The Karakorum Highway follows the old silk road from China to Pakistan and is the highest paved international road in the world, sometimes referred to as the eighth wonder of the world due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was built. It also serves as China’s link to Tajikistan and, in better times, to Afghanistan as well. The border with Afghanistan is currently closed, however, due to “many, many Bin Ladens”, or so our Uigher taxi driver told us as he made the shape of a pistol with his hand and mimicked firing.
None of this explains why many people view the road itself as an attraction. For that you must consider why the road is at such an elevation and how it comes to have its name – and that is because it weaves through the Karakorum mountains, considered among the world’s most beautiful. Of additional interest are the multiple ethnic groups residing along this quickly climbing road, from Uighers in Kashgar to Kyrgyz near the white sand mountain and Karakul Lake to Tajiks in Tashkurgan.
The lovely staff at Pamir Hostel organized a taxi to take us up the Karakoram highway to Tashkurgan, the last town before the Pakistan border, on one day and back down to Kashgar the following day. We shared the taxi with another young man staying at the YHA, a Chinese architect from Canton named Tao, in order to bring down costs (we paid roughly $65 per person for the two days transport). We left early on a Friday morning in our lime green taxi and returned on Saturday evening. Our Uigher driver was the most cautious driver we’ve had while traveling, a nice trait for someone navigating a road like this. He spoke limited English, just enough to announce the names of mountains, lakes and towns we arrived at along the way, though Tao translated some to us as well.
As we left Kashgar, we drove through a number of old towns that have so far escaped the Chinese government’s buzzsaw of progress. About an hour from Kashgar we entered the small village of Upal, its main street lined with market vendors selling all sorts of food items. We stopped for breakfast here, which consisted of a hot non bread handed to Brett directly from the tandir. Just past Upal the driver pointed out the Tomb of Mahmud Kashgari (died ~1100), a writer loved by Uighers who developed the first dictionary of Turkish languages.
The flat land soon began to change, as sharp rows of mountains the color of Kashgar’s adobe homes rose to each side of the wide pebbly river bed and then suddenly became a bold red color without warning. Here herds of camels roamed the brown dusty hills as the mountains rose all around. Off in the distance we could see what these young jagged mountains might someday become as he faroff snowcapped peaks were always more visible as the road climbed.
Ghez River and Rusty Red Mountains
At the Ghez river these bold rust-colored mountains dominated the landscape, a stark contrast to the endless beige sand we’d grown accustomed to. The adobe homes, made of the mud of this red sand, took on the rosy hue of their environs.
Kumtagh – Sand Mountain
We first saw this oversized white sand dune rising like a wispy ghost clearly visible on the opposite side of a large lake though somewhat difficult to discern from the also wispy clouds above it on this overcast day. It was a sight like no other we have seen, and one which was quite different from the white mound clearly outlined by the clear blue sky which we saw on the following sunny day on our return trip from Tashkurgan.
Karakul Lake (at 3600m)
Karakul Lake is considered the jewel of this route, a crystalline still body surrounded by Kyrgyz yurts and towering masses of mountains, some rounded by age but still rising over 7000m into the sky. The lake itself sits at 3600m, one of the highest in the world, but Muztagh Ata, Kongur mountain and many other peaks rise well above it.
The 7546m high Muztagh Ata is of particular interest. While Kongur Mountain actually rises higher at 7719m, no mountain dominates its surroundings like Muztagh Ata. Muztagh Ata means “father of the ice”, and while this name seems perfectly suitable for the mass of rock shelled in thick sharp ice that stands here it is a bit surprising that the locals restricted its patriarchal role to the ice and not the world; a mountain of such stature in the Americas no doubt would have earned an even higher title. For instance, Denali in Alaska is so called because it means “the great one” and the mountain was referred to by this name in a number of different local tribes. Before visiting Karakul Lake I couldn’t say I’d seen any other mountain dwarf its surroundings like Denali – the Himalayas are a sea of larger mountains and while each form is superb none dominates a landscape. But Muztagh Ata does dominate like Denali, and impressively it pulls this off while actually not being the tallest mountain in view, such is its mass.
Clouds filled the sky on the first day of our trip and while we could see the lake, the mountains that rise around it where completely hidden and the lake’s surfaced mirrored only the grey clouds above. Saturday, clear skies provided us with an outstanding view of the mountains. This was a perfect day, with the water still as it apparently so often is and the mountains showing on its surface as well as in the sky, we could not have asked for much more. Unfortunately, we were too early for the Kyrgyz families that live here in yurts during the warmer months.
Continuing along on the highway past the lake, the scenery remained beautiful with the lake giving way to wide sweeping valleys with some nearly melted snowcover still visible and domestic yaks wandering the newly revealed grassy hills. And always Muztagh Ata, rising above lakes, valleys and everything, and always a new perspective as we rounded the behemoth.
Later along the highway, we passed the turn off for the Chinese customs control along the Tajikistan border, Tajik customs apparently a further 14km down the road. The highway was quite busy with work trucks and semis, as well as some other travelers in hired or private cars. There were several areas where the road disappeared under a landslide and we drove along a different path worn down by vehicles. A few times along the way we encountered bulldozers was moving fallen rocks and dirt from the road. However, there is so much traffic on the highway that repair work is probably quite difficult.
Tashkurgan is a small Tajik village on the old silk road route surrounded by beautiful snow capped mountains on the China side of the border with Pakistani – in fact Chinese customs control is just outside of town despite the border still being nearly an hour’s drive down the road. It mainly exists as a travel point between the two countries and as a refuge for travelers coming from Pakistan that are desperately in need of a beer and to have a public conversation with a women.
Tashkurgan has two main streets and is in the process of expanding, though its hard to envision the Chinese government being able to coax many Han to the region. There is a mix of old and new, with much of the new unoccupied. The stone city, which is essentially an old ruined fort that apparently served as a setting for part of the movie The Kite Runner, lies on the east side of the village, though it is mostly a pile of rubble. We did not pay to enter had been told it was not worth the entry fee, and we instead walked with Tao around the outside viewing the old fort walls from a system of wooden boardwalks stretching through a large marsh below the town.
We were very glad to have Tao with us and the three of us went to dinner together as well. We ate at a Chinese restaurant and Tao ordered for us and he did a fine job as we had a delicious, fresh meal, one of the first with spice we’d had in quite a while.
We stayed in a new building at the recently opened (Oct 2012) K2 Youth Hostel and were less than impressed, but the options for accommodation in the town are extremely limited – maybe two or three choices. We got a twin room with an attached toilet, however, there was no door knob to our main door or a door to our bathroom, so we might as well had a shared toilet. There was no heat to the place either, so we shared a twin bed to stay warm. The hostel has great potential as its in an awesome location with decent facilities including a nice common area and surprisingly quick WiFi, but the rooms need some improvement – and some more blankets.
The village was our first experience with Tajik people. The women have beautiful facial features and wear cylindrical short hats with scarves over them. The men greet each other with a handshake that is unlike anything we have seen before, where the hands met in a fist-like shake and the joined hands are raised between the heads as they came together.
We also had a walk through the small local market, which was mostly ordinary but did have an interesting cut of yak available (see photo).