Bikes at the Khunjerab Pass

Robert Matzinger's Cycling Karakoram Highway Pages

Cycling Karakoram Highway INFO Page

This page is mainly for people considering to cycle the Karakoram Highway themselves. There is also some information about the Gilgit-Skardu road, which we cycled too.

This page evolved from various email-conversation with people all around the world. I simply compiled my answers to the most frequently asked questions into this page, which is therefore likely to grow in time:

What info can you find on this page?

Note: Clicking any picture on this page will take you to appropriate place in the picture gallery.

An Important Note:

Note that every information on this page is just my (and my wife's) experience and opinion, so it's definitely subjective. Note that we did this journey in 1994, so things may have changed. Despite the fact that we try to give honest and reliable information, we cannot take any responsibility for it. However we DID go there and we did cycle the KKH by ourselves, so almost everything we are telling on this page is authenthic, seen by our own eyes.

Where is the Karakoram Highway?

The Karakoram Highway connects Rawalpindi/Islamabad in Pakistan with Kashgar in Xinjang/China. For that purpose it has to cross/touch the highest mountain ranges of the world: Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Khunlun and Pamir. Starting from Rawalpindi it first crosses the northern part of the Punjab lowland and the hills of Hazara, before descending from a 1800m pass into the Indus Valley, which it follows basically until Gilgit. That's where the KKH turns into the Hunza Valley, which it follows to its end before the Karakoram ridge is crossed by the Khunjerab Pass, almost 5000m high. For the next time the KKH stays on high Pamir range planes (never below 3000m), where there is another serious 4200m pass before the Karakul lake is reached. After descending to the Tarim basin via the Ghez gorge, Kashgar is reached. See the map for details.


Please consider the following:
Doing the Karakoram Highway is still an expedition-like and serious outing!!!
So this is definitely no tour for newbies. There ARE serious dangers and risks you have to face, which can be reduced (but not totally avoided) by experience and good preparation.

Consider that we brought about 15 years of experience with cycling/traveling and we can also say that we are experienced alpinists/climbers. We highly recommend to bring PLENTY of experience with you, your partners, your equipment and your bike for this tour.

Culture, Clothing and the Islam

There is something we would urgently ask you for:
Please respect the VERY different culture of this country and not even think of bringing short-armed t-shirts or shorts (except to be worn under something). However ANY clothing that covers the whole body except head, hand and feet will be ok. Suitable clothing (called Shalwar Quamiz) can be bought anywhere for a few rupies. It's always tailored for you, so waiting about 24h is required.

This habit (as well as adopting to the culture in general) not only will make your journey more enjoyable (we made a lot of friends this way), but will make it a lot safer, as anybody will consider you as a guest. (See "Safety")

Some notes for female travelers:

For female travellers we would recommend wearing a veil at least in the cities or when (many) poeple are around. There is no law that forces you to do that, but you will feel a lot better (and safer). However covering your hair is totally sufficient, there is no need to cover the face too.

Travelling without a male companion cannot be recommended for women, particularly not in Kohistan. In general the Pakistanis attitude with women is very different. Mostly they are polite and very generous, often shy, still their relation with women is sometimes felt a bit neurotic. The problem is that in the orthodox areas men normally don't see any women in their life, so they never learn to handle the presence of women. So expect at least to be glared at. However if you encounter any problems don't hesitate to protest loudly, get assistance or remember offendors how women in Pakistan normally are treated (i.e. with respect). Don't make good faces to things you don't like. Dare to be unfriendly from the beginning on. Violators of your private sphere will have a deep feeling of guilt. The ultimate gesture for showing contempt in case of distress is to wag with your shoe.

However let me note that we had only minor troubles of this kind (people glaring, people trying to enter our hotel room with odd excuses, just to get a glimpse on my wife,...) and we could easily solve them by refering to being married (in which case nobody could understand why we didn't have children, but anyway).

Safety and Culture

In general we would say that Pakistan is a relatively safe place to travel. There are certain areas that are not recommended to be travelled (mainly in Kohistan), but there will be no problem if you stay directly on the Highway. Don't hesitate to ask the local police about current conditions - they're mostly very friendly.

However there is one important principle we would like to emphasize:

Recall that you are travelling in an Islamic country, where many areas have adopted a quite archaic culture and the Afghanistan war is/was not far away. However there is the principle of the islamic guest law, which is very strict: As long as you behave "with honor" you will be treated like a guest. You may actually be protected by the people giving you refuge, because if something bad happens to you, this will bring the serious dis-honor of having violated guest-law to them. So when sleeping in the small villages e.g. in Kohistan, we often had the feeling that not only our Hotel-"wallah" was protecting us, but that the whole village were taking care of our safety. Behaving with "honor" includes (as we encountered it) politeness, appropriate clothing, acceptance of Islam and most important not to sleep in the wild without asking anybody, if there's a hotel within reach.

