Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Khunjerab: the upstart pass

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As renowned passes go, the 4730 metre-high Khunjerab is an upstart. Until the building of the Karakoram Highway it was a nonentity. For as long as humans have travelled, and they have travelled since the beginning of time, they sought the shortest route between two points. Consequently, to enter the habitable parts of Gojal and Hunza from the north or to travel the other way, they used the direct line over the Mintaka Pass.

Indeed, the Khunjerab Pass was no crossing point at all. Here in the wide open upper reach of the Hunza River valley the shepherds of Gojal herded their cattle in summer. Here the yak, so used to the arctic winds, fattened well on alpine grasses and flowers. But when the first snows fell in September, the herders withdrew, livestock and all, to the more amenable climes of their permanent villages lower down the valley. For the next seven months, the snow-swept uplands of Gojal remained inviolable.

Then came time for Pakistani and Chinese authorities to build the Karakoram Highway. Surveys showed the unfeasibility of pushing a road through the geologically more unstable gorge of the Misgar River and up over the Mintaka Pass. It was thus ordained that the modern road should pass through the ancient summer pastures of Gojal catapulting the unknown Khunjerab Pass to international renown.

The Karakoram Highway that crosses the Khunjerab was once billed as a modern wonder of engineering – which it truly is. However, over time officialdom wrongly took to calling it the Silk Road. Unknown to them no silk had ever passed down this way from the marts of Kashgar. The silk ending up in India came from two other routes far away in the east.

If truth be told, no significant trade had ever gone up and down through Hunza and Gilgit. Though the people of Hunza and Gojal did maintain ties with Kashgar by way of the Mintaka Pass, this road was only used for local trading, not by the new-comer Khunjerab. The latter was the crossing of the occasional shepherd seeking better pastures in a time when borders were loosely maintained.

This little known fact does not take anything from the magic of the Khunjerab Pass, however. As one drives north of the border post of Sost, the road enters a largely uninhabited region of stark mountainsides and foaming streams. Here untended yaks graze by the snowdrifts among rocks and scree. Before the road brought its smoking, roaring buses and lorries, the higher hills supported the magnificently antlered Marco Polo sheep. The noise drove the shy animal to the more accessible reaches and only the very fortunate may now lay eyes on it.

Upon opening of the Karakoram Highway in the early 1980s, both China and Pakistan permitted only official transport to cross. By 1984, the route was opened to tourists putting the new highway and the crossing point of Khunjerab – one of the highest in the world – on the global tourist map. The ancient route along the Misgar River and over the Mintaka Pass was edged into oblivion to become only the adventure seeker’s goal.

How to get there: The Karakoram Highway is currently (as of 2010) being upgraded and road travel northward from Mansehra tends to be tedious with delays while the Chinese building crews blast the mountainside or clear the road of debris. However, it is possible to fly into Gilgit, hire transport to reach the landslide lake at Atabad, take the boat across the lake to Passu. Thence again by road to Sost which, with its reasonable PTDC motel, can be used as a base. The drive from Sost to the Khunjerab Pass is about three and a half hours each way, depending on road-building activity.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 8 May 2015 at 09:28, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

It has always been a fantasy, driving up the route where the great friends meet. Thank you for taking us up there, and doing that with an insight into history.

At 12 January 2017 at 10:32, Anonymous Amal Farhaan said...

Re your "how to get there", a little update needed. I traveled up to the Khunjerab pass in October,where the guards also told the exact same story about the Mintaka Pass vs the Khunjerab pass. Now the Chinese have blasted through the mountainside, ahead of Karimabad so that the road passing through 4 km tunnels, in places,snakes around the Attabad Lake.The journey past the lake now takes less than half an hour on the road.
The heartstopping views are something Ill remember for the rest of my life!


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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