First thing, we made it to China!
We took the unusual, but spectacular mountain road over the Torugart pass from Naryn in Kyrgyzstan to China. Much like the Pamir Highway (Part 1 and Part 2), the primary goal of taking this remote (and expensive) entry to the Middle Kingdom is the road itself, which grants amazing vistas of snow-capped mountains all along the route, including the chance to make a detour to a 14th century silk road Caravanserai in the middle of nowhere. The second reason why we took this route is that instead of Urumqi, the Torugart pass would take us to Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, geographically (and maybe even culturally) closer to Tehran and Damascus than Beijing.
Our research beforehand had suggested that it was possible to do some trekking around lake Karakul and Muztagh-Ata, a gigantic peak of more than 7500m about 200 Km south of Kashgar along the Karakoram Highway. Obviously we wanted to give it a try! However, our initial plans were misled by the insane regulatory frenzy that had taken place in the Xinjiang province, where Kashgar and its surrounding regions were located.
Within China, Xinjiang province occupies a special status. For one, the gigantic province shares borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and most notoriously, Afghanistan. And for the other, the majority of Xinjiang’s population is Uighur and not Han Chinese (Han is what you think about when you think about China). The Uighur are distinct from the rest of China because they have their own Turkish language (for which they use, god forbid, the Arabic script) and because they are mostly Muslims.
In any case, the Chinese government is extremely suspicious of Uighurs and has thus transformed Xinjiang into a veritable police state. We got a small taste already on our way from the Torugart pass to Kashgar, where we ran into half a dozen police checkpoints (like every time we entered or exited any random village). The area around Muztagh-Ata has also been put under the regulation of some environmental authority and getting permits seemed to be extremely complicated. And with that, our hiking plans died.
Checkpoint frenzy in Xinjiang
Still, we decided to travel down the Karakoram Highway to the Chinese “border town” with Pakistan, Tashkurgan (it’s actually still over 100 Km away from the actual border) and back. The Pamir Youth Hostel in Kashgar offered an overnight tour for RMB 400 (around 50 Euros), but we had already spent so much money on crossing the Torugart pass that we decided to do the tour on our own. Luckily, foreigners don’t need any extra permits to travel to Tashkurgan. Unfortunately however, foreigners are also not allowed to sleep anywhere in between Kashgar and Tashkurgan, including homestays and camping (the regulation is not enforced very strictly though as a lot of people bike from Kashgar to Tashkurgan and obviously sleep on the way).
There is limited public transport from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, in the form of a Mashrutka (another sign of the still existing Central Asian influence) that runs once a day at 9 AM Beijing time (or 7 AM Xinjiang time). However, when we got to the Mashrutka (basically in the middle of the night), we still had to wait an entire hour before the bus eventually filled up.
Finally on our way, we drove for less than half an hour before we ran into our first full-fledged police checkpoint (for leaving the city). That meant everyone had to get out of the bus, take their baggage, and cue before the counters. While Chinese citizens with ID cards could pass the electronic checks, foreigners had to have their passports registered manually at the risk that the bus or whatever transportation they were on would leave without them. After that, the bus drove into a bus terminal where again, everyone had to get out to buy bus tickets.
With all that procedure, it took us more than two hours to get to the first larger village outside of Kashgar, Upal (less than 50 Km away). And because now it was 12 PM Beijing time, that meant a half hour lunch break. While we were eating our Plov (the last ones before we would get into central China), we were wondering whether we would actually make it to Tashkurgan on the same day. Apparently, most of the Karakoram highway has its speed limit set for big vehicles at between 40 and 60 kilometers per hour. The scenery of the first part of the highway was impressive, but spoilt by the construction waste and other manmade structures.
We ran into more checkpoints after Upal before at kilometer 120, we came to an actual border post. Again, everyone had to get out of the bus and the Chinese citizens had to have their border permits checked. 40 kilometers after the border check (so roughly one hour later), we arrived at Lake Bulunkul, an artificial lake with amazing sand dunes piling up on the other side. Our driver seemed to have given up any hope of arriving early in Tashkurgan and so allowed us to do a stop to take photos.
All around us now, snow-capped mountains of the Chinese Tian Shan and Pamir ranges were towering over the Karakoram highway. The construction rubble has also been cleared and thus, the scenery was once again as beautiful as what we remembered from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. At around 3:30 PM, we arrived at Lake Karakul at 3500m, overlooked by the spectacular Muztagh-Ata. A number of checkpoints and an infinity of time later, we finally arrived in Tashkurgan at around 7 PM. So if you forget about the one hour waiting in the beginning, it only took us 9 hours for the 300 kilometers or so.
Tashkurgan, a Tajik town in the Middle Kingdom
If Xinjiang (and especially Kashgar) is different from the rest of China, then Tashkurgan is different from the rest of Xinjiang. Apart from tourists (making their way to Pakistan) Tashkurgan is primarily inhabited by Pamiri Tajiks, some of them with very European looking features. Women dress in very traditional dresses and all of them wear funny hats. While Tashkurgan is still quite remote for mainstream Chinese tourists, there is no doubt that “Disneyfication” is on its way. There are already two “attractions”, a mildly interesting old stone castle that gave Tashkurgan its name and the surrounding Pamiri grass meadows (with wooden paneled paths on it where tourists are supposed to stay).
