The Karakoram Highway connects Western China to Pakistan. Along the way, it passes through the ancient Silk Road towns of Kashgar and Tashkurgan towards South Asia. The road winds past the scenic alpine Lake Karakul, through picturesque valleys and up the rugged mountain ranges of the Himalayas.
The starting point – The ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar
Located in southwestern Xinjiang at the crossroads of China, Central Asia and Europe, Kashgar is steeped in the history of many cultures. The 2-day journey to the Tajik town of Tashkurgan begins from here.
Kashgar is famous for it’s bustling Sunday Bazaar, the chaotic Livestock Market, and the atmospheric Old City. It’s also a great place to soak in the Uighur culture, sample their cuisine, and just sit by the streets to people watch.
Applying for a security permit to enter Tashkurgan
You’ll need a security permit to enter this region of Xinjiang. This area borders central Asian states and Pakistan, and the inhabitants are mostly Tajiks and Kyrgyz people. It can sometimes feel like being in separate country outside China!
To apply for the security permit yourself, head over to the Tashkurgan Administrative Office with your passport. Alternatively, a travel agency can do it for a small fee, saving you time in navigating through the red tape. It might be worth your time, especially if you’re on a tight timeline.
Getting from Kashgar to Tashkurgan via the Karakoram Highway
There are several ways to find your way down to Tashkurgan:
- Hiring a private driver through a tour agency
- Hiring a private driver near the Tashkurgan Administrative Office
- Getting onto a bus that goes to Tashkurgan
- Getting onto a bus that crosses the border into Pakistan
Hire a driver through a tour agency
The easiest option is to hire a private driver from a tour agency. They’ll settle all the paperwork that is required An English-speaking driver from a reputable company will help ease the journey with toilet stops, meal breaks and guide you through the tense security checkpoints. He’ll also prove invaluable as a translator when talking to the Krygyz and Tajik people you meet along the way. A reliable and fairly priced tour operator is Uighur Tours, run by the amiable Mr Ali.
Hire a private driver near the Tashkurgan Administration Office
If you’re a little tight on budget, you can still get a local driver to drive down to Tashkurgan. At the Tashkurgan Administrative Office at 西域大道166号, tout-ish Tajik guys will approach bewildered tourists and offer their services. Make sure you get all the paperwork settled first, and check that they’re all in order. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, you could get sent back towards Kashgar at the military checkpoint, after 3 hours on the Karakoram Highway.
Take the local bus that goes to Tashkurgan
The cheapest option is to take the public bus that also goes to Tashkurgan. While this is definitely an adventure in itself, online chatter is abuzz about backpackers being turned away at the checkpoint… without the bus.
The ride costs 51 Yuan each way, takes about 6 hours, and leaves at 8am and 3pm daily. One thing to consider when taking the bus is the lack of stops along the Karakoram Highway. You’ll whizz past a lot of the interesting sights and places mentioned in the next section, including the magnificent Karakul Lake. Depending on what you want to do, this might be an acceptable tradeoff.
Take the international bus that goes to Pakistan
A tested option for getting to Tashkurgan by bus is by going across the border to Pakistan. The condition, of course, is to have a valid Pakistan visa. This is also one for the bucket list, as the bus passes through the Khunjerab Pass, the world’s highest paved international border crossing. At 4,693m above sea level, drink plenty of water to stave off altitude sickness.
Drive through the village of Opal
The first stop along the Karakoram Highway is Opal, just 30 minutes by car or bus from Kashgar. In this region of Xinjiang, every town takes a turn to host a market every day of the week.With this arrangement, villagers do not need to travel all the way to Kashgar and fight the crowds of the Sunday Bazaar.
So every Monday, Opal transforms from a sleepy town to a bustling marketplace. Most of the daily goods sold in Kashgar are available here, including a livestock market in a small gated compound. It may not be as huge as the one in Kashgar, but the atmosphere is still undoubtedly electric.
Opal is a good place to stop for lunch and a toilet break, as it’s the last major town for the next few hours. For the rest of the journey to Tashkurgan, plumbing and flush toilets are a luxury that few have access to.
Pass through multiple security checkpoints
Security checks are a fact of life in Xinjiang, more so in the autonomous regions bordering Central Asia. To travel along the Karakoram Highway, take along at least 3 photocopies of your newly issued security permit. At the three major checkpoints you’ll pass through, the officials might retain a copy of the permit after a tense staredown.
Relax. You’ll be fine, as long as the paperwork are in order.
The scenic lookout at White Sands Lake (白沙湖)
The first proper photography stop for many travellers is the White Sands Lake, a turquoise lake set in front of huge sand dune mountain. In this region where mountains are rocky giants, this sand dune is seemingly out of place. After all, this isn’t anywhere near the singing sands of Dunhuang, or the Taklamakan desert.
The first thing you’d notice is the incessant whipping of the wind. Then the row of hardy Kyrgyz vendors, selling souvenirs and pretty stones to tourists. There’s really not much more to do, apart from taking loads of photographs and walking right up to the shore. Take some photos and continue onwards, for the next stop is yet another jewel on the Karakoram Highway.
Find serenity by the shores of Karakul Lake (卡拉库里湖)
It certainly earns its reputation as a place of marvellous beauty. This is a serene body of shimmering blue water, towered by the snow-capped beauty of Mount Muztagh (7,546m). Along the shores, the local Kyrgyz nomads live in yurts and rear herds of sheep, camels and horses. It’s a far cry from the touristy Kazakh yurts near the Tianshan Lake in Ürümqi.
