10 Questions: Cycling The Karakoram Highway
The Karakoram Highway is one of the world’s great roads, and also a classic bike touring route.
The scenery is nothing less than stunning, from soaring mountains to tiny villages wedged into valleys. The people are welcoming and the cycling is both challenging and incredibly rewarding. In short, it’s a heck of a ride.
John & Gayle cycled this route in summer 2010 and here they share some of their experiences and advice on riding a bicycle along the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar in China to Islamabad, Pakistan.
1. How would you describe the experience of cycling the KKH?
Cycling the KKH feels incredibly exciting and adventurous. The building of the road in the 60s and 70s was a marvel of engineering and riding down the road on a bike is a truly memorable and fantastic experience. The road begins (or ends) in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, Western China and runs for 1,200km to just north of Islamabad.
Along this road you cross the highest paved border crossing in the world, highest point on the KKH, the Khunjerab Pass at 4,693 meters. You pass though deep gorges with the Karakoram Mountains towering above you and then the beautiful Hunza Valley. The people we met in the small towns and villages along the KKH were friendly and welcoming. This is a very different Pakistan to what you see in the Western media.
For almost the entire way the scenery is breathtaking so every day just being there on a bike is unforgettable. Other nice memories are stopping for some chai at a roadside teashop, buying freshly picked black cherries from local kids and sharing the road with the jangling, painted Pakistani trucks.
Passu is a nice village to stop and take it all in, especially the view of the Cathedral Ridge and the village itself with its stone houses and walled fields. Just before Passu the Batura Glacier reaches the road! Our favourite place though was Karimabad, the Hunza Valley’s ancient capital. Here there’s a beautiful old fort, wonderful hikes, good food and hotels and some nice day rides if you need more cycling.
3. And the most challenging part?
Perhaps being a woman on a bike in Pakistan was the biggest challenge for me but don’t let this put you off (see question 7).
However, another challenge faced us: In upper Hunza Valley the KKH was blocked by a huge landslide that had led to the creation of a 28km-long lake where the road should’ve been. The only way south was to take a boat across this lake. Unfortunately just when we arrived these boats had been stopped as there was a fear that the lake was about to burst and flood the valley below which had been evacuated.
The Pakistani army were now taking people by helicopter across the lake. Luckily this service was free but only available for those who really needed it. As we had plane tickets out of Islamabad we were able to take the helicopter. Trying to put 2 bikes and 8 panniers into an already full helicopter while its blades spin above you and create a strong wind that blows stones and sand everywhere with the Pakistani army directing operations is a challenge we won’t easily forget but Wow! I’d do it all again if I could.
4. The road has a reputation for being in a poor condition, in certain sections at least. What was your experience?
The KKH begins in Kashgar, China, and here it is in excellent condition and there is very little traffic. Over the border the condition of the road deteriorates rapidly.
It’s not just that there is less money here for the up-keep of the road but also the geography and terrain are such that you wonder how the road was even built in the first place. There are many unpaved sections but nothing too awful. However, the Chinese government are in the process of funding the widening of the whole KKH. You see Chinese road builders every day. In not so long the road will have changed.
Eventually, it will be wide enough for big Chinese trucks to come through and perhaps will change the whole feeling of this famous highway. But ultimately I imagine it will be good for both China and Pakistan.
5. What did you do for accommodation along the route? Are there hotels most nights, or is a tent an absolute necessity?
We had our tent with us but only used it on the Chinese side of the KKH where I would say it is a necessity. When you leave Kashgar it’s around 200km to Karakol Lake and the first accommodation we saw. In Pakistan it’s not really necessary to have a tent as the distances between villages and towns with basic hotels is not big. The accommodation is very cheap and mostly good value. Oddly enough, the only time we used our tent in Pakistan was in Islamabad where there’s a very cheap and basic campsite for tourists.
6. Is food and water easily obtainable every day, and what kind of supplies can you buy en route?
When we left Kashgar we took a couple of days food with us as towards Karakol Lake there is not much in the way of supplies. Kashgar has good big supermarkets. You cycle through Ghez Canyon which is dry but we asked at the occasional house for water for camping. In the canyon there’s an army checkpoint and a basic restaurant.
In Pakistan some villages were short of food due to the landslide that I mentioned above but there was only one day, and not a long one, when we couldn’t find lunch. You can buy biscuits, noodles and sometimes fresh bread or chapattis but if you want anything to go on it bring it from China (or from home). Hunza Valley is famous for its apricots. You see these out drying everywhere and they’re delicious. The food is pretty simple in Pakistan, rice and dhal in a basic place. In bigger towns like Gilgit and Karimabad there are better restaurants.
It’s quite strange arriving in Pakistan from China. In the first Pakistani town we came to, Sost, we didn’t see a single woman and of course a woman on a bike is a great oddity!
As you continue through Hunza Valley women are much more visible. They are Ismaili here, not Shia or Sunni and the women appear to have much more freedom. Women were working in the fields and invited us for tea. In Gilgit and southwards, things change and again there is an absence of women. At first it does feel slightly uncomfortable and just odd.
We would arrive in a village, stop for chai and be surrounded by boys and men. I was always stared at but I didn’t feel that they were unfriendly stares just curious. The men would speak only to John and never give me eye-contact. I accepted this as part of Pakistani culture although at first it seems so rude!!
I only wore a head-scarf in Gilgit, which is a conservative little town, and I had my cycling helmet on when I was on the bike. I wore loose trousers and a baggy t-shirt and we cycled together (usually John is way ahead). Off the bike we both wore shalwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani outfit, long tunic and pyjama type trousers. They are great to wear. I wear mine in the UK too.
8. What about more general security. Did you ever feel threatened or unwelcome as foreigners?
No, we never felt threatened or unwelcome as foreigners, in fact the opposite is true. Pakistan receives very few tourists compared with, for example, its neighbour India, and we felt welcomed as visitors. Pakistanis generally speak good English and are often keen to speak to foreigners and ask what you’re doing and what you think of their country. On the ride south from Gilgit to Islambad we often stopped to drink a chai or cold drink as it got progressively hotter….in that whole week of riding we never once paid for our own drinks, someone had always paid the bill before we could!
9. Is it possible to throw your bike on a bus, if you don’t want to cycle the whole way?
Yes, you can take your bike on local transport if you wish and are prepared to bargain hard for a fair price. They only use small buses though or minibuses, the bike would have to be tied on the roof and you’re probably better off doing this yourself!!
10. One piece of advice for people who want to do this route?
Don’t be put off by what you see of Pakistan in the media. The Pakistanis themselves are desperate and sad about what is happening in their country, especially the young people. The Karakoram area is simply beautiful and the people too. Go with an open mind and I’m sure that like us you’ll want to return.