worthy views. From there, you can continue on to Kashgar, which officially marks the end of the Karakoram Highway. If you’re crossing into Pakistan from China, you don’t need a guide and can take a bus or even hitchhike to reach the famous crossing.
Article and Photos by Samantha Shea