Lonely at Khunjerab

Posted on November 19, 2006
Filed Under >S.A.J. Shirazi, Travel
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By S A J Shirazi

Being at Khunjerab Pass is a unique experience for those who like the mountains. On the way up on Kharakorum Highway (KKH), there are innumerable options right from simple sight seeing to hard adventure, or a mix of both. Khunjerab surpasses them all. It is one of the world’s highest passes connecting two countries, and mountains on either side.

In summer, a stream of buses from down country, motorcycles and bickers (through China) reach Khunjerab. KKH has become one of the world famous routs for bikers and motorcyclists. At times the pass seems like a place where international cultural diffusion takes place.

Travellers are seen clicking the shutters of their cameras standing around milestone situated at the pass for memory sack or exchanging addresses and promises to send the photographs to each other. From this place one is 400 kilometres away from Kashgar and 880 kilometres from Islamabad. Those who are not acclimatized, experience a degree of altitude sickness, headaches, and or drowsiness as well. And in winters, it is lonely out there.

Beyond Pirali, the place on KKH before the snows of Khunjerab make existence difficult, the first impression of Khunjerab Pass at 15072 feet above sea level is a long series of switchbacks around the pass. The immediate sight on home side alone is worth the trip to the pass. On either side, massive angular mountains crowd the horizon – silent guards of some highest peaks on planet — celestial giants thrusting toward the heavens. Snow-capped pinnacles pierce through white misty clouds amidst kaleidoscopic purple dusks.

The sharp jagged peaks of the Karakorums on ours side distinguish a region of former feudal princedoms, valley kingdoms and states some call Little Tibet. The region is home to more tall mountains than Nepal and Tibet combined together. This is “the Roof of the World,” where four greatest mountain ranges in the world come together – the Himalaya, Pamirs, Karakorums and Hindu Kush. The landscape on the Chinese side is noticeably smoother. There are mountains — the snow-clad rounded Pamirs to the east — but the valley is more open. Yaks, sheep, camels, and people can be seen from the last point, and everything seems different even at a distance.

I have very romantic memories of sitting at lonely places (don’t call me loner), enjoying physical beauty and being taken by my own thoughts and perceptions of the places I happened to be at. One pleasure in travelling alone is that no one is around to remind about others waiting for you to start back! Alone at Khunjerab, climbing up a gorge, I was treated to the rare sight of Markhor sheep (well, I think I saw one). So artfully had nature blended them with the terrain that it becomes hard to tell where the rocks or Markhor stands? With the air thinning I continued climbing, hairpin after hairpin till I began to see the straight road that spans beyond Sost – Pakistan custom and immigration post. This is another matchless experience. Looking up to and walking on mountains, at Khunjerab one see them almost at eye level. I sat at the gorge for a while and saw so much unappreciated beauty. BTW, This is one place where Salageet (Shilajit) comes from?

Caravans as far back as the fourth century have been using this historic pass. Ivory, spices, silk and jade were hauled through Rocky River gorges and grassy valleys. This was where Marco Polo trekked through taking news of a legendary kingdom back to Europe. Along this giant oriental trading autobahn, intrepid explorers bartered goods, exchanged ideas and discovered technologies. A steady trickle of horseback commerce crossed the Khunjerab until the 1950s. Up above the road, remnants of old mule tracks from the old days are still evident, etched along mountainsides.

After the completion of KKH, the Khunjerab Pass was opened to traffic and trade in 1982, and to tourists in 1986. Khunjerab in local language means valley of blood, a reference to local bandits who used to take advantage of the difficult terrain to plunder caravans in ancient days. Now it is safe and one can buy much sought after “Do Ghore ki Boski” at many places in the way.

Any travellers can have all this and more using a bus service or better still a four wheel driven topless jeep on KKH. Khunjerab is also a starting point for more adventurous who want to explore the catchments of Sukhtar Abad commonly known as the Blue Sheep Valley — a little known habitat of Blue sheep, the Himalayan ibex and possibly snow leopards. Due to lack of tracks, Sukhtar Abad is not easily accessible. It can be approached from three different routes, Nazim Abad village through Dikarjerb crossing — a high altitude pass, Hussain Abad village through Gourdour Pass; and from the Khunjerab River, when it is relatively dry in winters. Those who have visited the valley say it is very rewarding but takes some serious trekking to reach the valley.

