Over the course of a leisurely three-day expedition from Kashgar to Tashkurgan in late summer, our vehicle was forced to navigate at least a half-dozen recent landslides that helped explain why the word Karakoram, which means “black rock” in Turkish, strikes fear into the hearts of local travelers. Since 1986, when it opened to tourists, though, the highway has provided access to a mesmerizing slice of a Chinese Central Asia, a high-altitude melting pot of seminomadic tribes who share a landscape of harsh but breathtaking beauty.
Except for the smooth asphalt and steady cellphone service that puts Verizon and AT&T to shame, the journey is little changed in the 2,000 years since Silk Road traders shuttling between Europe, Asia and the Middle East found safe passage through the Karakoram Mountains at the Khunjerab Pass. Visitors today are confronted with the same barren stretches of dun-colored stone punctuated by the occasional glacial lake, the roiling Gez River and emerald grasslands speckled with white yurts and black yaks.
Kashgar’s markets here are your easiest entry point into Uighur culture. Vegetarians might want to skip the city’s Sunday livestock market, a raucous jamboree of fat-rumped sheep, yaks and the occasional camel — one of which can feed an entire village for days on end.
The city’s other main draw is the Central Asia International Grand Bazaar, a gargantuan market that overflows with Chinese-made textiles, Malaysian sweets, Turkish appliances and a full range of doppa, the traditional embroidered hats that crown the heads of Muslim men from Istanbul to Bishkek. A few blocks away is a pigeon market, where collectors practically coo over prized specimens, some of which sell for more than $1,000. (Unlike creatures sold in the city’s other markets, these birds do not end up on the dinner plate.)
The old city is anchored by the Id Kah Mosque, China’s largest, which can accommodate 20,000 worshipers during Ramadan and other religious holidays. First built in 1442, the complex is a tranquil refuge from the surrounding mercantile buzz, with a series of poplar-shaded courtyards and open-air prayer halls draped in vermilion rugs.
Having sufficiently stuffed ourselves on lamb kebabs and pulao, the Uighur rice dish not unlike Persian pilaf that is served at the city’s lavishly decorated restaurants, we headed south on the Karakoram Highway, passing a lute factory festooned with plaster musical instruments, and the fast-expanding Special Economic Zone, three years in the making, that the government hopes will turn Kashgar into the manufacturing and trading dynamo of Central Asia.
Beyond Upal, the well-irrigated farms quickly give way to the parched foothills of the Kunlun Mountains and later, a deep river valley tracing the Gez River that can be challenging to the acrophobic. For hours, as the highway climbs higher, there is little sign of human habitation. Then the rock-strewn desolation is suddenly interrupted by a blinding expanse of aquamarine, a giant glacial lake whose southern end is framed by enormous sand dunes.
From there, the road ascended above 11,000 feet, leaving half our party unpleasantly lightheaded. The next stop, Karakul Lake, had little to offer in the way of increased oxygen, but its placid waters reflecting glacier-capped peaks helped ease the malaise.
Karakul, the lake that launched a million Chinese postcards, is surprisingly unspoiled, with almost no development along its banks, except for a once-picturesque Kyrgyz village that the local government is rapidly “modernizing” with rows of concrete boxes. We avoided the unsightly Chinese-built hotel (reportedly owned by relatives of a powerful Communist Party official) and instead settled down with a family of shepherds who had turned their summer encampment of yurts into no-frills tourist accommodations.
There are roughly 145,000 ethnic Kyrgyz in China, a nomadic people who have been cut off from their brethren in neighboring Kyrgyzstan since a falling-out between Mao and Stalin in the early 1960s effectively sealed the border. These days, the Kyrgyz in Xinjiang still depend on wandering flocks of yaks and goats for survival, although younger people are heading to the cities in increasing numbers.
As our host, Sapar Said, a 48-year-old mother of five, stoked a dung-fueled fire and prepared a meal of tangy noodle soup and circular flat bread flecked with sesame seeds, she took a call on her cellphone. It was her 19-year-old son, who had recently taken a factory job in China’s southern Guangdong Province more than 2,500 miles away. Her first question to him: “Have you eaten?”
We eventually clambered through the darkness, pulled aside the heavy felt flap that sealed our yurt from the wind and crawled beneath a mound of blankets. In the morning, we awoke to blinding sunshine and a train of horses waiting to take us around the lake. The hourlong circumambulation was led by a trio of teenage boys who listened to Chinese pop music on their cellphones but spoke halting Mandarin. The ride was magical; less so the plastic bags and bits of Styrofoam that floated in the crystalline waters.
South of Karakul, the highway climbs to the wind-whipped Subash pass, which rises to a woozy 13,400 feet. There, we gasped for air and briefly marveled at a lonely bus stop beneath a propaganda billboard extolling ethnic harmony, and then descended into Tashkurgan, a city noted by the Greek scholar Ptolemy in his second-century B.C. geographic guidebook of the known world. Set in a lush river valley near the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the city is the westernmost settlement in China and still has the feel of a frontier outpost.
In the meantime, local residents seem to be enjoying the new public amenities, including a boardwalk across the grasslands that on a recent day proved popular with cows seeking to avoid the soggy terrain. At night, both Tajik and Han gravitated to a recently built park, where young people flirted as a troupe of folk dancers performed on a nearby stage.
A few blocks away, a group of Pakistani merchants from the Swat Valley had just stepped off a long-distance bus, weary from their travels, their white shalwar kameez flapping in the wind. Inside their oversize bundles were cheap metal bangles they planned to sell in cities farther east. “Chinese women love anything that shines like gold,” one of the traders, Mohamed Razwan, said hopefully.
It was their inaugural trip outside Pakistan, and the men, all in their 20s, were thrilled to be meeting Americans, their first face-to-face encounter with a people frequently vilified at home as hegemonic warmongers. The two groups of strangers could barely communicate, but we reveled in the moment, snapping pictures of one another, and marveling at our unlikely encounter on a strange, far-flung corner of the world.