ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Ever since adventure-travel writer Marco Polo introduced the Silk Road to the Western world at the turn of the 14th Century, armchair travelers have dreamed of following his fabled route.
Parts of the Silk Road in far west China have opened in recent years, but only to travelers who arrived from China's east coast. In the United States this would be the equivalent of requiring Asian visitors to Yosemite to go through New York or Washington, D.C.
On May 1, however, the first door swung open on international access to the Silk Road.
China and Pakistan have agreed to allow foreign tourists to travel the new Karakoram Highway along a southern arm of the Silk Road. The way is now literally paved for travelers to cross the Himalayas by vehicle into Chinese Central Asia from Pakistan (or vice versa).
Several American adventure-travel firms are offering such journeys this summer, and it is also possible to travel on one's own. A tourist who does not use the transport supplied by government agencies can save money, but at the expense of a vehicle switch at Khunjerab Pass on the 16,000-foot Pakistan-China border.
"Expect the unexpected" is a byword of Asian travel; travelers who are not in groups are advised to bring sleeping bags and extra food.
The Karakoram Highway takes its name from the Karakoram Mountains, a 300-mile Himalayan sub-range that has the highest mean elevation of any region on earth.
The highway starts on the plains in the city of Havelian just outside Islamabad, capital of Pakistan. For 737 miles it runs through some of the most wild and rugged land imaginable before joining the central Silk Road in China at Kashi (formerly Kashgar), an oasis on the edge of the great Taklamakan Desert.
Aspiring Marco Polos join caravans of rainbow-colored Pakistani buses, Toyota Land Cruisers and Ford vans along a silk-smooth veneer of asphalt set into the chaotic landscape.
To thread this modern counterpart of silk through the zone of the high peaks cost a toll of one human life per kilometer of road. More that 400 lives were lost as 25,000 men worked 20 years to convert a dream born during a Pakistani-Chinese conference in 1964 into reality.
Pakistan Army engineers labored side by side with crews of Chinese workers to hack a pathway through the vertical gorge of the Indus River, the ice of Manhattan-size glaciers and the homelands of primitive peoples.
To call these lands a Shangri-La is more than idle speculation. Those who read James Hilton's delightful 1933 novel, "Lost Horizon," which introduced the fictional Shangri-La, will find many similarities, but also one major difference: In the novel, roads were conspicuously absent.
Hilton described how passengers in a DC-3 that eventually crash-landed near Shangri-La saw a valley that appeared to be the upper Indus River, and a range of peaks with "a chill gleam, utterly majestic and remote" that "must be the Karakorams."
Once in Shangri-La a lama pointed out a peak higher than 28,000 feet called Karakal. In reality there is no peak with such a name, but indeed there is a lake called Karakul next to the new Karakoram Highway on the Chinese side, and a peak higher than 28,000 feet called K2, the world's second highest, about 70 miles east of the road.
Not all the residents of the real-life Shangri-Las along the route of the highway have welcomed its coming. Hunza was an independent kingdom until President Bhutto annexed it to Pakistan in 1973 in the interests of democracy. Hill farmers there have traditionally led long and healthy lives in emerald-terraced villages set beneath the glittering ice and snow of the Karakoram.
They long ago figured out how to channel the constant flow of meltwater from the heights to irrigate their barley fields and fruit trees, but many Hunza residents were not in favor of adding a constant flow of tourists to their simple way of life.
Despite bribes of food, clothing, cigarettes and money, a Hunza monkey wrench gang ripped out survey markers and phone wires and urged their kinfolk not to join the work force.
That unrest has disappeared, and on my last visits to Hunza in 1984 and 1986 tourists were greeted with open smiles and offers of hospitality similar to those in Nepal.
A traveler feels safe on the Karakoram Highway, where arms and violence are scarce in contrast to regions near other Pakistani borders where the war in Afghanistan to the west and the Sikh conflict in India to the east create considerably greater tension.
Hunza entrepreneurs have opened hotels, restaurants and tour agencies, but given a choice, not all of them would choose such life styles.
Black-bearded Nazir Sabir, co-owner of a trekking agency called Mountain World, was born in a roadless Hunza village a third of a century ago. When education was brought in from the outside, he excelled. He found himself moving ever farther from his roots, first to Karimabad, the central village of Hunza, then to college in the lowlands.