Occupying one-sixth of China’s territory, Xinjiang is the size of Alaska and three times that of France. It is home to thirteen ethnic groups, flaming deserts, heaving mountain ranges, fertile oasis valleys and Arabian Nights bazaars. For 2,000 years, Xinjiang was also the confluence of religious, cultural and artistic influences from India, Greece, Persia, Turkey, Mongolia and of course, China. Not surprisingly, it is a land rich with archaeological and cultural treasures.. Xinjiang was where I visited for two weeks in May 2018. I wanted to see this fabled land before it catches the winds of change in a fast-modernizing China.
I wasn’t disappointed. There’s so much to tell that one doesn’t know where to begin. To keep things brief, I will highlight only the last leg of our journey which took us from the old city of Kasghar in western Xinjiang, through the famous Karakoram Highway (pictured above) and ending in Taxkorgan, at the border of China and Tajikistan.
For more than 2,000 years, Kashgar was a great market city on one of the major trade routes of ancient times. Caravans led by camels travelled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople and Xian, then the capital of China. Today, Kashgar still has the vibe of old Central Asian cities like Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
Arriving in Kashgar, one discovers that it is a magical place, redolent of scenes from the Arabian Nights. The city is a true oasis; water gushes through canals that run alongside the main streets. They nourish the trees, and offer a welcome shade from the desert heat. Even in summer heat, the lakes and canals keep Kashgar relatively green and cool.
All over Kashgar, but especially in the Old Town, the streets teems with life. You see people exchanging pleasantries or haggling in bazaars, iron smiths forging metal, young women draped in colorful Uzbek silk dresses, old men with skullcaps and craggy faces taking a stroll, butchers slicing lamb meat for sale, kids having fun with improvised toys in street alleys, and the aroma of warm Naan (flat-bread) wafting from bakery shops.
At 1,284 kilometres, the Karakoram Highway linking Kashgar with Hasanabdal near Islamabad (the capital of Pakistan) is a stunning roadway that winds through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world – the great mountain ranges of the Pamir, Karakoram and the Himalayas. The Highway took 20 years to build and cost the lives of over one thousand workers, mostly to landslides. Appropriately, Karakoram in the Turkish language means “crumbling rock”. The Highway is considered by some to be the Eight Wonder of the World.
In ancient times, the main contours of the Karakoram Highway formed part of the southern Silk Road. Even today, traces of this ancient Silk Road are visible near the foothills of the Karakoram mountain range. The entire Karakoram range stretches about 500 kilometres and has eight summits that are over 7500 metres in height, four of which exceed 8,000 meters. Among them is the world’s second highest peak – the legendary K2 (8,611 metres, 28,251 feet).
Travellers on the Karakoram Highway enters the Gez River gorge, then winds their way up to a high-altitude plain to a salt water lake (Bulunkul) that is watched over by snow-capped peaks on one side and giant sand dunes on the other side that evoke a lunar landscape. Here, a few hardy Kyrgrz live, supplementing their income by selling semiprecious stones and local handicrafts to travellers stopping by.
Less than an hour farther south, the Highway reaches the shores of the Karakul Lake, another gem in a stunning mountain setting. At an altitude of 3,600m, it is the highest lake of the Pamir Plateau and one of the highest in the world. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains all year round, the three highest peaks visible from the lake are the Muztagh Ata (Muztagata, 7,546m), Kongur Tagh (7,649m) and Kongur Tiube (7,530m). This wind-swept high plain is home to a nomadic branch of the Kyrgyz people known as the Kara-Kyrgyz, who live in encampments (yurts) make from the thick felts of goats and camel hair.
Past the lake, the Karakoram Highway continues in a series of hairpin bends to around 4,100 meters, then drops gradually to a broad valley at 3,200 meters, arriving at Taxkorgan (also called Tashjurgan), the county seat of Tajik Autonomous County which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. You would now be 260 kilometers from Kashgar.