The go-to-place in Tashkurgan for backpackers is the K2 hostel, which offers dorm beds and rooms at a fairly standard price and comes with a bar, a pool table and surprisingly good WiFi (considering we are basically at the end of China). The manager of the hostel recommended a nearby restaurant for dinner (一品牦牛 yīpǐnmáoniú) and for the first time, we had extremely delicious Yak hotpot to fight off the cold of the mountains. The same place also offers very affordably breakfast buffet in the morning.
Our initial plan to get back to Kashgar was to take the Mashrutka back in the next morning, get out at Lake Karakul, do some hiking there, and then hitchhike back to Kashgar. The bus from Tashkurgan to Kashgar is supposed to leave at 9:30 AM Beijing time, but unlike in Kashgar, it is actually not possible to just arrive and hop into the bus! Instead, you have to arrive earlier than 9:30 and buy your tickets first. Obviously, we didn’t know about it and when we arrived at the bus station at 9:40 AM, the bus was already sold out.
Because a taxi was RMB 120 per person (around 15 Euros), we decided to hitchhike the entire distance. It turned out to be way more difficult (at times outright frustrating) than we thought.
Hitchhiking the Karakoram Highway
We started to walk out of town on the highway with the direction Kashgar. It took us ages to find someone who was willing to give us a lift. However, the drivers (a Tajik and a Han Chinese) were workers at a nearby construction site so they could only take us to the checkpoint at the end of Tashkurgan. After crossing the checkpoint on foot, it took another loooong wait until we got picked up by a young doctor on her way to work (she was obviously late as it was already around 11 AM Beijing time and her car drove around 30 kilometers an hour). It turned out she was also a Chinese ethnic minority (close to the Kazakhs) and worked in a small town called Kekeyaer where she also dropped us off.
So hours later, we had only made 36 kilometers from Tashkurgan. At that speed, it would take us the entire winter to get back to Kashgar. Since we didn’t have that much time, we were starting to get desperate. We started trying to stop every passing vehicle, including police and military cars. Surprisingly, the next object that stopped was an armored military truck. But again, they would only drive us a little while up to a crossing where they would turn to their barracks.
Waiting again, we got next picked up by a police car who took us all the way past the Chinese-Tajik border (the Qolma pass) to another police checkpoint. At the police checkpoint, we immediately stopped a couple who were self-driving in Xinjiang and where on their way back to Kashgar. Jackpot! So for the first time, we were longer than 30m in any vehicle and the couple took us all the way to Lake Karakul, where we decided to get out. It took us about five hours to get 100 kilometers out of Tashkurgan but hey, that was only maybe one hour slower than the Mashrutka.
We allocated around 2 hours to walk around Lake Karakul. We walked along the South shore of the lake over rich meadows with grazing Yaks, some horses and even a camel (on 3500m above sea level) for about an hour. We then decided to gain some altitude to have some better views onto the lake and the Muztagh-Ata peak without the village in front of the mountain. So we walked up a low mountain pass, which was way more strenuous than we thought! But up there, we got the views that we were looking for. With not a single cloud in the sky, we enjoyed the incredible vistas towards the lake and the peak. In the end, it would probably have been possible to do some real trekking in the region as the area is not fenced off and no one is really looking for you. But for the time being, we had to satisfy ourselves with that short hike.
It was already past 4 PM when we got down and back on the Karakoram Highway again. Once more, it took us more than half an hour to find another vehicle and this time, we got lucky again. The old man would take us all the way to Aktau (yes, like the city in Kazakhstan), which was already pretty close to Upal and finally Kashgar! From there, a Mashrutka picked us up and took us to the next checkpoint, after which we took a taxi to Upal. There are normally buses running from Upal to Kashgar, but because it was already late, we only got a shared taxi to the next village (Shule) and had to take another shared taxi to Kashgar.
In the end, after a long long day and maybe 10 vehicles later, we arrived in Kashgar at 10 PM, hungry and exhausted. We have no idea why hitchhiking proved to be so difficult. Maybe it was because we were foreigners and normal people were afraid of any hassle at the checkpoints. Maybe it was because we were two people. Or maybe everyone was just incredibly busy on that day. In any case, it was quite an experience! All in all, it was still totally worth it: The Karakoram highway is in no way less impressive than the Pamir, Tashkurgan is charming despite (or because of) its remoteness and Muztagh-Ata will certainly draw us back to Kashgar again. If you plan on visiting the region, do so fast! Regional development will likely construct new lanes for the highway in the near future and with faster transport will certainly come more tourists.
Information at a glance
Transportation: One daily Mashrutka runs from Kashgar to Tashkurgan and leaves outside the Tashkurgan Administrative Bureau. It starts collecting people at 9 AM Beijing time and leaves when full. Alternatively, pickups leave from the same location and offer rides for RMB 120. From Tashkurgan back, the Mashrutka leaves at 9:30 AM Beijing time (buy tickets before) or there are shared taxies (again for RMB 120 per person).
Accommodation: In Kashgar, the Pamir Youth Hostel is the best option. Rooms are extremely basic but there is an amazing outside patio. In Tashkurgan, K2 Hostel is the place to go. Dorms in both locations cost around RMB 50. It is officially not allowed to sleep anywhere else between Kashgar and Tashkurgan.
Food: In Tashkurgan, head for 一品牦牛 (yīpǐnmáoniú) which offers hotpot in the evening (around RMB 140 for two persons) and breakfast buffet in the morning (RMB 15 per person.
Permit: Foreigners currently do not need a permit to travel to Tashkurgan.
Tours: Pamir Youth Hostel offers overnight tours to Tashkurgan for RMB 400 per person.