Saturday, December 23, 2017

Fascinating Pakistan - The Karakoram Highway (KKH)

I started reading the famous Reader's Digest right from childhood as my father had subscribed it. In one of the issues, I read about Karakorum Highway, an ambitious venture undertaken by Pakistan and China to build a road on one of the treacherous mountains of the world and rising up to a height of 16,200 feet metres at Khunjrab, the Pakistan-China border. The article give out fascinating details of how the road venture started and how the heavy machines braved the slopes of the mountains along wild and roaring waters of River Indus hundreds of feet below. A large number of Pakistani and Chinese labourers perished in the river when a slope gave away or a machine faulted and fell down in the river.
Making of KKH - Vintage Photos of early 1960s when the project kicked off
I still remember an interesting anecdote mentioned in the article. Since it was the first time that vehicles were ever entering the area and people had never seen any mode of transportation other than mules and donkeys. So when a leading vehicle finally entered a settlement and a small village, one of the villager brought a big pan full of water and placed it under the front of the vehicle. When the driver asked as to why he had placed the water pan under the vehicle, the innocent villager replied, "Your animal must be thirsty so I placed water for it to drink."

Although now for parts it has clear roads, but there are place where one can feel the hard work of those remarkable engineers and labourers who blasted away hard rocky mountains but still could not clear the overhanging as these were too solid to remove or would have had the mountain falling down. This tunnel like clearings had to be made to allow high roofed heavy trucks to pass through. See one of such clearances near village Dassu in the Kohistan region:

The Pakistan-China border at KKH - Photo: Pamir Times

Today from that stage of innocence, the Karakoram Highway, commonly known as the KKH, has transformed the life of millions living astride the KKH and their lifestyle and even lives have changed and linked to the outside world of their once tightly closed lives. No doubt the road is often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World as the road was carved out of granite and solid rocky mountains that took over two decades to complete. It is one of the most impressive engineering feats of human history, for it is the highest paved international road in the world.
Map KKH (Courtesy John the Map)
Aligned to the parts of once famous Silk Route - a fairy tale like travelers' dream route from Central Asia to the rest of the world, the KKH project started off in 1959 and every inch forward was written with the sweat and blood of its makers, both Pakistanis and Chinese. Known as the N-35, the 887 kilometers long KKH was completed in 1979 but was open to public in 1985. Khunjrab Pass is located in the Karakoram Mountains in a strategic position on the northern border of Pakistan's Gilgit–Baltistan Hunza-Nagar District on the southwest border of the Xinjiang region of China.

I had the pleasure to drive on KKH when I visited Gilgit many years ago with the aim of visiting Khunjrab zero point. Unfortunately due to closure of the road near Sust, we had to return from Passu. But the pleasure of driving on the KKH was a lifetime experience. It was here that while driving ahead of Hunza, that we came across the Rakaposhi Point -  a place on KKH from where you can see the Rakaposhi Mountain rising right from the ground level in front of you.
I do not know for now, but while coming back, we encountered a major road block and there was a long queue of vehicles. I had ask my family to dismount and with the help of tractor trolley,  I sent them across the road blocked by large stones. And for myself, I slowly steered my car from bigger stones and inched forward till the clearance. However, my car's undercarriage had a good feel of smaller stones which brushed well and 'polished' my car from  below. It is due to the efficient services by a special Road Maintenance Battalion of the Frontier Works Organization of Pakistan Army that the road is continuously monitored and road blocks are removed to keep the KKH open.
In 2010, a massive landslide blocked the Hunza River near the Atta Abad village and soon the blockage formed a huge lake. Initially, massive efforts were made by Pakistan Army engineers with the help of Chinese assistance, but the gigantic task was far beyond human effort. So while the Atta Abad and neighnbouring submerged under water forever, so did part of KKH. In order to resume traffic on KKH, a ferry service commenced to transport heavy trucks carrying goods to and fro China.

Meanwhile the Chinese and Pakistani engineers worked on alternatives and the KKH was realigned with five tunnels to open the KKH. The realigned route comprises 5 tunnels and several bridges. The longest tunnel is 3,360 m while the Shishkat Great Bridge on Hunza River is 480 m long. And finally the KKH was reopened in 2015 to allow smooth traffic between China and Pakistan. 

Meanwhile efforts are at hand to connect KKH with M1 Motorway near Burhan, Hassan Abdal. This will allow access to Islamabad and Lahore while Hassan Abdal will become the intersection of the Eastern Alignment, and the Western Alignment which will lead towards the port city of Gwadar. In years to come with the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) between China and Gwader Port of Pakistan on the Arabia Sea, the KKH will assume extreme importance and draw heavy traffic.
National Bank of Pakistan sets Guinness World Record by installing ATM machine at highest altitude (at a height of 16,007 feet above sea level) in Khunjrab Top.

Now watch a beautiful video by a couple of motorcyclists who embarked upon a journey to travel on KKH starting from city of Lahore. The video has been beautifully shot with each landmark en route appropriately captioned along with spectacular view of Atta Abad Lake  - in fact this is one of the best videos on KKH that I came across:
Those intending to travel on KKH and reach right up to the Pakistan-China border at Khunjrab may do so in  the spring or early autumn. In winters, heavy snow cuts off the road and the Monsoon rains in July and August cause occasional landslides that can block the road for hours. The border crossing between China and Pakistan at Khunjrab Pass is open only between May and early November. However, it is best to consult tour operators as they are in best position to give first hand knowledge in the state of KKH.

The Karakoram Highway (Pakistanpaedia)
Karakoram Highway (Wikipedia)
All photos above are shared due courtesy from Northern Areas of Pakistan except that of ATM shared by Muhammad Afaque Amin‎ and where exclusively mentioned

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