There are some roads, called “heavenly roads” by travelers. If you see a road map, these roads don’t appear to be different than every other road in the country. Their official names like G318, G219, G314 or N35 have nothing impressive. But the lands that these roads pass through are so incredibly beautiful and full of stunning landscapes so that you want to stop literally every few minutes for photos and enjoyment. That’s what makes them “heavenly”. Let’s travel on one of these “heavenly roads” – the Karakoram Highway, connecting Pakistan with Xinjiang in China, exploring its Xinjiang section!
Karakoram Highway basic facts
The Karakoram Highway (abbreviated KKH) is a road, connecting Hasan Abdal in Pakistan with Kashgar in China. Its total length is about 1300 km, and its highest altitude is 4714 m at Khunjerab Pass, on the border between China and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the road is officially named N35, and in China- G314. It is a part of AH4 Asian Highway from Karachi (Pakistan) to Novosibirsk (Russia).
What makes this road “heavenly” is the fantastic landscapes of the Himalayas, Karakoram, and Pamir mountains that it crosses. There are deep gorges, high snowy peaks, raging rivers, quiet lakes, and vast grasslands. The highest peak that you can see along the road is Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, reaching 8126 m altitude. And since it is known as one of the highest paved roads on the Earth (there are actually dozens of paved roads crossing through Tibet on higher altitude), it is one of the candidates for “The Eighth Wonder of the World”.
The Chinese section of KKH
Let’s focus on the Chinese section of this “heavenly road”. It is marked as G314, from Kashgar to the border with Pakistan at Khunjerab Pass (actually, G314 doesn’t start from Kashgar, but from Urumqi, and KKH is only a small part of it). This section is 410 km long, and the road ascends from 1300 to 4714 m altitude. It passes through breathtaking landscapes, making a trip on it really a great experience. Let’s explore it in details, in direction to Pakistan.
This is the lowest area on the road. The road passes through the oasis area southwest of Kashgar, by small towns, villages and agricultural lands. One of these towns is called Upal, where you can visit Mahmud Kashgari tomb. This part of the road is 68 km long, and it ascends gradually to 1570 m altitude, at the entrance of Gez River Gorge.
Gez River Gorge
Here the road enters into the Pamir Mountains, following this stunning valley. It gradually ascends from 1570 to 3300 m passing by small villages and other buildings. The river bed is wide, but the mountain slopes on its both side are really awesome- rocky, steep and rugged. The northwestern slopes belong to Chakragil Range of Pamir, and the southeastern- to Kongur Range, which is the highest one. At the end of this section, you can see glittering glaciers on the highest summits around the gorge. The whole Gez River section is 82 km long.
Kangxiwa River Valley
This section of the road is 67 km long, and the road proceeds to ascend from 3300 to 4020 m altitude. And here you can find some of the most stunning landscapes on KKH in China.
White Sand Lake
When the road reaches the end of Gez River Gorge, the landscape suddenly changes. The gorge opens and a large lake appears in front of you. This is White Sand Lake (Baisha Lake). Its name comes from the white stones covering most of the lake shores, looking like white sand or even snow. And it is surrounded by snow-capped peaks and glaciers. There is a tourist stop on the lake coast, where the locals offer various souvenirs, and you can see the local people- Kizil Kyrgyz and Pamiri Tajiks.
This is another stunning pearl of KKH. Unlike the White Sand Lake, this one is surrounded by grasslands. But what makes it really amazing, is the two highest peaks of Pamir- Muztagh Ata and Kongur Tagh, rising high over the grasslands and reflecting on the lake’s water. These two peaks deserve special attention because they are a significant part of the KKH’s Chinese section.
Kongur Tagh (7649 m) is the highest peak of Pamir. Some scholars consider it as a part of Kunlun Mountains, but most agree that Kongur Range belongs to Pamir. This peak dominates on the landscape between White Sand and Karakul Lakes, all along the eastern bank of Kangxiwa River. Climbing Kongur Tagh is of a high level of difficulty, and it has been reached for the first time in 1981. There is another, lower neighboring peak, called Kongur Tiube (7530 m), and both peaks together form a giant massif, which rises breathtakingly over the valley.
