Central Karakorum National Park
Central Karakorum National Park is part of the Tentative list of Pakistan in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Central Karakoram National Park in north Pakistan has the greatest concentration of high mountains in the world and the largest glaciers outside the Polar Regions. The park encompasses sixty peaks over 7000 metres and four peaks higher than 8000 metres, among them the K2, the second highest mountain on Earth. The most important mammal species in the park are the Siberian Ibex, the Himalayan Lynx and the Snow Leopard.
Map of Central Karakorum National ParkLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
I commence this “review” of the "Central Karakorum National Park" (CKKNP) by stating that I am somewhat shame-faced to proffer a report of such a “puny” visit to this magnificent natural T List site. I do so purely to contribute to the “Community objective” of having as many T List sites reviewed here as possible and not from any suggestion that we, in any way, fully visited and appreciated it. The space remains for a Community member who has achieved rather more than we have in that respect to report on their experiences and conclusions! However, beyond merely providing a record of our “limited” visit, there is also much which has been un-highlighted to date about the site and its history which I believe is worth recording here (at some length!) …..
To whet your appetite if you haven't considered going, I quote from Isobel Shaw’s “Pakistan Handbook” - “The most concentrated block of high mountains anywhere in the World, and the longest glaciers outside the polar regions”. Indeed the CKKNP apparently contains c608 glaciers - give or take a few! Moreover, the area has been subject to what has been titled the “Karakoram Glacier Anomaly” by which its glaciers are actually increasing their total mass. This review arises from a trip in Aug 1996 when we traveled along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) over into China. Much will have changed since those days. What was one of the World's great “Trekking” areas has since faced massive reductions in visitors due to political instability and, as far as I am aware, has not recovered - but is currently “open for business”. More recently the highway itself has become the focus of major developments arising from the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC). Photos I have seen of a major highway, contrast massively with the often poorly surfaced and “subject to landslides” road we remember, and development continues along its length.
History of the CKKNP
What has happened to the CKKNP across the same period? It had been “created” in “outline” in 1993, 3 years before our visit, but it took over 20 years for its first “Management Plan” (MP) to be published in April 2014. That didn’t prevent Pakistan making a “dash” for WHS inscription without it! To this day, Pakistan has NO “Natural” (or even “Mixed”) WHS. This report from 1997 titled “Mountain protected areas in Northern Pakistan: the case of Khunjerab National Park” by Knudsen makes it clear that gaining a Himalayan WHS was the main driver for Pakistan creating the CKKNP. I quote from Page 15 - “While both lndia and Nepal each has one park listed as a World Heritage Site, Pakistan so far has none. Pakistani authorities have been eager to end this regional imbalance and in 1992 lUCN, in collaboration with the government, initiated the groundwork for a new national park in the surroundings of K2”. Also that IUCN pushed the choice of an NP covering the K2 area, despite the fact that some preferred the selection of the Khunjerab NP (which had its own, albeit different, “problems” – see the Knudsen report) in preference to Karakoram - “a pre-preparatory mission in 1992 by lUCN's Senior advisor Jim Thorsell (1992: 4) concluded that the natural values of the Central Karakoram area "are clearly exceptional on a world scale" and would meet the criteria of a World Heritage Site. However, Thorsell pointed out that it was the natural beauty of the area rather than its abundant wildlife which was the main reason for establishing a park”
The Failed Nomination
Thus, in Jan 1994, Pakistan got money from UNESCO for “Preparation of a nomination file for Karakoram Mountains” which was rapidly followed by a Workshop in Skardu - “the first consultative workshop on the central Karakoram national park and World Heritage site nomination” leading, in 1997, to the site’s nomination! This was an event as yet unrecorded on this Web site and indeed I cannot find any evidence that the site was registered on the T List - one presumes that it was on that of Nov 1993 which has never been fully available.
