The souls that paved the way for the modern tarmac road named the Karakoram Highway still seem to flicker amongst the sharp moving shadows of the rocks and the almost countless but crumbly lucent glaciers that constantly embellish its existence. There has always been a long pass into, and out of China over what is sometimes called the 'roof of the world' but in ancient times it was a very perilous pathway.
Starting near Rawalpindi, the bitumen sealed motorway winds through gently rolling, sandy foothills for approximately one hundred and twenty kilometers before intersecting the Indus river. (Called the 'Sind' by the Urdu language speaking Pakistanis) it then twines along the Indus's arc north eastward to within forty kilometers of the town of Gilgit.
Between these two points, (about four hundred kilometers) the road sometimes takes on a 'roller-coaster' aspect as it dips into, and out of the Indus's wide river bed. The final dip is at this forty kilometers point when the road joins the Gilgit river and continues to within twelve kilometers of the town of that name, then swings North, crossing the Gilgit river to join the Hunza river. The town of Gilgit is twelve kilometers off the actual Karakoram highway and is reached by a fairly smoothly laid and slightly inclined tarred road.
Although the Karakoram Highway inclines upwards the whole way to the pass it's not until you get close to Gilgit that you begin to feel as if you are in mountains
Even so, the town is only at one thousand, five hundred meters (approx. five thousand feet) elevation and there is still a feeling of being in desert. The barren, dust laden and tan colored hills that surround the area give the impression of being made from sand, however, it only takes a ride of a couple of kilometers north from Gilgit for one to get the impression of being in 'real' mountains - very high, and very sheer mountains.
This is not to say that the actual road itself is steep - it's not, it's just that the demarcation between the almost sand dune like foothills, and the seemingly abrupt line of six to eight thousand meters high glacier and snow plaited mountains is almost overpoweringly awesome.
The road then accompanies the Hunza river through these mountains, climbing gently almost all the way to the 4,700 meter high Khunjerab Pass. Only during the last twenty-odd kilometers from the top of the pass will you find short stretches of consistently steep road gradients of six to fourteen degrees. At the top of the pass, two tall memorial stones show that this is the convenient dividing line between political Pakistan, and political China. Both countries respective customs and immigration posts are some kilometers away on their respective sides of the pass. Sust, the Pakistan customs post is ninety kilometers before the peak. Taxgorgan, the Chinese customs post and town of that name, is one hundred and thirty kilometers from the peak.
The pass also separates two differently named mountain ranges, the Karakoram range (on the Pakistani side), from the Pamir in China. Within these two massive ranges, there are other named but smaller clusters of rugged mountains, and a quick glance at a map can confuse one as there is no illustrated way that one can separate one range from the next.
On the Chinese side of the pass the road is given a different name by the Chinese, who call it, loosely translated, 'The Big Pakistan/China Friendship Road'. This continuation of the Karakoram is also smoothly finished and well graded. It scrolls up and down through generally wide valleys for approximately four hundred and fifty kilometres to the camel market town of Kashgar, which is in the mostly Taklamakan desert filled Chinese province of Xinjiang.
As most travelers consider the Karakoram highway and the Big Pakistan-China Friendship Road to be one and the same, I have done so in this guide, with the exception that I refer to the Chinese road(s) by their route numbers. All Chinese roads have designated route numbers and periodic 'kilometer' markers tell you what numbered road, or track you are on at any given time, for example, the Chinese side of the Karakoram road is route number 314, and you can stay on this route half way across China.
The actual kilometer numbers on the stones don't seem to make any sense, and they certainly did not usually reflect accuracy as compared to both of our cyclometers, which always came out to within a hundred or so meters of each another at the end of every day. The numbers on the stones often showed a ten or fifteen kilometer difference to our daily total.
Between Rawalpindi and Mansehra voluminous traffic and the attendant exhaust fumes make for rather unpleasant riding conditions. However after leaving Mansehra traffic becomes lighter and remains so almost to the end of the highway in Kashgar, China. The heaviest traffic encountered in Pakistan will be tourist related vehicles, i.e., buses and jeeps as well as the four to six convoyed Chinese trucks bringing merchandise and foodstuffs from China to Pakistan. These vehicles return empty. All drivers are used to cyclists, and although they may 'skim' you sometimes if there is a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, I've yet to hear of a foreign cyclist actually being hit. Vehicles are rarely going fast enough to cause slipstream problems and can be drafted up hills, you may however have to dismount when a vehicle overtakes you on a hill - to let the thick exhaust fumes settle.
Traffic on the Chinese side of the highway is mostly four footed, rather than twin axle, except for the aforementioned trucks. We came to the conclusion that it was far more dangerous overtaking skittish donkeys, horses and camels than it was being overtaken by vehicles!
Between Thakot and Chilas the road snakes through the area called Kohistan. Up to about a decade ago this stretch of road was frequently occupied by transitory bandits, (called 'Dacoits -owners of the land' by most of the Muslim world) who held up buses and other vehicles occasionally killing the occupants. Some people, including Westerners, disappeared as well. There is still occasional nocturnal robbery along this section of the road and public vehicles are provided with a four man armed police escort if they travel through it overnight. There have been no daylight raids for several years and travel between dawn and dusk is considered safe. It is strongly recommended however that independent travelers stay in villages overnight if they are not confined to a vehicle, i.e. if they are animal, pedal, or foot powered.
Although maps do not show them, there are lots of small villages straddling, or within two or three kilometres of the road. The tracks leading to off-road villages are rough, but ride able in low gear. Almost all of the roadside villages have restaurants where 'beds' can be rented overnight. The beds are actually wooden framed, rattan laced cots that double as seats during the day. One sleeps on them 'as-is'; they are quite comfortable, but you may be bothered by mosquitoes and/or the snoring or talking of other overnighters. The cots are cheap but they cannot be rented by women! Women can usually be found a room in the building that houses the restaurant, or sometimes, with a local family. All amenities are spartan, toiletries often being done in, or near the closest river, spring, or water barrel. Toilets are rare!