Muztagh Ata (7509 m) is rising southeast of Karakul Lake, separated by Kangxiwa valley from Kongur Tagh. This peak is very special. Firstly, it is much more prominent as a landmark of KKH than Kongur Tagh. Its presence forms a fantastic landscape of a giant glittering mountain, standing almost 4 km above the grassland. Its prominence over the valley and the road is so significant that its image looks almost unreal.
At the same time, Muztagh Ata is the only 7000er which can be hiked just by normal walking, without any mountaineering gear and skills. Just walk, like in a “normal low winter mountain”. However, its extremely high altitude is a serious thing and can be deadly if you don’t acclimatize well. Consider also the cold temperature, which can drop below -40℃, the strong freezing winds that can appear, the easy tiring and difficult breathing of the cold air. Anyway, for well trained and prepared hikers, reaching its summit can be a great and challenging experience.
The Karakoram Highway reaches a 4020 m summit, from where a smaller road leads eastward to nearby panoramic spot, for a better view to Muztagh Ata. Seems it is currently still in construction, but obviously they want to develop this area for tourists.
Then, after this summit, the road gradually descends to another valley. This is the valley of Karasu, a right tribute of Tashkurgan River. The whole section of the road from Muztagh Ata panoramic area to Tashkurgan is 70 km and the altitude varies from 4020 to 3030 m. Finally, the road reaches the town of Tashkurgan.
The most beautiful spot on this section is located 8 km north of Tashkurgan. There is a short gorge of Karasu, just before it flows into Tashkurgan River. And there is a panoramic terrace with stunning views to the grassland of Karasu, north of its gorge. A great place for rest and photos.
This is the next destination on the Karakoram Highway, one of the most important points on its route. Tashkurgan is a small town, located at around 3100 m altitude, the central settlement of the Pamiri Tajiks, called Sarikolis. Now it has become a popular destination for those who travel on the KKH. Here you can see the daily life of the local people, as well as some worth to visit sights.
The town itself consists of a few streets and the main Karakoram Highway road. There are a lot of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and shops. Most of the shops are actually Pakistani (souvenirs, daily used products, etc.), managed by merchants from neighboring Pakistan. You can also see some stone monuments on the street, related to Chinese stories, such as “Monkey King”, and the most symbolic one, the Eagle monument in the center.
There is also a small Tashkurgan Museum, presenting some artifacts of the history and the present local life. And its most attractive part is the two mummies- of a woman and a baby. But the most worth to visit the area is in the northern suburbs of the town. However, let’s first look shortly into the history of Tashkurgan.
History of Tashkurgan
The present-day Karakoram Highway is built on one of the Silk Road routes, which passes through Tashkurgan. And for more than 2000 years, various kingdoms have existed here. The earliest known of them is Puli Kingdom. Then the area has been a part of various empires- Kushan, Hephthalites, Tibetan Empire, Persian Empire, Mongol Empire and finally- Qing and modern China. But there were also periods of local independence, most significant of which was the era of Sarikol Kingdom. And there is an impressive remnant of this long history, called Stone City.
Tashkurgan Stone City
This is an ancient fortress, built on a small hill over the large Tashkurgan Grassland. Until the present day, its ruins are full of mystery and legends. Probably it existed for more than 2000 years, being an important center of all these kingdoms that have existed here. Now it is turned into a tourist site. But maybe the most stunning part of its visiting is the magnificent views from the fortress to the vast grassland of Tashkurgan and the mountains around it.
Tashkurgan Golden Grassland
It is a long grassland along the Tashkurgan Valley, where the river curves and divides into plenty of branches. Now it is turned into a tourist destination, with wooden paths, bridges and even wooden water wheels on the river canals. And what makes it really stunning, is the panoramic views to the surrounding snowy mountains, and the Stone City rising over the valley.
Tajik Ethno Village
It is a place designed especially for tourists, but still worth to visit and touch more of the local Tajik culture. The village consists of several houses, designed in Tajik traditional style- outside and inside. Local Tajiks live there, and there are also rooms for accommodation available, so the visitors can live and feel the local life closely.
Let’s proceed on the Karakoram Highway southward, to the border with Pakistan. The rest of the road proceeds on the Tashkurgan Valley and gradually ascends. It leaves the edges of Pamir and touches the Karakoram Range. Finally, the road reaches its highest point- Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved border crossing in the world. The total length of this section is 123 km. Altitude- from 3100 to 4714 m.
