Introducing Gojal & the Khunjerab Pass
The Khunjerab and Ghujerab Rivers merge below the Khunjerab Pass to form the Hunza River, the only stream to cut across the high spine of the Karakoram. It does so in Gojal (the still-used historical name for the region commonly described as ‘upper Hunza’), which extends from the pass to where the river turns west into ‘Hunza proper’. The High Karakoram is consequently more accessible here than anywhere else on the KKH. The Hunza River picks its way among great fans of alluvium carried down by smaller streams, and most villages are built on these fertile deposits. At Passu and Gulmit, several major glaciers reach nearly to the Highway.
‘The scenery is stern and impressive, but too gloomy and harsh to be really sublime’, wrote the British explorer Reginald Schomberg in 1935. Mountains with razor-edge summits and bare walls drop sheer to the river, and the wind drives up the valley even on brilliant days. The clearest and most storm-free weather is in early autumn, and if you’re fit, this is the place to trek and get a feeling for the mountains and its inhabitants.
Most Gojalis are Wakhi Tajik (one of seven Tajik tribes in Central Asia), descendants of nomadic herders from Afghanistan, and Ismaili Muslims. Traditionally they have depended on the raising of sheep and yaks, and to a lesser extent on cropping. They’re certainly the most warm-hearted people on the KKH, with easy greetings and hospitality for both male and female visitors.
Depending on whom you ask, khun jerab is Wakhi for either Valley of Blood or Valley of the Khan. The broad Khunjerab Pass was for centuries used by Kyrgyz and Tajik herders, until Hunza raiders hounded them out in the late 18th century, after which Hunza’s rulers declared the area to be ‘royal’ pasturelands – so either version fits.
A steady trickle of horseback commerce crossed the Khunjerab (Chinese: Hongqilapu) until the 1950s, when China–Pakistan hostilities closed the border. By the mid-1960s, the two countries had made amends and set to work on a road over the pass. ‘Khunjerab Top’ (4730m) was opened to official traffic and trade in 1982, and to tourists in 1986, though intrepid travellers had already discovered it.
The crossing is not only between countries and between watersheds (rivers flow north into the Tarim Basin and south to the Arabian Sea), but also between two of the world’s major mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Karakoram. In the 2½ hours from Sost to Pirali, the transition is evident from the deep, angular gorge of the Khunjerab River to the rounded Pamir valleys.