At 4700 m the Khunjerab Pass is the highest paved international border crossing in the world. It is the meeting point of two sections of the Karakoram Highway connecting Gilgit-Baltistan area of northern Pakistan and Xinjiang province of western China. Out of the 1300 km highway, 887 km traverses through Pakistan while rest of the 413 km passes through the Chinese territory.
The area constituting the Khunjerab Pass (Or Khunzerav) is quite a fair stretch surrounded by the Karakoram mountains, mostly snow topped. During summers, the area around the Pak-China border pass is decked with a variety of wildflowers on green patches in the foothills of the glittering snow-covered mountains encompassing some of the most impressive sceneries in the world.
The Khunjerab Pass is the origin point of the Hunza River. The melting snow from the peaks around the border streams to form a creek that flows down and several of these waterways along the KKH meet to make up the Hunza River until it meets Gilgit River in Gilgit. The Gilgit River further flows along the Karakoram Highway and meets up the River Indus at the Junction point of three mountain ranges and continues all the way to Thakot.
Construction of the Khunjerab Pass
The Kilik and Mintaka Pass located to the north of Khunjerab served as primary passes on the Karakoram range before the construction of the KKH. The choice of Khunjerab Pass for Karakoram Highway was decided on the technical basis with the major reason being Kilik and Mintaka more susceptible to air strikes and Khunjerab was recommended in 1966 and created in 1978.
The Khunjerab Pass is a major tourist attraction drawing thousands of domestic and international tourists on a daily basis. The entire Karakoram Highway is crowned with natural and manmade attractions and scenic views at every turn. The panorama on the top is extraordinarily marvellous providing options for short hikes and for photography. A journey along the highway all the way to the border area simply provides with a lifetime experience.
The major portion of the Khunjerab Pass encompasses the Khunjerab National Park which was established in 1979 to preserve endangered species. The Khunjerab park is home to several rare animal species including the Marco Polo sheep and the Snow Leopard. The eastern stretch of the Khunjerab pass makes up the Chinese Xinjiang province territory which could be easily seen from the border area.
On the Pakistani side, the pass is 75 km from Sost customs and immigration check post while it is about 180 km from Hunza, 280 km from Gilgit airport and 890 km from the capital city Islamabad. On the Chinese side, it is 130 km from Tashkurgan, about 420 km from Kashgar, and 1890 km from Urumqui. There are helpful road-sign giving tourists information about the distances involved.
It must be noted that the Chinese side is right-hand drive and Pakistan side is left-hand drive. The border is the switching point.
Although the highway to the Pakistani side is very well paved yet the sudden altitude gain near the top again may slow down the journey. Likewise, there are checkpoints on both sides of the pass that may also lead to slow down the overall journey.
On the Pakistan side, there is a certain amount of fee charged to all local and international tourists. Currently, it is Rs. 40 from Pakistani tourists and $ 8 from international tourists. The entry fee may be revised every year and knowing the exact amount well in time will be a good idea to manage expenses particularly for large groups.
The pass remains opened from May till November for trade and tourism and in the remainder of the period remains closed and inaccessible due to heavy snowfall. During November it sometimes gets extremely cold and sometimes winds make it hard to stay on the top. However, in fine weather conditions, it is still a place must visit.
There is a daily bus service between Sost (the last human settlement along the KKH), Pakistan, and Tashkurghan, China. Both Pakistani and Chinese buses serve a drop service from their respective bus stations in the home country and return empty. One can hire private Cars/4WD from Sost to Tashkurghan for a drop-off and can proceed to Kashgar using a shared ride or simply hire a taxi.
Due to high altitude, it has been observed that some tourists may suffer altitude sickness. The symptoms including feeling dizziness, having headaches, or even experience shortness of breath. It is advisable to immediately return to low altitude and see a doctor or must carry altitude sickness medicine in advance.
During peak summers there are chances of flooding due to sudden snow melting near the top and a timely return is advisable. Moreover, sudden loose-gravel breaks, particularly in rainfall can also cause damages on the highway.
Whether you ride a motorbike or drive a car, and particularly if you are new to the refurbished KKH, be very careful to keep your cool on the accelerator and don’t ever be overconfident. After the renovation, the Karakoram Highway has cost many precious lives. For the tourists travelling from down cities, knowledge of the entire highway before planning to take up a self-drive tour is mandatory. Enjoy the trip and return home with beautiful memories.
Before you go
All Pakistani tourists must carry their CNIC and foreign tourists must have a Passport to prove their identification. Foreign tourists or Pakistani nationals crossing over to China must obviously carry a Chinese Visa (Pass for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan who only wish to travel to the nearby city of Kashgar).
Buses from Sost leave for Tashkurghan in the morning (between 08:00 am and 09:00 am) and it is advisable that the ticket be purchased well in time. In case if you wish to hire a car, there are private Pakistani cars allowed to travel all the way to Kashgar. The fare is not fixed and is negotiable.