The Khunjerab grasslands came under the control of rulers of Hunza in the late 18th century. They used to allocate grazing rights to villagers, and in turn used to receive from them a tax in the form of livestock and livestock products. Hunza rulers controlled hunting in the area as well as any trans-border trade with China. Their own livestock grazed in the Khunjerab pastures, tended by designated shepherds, who sent livestock and the products when ordered to Baltit Palace, Hunza. The situation changed when the princely states were merged into Pakistan in the early 70s. Area in Gilgit district, comprises of 2,269 square kilometres, either side of the KKH from Dih to Khunjerab Pass as Khunjerab National Park.

Khunjerab Pass has become increasingly accessible now. The construction of KKH and air service to Gilgit has resulted in an increase in the number of visitors, both foreign and domestic. With increase in access, the mountain pastures, valleys, and wildlife habitats, previously valued for centuries as grasslands and woodlands, have now become the objects of desire of a number of competing interests — resort hotels, adventure tourism, big game hunting, mountaineering, and conservation organizations, to name a few. Each group is interested in maximizing its return from usage of the resources in the area. Khunjrab is losing its serenity in the process.

S A J Shirazi is a Lahore (Pakistan) based writer. His blog is called Light Within, where a version of this post first appeared.

14 Comments on “Lonely at Khunjerab”

  1. Daktar says:
    November 19th, 2006 9:10 pm

    The last paragraph is the most telling. The impact of greater access is the problems of overuse and also increasing pollution and garbage.

  2. Owais Mughal says:
    November 20th, 2006 2:00 pm

    Shirazi Sahib. Very informative. I liked the photos as well as the figures you provided e.g. hitorical dates and mountain heights. thx

  3. Roshan Malik says:
    November 20th, 2006 3:51 pm

    Shirazi Sb,
    I wished I would have been to Khanjrab. I am so glad that you saw Markhor (Ibex) there. http://christian.pourre.free.fr/p640/ibex.jpg

  4. November 22nd, 2006 7:44 am

    Thankyou so much for such a nice article. I have been to Hunza & Gilgit in 1998 but never been to Khunjrab pass. This time when I visit my homeland, I will try to go Khunjrab as well, especially when you say its still secure for foreigners. As half of my family is German origin therefore I have to think of their security first, (especially of my mom). Sadly many things have been changed after sept.11, especially the tourism is badly effected in Pakistan.

  5. shbn says:
    November 22nd, 2006 8:37 pm

    Beautiful post, lovely photos.

    Does the markhor really eat snakes? I heard that’s what it means in the local language Mar(snake) khor(eater).

  6. March 24th, 2007 2:07 pm

    nice place to be at, did you get any glimpse of marco polo sheep,by the way markhor_capra falconeri do not by any means eat snakes,they have however been known to kill them in theory but not in reality,hehehe

  7. shbn says:
    May 13th, 2007 2:07 pm

    Well said, but that’s what it means in Balti :)

    I always wondered why it got that name. There’s even an interesting legend about the markhor spitting out a snake “manka” at a certain time of the year :)

  8. AMMAR says:
    May 24th, 2007 1:56 pm

    is there any public level socity which is working for the protectio of wildlife in pakistan?
    why dnt there any documentry like stuff of wildlife in Pakistan????

  9. iceCube says:
    July 21st, 2007 9:01 pm

    I visited Khunjerab in May 2005… It was a sublime experience. The trip is among one of my most treasured memories.

    By the way, I went their all by myself… I am a loner. :-)

  10. July 31st, 2007 12:42 pm

    Increased access by air to Gilgit? PIA has been operating regular flights to Gilgit and Skardu for years, I don’t think there have been some new recent connections, and I don’t think the frequency has been increased (flights can often be delayed/cancelled repeatedly for days because of weather any way).

  11. basit says:
    August 27th, 2007 9:43 am

    its ma wish 2 visit Khanjrab…its ma drem 2 visit dere…!!!

  12. Aslam Pervez (Zapoo) Hunzai says:
    August 30th, 2007 2:43 am

    khunjarab is very beutiful velly on the top of the world.

  13. Javed Anjum says:
    March 16th, 2008 4:45 am

    I visited Khunjarab Pass back in 1999 as part of my university tour. We were stranded in Sost for days as there were land slides on both sides, eventually; we went over the damaged road towards the pass. On the way, we had to get out of our Jeeps and walk through icy cold water stream as it had damaged the road. I can still feel the wind chill, some said it was -14C that August day.

    Upon my return from this trip, very next day while watching CNN I watched the interview of a traveler who flew over the world. When asked what was the most beautiful thing he saw, he said, ‘The northern areas of Pakistan have the most breathtaking beauty!

  14. Ali Dada says:
    October 15th, 2008 11:13 pm

    Hahaha, the first pictures reminds of the tale of three wise men – one blind, one deaf, one mute.

    Just imagine, you walk and on the horizon, out of nowhere – these 3 wise men appear.

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