The Silk route/Karakoram Highway connects China and Pakistan with what must be the most harrowing trail of asphalt on earth. From Kashgar to Islamabad, the road stretches 1260 kilometers and pierces the territory of at least five ethnic groups. (Uighur, Kirgiz, Tajik/Wakhi, Hunza/Nagar, Shin, and Pathan). At least nine languages (Chinese, Uighur, Kirgiz, Tajik/Wakhi, Burushaski, Shina, Pushto, Urdu, and English) are commonly heard along its length. The highway was begun in the late 1960s after the warming of relations between the two countries. China provided most of the engineering know-how, building bridges to span Pakistan’s treacherous rivers and blasting a two-lane highway out of sheer rock. The muscle was provided by thousands of Pakistani and Chinese laborers, who wielded picks and shovels under a blinding mountain sun. On the Pakistan side of the border alone, more than 400 lost their lives.
Nowadays most traffic on the Karakoram Highway consists of tourists and hajjis-Muslims making a pilgrimage to Mecca–but small-scale trade has revived as well. Pakistani businessmen come to Kashgar to load up on thermoses, enamel wash-basins, and other items sold cheaply in Chinese shops. They are also attracted by Kashgar’s reputation as a place of pleasure, for liquor and whores are not easily found in their straight-laced homeland. Apart from the hajjis, few Chinese find their way west.
The sheer difficulty of this road makes it a magnet for adventure-seeking bicyclists, of whom this author was one. If steep ascents, thin air, long distances, interfering officials, shabby hostels and unfamiliar food aren’t challenge enough, the cyclist must also contend with children for whom grabbing the luggage rack of a passing foreigner’s bike has become a favorite sport. Yet the rewards are worth it: standing alone at the summit of a pass, master of all you see; cheers from villagers as you pedal by; visiting Kirgiz nomads on a great plain beneath Mustaghata; and, from the Khunjerab pass, the long, long joy-ride down. It is an unforgettable experience.