No matter - India objected to the entire nomination and it never even got evaluated. See Page 39 of this 1997 Bureau report in which India stated that “The proposed site in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir is located in an area which is under illegal control of Pakistan. Therefore, the question of territorial jurisdiction cannot be overlooked in this case. I request the Bureau to take note of the Indian position on this issue and not to proceed further with the consideration of the matter". The Bureau concluded that it “recalled that the World Heritage Convention fully respects sovereignty of its States Parties (Articles 4 and 6) and decided to defer the examination of the Central Karakorum National Park. Hence, the Bureau requested IUCN not to proceed with the evaluation of the nomination.” Pakistan replied that “The proposed site of the Central Karakorum National Park (No. 802), submitted by Pakistan is located in the northern area of Pakistan which is under the administrative control of the Government of Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory, as recognized by the United Nations. The question of designating the Central Karakorum National Park as a World Heritage site should be decided on merits and objective criteria. The political status of the territory should have no relevance to the decision. The IUCN should therefore carry out its technical mission to Central Karakorum national park scheduled for August 1997”
Pakistan’s request led nowhere and, although the matter was supposed to be discussed again at the next WHC, the entire subject went “dead” and the site officially remained “Deferred”. Pakistan even seemed to have “given up” altogether when, in 2004, it issued a new T List without the CKKNP on it! Then, in April 2014, a proper MP was issued and, in April 2016, the NP was added to Pakistan’s T List. What happened to reinvigorate Pakistan’s interest? Could it expect that India and/or UNESCO might now take a different stance. If so, why? What has changed since 1997? Is Pakistan really serious or is it playing international/UNESCO politics with the site? The inscription of Preah Vihear in 2008, despite Thailand’s objections, might have indicated that disputed sovereignty need not be a total barrier. Pakistan might also be hoping to have the assistance of China and IUCN. This 2021 report titled “Leveraging the World Heritage Convention for conservation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. An independent assessment of natural World Heritage potential” shows first, that IUCN wants better protection in the area possibly using World Heritage as a means and, second, that Pakistan and China are cooperating on several trans-border conservation issues (with a massive interest in supporting each other because of BRI)! To date however, I can find no evidence of any activity since that 2016 T List addition despite inscription surely being justified.
Those “disputed" boundaries
The Maps at the end of the MP provide the means to understand both the “Indian argument” and the extent of our “visit” to the NP. Taking the first and referring to those maps -
a. The Northern boundary from just east of “Skam La” going further east as far as “6042” follows the Chinese frontier negotiated by Pakistan in 1963 (In part “payment” China agreed to build the initial KKH) The area to its North (“Shaksgam Valley”) is still claimed by India as part of Ladakh. Interestingly China allowed Pakistan to have the summit of K2 (but not the whole of its Northern flanks) all to itself in the agreement! Notably NO international boundaries or names appear anywhere on these maps!
b. The NE boundary from “6042” going SW past “Conney” and “Kondue Sadde” is the area near which sits the Siachen Glacier which has been the “hot spot” for sporadic Indo-Pak conflict since India moved troops onto the Glacier in 1984. The Siachen Glacier itself is not mentioned at all on the MP maps but its valley is shown unnamed outside the NP to the SE. I believe that “Conney“ is actually “Conway La” (or “Saddle) and “Kondue Sadde” is “Kondus Saddle”. (“between Chogolisa and the Baltoro Kangri”). Both places have significant mountaineering history but are now right on the conflict line. Wikimapia (last updated 9 years ago) states of Conway “At 6110m, this northernmost pass (or saddle) in the Saltoro Range is near the northernmost land controlled by India….while this immediate area is controlled by the Indian army, the Pakistan army is just 5 km or so to the west. The Chinese border is 3 km to the northeast”.
c. This NE CKKNP boundary sits in an area where the de facto Indo-Pak border is legally described as the “Actual Ground Position Line” or "AGPL", unlike the rest of the disputed frontier further south which is described as being the “Line of Control” or “LoC”. The difference, insofar as it impacts the CKKNP, is that India and Pakistan pledged in 1949 “to respect” the LoC “without prejudice to their respective positions”, whereas no agreement whatsoever applies to any de facto frontier north of a point known as “NJ9842”, this because, in 1949 the area was so remote that no fighting had taken place there and it was left for future determination.. Thus, until 1984 and the Indian advance to the Siachen, it remained solely the domain of mountaineers. This report from 1999 and this Indian report from 2016 give an impression of what the fighting “up there” is like. I wonder if the difference between the CKKNP being near the AGPL rather than the LoC might allow India to avoid being accused of “inconsistency” if it tried to progress its T List sites in Srinagar and Ladakh which, whilst being in a “contested” Province, are not so situated.
