Driving the world's most insane highway

Driving the world's most insane highway

Adam Hodge took a road trip through Pakistan, hitting the infamous Karakoram Highway and encountering everything from audacious scenery to audacious cops
Author Adam Hodge's jeep took him 1,284 kilometers down the Karakoram Highway, from Islamabad to Gilgit.

Against the backdrop of fear-mongering media and against the advice of his family, AskMen.com’s Adam Hodge set out to explore Pakistan. From Islamabad to the Taliban-plagued northern regions of the country, Hodge recounts his travels in his e-book, "Pakistan Chronicles" (available on Amazon), from which this except is taken.

The flight from Islamabad to Gilgit, the major jumping-off point for trekking and mountaineering in the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges in northern Pakistan, takes around 50 minutes.

The drive up the Karakoram Highway from Islamabad to Gilgit takes between 15-20 hours, sometimes longer. 

Weather permitting, the flight is quick and convenient. The drive is long and dangerous. Few people choose to drive if they don’t have to. However, most travelers do.

The KKH, as it’s known to travelers and locals alike, is always featured on lists of the world’s greatest roads -- and rightfully so. It is a spectacular accomplishment.

What used to be a series of goat paths and pack-animal passes is now an 800-mile (1,284 kilometer) engineering marvel, a roadway that slices a razor-edge path along mountainsides and cliff faces, through some of the most astonishing scenery on the planet.

It exists contrary to the will of nature, which regularly brings to bear earthquakes, floods and landslides on such human temerity. It is a glorious road.

But it’s a bitch to drive, really.

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"I learned not to trust Google Maps"

Road tripping to Beijing? You've only got another 5,425 kilometers to go. I arrived in Gilgit after 18 hours of bouncing up and down among potholes, loose gravel, mud, water, broken pavement and wobbly rocks. I had only traveled about 175 miles, as the crow flies, but the distance traveled on the twisting road wasn’t much more impressive: 350 miles. I did a quick calculation: 20 mph on average.

Google Maps, which had ambitiously predicted an eight-nine hour drive, informed me that I had only to drive another hour to arrive in the famous Hunza Valley, the inspiration for Hilton’s mythical utopia of Shangri-La.

I learned not to trust Google Maps. 

It was decidedly the off-season in Gilgit; it was January after all. Little water flows through hydroelectric turbines in the winter, and electricity, too, was reduced to a trickle -- a few hours a day, should Allah so will it.

I bundled up and went to explore the town in the fading alpine sunlight.

Gilgit is surrounded on all sides by small hills of grayish-brown stone. Peering over their shoulders from a distance are their older brothers, imposing snow-clad things with puffy clouds snagged about their peaks.

Eyes ever on the mountains, I almost missed a captured Indian helicopter that was proudly displayed at a crossroads in the town. Nobody seemed to know exactly how it arrived in Gilgit.

A British diplomat told me the Pakistanis had rebuilt it from a wreck and painted it in India’s livery. An American ice climber, who splits his time between northern Pakistan and Wisconsin, was the only other Westerner in the city.

He told me about Buddhist rock carvings and caves located just outside of town, so we hopped in the jeep and bobbed up and down along the potholed gravel road until, suddenly, we were in the hills.

Those small hills that had seemed so diminutive from the hotel’s roof were now intimidatingly hanging above us. Dark, gaping caves that could swallow a building or two yawned in the rock.

After a short hike, there, in the middle of a cliff face, was a giant 25-foot carved relief of the Buddha. It’s said to date to the eighth century. How they managed to carve something like that on a cliffside some 1,400 years ago is beyond me. 

Just outside of Gilgit, the KKH turns off a one-lane rickety suspension bridge onto a glorious black ribbon of unblemished pavement. Zooming through a valley thousands of meters above sea level, I realized how lucky I was -- not just to witness the mind-bending scope of the place, but also to be on such smooth pavement that lacked bottomless canyons on either side. A welcome relief from the bone-shattering surfaces and precarious drops I had become used to.

