THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY: The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway

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The N-35 or National Highway 35 (Urdu: قومی شاہراہ 35‎), known more popularly as the Karakoram Highway (Urdu: شاہراہ قراقرم‎) and China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, is a 1300 km national highway in Pakistan which extends from Hasan Abdal in Punjab province of Pakistan to the Khunjerab Pass in Gilgit-Baltistan, where it crosses into China and becomes China National Highway 314. The highway connects the Pakistani provinces of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan with China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The highway is a popular tourist attraction, and is one of the highest paved roads in the world, passing through the Karakoram mountain range, at 36°51′00″N 75°25′40″E an elevation of 4,693 metres (15,397 ft).Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it is referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.The highway is also a part of the Asian Highway AH4.

Karakoram Highway route map

Summits of Karakoram Mountain Range as seen from the Karakoram Highway near Nagar, Gilgit.
The Karakoram Highway, also known as the Friendship Highway in China, was built by the governments of Pakistan and China. It was started in 1959 and was completed and opened to the public in 1979. Pakistan initially favored routing through Mintaka Pass. In 1966, China citing the fact that Mintaka would be more susceptible to air strikes recommended the steeper Khunjerab Pass instead About 810 Pakistanis and about 200 Chinese workers lost their lives, mostly in landslides and falls, while building the highway. Over 140 Chinese workers who died during the construction are buried in the Chinese cemetery in Gilgit. The route of the KKH traces one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Road.
On the Pakistani side, the road was constructed by FWO (Frontier Works Organisation), employing the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers. The Engineer-in-Chief’s Branch of the Pakistani Army completed a project documenting the history of the highway. The book History of Karakoram Highway was written by Brigadier (Retired) Muhammad Mumtaz Khalid in two volumes. In the first volume the author discusses the land and the people, the pre-historic communication system in the Northern Areas, the need for an all-weather road link with Gilgit, and the construction of Indus Valley Road. The second volume records events leading to the conversion of the Indus Valley Road to the Karakoram Highway, the difficulties in its construction, and the role of Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers and their Chinese counterparts in its construction.

The highway, connecting the Gilgit–Baltistan region to the ancient Silk Road, runs approximately 1,300 km (810 mi) from Kashgar, a city in the Xinjiang region of China, to Abbottabad, of Pakistan. An extension of the highway southwest from Abbottabad, in the form of the N-35 highway, meets the Grand Trunk Road, N-5, at Hasan Abdal, Pakistan.
The highway cuts through the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates, where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan come within 250 kilometres (160 mi) of each other. Owing largely to the extremely sensitive state of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway has strategic and military importance to these nations, but particularly Pakistan and China.
On 30 June 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Pakistani National Highway Authority (NHA) and China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) to rebuild and upgrade the Karakoram Highway. According to SASAC, the width will be expanded from 10 to 30 metres (33 to 98 ft), and its transport capacity will be increased three times its current capacity. In addition, the upgraded road will be designed to particularly accommodate heavy-laden vehicles and extreme weather conditions.
China and Pakistan are planning to link the Karakoram Highway to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese-aided Gwadar-Dalbandin railway, which extends to Rawalpindi.

On 4 January 2010, the KKH was closed in the Hunza Valley, eliminating through traffic to China except by small boats. A massive landslide 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) upstream from Hunza’s capital of Karimabad created the potentially unstable Attabad Lake, which reached 22 kilometres (14 mi) in length and over 100 metres (330 ft) in depth by the first week of June 2010 when it finally began flowing over the landslide dam. The landslide destroyed parts of villages while killing many inhabitants. The subsequent lake displaced thousands and inundated over 20 kilometres of the KKH including the 310 metres (1,020 ft) long KKH bridge 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) south of Gulmit.
It is highly questionable whether the lake, which reached 27 kilometres (17 mi) in length in 2011, will drain. Goods from and to further north are transported over the lake by small vessels, to be reloaded onto trucks at the other end.

In July 2012 Pakistan began constructing a revised route around the lake at a higher elevation with five new tunnels, with total length of 7.12 km, and two new bridges. The work was contracted out to the China Road & Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and was completed in September 2015—see Karakorum Highway Realignment (China-Pakistan Friendship Tunnels) below.

Pakistani section

Highlighted in red is the route of National Highway 35, which is to be completely rebuilt and upgraded under the CPEC agreement. Highlighted in blue is the 175 kilometre road between Gilgit and Skardu which is to be upgraded to a 4-lane highway.

Milestone near Besham in Pakistan.
At 806 kilometres (501 mi) in length, the Pakistani section of the highway starts at Abbottabad, although the N-35 of which KKH is now part, officially starts from Hasan Abdal. The highway meets the Indus River at Thakot and continues along the river until Jaglot, where the Gilgit River joins the Indus River. This is where three great mountain ranges meet: the Hindukush, the Himalaya, and the Karakoram. The western end of the Himalayas, marked by the ninth highest peak in the world, Nanga Parbat, can be seen from the highway. The highway passes through the capital of Gilgit–Baltistan, Gilgit, and continues through the valleys of Nagar and Hunza, along the Hunza River. Some of the highest mountains and famous glaciers in the Karakoram can be seen in this section. The highway meets the Pakistani-Chinese border at Khunjerab Pass.

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