Passport Politics and The Karakoram Highway

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one to Kyrgyzstan. Because I was carrying an American passport.

For years I’ve wanted to travel the Karakoram highway. The Karakoram crosses Pakistani Kashmir and connects China to South and Central Asia. On its way it traverses one of the world’s most dramatic mountain ranges and serves as an access point to five of the world’s thirteen 8000-meter peaks (including K2). Writers have labeled it the ninth wonder of the world and the world’s most dangerous road, creating some buzz among travelers, and I’ve always liked the idea of settling into a long car ride along the Karakoram to take in the natural and cultural scenery as part of a trip westward.

But it’s not so easy for Americans heading west. For starters, we generally need to get our Pakistani visas within the U.S. (as opposed to at an overseas consulate), and that requires some advance planning. Once in Pakistan, there are three options for onward land travel: enter Iran, enter Afghanistan, or return east to India. Here the problems begin. Americans face unique bureaucratic challenges and costs entering Iran, due to poor U.S.-Iranian relations, Afghanistan is tricky for security reasons, and India just sends you back east. That said, it’s certainly possible for Americans to travel the Karakoram highway—many have, and I know a few—but if you want to do it and also continue westward by land, then it’s going to be difficult and probably very expensive.

Nothing stings a traveler worse than having to turn back, and you don’t forget the various borders not-crossed. In 2011 I stopped within reach of the Azerbaijani border because I feel the visa was too expensive, in 2012 the Indian-Myanmar crossing was closed to tourists, and Syria fell through when a Syrian border agent rejected my baksheesh. Pakistan is now twice on that list: once in Punjab and again in China.

The passport you carry both enables and constrains you—it’s your ticket to the party and your scarlet letter. I don’t mean to complain about carrying American papers, after all traveling as an American comes with a huge number of perks, not least of which is the border access provided by our passports. For example, on this trip I’ll benefit from temporary visa-free entry to Kazakhstan, available only to a small group of countries. There have even been various efforts to create a ranking of passports based on their benefits. The bottom line is that each person is subject to the passport politics of his or her country—some more and some less—and so the papers we carry define the trips we take. For me, this means passing up the Karakoram highway and instead entering Central Asia via Kyrgystan (the one country in the region that offers permanent visa-free access to Americans).

So for the rest of this trip I’m putting the Karakoram dream to rest. But I did take the Chinese leg of the road as far as the Pamir Mountains, and it offered a small taste of what might have been as well as some beautiful photos of Karakul Lake which you can check out in the photo gallery.

Also check out the recent Washington Post article on a recent ranking of passport power by Arton Capital, and others have done this too.)