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Karakurum Highway (KKH)
The Karakoram Highway known as K.K.H., has been cut through the highest and the mightiest mountains of the world, that is, the Himalayas and the Karakorams. This Highway connects Pakistan with the People's Republic of China via Khunjrab pass (16,200 feet above sea level) beyond which lies the sprawling Xinjiang province of our friendly neighbour and the fabled city of Kashgar. ft has, thus opened a passage through the isolated mountainous regions which remained a cultural backyard of humanity for millennia. This highway has been described as the eighth wonder of the world by hundreds of travellers and beyond any doubt, it is the marvel of modern engineering. The brave road builders of China and Pakistan took twenty years to complete this 774 km. long highway which has been stretched over the hills, gorges; valleys and rivers.

It was not easy to conceive and to execute such a Herculean project particularly in such a monstrous region. No wonder it had been considered impossible by some of the world's biggest consortiums. In fact the construction of the highway involved about thirty million cubic yards of rock blasting and earthwork, over eight thousand tons of explosives and eighty thousand tons of cement and so many other materials and that too in thousands of tons. Approximately fifteen thousand men of the Pakistan Army and the Chinese workers, working shoulder to shoulder, cut through one of the most difficult terrains in the world and toiled under the most trying conditions. It is believed that more than five hundred persons, that is, about one person per mile, lost their lives in the road building process.

The Highway itself is the greatest memorial to those martyrs who sacrificed their lives during blasting, rockfalls, landslides, earthquakes and avalanches. And humanity ows a deep debt of gratitude to all those who lost their lives during the road building. Their success, however, has opened a new chapter in the world's history as this road will be used by generations after generations of the human beings not only to learn about these high mountains and the people who live there in the scattered valleys but also to draw together, in a common pursuit of peaceful trade, as it was once done with great difficulty through the famous Silk Route.

For many centuries caravans braved these tortuous mountains treading precariously along the goat tracks and narrow paths sometimes providing short cuts between the great caravan towns of the Central Asian and rich markets of the subcontinent. However, the trails were too hazardous, angry rivers too horrifying to contemplate, storms and avalanches caused even the most intrepid to quail on the high passes and in the desolate gorges.

It was in fact, the great Han empire of China that extended its influence towards this part of the world and controlled roads leading through it. The most important item of trade, in which China was interested at that time was the export of Chinese silk and hence the popularity of the name. The Silk Route, which traversed the Tarim basin in its westward extension through


Central Asia to meet the markets in the Mediterranean coast. From second century B.C. to about fifth century A.D. the trade continued to flow. Thereafter the rise of the Hsiung-nu dislocated trade connections and the name of Silk Route survived in legendary tales only.

The ancient Silk Route started at Ch'angan (modern Si-gan-fu, former capital of the province of Shen-si) on the north-western borders of China and skirted the Gobi desert westward to Dun-huang, where it bifurcated into two - one passing the northern edge of the Tarim basin through the world famous Turfan treasures, Aksu and on to Kashgar; and the second followed the southern edge at the foot of Kun Lun and reached Khotan, Yarkand and on to Kashgar. The journey westward was either over the north of Pamir towards Samarkand or across the smaller valleys south of it through Wakhan, Badakhshan and onwards to Bactria north of the Hindukush in the valleys of the Oxus. It is the centres on the southern route that threw down paths around the FIun Lun towards Karakorum region, opening a passage for trade to the Indo-Gangetic plains. From time to time the passage has varied, depending upon its starting point in Khotan, Qargalik or Yarkand, the eastern-most being the Khotan route across the upper valley of Yarkand river over to Kun Lun. On the South it crossed the Muztag river and after passing through Shimshal reached the main channel of Hunza river. But a route from Yarkand proper would follow its tributary of Tashkurgan river and reach the town of that name and branch off either towards Wakhan or towards Khunjrab. It is the Wakhan route that can be reached directly from Gilgit, Chilas or Chitral over high passes.

