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.
2. What were some of your favourite moments of the journey?
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.
7. In some parts of the KKH, women are rarely seen outside their home. Gayle, how did you experience this?
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.
Thanks to Gayle & John for answering 10 Questions and sharing pictures of their bicycle tour along the KKH.
If you’d like to answer 10 Questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.
5th March 2011 at 3:09 am #
hi Gayle & john ! thank you very much and really appreciate bout your answer am also keen to do the same thing in feature .
7th March 2011 at 5:24 pm #
Interesting account. Did you ride from kashgar all the way to the kunjerab and then through the border down to sost? what of the indus kohlistan section, did you ride that and were the people also friendly there?
15th March 2011 at 3:14 pm #
We rode from Kashgar in 2008 and we were stop at Tashkurgan (last town in China)From there you have to ride in a bus to the border at the top of the Khunjurab pass. From there you can descent to sost on your bike where you do all of the official paperwork. Check, things change!
8th March 2011 at 6:57 pm #
How astonishingly gorgeous! Honestly, prior to seeing this post Pakistan would not have made my wish list, although China certainly already was on it. What magnificent landscapes! And it is a particularly intrepid variety of adventure travel — surely a satisfying challenge. Congratulations on an epic trek. Thank you so much for this!
16th March 2011 at 9:29 pm #
Fascinating account. This route is on my ‘ToDo’ shortlist. Did you have any trouble taking your bikes into China? I heard they wouldn’t allow people to import bikes at one time.
6th October 2011 at 3:01 pm #
Very Nice.We hope u will come again To Hunza Valley .
4th January 2012 at 4:24 pm #
Nice review. I am also planning a with my club mates to China Border from Islamabad. We would start from Islamabad to Abottabad to Mansehra to Naran to Chilas to Hunza to Khunjrab Pass to China border. We are motor bikers and will be riding on motorcycles; but if anyone of you need any assistance please do contact me. KKH is a wonderful place and riding on KKH is a wonderful experience.
19th October 2012 at 6:52 pm #
Hi have you done this trip by motorcycle,I am ismaili from Canada and trip to hunza would be my dream trip
19th February 2012 at 7:31 am #
Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your ride from China to Pakistan. I would like to do this ride. Did you take a cooking stove with you? if so what do you recommend? and can I buy gas cannisters in Kashgar?
20th March 2012 at 4:19 pm #
These tips are indeed very helpful. You are absolutely right about the 10th Point. Yes we are are sad about what is going on. I hope things will get better some day.
21st September 2012 at 1:02 pm #
This sounds amazing and something that i have wanted to do. Being a young female this is not something I would do on my own so i need to find a partner. What time of year did you go and how long did it take to do the route?
2nd October 2012 at 12:18 pm #
I am a young guy (25) from Belgium and dreaming since quite some time about cycling this region. Recently found out about the KHH, and this is just it 🙂 Also looking for a partner to share this adventure with. Feel free to drop me a message if you’re interested. My email: [email protected].
Best regards, Sander
5th November 2012 at 4:19 am #
We plan to ride the Karakorum Highway from Kashgar to Islamabad, starting from around 10th of Sept next 2013. From Islamabad, we fly back to Beijing. We plan to complete the cycling journey in 15-20 days. There may be 2 or 4 men in the group, around 50 year old. We would be happy to have you to join us.
5th February 2013 at 12:58 pm #
I am a Spanish biker from Madrid, I also dream of doing this route, and am planning to do it on the next summer (july or august) 2013. How do you plan to fly to Kashgar?
6th May 2013 at 2:43 pm #
I am also looking at doing this bike trip for around July/August time. I am currently based in China so would probably travel over land. If you’re looking for a partner, feel free to get in contact – I’m not an experienced biker, but am relatively fit, biking, running, climbing are my hobbies.
26th June 2013 at 4:35 pm #
Hello, I’m 55 and experienced rider, was wondering if you might have room for another rider and if so maybe we could talk about some logistics, flights, gear, etc.
13th January 2013 at 8:47 pm #
Gayle & john! Greetings from Pakistan Hunza Karimabad. I am really touched and i thank you for showing real image of Pakistan specially the Gilgit Baltistan region on your website. which is the most attarective destination for the travel adventure lovers. I also run a tour Operatings comapny in Pakistan and most of the tourists have one concern and that is security, but i am sure the more people come and experience the places physically will difnately have an impact of good image about Pakistan. Once again thank you for all great, true words to guide those who willing to travel Pakistan and they can travel freely.
23rd March 2013 at 11:12 am #
I m quite intrigued by the idea of cycling or even driving along the KKH with my partner. Being an Indian I am excited about traveling to Pakistan, and the pictures are just so magnificent I can’t wait for my trip! I want to know if there is any group who will be cycling there this year. We could probably join them. Thanks!
21st March 2016 at 3:42 pm #
Have you gone to Karakoram … If so please share the details .. And being an Indian ..will affect the organizing part ??
10th September 2013 at 8:20 pm #
Hi. Thanks a lot for the report. I plan to be in Kashgar 3rd week in September (2013), looking for anyone else around that time to team up with to cycle the KKH? Facebook page ‘bicycletoBurma’ 🙂
16th June 2014 at 10:16 pm #
I am very keen to ride the KKH route as part of my Global ride. Can you please detail your route, and is it possible at the moment. I have been told not. I imagine I will be in that region June July 2015
16th April 2015 at 10:21 am #
Me and another friend did the KKH route (Islamabad to Kashgar) 30 August to 12 September last year. Be glad to share our experience with u. Do email me…cheers!!
14th October 2015 at 5:00 pm #
Eddy – I’m looking at doing this trip independently with a chum. If you pick this up, I’d love a bit of a steer from you. Best to email me at [email protected]. Cheers!
28th April 2015 at 3:27 pm #
I will cycling there mid July as a part of my world tour – I will be going solo. I got my visa in advance in Canada. Is it still near impossible to obtain on the road? If you want to follow my progress towards Pakistan, check out my blog: http://www.followmargopolo.com
28th June 2015 at 9:42 am #
Hi. This is a wonderful post and I wish to do it soon. Problem is finding a partner. Would be good if anyone is planning on doing a similar trip sometime this year or next year. Please email me [email protected]
15th January 2016 at 11:28 am #
hi, i also intended to cycle form islamabad to khanjrab. also need a partner in this trip. i shall start my cycling after month of ramzan or to finish before ramzan in 2016.
16th July 2015 at 3:29 pm #
Hi, how challenging is the cycling? 1) steepness 2) recommended mileage per day 3) finding spares for the cycle. thanks.
12th February 2016 at 4:46 pm #
How cold can there be in Septmeber during the night? I want to travel by car and sleep inside. Thanks in advance for any ideas.
22nd March 2016 at 7:04 pm #
Hi, I am from Pakistan, lives in Lahore. I am thinking to travel to Kashgar from Lahore. Anyone interested or wanted a partner to ride then you are most welcome.
Email: [email protected]
17th February 2022 at 1:55 pm #
Hi, sounds like you had a wonderful time!
If you’re looking for a Next time I highly recommend Kyrgyzstan, it’s EPIC.
I’m planning a trip from England to nz and will include the kkh on route. What months do you recommend is best to ride the kkh ?
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