Today, we will make a journey as far up the Karakoram Highway, which begins south and west of Kashgar and stretches all the way to the Pakistani border, that we are able to do in one day’s round trip driving. We are expecting to see beautiful multi-colored wind and rain eroded mountains, high passes with snow-capped mountains, and fast-moving rivers…perfect for a broiling hot day in Kashgar!
The Karakoram Highway is the highest paved international road in the world, connecting China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass, at an altitude of 4,693 m. It connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan and also serves as a popular tourist attraction. Due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed, it is also referred to as the “Ninth Wonder of the World.”
There is a town high up in the mountains, very close to the China-Pakistan border named Tashkurgan, with what appears to be a nice hotel, to boot, but we don’t have enough time left in this part of our trip to drive the 250 km or so that it would take to get there, stay for a couple of days, and drive back…so we have settled instead on a day trip, for as far as we can get.
We have been planning the rest of this week’s schedule, as this phase of the trip comes to an end on Saturday the 18th, when we are supposed to fly from Hetian to Lhasa, via Urumqi and Chengdu. We want to leave enough time for a couple of days in Hetian, and it will take us three or four hours to pack the bikes for the flights, so we must start the 500km drive there by Tuesday the 14th, as it will take c two days to get there. Since we are still awaiting confirmation of our Tibet Travel Permits, with an answer due on Wednesday, we are somewhat at loose ends at the moment!
Evidently, permits have not been issued for foreigners’ travel in Tibet for the first two weeks of this month – the Chinese Government closes down whole territorial areas to outsider travel as part of their internal security system, often on a moment’s notice – and so the entire process is now backed up. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that everything works out for the best in the next couple of days, and that we will soon be on the Tibetan Plateau!
As we drove more than 100 km up the beautiful Karakoram Highway into the high mountains, Jason spotted a sign for the Qikelazi Glacier Park, a 30 km climb on a narrow road paralleling an icy stream, to a height of 2800 meters, and asked if we wanted to take this detour from the main roadway. We are all about detours, the unexpected and unplanned pleasures of spontaneous traveling, so of course, we said, “YES!!!”
It turned out to be a beautiful drive, past lovely small farming and livestock raising villages, enclosed on two sides by mountain ranges. The stream, fed by the glacier, had nearly washed out the road at several points along the way, which added an extra bit of adventure to the drive! After about an hour of driving, we made it to the Glacier Park, and climbed a little less than a km almost straight up, to a viewing platform.
From there, we could see, even higher up in the snow-covered mountains, two beautiful waterfalls, and the glacier itself, which is the first glacier I’ve ever seen! Surprisingly, it was almost black, and looked a little like a huge lava flow from an active volcano. I’m sure that in the winter, with the snowfall this area gets, the glacier must be completely covered with white snow, but now it looked just as imposing, but ebony in color.
It’s another amazing example of the contrasts of China’s natural beauty, that so close to the heat of the Taklamakan Desert is a glacier and icy cold water!
Once we left the Park, and returned to the Karakoram highway, we continued driving up into the mountains until the skies turned dark, and it began to rain. Reluctantly, we turned around and retraced our steps, to the sun and heat of Kashgar.