Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The China Chronicles - The Karakorum Highway
"Kashgar lies where the maps in people's minds dissolve. The Northern and Southern Silk Roads converge here, and the endless desert dies against looming mountains. Fifteen centuries ago, in its Buddhist days, its inhabitants were famously fierce and impetuous, and in time grew to be a champion of Islam. To Europe, it was barely known until the nineteenth century. Then as tsarist Russia pushed south and east, Kashgar became a listening post in the Great Game of imperial espionage, played out between the Russian and British empires beside an impoverished China." - Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road
A highway might be an odd thing to post about, but this is one road trip I'll not soon forget. There are basically three roads out of Kashgar: The Silk Road going north and east across the top of the Taklamakan desert, the Southern Silk Road heading south and east along the bottom of the Taklamakan desert (which by the way is presently closed to foreigners thanks to terrorist activities, you need an armed escort to travel there), and finally, the Karakorum Highway which heads south and hugs the border of Tajikestan before crossing into Pakistan at the Khunjerab Pass some 16,000+ feet above sea level. It is the highest paved international road in the world. Keep in mind that less than 72 hours earlier, I had been at some 505 ft. BELOW sea level, so this was going to be mind blowing - literally.

The highway is built in one of the most difficult regions of the world, geographically, and politically. This is where the continental plates of Asia and India collide, propelling the earth skyward into the Himalaya and Pamir Mountain ranges. It is also where the mild mannered countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Tajikestan and India are all within 250 km of each other. Not exactly the Swiss Alps.

The Karakorum highway was completed in 1986 after a 20 year building process which claimed over 1,000 lives. Plans were approved this summer to expand it to four lanes to promote commerce. The trip we took was about 4.5 hours to the lake. It used to take 4-5 DAYS before the highway was built.

One thing the Chinese have got right is their highway system. It's everywhere, and it's awesome. In even the most remote regions of China, you can now pretty much be guaranteed that there is at least one well paved and well maintained route everywhere. China has done this to promote commerce and tourism, but it also helps in keeping the people in check I'm sure. Gotta be able to move those tanks. In places like Kashgar, where a traffic jam is more than three cars on the same street, it is a bit overkill, but the donkey carts appreciate it!

Lovely roads

This is pretty much the scene going out of Kashgar. Nice road, no vehicles. You can barely see the mountain peaks looming through the haze in the distance.

For the first hour or so, the road winds through farmland with poker stick poplars lining the road like a giant ghostly picket fence, you get glimpses of the rural village life here, and you immediately get an appreciation for the fact that these people live pretty much the same as they have for centuries.

Local Farm

Pardon my fingers in this shot - I took it from the bus.

After a while, the trees dissapeared and we began to head up. Straight up. We followed the river bed of the Ushmurvan river, a milky malt of glacial water which streams to the Taklamakan.

Mountain Run Off

This being October, the river was just a pebble bed of trickles, but in the spring, large sections of the road are washed out every year, and they spend all summer replacing them so they can be washed away again. We spent time trying to navigate these washouts during this year's rebuild:

The Road to Karukul

As we neared the Pakistani border, we had to stop at a Police Checkpoint, get off the bus, walk through the Police Station, and have our passports and visas carefully scrutinized.

Police Checkpoint

Luckily, traffic is light on this road, so it wasn't a big delay, and it gave us time to look around.

Home at the Police Checkpoint

I like this next photo because it shows a shepherd's hut located in front of the mountain which has a river of skree coming down the hillside.

A river of skree

Why these people chose to build their hut smack up against the mountain in front of the road is beyond me.

Roadside huts

As we neared the lake, we drove past a large salt water flat. By the roadside, some native Kyrghyz traders has built a hut and were selling rugs and other handicrafts, so we stopped to stretch our legs and have a look. You can see the shifting sand dunes in the background of the mountains.

Trading post

I actually got a better view of them on the way back when the weather started to change:


Perhaps the most serendipitous photo of my entire trip is this next one. As we were coming down the mountains from the lake, the weather got very stormy looking. We passed a very dramatic mountain pass where the light was just amazing, and I took a chance and grabbed a shot out the bus window. Most of the bus window shots by far were not worth keeping, let alone posting, but this one worked. It wasn't until I got home and downloaded it that I saw the Bactrian camel and her calf in the foreground. Sometimes you get lucky. This shot is much better viewed in its original size.

Mother camel and baby

I'll post the photos of the Lake next.
posted by Broadsheet @ 1:28 PM  
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