A Cycle Touring Guide to The Karakoram Highway

A friend, Jacob and I cycled the Karakoram Highway North to South departing from Kashgar, China in August 2018 (Read my blog posts here). When planning our trip we found little information about cycling the KKH in this direction so I thought I would summarise some useful information of our experience.

Travel Timings

Kashgar to Tashkurgan – 4 days cycling
Tashkurgan to Sost – 4 to 5 hours by bus
Sost to The Khunjerab Pass and back – 2 days cycling
Sost to Gilgit – 4 days cycling
Gilgit to Telichi – 1 day cycling

Telichi to Chilas – 0.5 day cycling

I cycled from Telichi to Astore, across the Deosai National Park to Skardu and back to the Karakoram Highway. For details and timings click here.

China

Drinking Water In China
China drink tea with almost every meal. Therefore many restaurants have urns or flasks of hot water for their customers. We asked at each restaurant tht we ate at if we could refill our drinking water bottles with hot water. Most restaurants where more than happy for us to do so. As this water has been heated to boiling temperature it is safe to drink. Refilling water bottles this way will probably be a useful cost saving exercise as the price of the meal outweighed spending money on bottled water.

Cycling Out of Kashgar
We did at early hours to beat traffic. The G314 is a national road, cycling is permitted.

Camping in China
We camped for three nights between Kashgar and Tashkurgan. One night we asked a road side restaurant (GPS: 38.975858, 75.518798) who kindly allowed us to refill our water bottles and camp out the back away from the road. The other two nights we ensured we were far enough from the road that drivers or passers by could not see us.

Camping by the KKH, China

Chinese Police Checkpoints Along the KKH
There was three checkpoints between Kashgar and Tashkurgan. Fortunately we were cycling with a Chinese companion who could translate for us. But we just informed them that out plan was to cycle to Tashkurgan, they seemed surprised but asked no further questions. We showed our passports and were allowed to pass.

Tashkurgan

We stayed at the K2 Hostel, the dormitory rooms were comfortable, we had access to shared bathrooms with hot showers and reasonable Wi-Fi access.

Transportation from Tashkurgan to Sost/Sust
The border crossing is only possible Monday to Friday. The Khunjerab pass is closed on Saturday and Sunday.
Bus tickets must be purchased on the day of travel at 10:00 from the bus station at cost of 225 CNY per person and an additional 50 CNY per bike. From here you must make your way to the ‘Khunjerab Port’ (GPS: 37.764474, 75.22898). To find this, turn left out of the bus station, turn left at the cross roads then continue along the main highway for about 2km. You will find the Khunjerab Port on the right hand side. We went straight to the port from the bus station ticket office and waited until 11:30 where our bags were scanned and passports were stamped.
The bus was a sleeper coach with reclined seating. We were concerned about our bikes but we were granted our own luggage compartment with ample space for two bikes and all of our bags.
The total travel time was between 4 and 5 hours and the driver was willing to stop for toilet breaks.
There is an additional charge to pass through the Khunjerab National Park on the Pakistan side of the border. This was either 50 CNY, 8 USD or 800 PRS per person and is only valid for one day. This was a good opportunity to spend your remaining denominations of CNY.
I would recommend taking snacks and bottled water as you can only buy food or drink at the Khunjerab National Park check point but the driver was keen to keep moving. Other than this, there isn’t anywhere else to buy food or drink during the journey.

Bus From Tashkurgan to Sost

Chinese Customs
Leaving China at the Khunjerab Port on Tashkurgan was straight forward. Compared to the customs checks as we entered China, the exit procedures were quite relaxed. Our electronics were not checked and they didn’t ask to search any bags.

Pakistan

A prior warning that the people of Pakistan are keen to welcome tourists to their home country, they will ask where you are from and seek reassurance that you feel safe in their country. But note that during our experience they were all very friendly and offered help where they could. We never once felt threatened. It can get a little overwhelming if you want to eat in peace. Be prepared to pose for countless photographs and selfies.