This is the end of the Chinese G314 and the beginning of the Pakistani N35 sections of KKH. Being in such a high altitude, the conditions there are quite harsh, and most of the time the area is covered by snow. This is where China ends and Pakistan begins, and the point is marked by a large gate, which has become an important landmark of this place.
But now let’s back to Tashkurgan and focus on the people living in the area.
The local people
Tashkurgan and the whole Chinese section of the Karakoram Highway are located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. But the majority of its inhabitants are Pamiri Tajiks, called also Sarikolis. They are different than the main Tajiks of Tajikistan, with a different language, belonging to the East Iranian language group.
The Pamiri Tajiks
The Pamiris are mostly Shia Muslims, and just like many isolated ethnic groups, they keep their traditions and culture. You can see them, especially the women, wearing their native clothes, in their normal daily life. Especially their specific hat with flat surface above, covered by a soft veil, but with uncovered face.
We had the chance to see a group of Pamiris on the road (while we waited 20 mins to repair a damaged section of the road). They were going to a neighboring village to take the bride for her upcoming wedding. And they were very happy, they danced on lively music only by a whistle and a small drum. They were also so glad to take some photos with us.
Later we saw their daily routine life in Tashkurgan. Many of the local Pamiris work in the tourism field, serving on the Stone City, Tajik Ethno Village, the Golden Grassland and the main Tourist Center. And in Tashkurgan you can also join their evening folk party, held in the Tajik Ethno Village, which is really impressive.
Some Kyrgyz are living in the area of White Sand Lake. We saw them selling souvenirs at the main panoramic stop near the lake. They are called Kizilsu Kyrgyz- a branch of the Kyrgyz ethnic group. Again, they are stand out by their traditional white, tall ornamented hats, called “kalpak”. They are a minority in this area. In fact, most of them live northwest of Kashgar.
You can see a lot of Pakistanis in Tashkurgan. They are new residents, and they come from Pakistan to make business in the town. These people mainly manage shops with Pakistani products, or some restaurants, offering their traditional food.
Our journey on the Xinjiang part of KKH
Impressed by all information and photos that we have seen about the Karakoram Highway and Tashkurgan, we decided to include this area in our Xinjiang itinerary. I have read some stories of foreigners reaching this place, so I didn’t see a reason why wouldn’t we travel there. However, just a week before our Xinjiang journey, a travel guide told us that we foreigners can’t visit this place. It disturbed me, but based on other foreigner’s witness, I hoped that he was wrong.
The Xinjiang KKH travel regulations
We researched for the newest information about KKH in Xinjiang everywhere. We couldn’t find anything. So we hoped when we arrive in our first Xinjiang destination- Turpan, maybe the local policemen will know. We asked them, and they said: “Yes, you can travel to Tashkurgan, I THINK.” It was good to hear, but this “I think” couldn’t give me 100% confidence. Obviously, they didn’t know for sure.
Then we asked the hostel in Tashkurgan which we wanted to book- K2 Youth Hostel. And they said: “Foreigners come here and we accept them, even now. Here they just show their passports and that’s all. But how they come, you have to ask in Kashgar.” Again- not 100% sure.
Finally, we arrived in Kashgar and asked the girl in our hostel (Maitian Youth Hostel). She said: “Now you can travel there only by organized tour. I am almost sure.” A little later we also met a couple of foreigners who have just back from Tashkurgan. They were very excited and told us how great was their trip and how amazing in this place. But they also told us that they were there by an organized tour, just because they decided that it would be easier and more comfortable for them.
In the Travel Center
So, on the next day, the first thing we had to do was to go to the Travel Center in Kashgar, at least to apply for travel permits, which were mandatory for everybody- Chinese and foreigners. There we saw many people waiting on a queue, and three men at the gate giving some tour ads. They told us clear: “You can’t go there independently, but only by an organized tour. And you have to apply for it here, at least 3 days in advance!”
It was totally disappointing. We didn’t have time to wait 3 days, and it would destroy our whole Xinjiang itinerary! Then another man approached us and told us that he can arrange a trip and travel permits now, today, immediately, so tomorrow we can go by his travel company. It was better, but before we accept his offer, we wanted to try everything possible, looking for some “gap” in the regulations, allowing us to travel there free.