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U-turn at the Chinese border

"Beautiful scenery is never so wasted as on those who are in a rush," says author Adam Hodge of his Karakoram Highway adventure. The KKH passes through the Hunza Valley on its snaking path toward the Chinese border. Just beyond the Valley, smack in the middle of the road, is a mountainside that unexpectedly dislodged itself in 2010 and now blocks several hundred yards of the highway.

Landslides are par for the course on the KKH, but this one was big. It dumped, quite literally, a mountain of debris onto the road. The landslide also blocked the aquamarine Hunza River that courses next to the highway.

Six months later, Attabad Lake had submerged 17 miles of highway. The Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers was laboriously digging a path through the landslide when I arrived and courteously showed me around. They told me that they had vetoed a proposal to blow a hole in the nature-made dam with tactical air strikes. 

This was as far as I could go on the KKH before taking a boat to the other side and on to the Chinese border. I didn’t have a visa anyway, so I turned around and started the long drive back.

Beautiful scenery is never so wasted as on those who are in a rush, sadly, but I needed to return to Islamabad in haste.

On my last day on the KKH, I was racing alongside the whitewater of the Indus river.

Around Besham, I was hailed at a police checkpoint. Normally, the security officials in the north were downright giddy to see a Westerner.

I would fill in my passport details in an ancient and massive logbook, and then they would ply me with tea until I was cut loose. This contributed to the 18 hours of driving on the way to Gilgit.

These particular officials, out of boredom or malice, who knows, had other plans.

I gave them the standard verbal rundown of what I was doing, signed their table-sized logbooks and proffered all of my documentation -- passport, visa, registration and insurance (though never my driver’s license -- I wasn’t once asked for my license in three months of driving around Pakistan).

They indicated that there was something wrong with my visa, which there wasn’t, and they then indicated I didn’t have a permit to be there, which I didn’t need. 

"Are you suggesting we would steal something?”

I was out of the car, speaking to the superior officer, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that some of the detail had begun to look in the windows of my car. When the leader bade me follow him to copy down my passport details (again) in a small building, I agreed, and then locked the car as I walked away.

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A fully decorated Pakistani truck makes it way along the Karakoram Highway in central Hunza Valley, Pakistan. Considered a symbol of Pakistan, the flamboyantly painted trucks are the workhorse of the country. I suspected he was trying to get me away from the vehicle so his posse could have a snoop around. Normally, I would have nothing to hide, but I had procured a small bottle of whisky in Islamabad to guard against the cold nights in the mountains.

Due to exhaustion, I hadn’t even touched the stuff once. I had no doubt that, if found, this would be held against me until I agreed to a sufficient bribe, and I was out of money and time. 

Locking the doors had erected an unanticipated obstacle in the captain’s plan. He stopped, considered his options briefly and, as I had forced his hand, moved to exert his authority. The dance began.

“Why do you lock the doors?”

“Oh, I just don’t want anyone going through my stuff.”

“Are you suggesting we would steal something?”

“Nothing of the sort. It’s just so delicately packed is all, and I don’t want it messed up.”

“Do you have anything you are not allowed to have?” 

I don’t like to lie explicitly if I can help it.

“Do you think a tourist like me would have something illegal?”

“Then why do you lock the doors?”

had to bluff. With a huff of annoyance, I strode purposefully to the rear door of the car, unlocked it with the key fob, and opened it with a dramatic and irritated flourish.

“Please, if you think I am being dishonest, I insist you look. Please, have a look.”

I removed my knapsack, which contained the offending bottle of Johnnie Walker along with the rest of my food, and began to empty the contents into the arms of the nearest officer, who, nonplussed, soon had a pile of nuts and fruit in his arms up to his chin.

The leader nodded at another of his men, who ducked into the backseat, and withdrew after a brief glance around. He shrugged his shoulders at the commander.

“May I go then?”

With a grunt and a wave of his hand, he passed me my passport, and I was off, flying at 20 mph down one of the world’s most beautiful and dangerous roads.

Read more on Adam Hodge's road trip through Pakistan in "Pakistan Chronicles," available on Amazon