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The Karakoram Highway: Discover the ancient Silk Road and the world of miracles

Some people name the Karakoram Highway the "Eight World's Wonder" and this is not exaggerated. The highway crosses the ancient Silk Road. It is running from Hasan Abdal in the Pinjab province of Pakistan to Kashgar in China. The road is stretching at about 1300 km and with its height of 4800 m is in fact the the highest paved international border.

The highway is considered to be one of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Its building started by both the governments of Pakistan and China in 1959 and was completed in 1979. About 800 Pakistanis and about 200 Chinese workers lost their lives during the construction works. The route has 5 tunnels and several bridges. The longest tunnel is 3360 m. Shishkat Great Bridge on Hunza River is the longest one - 480 m.

Travel in Pakistan 1 with Penguin Travel

The Pakistan section is about 810 km long and is probably more attractive for the tourists. Officially the road starts at the city of Abbottabad, but most visitors suggest to turn on your journey from Rawalpindi. This town is located 14km south of the capital of Pakistan - Islamabad.What is important to know is that this is the place where all long distances buses from the capital leave. So, Rawalpindi is something like a Islamabad's biggest bus station.

Then it is not surprising to find out that the station is huge, crowded and chaotic. Sometimes the chaos is so big that the security guards take foreigners away in a separate room if they have many hours to wait for their buses. Don't get it wrong - Northern Pakistan is very safe, just too overcrowded in rush hours. Travellers tell the guards at the station are very polite and the tourists were offered plenty of tea and food. To continue your journey you can choose between "VIP" buses and a minibus. The minibus is comfy, but "VIP" buses are much more faster and offered more legroom.

There are several military checkpoints on the way, so be ready with all your documents. There is s big chance before the town of Chillas to face a strict security check, where portrait photos off you will be takes – as well as fingerprints. Some travellers have experienced even being assigned a personal armed guard who accompany them on the bus for few hours. Do not take this personal and do not look nervous, accept is a common rule.

One of the main stops during this bus ride is Gilgit. This is the biggest town in Northern Pakistan. Do not miss the chance to withdraw cash if you need it as Gilgit is perhaps the only place in the region with ATMs that work with western bankcards.

Also, in Gilgit you must arrange transportation to the next parts of the road. Tourists suggest to order jeep at the minibus station and go to Skardu or Hunza Valley. The road from Gilgit to Hunza Valley is smooth and you will be rewarded with a great mountain view all the time. The main towns of Hunza Valley are Aliabad and Karimabad. The second one offers one of the most beautiful views in the world. Reaching Karimabad you will quick understand why do people name Hunza Valley "the last Shangrila". Many western visitors plan to move here after retirement.

What does actually Karimabad offer? Let's start with the 360-degree spectacular view of mountains, Unesco Heritage sites. And the local people - extremely friendly and welcoming. Not to mention – here you will find the best walnut cake in the world!

Travel in Pakistan 2 with Penguin Travel

But sure, you didn't come just to eat and chat, so take a breath and start climbing the beautiful hills around! Perhaps it could take you about 3 hours – though the locals make it for less than one. The hills are strip. But the view is more than worth! And don't worry – there are wonderful restaurants in the top hills to "recharge the battery" after that not so easy climbing. There are hotels on the hills also. And if you decide to sleep there you could enjoy great food at dinner time next to amazing view of a sunset.

You will find it very hard to leave "Shangrila", but there is a lot to see on your way ahead during that Karakoram Highway journey. Attabad Lake is one hour north of Karimabad and is not to miss! It was formed in 2010 when a massive landslide destroyed about 19 000 km of Karakoram Highway and 6000 people got displaced. Attabad is 21km long and about100 meters deep. You can cross it with small boats. The ride takes about 40 minutes. It could be very cold sometimes, so check the weather and dress well.

From the lake you can go to Sost or to the tiny village of Passu. The second one is famous for offering world-class hiking around the Cathedral Ridge. Take a guide with you, if you decide to do it! The citizens of Passu are well know with their hospitality. This is a place where every stranger is invited to have a cup of tea and enjoy some polite conversations. Sost is known as "the sleepy town" as many travelers stay here for the night before crossing the border between Pakistan and China. There are plenty of traders from both China and Pakistan in Sost. Strange or not, Chinese beer is among the most popular stuff here.

Before crossing the border you can spend some more hours in Pakistan and visit the Chapursan valley, mentioned in the book "Stones into School." (a sequel to the award-winning book "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson. He describes in it his efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan) Chapursan valley is located less than 10 km from the Afghanistan border. It is popular among young westerners because it offers volunteer work and a homestay. The last village in the valley is Zood Khun and there are lots of attractions there. You can take cultural or adventurous trek - both on foot or horseback. Whatever you choose, you will enjoy marvelous views into valley. Hiking is available also.

Travel in Pakistan 3 with Penguin Travel

Once you are ready to visit China, prepare your documents properly as the border control is not a joke. Don't forget the yellow vaccination book. The road from Sost to the border goes trough Khunjerab National Park. If you decide to visit it, there is an entrance ticket of about 10 USD. Well, if you do not decide to visit it, you should pay either. This fee is on even if you are just passing trough the park on your way to China.

The border crossing in Khunjerab Pass is at 4800m height and yes – it is officially named the world's highest border crossing. Be ready for an extremely strict control and security check from China side. You bags will be completely emptied twice and checked with sniffer dogs and X-Ray. Probably they will check even the photos on your cameras and phones, the computers and laptops. As you can guess, this will take a lot of time. Some tourists tell they stayed on the border for about 6 hours. And most likely, after the final check Chinese military guards will accompany your bus till the immigration point in Tashkurgan which is after about 4 hours ride. There you can find International Youth hostel and hotel houses with WI-FI. Tashkurgan has an ancient stone castle, dating back thousands of years. You can pay a small fee and climb one of the fort's watchtowers. From their top you will have impressive views of the surrounding mountains.

Then you can go ahead to Uyghur Yurt and spend a night near Karakul Lake. There you will meet friendly people and starry sky to enjoy at nights. You will meet also interesting and authentic local culture.

Your journey on the Karakoram Highway will end in Kashgar - a city in China's region of Xinjiang. In the past it was a part of the Silk Road. Today Kashgar remains a popular trading city. Visitors can explore the vivid Sunday bazaar or go to see the ruins of the Mor Pagoda which was once an active site for Buddhist pilgrims. Do not miss the golden Id Kah mosque where a lot of religious festivals are held.

At the end of your Karakoram Highway trip you will have no doubt it deserves the name "Eight Wonder of the World". Running through snowcapped mountains and meeting diverse cultures is something that makes this trip road a a journey you will never forget. It is a gratifying experience, driving you outside the comfort zone of the material world, but bringing great comfort and satisfaction to your heart and soul.

Written by: Biserka Borisova

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