Take The High Road: The Karakoram Highway

Ed Gill Races Against The Winter Freeze In An Attempt To Ride

As the dark brown brake fluid seeped onto the ice, I knew I was in trouble.

After riding some three hours on compacted ice and snow, up and over the world’s highest border crossing, my luck had finally run out. The Ténére lay on it’s side in the middle of the road in the fast fading light, still high in the Karakoram Mountains. It had been a victim to a momentary lapse in concentration and an accidental neutral when rounding a bend. With no braking power or grip I’d gone over on my side.

Thirty-six hours earlier, I’d left Kashgar in western China with Brett, an Aussie, and Hassan, a fellow Brit in a Nissan Pajero 4×4. Hassan was towing Brett’s KTM after he’d broken his foot crossing Kyrgyzstan the week before.

Lake Attabad

We’d formed our group in Kyrgyzstan six weeks earlier to split the costs of the guide that the Chinese Government requires foreigners to have. We were a group of stragglers – the last overlanders of 2015 trying to cross through the Karakoram Mountains before the Central Asian winter set in, border crossings were closed and roads iced over until the spring.

I was originally meant to be crossing China at the end of September, heading all of the way to Laos. But on the way to the border I’d taken a puncture to the front wheel and went over, breaking my foot in the process. After four weeks on crutches in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and another two stressful weeks of waiting for paperwork, we were raring to go.

Kashgar marks the start of the 800-mile highway, which ends just north of Islamabad in Pakistan. The day’s ride south of Kashgar was fairly unremarkable to begin with. But the size of the mountains slowly grew as we headed south past the huge Karakul Lake and the landscape soon opened up to the massive panoramas for which the highway is famed. We were treated to a golden sunset reflected on the snowy peaks as we made progress south.

With the exception of 40 miles of roadworks, the going was good and our little group was soon strung out, meeting again at nightfall in Tashkurgan, the last Chinese town before the border. After taking two hours to complete the usual customs formalities at the vast complex on the outskirts of the town, we left our guide behind to be shepherded south by Chinese border guards towards the border at the famous 4,700m-high Khunjerab Pass. And this was the point where the scenery turned up to a Spinal Tap ‘Level 11’ on the epicness scale – as the jagged, snow capped peaks flanking the road grew and grew.

Brett and Hassan soon went ahead in the Pajero. I would only see them once again that evening, just over the border. I carefully negotiated the last five miles of compacted snow and sheet ice on the ungritted road. Slowly the track wound its way upwards until, finally, the famous huge concrete arch marking the pass came into sight.

There was only a small amount of time to take in the vast scenery – and to remember to switch to the left hand side of the road! The conditions would stay the same for another 25 miles down the other side, requiring a painstaking crawl around the hairpins, resisting the temptation to reach for the brakes and relying almost solely on the engine instead.

It was just three miles before the end of the ice that I went over. After slipping around for a bit doing my best Torvill and Dean impression, I got the bike back upright with the help of some Chinese truckers who arrived shortly afterwards. I soon realised that I was not only now without any front brakes but the brake pedal was also bent up at 45 degrees.

This was going to be… interesting!

Nonetheless, with a bit of careful thinking, I figured that the bike might be rideable and that I didn’t have too much to lose by giving it a go. Turning down the suggestion of waiting for a truck, I cleared the final few miles of ice. If I could ride the bike on that, then I could ride it the remaining 20 miles of cleared road to Sost, the first town of any kind over the border.

Threading my way through the mountains in the dark, under a full-moon, was a ride that I’ll never forget – at times the peaks loomed like a gaggle of peering giants, as the Ténére and I tootled along at no-more than 18mph, dodging the remnants of the rockslides from the October 2015 earthquake. I finally coasted into Sost at about 7pm, freezing cold, tired but feeling a huge sense of achievement. Customs and immigration were thankfully quick and after two months of often muted Central Asia, a change of energy and the colourful atmosphere was welcome.

I decided to try my luck of the pick of truckers’ lodgings and stay in Sost. Hotels in this part of the world are basic, to say the least -20C at night and no heating, so I was soon to bed wrapped in all I could wear, huddled in my sleeping bag for good measure. The next morning, whilst relishing the truly ‘Wild West’ feel of the town I managed to find a local mechanic to bend the brake pedal back to shape. This far north, bikes don’t have hydraulic brakes so I was still without the front brakes. I’d have to wait, and ride another 25 miles or so to Ahmadabad, the next major town. Once again the ride didn’t disappoint, despite the difficulties with the bike. The huge peaks jutted high in the sky, flanking the road as it twisted and turned following the Hunza River. Tootling along at no more than 25mph allowed me to really take in the huge scale of the scenery, breaking out the stove mid-morning for a good old British mug of tea, while surveying the view around Pasu Glacier.

Then, the first big sight I’d really been looking forward to – the bright turquoise waters of Lake Attabad, perfectly reflecting the mountains around it. Until recently, this was where the highway ended – the lake was created by a landfall in 2010, severing it. Since then, crossing it using small wooden boats was an iconic part of the journey. Sadly, however, the boats now stood idle by the shore – the highway had finally been repaired and reopened just two months earlier.

Shortly after the lake, the mountains gave way to the beautiful Hunza Valley with its terraced hills reaching all the way up the mountains’ peaks. At Ahmadabad, the security stepped up a notch. I was allocated my own AK47 wielding policeman and this turned to my advantage – he quickly became a de facto guide, helping me find a mechanic to help get the front brakes working again before escorting me to nearby Karimabad, with it’s spectacular views of the valley, where I stayed the night.

