Much is expected of Karakoram Highway, which curls through the tall mountain ranges of northern Pakistan, reaching western China. Both countries are renovating it, seeing its potential as a trade route. Pakistan also views it as a way to consolidate control over territories contested with India.
But some of the 500-mile route is barely a two-way road, carved out of the rock face that slopes sharply into valleys below. It is battered by rockfall, floods and earthquakes. A landslide in 2010 blocked a river and drowned about 14 miles of the road. In heavy snowfalls, the road all but shuts down.
The riskiest part is the last stretch to China. "We can actually call this part of the road as a museum of geohazards," says Sarfraz Ali, a geologist who studies the impact of climate change on the highway at Pakistan's National University of Sciences and Technology.
The Karakoram Highway, named for the spindly mountain range it traverses, was a major feat when it was built in the 1950s to 1970s. Now, the Chinese government has invested about $2 billion to rebuild a nearly 160-mile stretch of highway to replace the old Karakoram road between the Pakistani towns of Havelian and Raikot. The final stretch is expected to be completed in March.
The revamp is a key project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, in which China plans to invest over $60 billion in energy and transport in Pakistan. CPEC, part of China's global Belt and Road Initiative, has stirred controversy because neither country has offered clarity on the terms of the money or how much of it is loans.
The Karakoram is open to much of the public, but foreign journalists are required to get Pakistani military permission to visit its far-northern stretches. When NPR recently gained access, its reporters found a road that has transformed communities along the way.
These days, vehicles cruise on the new highway north of Islamabad until they're diverted onto the old route, passing rivers and ancient Buddhist monuments, and snarling hectic markets. At night, some stretches are lit by the fluorescent light of flophouses and chai stalls frequented by truck drivers.
At the Jehangir Khan Hotel, owner Abdullah Zadran, 28, says he would go out of business because the Chinese were rebuilding this section of the road as a multilane highway outside of town.
Waiter Abdul Ghafour, 30, nods in agreement. "My owner won't keep me," he says, worried about losing his $4-a-day wage.
He serves chai to Gul Ahsaan, 60, a trucker who looks forward to driving the new road. "My tires won't burst and I won't need to repair my truck," he says, gesturing to his vehicle. It is painted with birds and trees and adorned with bells and mini F-16 model jets. "He wants to fly," his friend jokes.
In a nearby town, sports supervisor Qazi Ishaq, 45, hopes the improved road brings tourists. He's overseeing boys playing hockey, cricket and soccer on a large field.
Girls don't play sports in this part of rural Pakistan; they rarely venture outside. Might a new road change these customs? "Our culture will not be affected," Ishaq insists. "Women in our area observe purdah," he says, referring to the practice of seclusion and veiling.
As the Karakoram veers closer to China, a few trucks are idling while yaks block the highway. Their herder, Suhail Abbas, says his fortunes have changed since a Chinese company repaved this section of the road three years ago. "People now have money for meat," he says, grinning.
Locals are making money from tourism and are buying more yaks, Abbas says. This year, he began with 500 and sold all but 32. "People like it because they don't eat anything other than grass," he says, sounding more like a hipster butcher than a grime-streaked 23-year-old shepherd. Before the road was fixed, he was selling barely 15 a year, and was surviving on chai and bread.
The bustle is apparent in the nearby border town of Sost, where cargo trucks come from across Pakistan to collect Chinese imports processed at the local dry port. Dozens of men sit outside, waiting for dollar-a-day jobs unloading boxes. Mohammad Iqbal, a 29-year-old customs official, says that when he was growing up, "there was only one shop, only one hotel."
"There were only buses, carrying the pilgrims from China to Pakistan who had to go to hajj," he says — the first part of the journey to Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims, mostly from China's Uighur Muslim minority, no longer come. "An internal matter," he shrugs, alluding to the widespread crackdown on the minority in China.
Curling toward the Khunjerab Pass, vehicles dodge fallen rocks as they navigate narrow hairpin turns. Minivans ply the route, suitcases piled on their roofs, ferrying Pakistanis for study and trade in China. Tourists pose for selfies at the border.
So far, the road has not met expectations for increasing cross-border trade, says Andrew Small, the author of The China-Pakistan Axis. Instead, the highway's main purpose has been "to cement the strategic partnership" between the two countries. And it has potential military use, he says. "It improves the capacity for cross-border mobility and for troop mobility" to defend disputed territories under its control from India. The far north is considered part of the contested Himalayan territory of Kashmir, although it is culturally and religiously distinct. Residents there do not identify as Kashmiri. Clashes between Pakistan and India in this part of the territory are rare.
Liaqat Ali Shah, the Pakistani director of CPEC, says trade will pick up as China industrializes Xinjiang province. Industries there could use the Karakoram Highway, the first road in a series to the southern Pakistani port of Gwadar, which opens to the Arabian Sea. "Definitely once the region develops," Shah says, "there is a viable option to trade."
Back in Sost, Bibi Halima, 45, a teacher, expects more prosperity to come. "Because of the Karakoram Highway and, now CPEC, more things will be established here. There'll be more jobs," Halima says.
But sometimes, she volunteers, she longs for when Sost was isolated and poor. "We used to have plenty of time," she says. "I'd come back from teaching and we'd just sit around."
Today, with the highway, "time is valuable," she says. "I don't even have a single second to spare."
Nazim Ullah Baig contributed reporting for this story.