Down the Karakoram Highway Once Again

Trip Start May 14, 2009
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Trip End Jun 15, 2009


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Where I stayed
Crown Inn Hotel, Tashkorgan

Flag of China  , Xinjiang Uygur,
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

True to his word Abdul was at our hotel bright and early to assist us with cashing some money. Well, I guess he needed to be paid too.

It was a brilliant sunny new day and we set off at a cracking pace across Renmin Square to the Bank of China – only to find that it was closed for renovations. This is where having a local person was a blessing. Of course Alan and I couldn't read the sign. The bank wasn’t actually closed, just the front section. Highly relieved we stumbled across a heap of building works rubble and found a rear entrance. We would have never found it on our own.

Our luck didn’t hold out for long. Well, yes the bank usually provides cash on Visa cards but sorry, not today. "Why?" we asked? “Don’t know” replied Abdul….. We were slowly learning that there are some things that you don’t even bother questioning.

And so we used the last of our dwindling traveller’s cheques but we were relieved to have at least some money, even if most of it was to be used to pay Abdul and the Tashkorgan hotel. Oh well….

The Kashgar to Tashkorgan bus station was fascinating. It was not only a bus station but also a departure point for any transport. There were buses, mini buses, vans, taxis and private cars all touting for business. The station was frenetic but funnily enough not at all confronting. Drivers called out Tashkorgan! Tashkorgan! And a large friendly Uighur woman found a niche market in selling freshly baked bagels to travellers. Everyone seemed to be happy enough and unlike us they appeared to know where they were going.

Abdul, again true to his word beetled up on a small motor bike to meet us. “Are you absolutely sure you want to go by bus?” he asked. It wasn’t hard to work out that we should go by taxi and so we did (buses never leave on time and often wait until they are full before departing – and the journey takes two hours longer than by car). Abdul told our taxi driver that he was not to accept any other passengers, not to smoke and to drive carefully.

We were very appreciative. We had travelled before on this road and it can certainly be challenging. And soon we were on our way, weaving our way through the numerous donkeys and goats wandering the village laneways and markets until we joined up with the Karakoram Highway, destination Tashkorgan – the last Chinese township before the Pakistan border crossing.

Our driver was steady and careful, and although he didn’t pick up any other passengers, he somehow managed to suck on numerous cigarettes with his head out of the window and of course with the smoke coming back in on us. But we were just happy being on our way and looking forward to enjoying the ever changing scenery of the China KKH. Our driver apparently thought otherwise. In no time he flipped the sun visor down, switched on the attached monitor and played a series of Mr Bean movies for us (Mr Bean seems to be somewhat of a hit in China – it was always on the movies menu of China Eastern Airlines). Well, that was not exactly what we had planned but it was very funny – not so much the movies - but the fact we couldn’t see anything of the scenery ahead of us.

A major attraction for this part of our trip was to explore more of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), regarded as one of the greatest engineering and scenic marvels in the world. The KKH stretches a distance of 1200km from Kashgar flanking the mighty Taklamakan Desert in far western China to Tashkorgan. The KKH forges through some of the highest and most intractable landscapes in the world, over the Khunjerab Pass (Wakhi for “Valley of Blood”) at a staggering 4730m into northern Pakistan and onto Islamabad. The road was constructed by the Chinese in the 1960’s and 70’s and has been stated as a “symbolic collaboration between China and Pakistan”. The KKH through China is a relatively good sealed road whereas on the Pakistan side the road degenerates to little more than a rough track which is largely unpaved and in some places virtually impassable.

During our travels to far west China in 2007 we had journeyed by hire car down this part of the KKH to Tashkorgan, stayed the night and then returned to Kashgar. And like the seduction of many border towns, our pleasant experiences in the friendly village of Tashkorgan enticed us into exploring further down the magnetic KKH over the mighty Khunjerab Pass and into Pakistan.

About two hours out from Kashgar the KKH forges through burgundy walled mountains and follows the Gez River gorge to the check post of Gez. The scenery is pretty with mountain valleys dotted with poplars and willows.  We stopped at the Gez checkpoint, pleased with ourselves that we knew this time what to do. It can be very confusing as no-one speaks English but you get the gist of things when you are told to get out of the car to be checked off by Gez officials while your car and driver passes through to the other side. It is not a friendly place and there is no-one around to help you. The faceless official asked us where our destination was and when we replied Pakistan, he just nodded and waved us on. It seemed we were the only ones here that were paranoid about entering Pakistan.

Past Gez, the scenery this time was equally spectacular. We travelled through stunning countryside crossing firstly the Pamir Plateau at a height of 3,000m, then passing by the foothills of the massive peaks of Kongur Mountain at 7,719m and Mustagh Ata at 7,546m. Strangely enough these enormous mountains do not appear to be so high because you are already travelling at 3,000m. The countryside is an arid alpine plateau, without a tree in sight. And even though it was nearly summer, the pastures looked bleak and cold with little vegetative growth. We understood that it had been a very late winter.

Buff and dun coloured rocky outcrops and brown loess blown mountains then gave way to alpine pastures grazed by camels and yaks tended by yurt dwelling Tajik people. Further along the KKH we reached the famous Lake Karakul, set in a magnificent location between the mountains of Kongur and Mustagh Ata. On our travels in 2007 the lake was a stunning azure blue. But this time the water level was particularly low and the water was a muddy brown. Sadly, the lake is surrounded by tacky tourist cement dwellings and rubbish, and we were disappointed on our last visit to be approached by so many tiresome touts. And the toilets are about as bad as you get in China, which is really saying something. We did not stop. We were keen to get to Tashkorgan and rest for a few days.

The road past Karakul runs very close to the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, with roads leading off the KKH to the right hand side to Tajikistan and another to the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. It was strange to see sign posts “Afghanistan 50 km” and “Tajikistan 14 km” and to be so close to countries that are so foreign and in the case of Afghanistan, so confronting to us.

Tashkorgan is the last significant Chinese township before the border into Pakistan. At an elevation of 3,200m, it is a post for Chinese Customs and the administrative centre for the Tajik Autonomous Region. During our stay in 2007 we found Tashkorgan to be an interesting and friendly township. It had a somewhat laid back atmosphere and boasts a fascinating stone fortress, once visited by Marco Polo during his amazing travels through Asia during the 14th Century. The word Tashkorgan is Uighur for “stone fortress”.

We arrived in Tashkorgan in the early afternoon, pleased to be back in this delightful township and thankful that we had two days to rest before our travels into Pakistan.
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