Note that on the other hand if you do NOT behave with honor guest-law does not apply and you may be VERY unsafe.


There ARE some annoyances along KKH. The most serious are:


Very important: Care for your health.
This is best done by caring what you eat. No reason for paranoia, but follow the rule "bake it, cook it, peel it or forget it" with no exception. We also strictly purified our water with our filter (Catadyn). Still we got some stomach problems, but could cure them ourselves with antibiotica our doctor gave us at home. So good medical advice at home (and all the vaccinations) is mandatory. For malaria we took nothing but long clothing and a mosquito net for the night, which seemed to be plenty.

Road Info

Altitute and Grades

This is no sunday-tour, so even for the "flat" parts of the way expect reasonable amounts of altitude to be climbed. From Rawalpindi to Gilgit expect a couple of thousand meters alone. Not to mention the Khunjerab pass itself. All in all we climbed about 20000m altitude upwards on this journey.

Grades are often fairly steep too, however this is not the case for the Khunjerab Pass: the pass is not so steep, just long.

On the Gilgit-Skardu road there is virtually no stretch that is not a steep grade. And steepness is absolute extreme, as this road was originally designed for military vehicles only.


Most of the KKH is paved. The same is true for the Gilgit-Skardu road. However note that "paved" on the KKH does not mean what it means e.g. in Europe. Pavement is normally rough and washboard-like, not to speak of holes. You also have to expect unpaved landslide areas regularly, which can be some km's long.

All in all consider a decrease of your daily km's of about 30-50% (In Europe we can usually do about 100km/day over some time, in Pakistan we went 50-60 with the same effort).


All in all traffic is sparse. Let me describe it from Rawilpindi to Kashgar: You will find heavy traffic on the grand trunk road leaving Rawalpindi, but it's so broad, that we didn't find it dangerous (Trucks will leave you 2m space). Then you can take secondary roads for a while (don't miss Taxila !). After that until about Abottabad there is the most inconvenient section with really lots of traffic on a narrow, hilly road. After that traffic decreases more and more and from about Dasu you have the road more or less for you. In Hunza traffic is a bit more, but still no problem, while it decreases in China to about 10 vehicles per day.


You will go through any climate along the KKH. From 40 degrees Celsius high humidity in Rawalpindi to -15 degrees Celsius during the night around the Khunjerab pass. Consider this when packing sleeping bag and clothes. However rainy weather is seldom, if you avoid the monsoon, so good rain equipment is not so extremely important (but still useful).

Which time of the year is recommended

Calculate yourself! Here are some hints: In summer it can get unbearably hot down in the Punjab and in Kohistan. July and August are monsoon time with considerable rain being likely, however it's quite frequent that the monsoon is totally kept away from any area behind the Himalayan range. In October usually the first snow falls at the Khunjerab Pass, it is likely to be closed afterwards. We did it in September/October so we avoided the worst heat and still could cross the Khunjerab Pass before the winter. However at the end of the journey it already got uncomfortably cold and the lack of daylight reduced our daily km's considerably.

Take some Spare Time!

The KKH is a constant building site at some parts. Nobody can say when it get's damaged/interrupted. Being in hurry for reaching your plane might be unpleasant in such a situation. Four weeks is very short (yet sufficient) for making it to the Khunjerab pass (by bike) and back (by bus). For going into China I would consider two months at least. Personally I recommend to plan to do a shorter stretch, to avoid to hurry, as this would take out the ultimate pleasure of spontaneously getting in contact with people along the way.

Which direction? Kashgar to Islamabad, or the reverse?

That depends. Kashgar-Islamabad has the advantage, that you are up in the mountains when it's still hot and get down to Rawalpindi when it's conveniently cool there. However the disadvantage is that you start with the remotest section (i.e. China) and have to go the long, long planes upwards, which might be very boring, and then rushing the Hunza valley downwards, which is much more a place to spend time on the details.

If you cannot manage to get a flight to Kashgar, you would have to use the bus to get there. In this case I would definitely recommend Rawalpindi-to-Kashgar, because it must be very disappointing (and will get out much of the thrill) to already have seen the route from the bus window and then doing it slowly backwards.


And now for China, which is a chapter for itself:

Travelling in Pakistan

Very much different to China, everyone (even the officials) will help you with any problem in Pakistan. Standard phrase is "No problem, Sir". This is especially the case around Rawalpindi and in Hunza, not so much (but still) in Kohistan and Baltistan. For receiving this hospitality it is important to follow my earlier point (clothing, behaviour, ...), see

However consider that, despite the fact that lots of tourists are using the KKH, none of these buses ever stop in the tiny villages. So you will still encounter a lot of spot's where people have no experience at all with tourists.

A note on going up the Khagan Valley to Chilas

This is a frequently asked question. However I cannot recommend to do that. When we cycled the KKH I met several cyclists reporting horrible stories about this area: Whereas the situation on the KKH is much better (see "Traffic"): Friendlier people, the Police is in good control of the highway (but not of the surrounding area!!! So don't leave the highway) and you have an entirely paved road (with exception of some km's).


