The Karakoram Highway that opened in 1978 was conceived two decades ago in 1959 and sowed the seeds of CPEC – maybe the vision of a Pakistan-China corridor predates the very concept of the Belt and Road Initiative, and is only just being realized.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH), built by the governments of Pakistan and China in a long span of almost twenty years (1959-78), is one of the highest paved roads in the world. The road, manifesting the strategic relationship and geographical interdependence between the two nations – China and Pakistan – is also referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.
The KKH represented the undeclared beginning of CPEC – a dream that is being realized 50 years later. The 1300km road snakes through the Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Kunlun Mountains, and Karakoram Range, to connect Kashgar in China to the northern provinces of Pakistan. At a maximum height of 4714 meters, it has the world’s highest border crossing at the Khunjerab Pass.
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Whilst ensuring the most epic road trip ever, the highway is notorious for frequent land sliding, avalanches, and movement of glaciers under extreme weather conditions. The friendship highway was built on their respective sides (China and Pakistan) by their relevant organizations. Construction at such a high elevation and harsh terrain defies conventional engineering wisdom.
Pakistani leadership gave the task to the Army’s Corps of Engineers to undertake the work; thus was born the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO). During the construction, 200 Chinese and over 800 Pakistani labourers and engineers lost their lives; some due to inclement weather, others to the harsh elevation of 4,693 metres (15,397 ft) above sea level.
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Many of these Chinese workers were buried in the Chinese cemetery in Gilgit. The KKH inevitably had a huge impact on the locals, mainly Uighur, Tajik, and Kyrgyz peoples’ lives; their economic conditions improved manifold. Adventure tourism picked up as soon as the road was opened to the public; it is no longer difficult to access the many high mountains, glaciers, and lakes in the area.
It was deemed the third-best tourism site in the country. One of the most challenging engineering feats anywhere in the world; the Karakoram highway was inaugurated by the then Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq and the Chinese Vice Premier Kang Piao. However, owing to the rigorous testing and risk involved, it was not opened to the public for another few years.
A massive landslide in 2010, created a 15-mile long lake (later named Lake Attabad) and closed the KKH in Hunza for months, stopping all through traffic to China. In 2015, a series of tunnels (the longest at 3,360m), and the Shishkat Great Bridge on Hunza river were inaugurated, that went around the lake and restored the road link between the two countries.
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The highway not only provides China with enhanced links in Central and West Asia but also facilitates it with a route towards the waters in the South. As a link to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, it would provide China with vital access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.