Hitchhiking the Karakoram highway in 2012

When planning your route into Pakistan through China – or the other way round – all along the Karakoram Highway, don’t forget that your last Lonely Planet guidebook was published in 2008 and researched in 2007. As you may suggest, many things have happened in Pakistan since, and not only the governments came and go, but so did the mountains, and Karakoram highway is the 8th wonder of the world that never wakes up the same in the morning.

It may sound quite disappointing, but I need to say this from the beginning – in all my trip along the KKH I hitchhiked only once for just 80 km, and it was a satisfying experience, and in this post I must explain what stopped me and can stop you from lifting your thumb on the highway.

Dust-proof clothing is a must

First of all, it all starts in Islamabad. To be exact, in Pirwadhai, a cluster between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where all the buses to the North depart from. Most of the transport going North departs as early as possible – the last one probably around 4pm, in order to pass through Kohistan at daytime. Kohistan is a dodgy place, and you don’t want to find yourself there at night or even evening. I remember passing around 5 checkpoints on the way from Islamabad to Gilgit. Yes, on the bus. Hitchwiki is quite right about the fact that there’s no possible spot in Islamabad where you can hitchhike from. I didn’t find it either. Moreover, I am 50% sure that the checkpoint police would take you off the hitchhiked vehicle and make you take a bus anyway. ‘For your own safety,’ – they keep repeating, like parrots.

To sum up, the 15-hour journey from Islamabd to Gilgit has a medium hitchhikability: you can always go as far as Abbottabad and try to catch a ride from there, but be ready to explain what are you doing at every checkpoint – and make sure that your driver is patient enough to wait.

Gilgit is just a few km away from the KKH, any car can bring you on the highway – or there’re shared suzukis going to Danyor. The road up to Karimabad and Aliabad (Hunza) is free of checkpoints and full of trucks – which makes it extremely hitchhikable.

Just chillin’ in the shade

Aliabad is situated on the KKH, and from Karimabad you can go down towards Ganesh village and try your luck there. I do not remember checkpoints on the way to Passu, but there’s one little obstacle that Lonely Planet guide doesn’t tell you about. It’s a huge mountain lake stretched for kilometers all the way to Gulmit. LP is not to blame for missing this thing out – the lake was formed just in 2010 by a massive landslide that buried small villages scattered along the highway. This is one reason why you probably won’t catch a lot of rides goind that way – there’s nowhere to go. Now there is a regular boat service running from the dusty end of the KKH to Gulmit/Hosseini where you pick up the ruptured end of the highway and drive 10 more km to Passu.

Motor boats on the way to Gulmit and Passu across the newly formed mountain lake
The views are pretty neat, yes.

Passu is another easily hitchhikable place – the Chinese Camp not far from the Ambassador hotel has plenty of vans, trucks and pick-ups going towards Sost with the Chinese engineers and local workers. Just ask at the camp – both the guards and the staff will be happy to stop cars for you. I even accidentally stopped a car going to Shimshal valley – so you can count on some traffic heading there (although it’s off the KKH). There’re no checkpoints on the way.

The landslide got us stuck on the way to Hunza for a solid hour

Further than Sost, you’ll never get. Upon my arrival to this bleak town, I decided that I still have time to try and hitch something across the border. But the customs is situated in Sost itself, and the border is hundreds of kilometers away. I tried to convince the customs officers that I want to get a stamp in my passport and then stop a truck or car going to China, but they kept telling me that there’s no private transport nor trucks going all the way to China. They let me stay in a guesthouse for free and the next morning I had to take the bus. I did see some jeeps driving along the road, but they probably go only from one construction site on the road to another and certainly don’t follow all the way across the border.

Before the Chinese border

Tashkurgan is the border town on the Chinese side, from there the hitchhiking rules change. Most of the drivers expect you to pay for the ride, no matter how far are you going. From Tashkurgan to Karakul lake I hitched a pick-up truck with two other people I met on the road. The road was smooth and fast. However, from Karakul to Kashgar nobody wanted to take us for free, and moreover, there is a checkpoint on the way – they can be checking pretty thoroughly why the locals are ‘interacting’ with foreigners.

As I said, things change rapidly there. If you have any updates, hit me up in the comments.


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