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Day 103: The Karakorum Highway

Karakol Travel Blog

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Karakorum Highway

The Pamir Highway in Tajikistan is generally seen as the second-highest highway in the world. There is one international highway which has a higher average altitude: the Karakorum Highway between China and Pakistan. This route was part of the Silk Road south, branching off to Tajikistan across the Qolma pass, or heading south across the Khunjerab pass to Pakistan and then into Afghanistan. While I have no intend to go to Pakistan (at least, not on this trip) I really wanted to travel at least a little part of the Karakorum highway.

So I had booked myself a tour to the Karakul lake (yes, they have one here as well), which lies some 200 kilometres south of Kashgar. Well, a tour is maybe a wrong word - Basically it was just a taxi for a day.

Red cliffs of the Ghez River canyon


It was an absolutely spectacular drive down south. About an hour south of Kashgar the scenery changed completely when we entered the Ghez river canyon, with stunning bright red walls.
This is the point where the Karakorum highway starts. My first surprise was the state of the Karakorum Highway. Like the Pamir Highway this is a seasonal route, which is covered in snow for several months of the year. Yet the Chinese make sure the road stays in good condition and damage is immediately repaired. Well, the small damage, that is. Several months ago a landslide blocked a river near the Pakistani border and since then a huge lake has been formed, blocking the road to the border completely. As far as I know they still haven't found a solution for this (they had a boat service for a while, but stopped this out of fear that the newly formed dam might not hold).
Picture perfect Bulunkul lake

So in hindsight I was lucky to have removed Pakistan from my original plan, as I would not have been able to travel there anyway.

The road continued past a lake called Bulunkul (don't they ever come up with original names in this region?) and around 2 PM we arrived at Karakul. This area is predominantly inhabited by Kyrgyz, which is probably the reason why this lake has the same name as the one in Tajikistan (or Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan for that matter).

The Kyrgyz here live in concrete yurts, I guess that means they are no longer nomadic. Obviously the Kyrgyz are an ethnic minority in China, so in true Chinese style a fence has been put up around the small settlement and an entrance fee is charged if you wish to enter the yurt camp. As if you're going to the zoo, for crying out loud!
Fortunately the driver had some friends living in yurts on the other side of the lake, where no entrance fee is charged.
Karakul lake


We had a nice basic 'lunch' here (watermelon, bread and tea) after which eldest man in the family offered me a ride around lake on his motorbike. Hmm, I wouldn't mind that, actually. It's been quite a while since I have last ridden a motorcycle (I don't have a license, see) so I was quite keen. Well, I must have misunderstood something there. He meant a ride on the BACK of his motorcycle, with him riding it. Hmm... no thanks. Since it is impolite to refuse such a thing, I started bargaining for a ridiculously low price with him (less than 30% what he quoted). Little did I know that he would actually do it for that amount too.

So for the next hour I rode bitch on the back of a motorcycle which could barely make it across the dirt track running around the lake.
On the motorbike
Well, it wasn't as bad as I make it sound, the trip gave me some excellent views of the lake and the 7546m high Muztag Ata mountain which towers above the lake.

After this trip around the lake we said goodbye to the family and started the long drive back to Kashgar. For some reason I had the slowest driver in the whole of Kashgar. While I was glad to have a driver who wasn't a complete maniac, like most Chinese drivers are, I wouldn't have mind speeds exceeding 60km/h on straight and empty highways.

Ah well, I had a nice nap on the way back. We arrived in Kashgar around 21:30. It was still broad daylight. I can understand people sticking to Pamir time here, but personally I am getting confused with these times. I find myself starting the days on Beijing time, but somewhere towards the evening changing to Pamir time. So this basically means my days are lasting 2 hours longer than normal - and thus my nights are 2 hours shorter, even though I was supposed to catch up with some sleep this weekend!

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Karakorum Highway
Karakorum Highway
Red cliffs of the Ghez River canyon
Red cliffs of the Ghez River canyon
Picture perfect Bulunkul lake
Picture perfect Bulunkul lake
Karakul lake
Karakul lake
On the motorbike
On the motorbike
On the road to Karakul
On the road to Karakul
We stopped at a little market town…
We stopped at a little market tow…
local ice cream maker
local ice cream maker
the start of the Karakorum Highway
the start of the Karakorum Highway
stunning mountain views on the way
stunning mountain views on the way
Heavy traffic on the Karakorum Hig…
Heavy traffic on the Karakorum Hi…
Stunning views on the way
Stunning views on the way
Sand dunes at Bulunkul lake
Sand dunes at Bulunkul lake
I guess that after a hard day of s…
I guess that after a hard day of …
Bulunkul lake
Bulunkul lake
Concrete yurts at Karakul
Concrete yurts at Karakul
Karakul
Karakul
Karakul with mount Muztag Ata loom…
Karakul with mount Muztag Ata loo…
The 7719m high Kongur Mountain
The 7719m high Kongur Mountain
Inside one of the yurts
Inside one of the yurts
Karakul lake
Karakul lake
the mosque at Karakul village
the mosque at Karakul village
Karakorum Highway
Karakorum Highway
Karakorum Highway
Karakorum Highway
Red cliffs of Ghez Darya Canyon
Red cliffs of Ghez Darya Canyon
Karakol
photo by: Biedjee