The next morning it was time to move again – but not before a quick scoot up to the ‘Eagles Nest’, providing the best views of the valley below. It was a great ride, a natty winding road up from the valley into the mountains through villages, terraces and fields, where the locals were hard at work presenting a real opportunity to take in life in this part of the world. Just to add to the sense of adventure, the switchbacks were the kind that make the Stelvio Pass look like child’s play. But boy, the view was worth it!

At the first checkpoint of the day I was told I had to wait for a Hilux – a ‘mobile’ – to escort me to the next stop, some 25 miles up the road. This was to be the flavour of the next few days, as I continued to make headway to Islamabad – handed from checkpoint to checkpoint by each mobile, sometimes having to wait for the next to arrive. Two guys in the back with guns, one up front with the driver. On the odd occasion there was a fourth in a roof turret, squatting behind a heavy machine gun with an army helmet on.

The roads were good and the scenery didn’t disappoint, for sure. I arrived at Gilgit in the early evening, escorted right to the front door and told I wasn’t allowed to leave without calling the police first, for them to provide an escort. There were four hours of electricity a day, the hotel owner told me. Two in the morning, two in the evening. A lively conversation about the security situation ensued; his view was that the police were being too heavy handed in their approach, seeking to create extra work to justify their existence and being sure to avoid any risk at all, should something happen to a foreigner. And to be honest part of me sympathised with this view. However, sadly, events since then have perhaps shown us both to be wrong.

Four days in, and the ride was living up to everything I’d hoped it would be. But there were few opportunities to get off the beaten track due to the police’s insistance that I stayed on the main road and wait at each checkpoint for an escort. Hotel accommodation for the next section was trickier and the condition of the road deteriorated in places. I was having to jockey with huge, old Leyland six-wheeled ‘jingle’ trucks, 4x4s and whatever else happened to be on the road, to negotiate the potholes that spread the width of it.

Just before dusk, after much asking, I’d finally got permission to ride solo. I’d taken the view that waiting for an escort at each stop and so ending up riding in the dark was far more of an immediate threat than anything else. I would still have to check-in at each checkpoint, but not need to be escorted closely all the way. Hotels were few and far between but I had one in mind. I rode on, reaching it just after dark – to find it was closed.

“Hello, dear. This is the local police commander. You can’t stay here I’m afraid, dear…” As anyone who’s visited this part of the world will tell you, Pakistani-English and Indian-English often doesn’t seem to pick up on how different phrases are appropriate for different genders!

This slightly surreal conversation was taking place over a mobile phone, at a petrol station close to where my hotel was meant to be. I was about to accept the petrol station owner’s offer of letting me sleep on his floor, when a patrol had turned up. They’d put me on to their commander to explain that I needed to ride on into the night for another 50 miles to Besham, the nearest place that was considered safe for me to stay.

So, despite my best effort to avoid it, I found myself riding at night again, on one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Luckily, the conditions had improved and the traffic had died down. And just as I found on the first evening, the solitude of riding on into the night gave me chance to reflect on the sense of the occasion, as I cruised alongside rivers, over bridges and through villages.

A couple of hours later, filthy and knackered but, for once, not cold, I pulled into the Pakistani Tourism hotel in Besham, which was also being used as accommodation by the local police.

As I munched my way through my portion of sweet and sour chicken, I was monosyllabic with the policemen who tried to talk to me, as they stood around me in flak-jackets, helmets and causally brandishing their guns. I’d had enough of guns – I never wanted to see one again!

I was finally within a day’s ride of Islamabad. Friday marked one week since I had first crossed into China, five days since beginning the Karakoram Highway. The mountain scenery gave way to bright green foothills, with terraced plantations and then, finally, the urban sprawl north of Islamabad.

The Bike

After spending 10 weeks earlier in the year riding a 2010 Triumph Bonneville from Buenos Aires to Lima, Ed had well and truly got the taste for dirt-riding. However, he chose the XT660Z not just because of its off-road abilities but because of its reputation as a well-rounded, rugged, simple, off-the shelf ‘overland-ready’ adventure bike that was as comfortable to ride on the six-lane highways of Europe as it was on the jungle trails of Laos.

The Karakoram Highway

The 800-mile long Karakoram Highway (KKH) is one of the highest paved international roads in the world. Starting at Kashgar and ending in Abbottabad, just north of Islamabad, it connects western China with northern Pakistan. The route crosses the Karakoram mountain range through the Khunjerab Pass, which, at 4,693m, is the highest paved international border crossing in the world.

Want to ride the karakoram highway?

Due to the absence of bike rental companies in this part of the world, most people ride the highway on their own machines, entering western China either from Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. You should expect to take at least seven days to complete the entire route journey.

For the day-long Chinese section of the ride, you will need to arrange a government-licensed guide to accompany you. You can do this through an agency, who will also handle all the customs and security paperwork for the bike. NAVO Tour (www.navo-tour.com/en/) is one of the most popular companies. Note that the highway runs through the Xinjiang region in western China, which is a politically sensitive area.

For the Pakistan section of the trip, you will need to ensure that you have a Pakistan visa. This can be obtained only in the country in which your passport is issued.

Because the security situation in this part of the world can be unpredictable, it is worth regularly monitoring news outlets, the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and reports from other travellers who have recently travelled the highway.