For the ultimate in road trips, choose the highest paved road in the world. The Karakoram Highway is 800 miles of mountain road connecting Pakistan with China across some of the tallest mountains in the world.
Take the one towering above that perilously vertical Pakistani art truck. It’s called Nanga Parbat and it’s the ninth highest mountain in the world. Also known as the Killer Mountain, its flanks have seen the death of a mountaineer for every four who have ascended its 26,660-ft peak.
The highway is named after the Karakoram, the Western reach of the Himalayas, which span the confluence of India, Pakistan and China. Home to five of the fourteen eight-thousanders, the longest glaciers outside the polar regions and a vicious conflict between India and Pakistan fought in 20,000-ft mountain passes, it’s the perfect place for an epic road.
Stretching 800 miles between Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city in China’s Wild West, the Karakoram Highway was constructed between 1966 and 1986, claiming a life for every mile.
Leaving Islamabad to the north, the road winds its way toward Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan territory. Between the towns of Chilas and Gilgit, it passes within 15 miles of Nanga Parbat, then snakes into ever more forlorn regions of Pakistan to top out at the 15,400-ft high Khunjerab Pass.
It’s the highest point on the road and the highest paved mountain pass in the world, home to yaks, Chinese border guards and snow leopards. The road continues for another 300 miles on the Chinese side, passes more huge mountains, skates the Taklamakan Desert, then arrives in Kashgar.
As you can imagine, driving its length is not a Sunday afternoon cruise on an Upstate New York parkway. For long stretches, the Karakoram Highway is a thin ribbon of a road blasted into mountain faces, crowded with trucks, taxis, motorcycles, 4×4’s and humans. There are landslides. There are avalanches. And in hot summers, meltwater from the glaciers floods the road.
At least the Pakistanis have the sense of humor required on roads that reach into the very clouds. “RELAX – SLIDE AREA ENDS,” proclaims this sign photographed in 1995, which makes one wonder about the precise nature of the SLIDE AREA itself.
I would love to conclude with a tale of a personal crossing, but that will have to wait. Should you find yourself in Pakistan with time to kill and a Jeep in your possession, give it a shot for all us plains-bound Jalopniques—and please post your tales of landslides, avalanches and scary mountains in the comments.