The Karakoram Highway is the highest paved international road in the world. It connects China to Pakistan. On its 1.300 kms journey from Islamabad, Pakistan’s modern capital, to Kashgar, a market town in China’s most westerly province, the Karakoram Highway ( KKH) threads its way through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the world.
As the KKH weaves its way between the peaks, the modern traveller comes across villages and communities that less than 100 years ago were independent principalities, where the main source of income was relieving passing travellers of their possessions. Nowadays, the region has been pacified and commerce between Pakistan and China has become a key sector of the local economy, as was tourism in the 80’s and 90’s. The goods trucks are just the latest in a long line of travellers passing this way. The armies of Alexander the Great, early pilgrims taking buddhism to China, caravans on a strand of the famous Silk road, and mysterious explorers-cum-spies playing out the “Great Game” of imperial rivalry between the Russian and British Empires have all trod this path.
In 1959, work on the Indus Valley Road began. This was to be a 840 kms all weather road to link Gilgit ( the main town in Northern Pakistan) to the rest of Pakistan. At Gilgit, the road would join with an old track making feasible access across the Karakoram to Kashgar. The terrain was so difficult that by 1965 only a natural surface road had been completed.
China and Pakistan, in Oct 1967, announced an agreement to build a highway linking Gilgit to Kashgar. Seven battalions of Army Engineers from the Pakistan Army and 10.000 civilian men worked on the road, with heavy machinery having to be airlifted in after construction of improvised airstrips. The road was formally inaugurated on 16 February 1971.
The decision to convert the existing route into an international highway was taken in 1973. At the peak of construction, 25.000 people were at work on the highway, with over 9.000 Chineses. The road was fully completed in 1978 and opened to third-countries travellers in May 1986. “No road anywhere has been more difficult to build than the Karakoram Highway” said the Chinese chief engineer. Here are some details : 24 major bridges, 70 smaller ones; 1708 high class culverts; 8 million kg of dynamite to move 30 million cubic metres of earth and rock; 80 million kg of cement used; 1000 trucks consumed in the endeavour; and 400 dead and 314 seriously injured amongst the workforce.
At the time of construction, Pakistan’s political leaders claimed the KKH would be the tool of economic development in Northern Pakistan. Border trade between the two contiguous countries was expected to receive a major boost. The main goods traded are cotton textiles, hosiery goods, medicinal herbs, dry fruits, cigarettes, nylon fabrics and razor blades. However, border trade is still conducted on a very limited basis. The main constraint keeping the value of border trade low is that the production points in both Pakistan and China are located so far from the border trade points.
That is not to say , though, that the construction of the road has not had a major economic and social impact upon the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway has changed the lives of the locals and brought them into Pakistan… They now get whatever they need and things are much cheeper. In fact, areas that were previously self-sufficient in food are now dependant upon food imports, and the old egalitarian system of land distribution has been disrupted now that land has become a marketable commodity. New technology has come to the area and the general opening of the area has encouraged inhabitants to enter the service industries ( tourism,…) or to migrate to Pakistani cities and even abroad in search of employment. Exposure to new customs and practises has occured and traditional cultures have become more vulnerable to the intrusions of modernity.
Despite the multiplier effects that the road has had on these mountain communities, the enormous costs of the road, both in terms of original investment and yearly maintenance, could not be rationalized as mere economic development projects. The motivation behind building the KKH is political.
China’s strongest ties in South Asia are with Pakistan, the KKH being the key piece of Chinese aid to the region. Between 1956 and 1979, Pakistan received 13 % or $ 620 million ( IRs 30.000 million) of China’s aid to Asia and the Middle East, and the building of roads was a relatively inexpensive way for China to deliver economic and military aid to Pakistan.
The Pakistan government’s main programme for Northern Areas was to establish a network of routes, the main one being the KKH. The constraints of the physical environment meant that for centuries access to peripheral areas of the borderlands was greatly restricted. However, with the perceived danger from India in Kashmir, and the Soviet Union just a short distance away, the construction of routes in the area extended central control and lessened the physical distance to the rest of Pakistan. In an area that had managed to retain its autonomy for centuries, where inhabitants did not recognized arbitrary borders that intersected their territory, and where “nation-state” and “sovereignty” are meaningless concepts, Pakistan desperately needed to integrate the Northern Areas into modern Pakistan. The development of communications infrastructure was the logical way of achieving this.
Another consideration was that India feared the highway would allow Chinese access to their lines of communication in Kashmir.
In terms of practicality, the KKH is greatly flawed. The nature of the terrain makes it vulnerable to air attack. (The route is regularly blocked by rockfalls and landslides.) Being so vulnerable to attack, it is not suited to the movement of supplies and troops during a period of war. However, the perceived military potential of the KKH far outweighs its physical ability to deliver. So, the KKH has had a profund effect upon the political manouvering in the region.