In the past, tourists were able to stay in a yurt overnight. Unfortunately, recent security measures now restrict overnight stays in the yurts of Karakul Lake. You can only stay here for a few hours, and then carry on to Tashkurgan to spend the night.
There’s plenty of things to do at Karakul Lake though, by yourself or by engaging the services of enterprising Kyrgyz locals.
Hike along the shores of the lake
Karakul Lake is not too large, and makes for an enjoyable 3-4 hour hike around its rocky shores. The surroundings is pretty exposed though, so bring along a waterproof jacket and plenty of water. On the opposite side of the lake, there really isn’t any easy way to return to the start, except to complete the loop.
Ride a horse around the lake
The local Kyrgyz offer slightly pricy horse rides to tourists. It’s an experience though, and set in spectacular scenery. You’ll also be in the good hands of skilled horsemen, many of whom are descended from the fearsome nomadic warriors of the Mongolian steppes. It ain’t a pony ride in a laidback farm, that’s for sure.
Explore the lake on the back of a motorbike
You don’t actually ride up to the peak of Mount Muztagh, actually. But enterprising locals offer motorbike rides around the lake, which may be thrilling alternative to horse rides.
Visit a Kyrgyz yurt and stop for some tea and a meal
The Kyrgyz are really friendly and welcoming. Your driver or guide can easily introduce you to a family, who will welcome you into their yurt. The host will offer you salted milk tea and some nan bread, as you sit and warm yourself by a small stove. For a small fee, the host will also prepare a steaming bowl of laghman noodles, which is probably good for a midday meal. There’s still a few more hours to go on the road to Tashkurgan!
Marvel at the vast expanse of the Taheman Grasslands (塔合曼)
Just less than an hour away from Tashkurgan, you’ll pass by the Taheman Grasslands. This is yet another unmissable scenic highlight along the Karakoram Highway. There’s a lookout point with a small parking area, which is good to get out and stretch for a bit.
Look out from the elevated vantage point, and admire the huge grassland unfolding into the distance. On a good day, you might be lucky to see herders bringing their horses to graze here!
Explore the town of Tashkurgan (塔什库尔干)
You’ll finally reach Tashkurgan after a full day’s drive, probably by late afternoon. While it’s too late to visit the main sights, you can check out the local restaurants and shops.
On first look, this town might look like a desolate frontier Soviet town. Wide roads are devoid of pedestrians, and a central monument stands in the middle of a roundabout. But head further past the town ‘center’, and you’ll come to busy restaurants where the locals gather over a hearty meal.
There doesn’t seem to be a supermarket in Tashkurgan though, so your best bet is the many general provision stores found at every other intersection. While this is a Tajik town, many pioneering Han Chinese have started businesses far from their hometowns in the eastern part of China. If you’re looking for a beer or Chinese wine, you’ll find them in these Chinese-run stores.
Climbing up to the stone fortress of Tashkurgan
The name Tashkurgan means “Stone Fortress” in the Turkic languages. It’s no surprise though, as there really is a massive stone fortress overlooking the town. Dating back over 2,000 years, this ancient town was a major caravan stopover along the Silk Road, before different paths branch out into Pakistan, China and Central Asia.
The fortress itself is a shell, with much of the interior ruined after centuries of occupation and neglect. It still looks very impressive from outside though, and a visual spectacle when backdropped by the snow-capped mountains. To get in, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee, which is worth it for the amazing views of the town and grasslands below.
Walk across the Golden Grasslands
In front of the fort, and stretching up to the nearby mountains, the Golden Grasslands is home to many Tajik yurts and grazing livestock. To help tourists get just a bit further into the grassland without getting their shoes wet on the marshy soil, the authorities have built a network of boardwalk paths in the shape of an eagle.
Walking on the boardwalk is free, and offers amazing views of the stone fortress and the nearby yurts. If you’re not afraid of getting your shoes wet, step off the boardwalk and tread on the lush green ground. After all, you’re not properly visiting a grassland unless you’re walking on grass, right?
Where to stay along the way on the Karakoram Highway
The best places to stay are the hotels or hostel in Tashkurgan. In Xinjiang, all visitors should only stay in registered hotels, so an overnight stay in a yurt is technically illegal.
For budget travellers and backpackers, the K2 Youth Hostel is the go-to place to stay. If you have a bit more money to spend on accommodation though, there are several hotels around Tashkurgan to stay at. Online portals might list only a few choices, so if you’re travelling with a driver or guide, there’s no need to book ahead. There’ll be plenty more to choose from once you’re there.
If you’re an intrepid adventurer looking to camp along the shores of Karakul Lake, you’re out of luck. Outdoor camping is usually illegal, and camping permits are hard to get. You might be able to find a quiet place to pitch a tent in a remote area, but the police or locals will insist you leave if they discover you.
When is the best time to visit the Karakoram Highway?
The Karakoram Highway is open from the start of May to the end of December. Outside of that, heavy snowfall makes driving a difficult and dangerous affair. June to September is an ideal time, as the summer weather is comfortably warm. However, watch out for rains in July and August, when mud might damage part of the highway.
The authorities regularly maintain the highway, so you’re usually travelling along good roads. Just factor in some extra time in Kashgar in case you’re delayed for a day or two.
Travelling onwards from Tashkurgan
From Tashkurgan, some travellers will continue on to Pakistan. Most will return to Kashgar though, and continue exploring southern Xinjiang. Following our 14-day itinerary across Xinjiang, you can make a trip down to Hotan and the Taklamakan desert from there.
The Karakoram Highway is one of the world’s most amazing drives, and is definitely a must-do when visiting southern Xinjiang. Following the route taken by ancient traders along the Silk Road, this is one journey you won’t forget in a hurry!