A last attempt for independent trip
We just waited in the queue for travel permits with the other Chinese. When I reached the counter, the man there just told me: “Ok, give me your passport.” I was filled with hope, maybe I really could travel there independently, and those people at the gate lied to me that it’s not possible just to get money by joining their tours? The man started to type the necessary information from my passport on his computer, but he found something that he didn’t know how to type. So he asked his colleague.
They talked 2-3 minutes, then his colleague told me: “You are a foreigner, you can’t travel there independently. Join a tour.” So, I didn’t have a choice, but to accept the reality… We found the man who offered us quick application and trip on the next day and applied.
Why did I want to travel free on the KKH? First, because I wanted to arrange our time and the place we wanted to visit freely. I wanted to go off-road, to climb on the foot of Muztagh Ata, or just make short trekking in the area. Free. And second, because their tours were very expensive. We booked a 2-days tour, and it cost 550 CNY for a Chinese, but 1300 CNY for a foreigner! Not including the entrance fees of the travel destinations!
It is a border area
It was the reason why a journey on the KKH in Xinjiang for foreigners was no longer free. At least it is what one of the men in the Travel Center said (as I saw he was a policeman). “Because they made it safe for foreigners, who walk in the area enter forbidden zones, some of them even touch the border itself. It can be dangerous for them, but now they are protected by these regulations.” It couldn’t convince me, but, anyway…
Yes, the Karakoram Highway in China is passing through a border area. Not just a “normal and simple” border area, but near the borders of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Tashkurgan is only 19 km from the border and Qolma Pass- the border crossing to Tajikistan- only 12 km west of the road. In fact, the road passes by Qolma border checking.
Our 2-days Karakoram Highway tour
We traveled to Tashkurgan by minibus. Our guide was a young Han Chinese boy, who obviously had a lot of experience. So I can say that the trip was well arranged and successful. In the first day, we reached Tashkurgan, where we spent the night.
We passed 3 checking points and the second one, located in the middle of Gez River gorge was most strict. Anyway, we had all the necessary documents, so we didn’t have any problem. We stopped at the White Sand Lake, met the dancing Pamiri Tajiks, enjoyed camels at Karakul Lake and explored the Stone City and the Golden Grassland in Tashkurgan.
Dusty air over Pamir
We were not lucky with the weather. There were strong winds in the nearby Taklamakan Desert, which made the air full of dust. In Kashgar, the sun was enough veiled by dust, so we could watch it easily with a naked eye. I hoped that the sky in the high mountain will be different- deep blue and pure. But our guide warned us- this is not a normal humid fog, this is a desert dust fog- a phenomenon that happens very seldom. And when it happens, the whole air, up to the highest peaks is dusty. It can stay for a week and only a heavy rain can clean the air.
The expected heavy rain didn’t come, but some fresh wind and clouds appeared. So on the second day, the air was a little better, and we could see the blue sky over Pamir. On our way back we stopped in the valley south of Karakul Lake. Now, Muztagh Ata could be seen much better, although still unclear. And the view of the giant peak was really fantastic, unreal! We stopped at Karakul Lake again, for better photos. And at the late afternoon back to Kashgar.
Access to Khunjerab
Yes, it was another question. Now Khunjerab Pass is much more restricted and the access to the border much more complicated. Only a few years ago it was possible to just visit the tall remarkable gate on the border between the two countries, to take some photos with the Pakistani guards and to enjoy the fantastic landscape. Just with a travel permit and traveling by a local bus.
But not now. Now the only way to see Khunjerab is if you cross the border. If you come from China and have a Pakistani visa in your passport, only then you can see the symbolic gate, traveling by shuttle bus from the southern end of Tashkurgan, and passing through all the checking points on the way. Or again, if you come to China from Pakistan. At least it is what I was informed as to the last information. But it is impossible to go on a trip to Khunjerab just like visiting a tourist attraction. Khunjerab is no longer “a tourist attraction”. There are no tours to this place.
So, this is the situation around the Karakoram Highway in Xinjiang, China. Incredibly beautiful, but heavily restricted. However, nature is nature. The mountains there were rising much before humans have set foot in the area. Now it is a bit complicated and limited to travel in this place. I hope it is temporary and it will be opened again someday. Who knows. Anyway, a journey on the Karakoram Highway in Xinjiang still remains a unique and unforgettable experience.
Look for more impressions on the Karakoram Highway:
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