I will definitely not write a lot about equipment, because poeple who are very unsure about what to take with them should be adviced not to try the KKH at all. However, here are some hints.

Do I need a tent?

On the whole Pakistan area you cannot use a tent, even if you carry one. It's considered bad habit not to take a hotel, so it is extremely unsafe in Kohistan and still not very convenient in Hunza. However, if you take hotels (very cheap), you are under the islamic guest law, ... see "Safety".

Very seldom (but still) we were invited to private houses for an overnight stay. I wouldn't dare to ask for it myself as (I think) guest law forbids a negative answer.

From Sost to the Khunjerab Pass and in the entire China section of the KKH YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED a tent, because stretches between accomodation are very much too far to be cycled in one day. Villages are often very far apart and/or far away from the KKH, without a road into it. In China it was for long forbidden to take foreigners into the house and poeple are still acting this way. Mostly they are not so friendly anyway.


You may have seen our bikes on the title picture of the KKH Home page.
You definitely need a good, reliable bike. This needn't be a mountain bike, actually I don't like mountain bikes for travelling at all.

We use our now 15 year old traveling bikes which already survived several tours all over Europe. They (and all the rest of the equipment) were gradually enhanced during these years. For the KKH I took again a lot of time and money to service the bikes and get them in shape. We finally had features like a third brake (very fine for the long downhills and no need to carry any spare parts for the breaks anymore), a frame enforcement (which was inserted 4 years earlier into my bike to get rid of frame vibrations at high speeds), self-made paniers of extra size (reasonably old, but in good shape), the strongest 32-622-wheels we could get a hand on, etc. for our disposal.

Most important, I know really every screw and every minor part of those two bikes. So I know what they can take and how they can be repared. I always took care for compatibility with the most simple and cheap cycle spare parts (I would call our bikes low-tech) when buying parts. And indeed we would have been able to get spare parts for this simple technology in most of the major towns (still we carried 3.5 kg of repair tools and spare parts). You will be in trouble, if one of these ultimate doing-everything-alone high-tech bike-parts fails in the middle of a Chinese desert stretch.

That's why - in any case - I definitely recommend not to go with a brand new bike. Every new bike (even the most expensive one) has weaknesses you have to find out. Know your bike in every detail, before you go!

Just a note on tires and flats: There is some plant in the Kohistan and especially the Skardu area which spits thorns into the sand. We had about twenty flats/punctures in this area, seven at a day alone. So take enough puncture repair stuff and spare tubes with you.


As we carried trekking equipment (like e.g. shoes, crampons, rucksacks), foto equipment, a good set of spare parts, etc. we went quite loaded. We had about 30 to 35 kg of package on our bikes, depending on how many food we were forced to carry. This sums up with the bike to a good 50kg per person.


"Climate". Is there more to say?

Other equipment notes

Just a note on the stove, which you need for cooking in remote places, because you shouldn't expect to find firewood (and if so, please leave it to the natives). Propan or butan gas stoves are not at all useful, because you are normally not allowed to take them on the flight. Get a good multi-fuel gasoline stove (we use an M.S.R. wisperlight for several years), but bring the fuel bottle EMPTY for the flight. You will have no difficulties to get gasoline along the route.

Further notes on equipment will be added on request.

Trekking and Side Trips

As you might know, trekking is actually the main business for tourists in Pakistan. Most trekkers take a guide and some porters, which is not hard to organize and not extremely expensive. Still we prefered to go alone, but for long trips this would be unreasonable. We trekked into the Batura Valley, which was very nice. However: Do not attempt to cross one of the big glaciers on your own (i.e. without a guide), unless you are an EXPERIENCED alpinist. (I think I am, here in Vienna I'm leader of a climbers club). Beside that it was VERY beautyful, and it was nice to see people live in the original fashion (i.e. without a street). I would still like to do more trekking in the Hunza area (LOTS of possibilities), because poeple are so friendly and the landscape is amazing.

Further Info, Literature

There is a simple advice: Get yourself a
Lonely Planet guidebook (this is no advertisement, but this book was indeed of incredible value).


We did the whole KKH 1994 on the cylces and found it to be the most worthwhile and impressive journey we ever did. We got somehow in love with Pakistan and its people. The landscape in China is absolutely increcible, incomparable with anything I have seen before. So plan VERY carefully and do it, you will not regret. (And drop me a mail if you did it.)

A Final Word

If you think that some important info is missing on this page or you find something wrong or you have a question, don't hesitate to contact me via email at

Happy Cycling - Robert Matzinger

Under Construction As more and more info should be added over the time, this page is by its nature permanently under construction.

© Copyright notice: All pictures and text in this site are mine. Reading, viewing and enjoying is free, but distribution and publication (in whatever form) requires written permission of the author.


Last modified Feb. 97