Pakistan Customs
Before arriving in Sost the bus will stop at a few check points in Pakistan. First you will need to show your passport and receive a ‘Foreigners Registration Card’ that states your personal details, itinerary and duration of stay. A little further, as previously stated, you will need to purchase your ticket for entry into the Khunjerab National Park. This is 50 CNY, 8 USD or 800 PRs per person and is only valid for one day.
Pakistan immigration is in Sost, you will have to complete a health form and then clear customs. They are more concerned about alcohol and fire arms. There are no xray scanners, just visual checks. They breifly searched one of my bags and then let my friend and I friend through. Once your passport is stamped, you are free to walk or cycle into Sost.

Sost/Sust

Accommodation

We asked around at a number of hotels and guests houses to find an acceptable price. Many offered a twin room with a private bathroom for 1500 to 2000 PRs but we managed to barter for a room for one night at the Asia Star hotel for 900 PRs.

Food and Drink
5 litres of bottles water cost 150 PRs.
A vegetarian meal of daal or vegetable curry and chapati cost 150 PRs, meat options were considerably more expensive.
A breakfast of omelette served with poratha and tea was 200 PRs per portion.
Note: tea is a popular drink in Pakistan and is often served with plenty of sugar unless you state in advance that you wish to have a sugar free beverage.

Cycling from Sost to the Khunjerab Pass (read about my experience here)
Firstly I would say it is extremely hard work but worth the effort if the weather is good. We were fortunate and were blessed with blue skies.
The total distance is 84km, it took us 2 days to travel from Sost to the pass and then back to Sost.
Camping is permitted at the entrance to the Khunjerab National Park (GPS: 36.862705, 74.999099) and there is no charge, but you must seek authorisation from the facilitator. This was confusing but most of the guards can speak a reasonable amount of English. This camping site is 32km from Sost, though consider the term ‘camp site’ loosely, we were asked to pitch our tents on a patch of ground close to the road. There are male and female toilets, running water and a cafe that serves food and drink until about 21:00.
There was ‘Camping Site’ signs at further points along the KKH but we didn’t stop to ask the formalities.
We cycled the remaining 52km the following day. Cycling is relatively easy going until the series of 13 switch backs where you begin to climb to the Khunjerab Plateau. This 52km took us a total of 7 hours including breaks with fully loaded touring bikes. At the pass we had to seek authorisation to take our bikes to the monument to take photographs and we were only granted ’10 minutes’.
Be warned, the Pakistani tourists where overly enthusiastic about our arrival and many wanted photographs with us.
There was a van selling tea, coffee and chicken byriani at the top if you need something to warm you up.
The descent to Sost took us 4 hours, though we had a strong headwind.

Khunjerab National Park Entry

Sost to Gilgit
From Sost there you are never too far from a shop, restaurant or guest house. There are many establishments that class themselves as ‘campsites’ and are usually half the price of a room.
We didn’t find many suitable areas for wild camping.
Water is available from most convenient stores, we carried 4 litres of water at any one time.
We didn’t come across many road side fresh water springs that looked clean enough to drink.

Attabad Lake
We were informed that it was possible to catch a ferry from the north of Attabad Lake to the South to avoid cycling through the series of four ‘Pak China Friendship Tunnels’ that were constructed due to the Earthquake/landslide. We didn’t find the ferry where we expected it to be and couldn’t find anyone to confirm the cost of hiring a boat so we cycled through the tunnels. The tunnels were a slight down hill gradient, we averaged a speed of 25 to 30 kmph and enjoyed the experience.
Beware that the tunnels do not have lighting. You will need to mount front and rear bike lights for your own safety.

Note: There was a fresh water spring to top up water bottles on the left before the final tunnel ‘Pak China Friendship Tunnel 1’.

Skardu

The road between the KKH and Skardu was largely under construction when I toured the Northern Areas,

Telichi

If you are heading to Skardu and the Deosai National Park

Further details of the KKH to follow…