The following two quotations of the two world famous ancient travellers, that is Mr.Hiuen Tsang and Mr. Sung-Yung-Yun throw sufficient light on the problems of the old Silk Route. Hiuen Tsang described his journey to Swat in the following words:

"The road was difficult and broken, with steep crags and precipices in the way. The mountain side is simply a stone wall standing up 10,000 feet. Looking down, the sight is confused and on going forward there is no sure foothold.

Below is a river called Sint-uho (Jndus). In old days men bored through the rocks to make a way, and spread out side-ladders, of which there are seven hundred (steps) in all to pass. Having passed the ladders, we proceeded by a hanging rope-Bridge and crossed the river. The two sides of the river are something less than 80 paces apart."

San-Yan described as under:

"The mountains here are as lofty and the gorges deep as ever. The king of the country has built a town, where he resides, for the sake of being in the mountains. The people of the country dress handsomely, only they use some leathern garments. The land is extremely ëold so much so, that the people occupy the caves of the mountains as dwelling places, and the driving wind and snow often compel both men and beasts to herd together. To the south of this country are the snowy mountains, which, in the morning and evening vapours, rise up like gem-spires".

From the description it appears to be the present Misgar area, where caves are still seen and used for living purposes. If this identification is correct, Sung-Yun must have crossed over the Mintaka pass.

The ancient approach was across the Kilk Mintaka Pass over to the opening of Misgar and onwards to Hunza. Mintaka Pass opened up in the Chinese empire on the east and Tsarist Russia on the north-west. The present opening at Khunjrab provides an easy access to China's potential trade influence down to the Arabian sea and onwards to the free world for the first time in history.

The modern K.K.H. which may also be called as a substitute of the ancient silk
route begins from Islamabad and passes through, Rawalpindi - Taxila -
Hassan Abdal - Haripur - Abbottabad - Batgram -Besham Qila - Pattan -
Chilas - Jaglot - Gilgit - Hunza - Gulmit - Passu - Sust and enters China at
Khunjrab.

Approximate distances and travelling on the K.K.H. by light transport are given below, but much would depend on the season and the driving skill of the driver.

 

The K.K.H. passes through a scenic wonderland. The landscape changes almost after every mile. Along the road there are scores of sites and scenes which deserve careful study and observation and there are things which cannot be described in words alone. Above all a drive from Jslamabad to Khunjrab is a rare and life long experience which nobody can forget after going through it once.

Maintenance of road, however, is a major problem because Karakorams are active even today. There is a continual disintegration in the higher regions because of the interactions of several factors including the effects of climate variations and the forces of gravity,rain, snow,ice, mud floods etc. all play key roles in the general destruction of these mountain areas. When parts of the valley walls break away, or when the streams undercut these steepest

precipices on earth then gravity causes small and large fragments, in single pieces or in thunderous avalanches, to descend at frightening speeds to the floor of the valley. Several parts of the road, and even villages are, either washed away or buried under several thousand tons of mud. A few years ago the Batura Glacier, just a few kilometres from the beautiful Gulmit, quietly advanced and with its blunt snout nudged away the towers of a strong bridge toppling it into the Hunza river. It has not been found possible to rebuild the bridge which causes great problems during the summer season when the flow of water increases due to snow-melting.

Found in this region, and perhaps nowhere else in the world, is the snow leopard. Also, Marco Polo sheep, the Markhor and Thar (a wild goat), the Bhural (a sheep), and Deer were common, but now they are extremely rare. One of the several rare species of birds is the colourful "Ram Chakor' the ordinary Chakor, a kind of pheasant, is also found in other parts of the country, but the 'Ram' lives along the Karakoram Highway up to the Chinese border. It is much bigger than the Chakor found near Quetta, far to the southwest. Pheasants of other types also abound--the trapogan, kalege and chir. The first of these, the trapogan, is now almost extinct.

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