Our 1996 “Visit”
Moving on to our visit. We aimed to fly to Gilgit just off the main KKH. In theory it is a 300km 1hr + flight from Islamabad with magnificent views of Nanga Parbat. But the area is subject to rapid weather changes and we were well over half way through our flight before our small plane wheeled around without us even seeing NP (the pilot didn’t want to run into it) and we were back in Islamabad (we did get a refund)! We were the only Europeans but the Pakistanis knew what to do, quickly hired a bus for most of us….. and we rolled into Gilgit at 3 the next morning 16 hours later!
From there, numerous agencies offered jeep tours traversing the very rough roads and, on one of our 2 full days, we went north to Baltit Fort and the Hopar Valley. This provided magnificent views of the Peaks situated inside the NP at its Western end – in particular of Rakaposhi (photo) noteworthy as being “the only mountain in the world which rises straight from beautifully cultivated fields to the height of 25,550 feet. From many places this wonderful spectacle can be viewed right from the base to the top” (Wiki). Also “It is ranked 27th highest in the world and 12th highest in Pakistan, but it is more popular for its beauty than its rank might suggest and is said to be one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.”
The UNESCO CKKNP description states - “About 60 million to 20 million years ago, the Indian continental plate subducted under the Eurasian plate and, with the effects of extrusion and uplift of the Indian plate, several immense mountains were formed.” and this reminds me of a wonderful sign fixed high up on a cliff face next to the KHH stating “Here Continents Collided”. It was indeed next to a clearly visible geological non-conformity – though whether one side was really the Tectonic Plate of “Insular India” and the other the Asian Plate I don’t know!! I see here that there is still a notice and stopping point along the improved highway!
“Hopar Valley” itself is reached via a side road off the KKH turning South at Sumayar which only goes as far as the "Hopar Glacier (a.k.a Bualtar ) Viewpoint". The view is indeed very fine and I was going to use it as my photo for this review but I see that Roman has done so for his Site photo, so I won’t “compete”. Based on the MP Map I fear that this was probably the closest we got to the Core Zone of CKKNP – but still outside both it and the buffer zone. Nevertheless we definitely “saw” into the Core Zone in the form of both Rakaposhi and the Hopar Glacier and, if that is all you have the time and inclination for it would be, IMO, still well worth experiencing.
How to see more than we did?
Which raises the question as to what might be the “best” way of entering the Core Zone (assuming any inscription would be so defined)? As far as I can see there are NO roads inside either the Buffer or Core zone and to reach them will need some kind of "Trek". In my “younger days” (1976) I was prepared to invest my entire 20 days annual leave on a trip which included a 12 day Everest Base camp trek. If “collecting” (T)WHS is your prime travel objective then that sort of investment wouldn’t be for you. The ultimate “K2 Base Camp Trek” involves 12 days trekking across 21 days ex Islamabad … and is limited by this company to under 55 year olds - so that is my excuse!! If you don't want to leave the KKH area then a much shorter option could be to Rakaposhi Base Camp - right on the edge of the Core zone (see the Maps) and doable in a day if you are fit.
(PS - The spelling of this T List site seems to be a "mess". The Mountains and Highway are undoubtedly "KarakorAm". For some reason the T List entry is titled "KarakorUm" NP.....but then reverts to "KarakorAm" in the text.... and then not! Elsewhere "KarakorAm NP" seems to be the more commonly used. "KarakorUm" is of course the name of the Mongol Capital now part of Orkhon Valley WHS!)
2016 Added to Tentative List
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