Day 2: Kashgar to Tashkurgan
With a long day of driving along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) ahead we had an early start after breakfast. The initial drive south out of Kashgar is surprisingly mundane, but we stopped off in the town of Upal after an hour or so to stretch our legs and check out the local bazaar (a bit more authentic than the Kashgar one).
After another hour or so we started climbing up the Ghez Valley, following the alluvial river bed past grazing camels and heading towards giant snow-capped mountains in the distance. Our progress was slowed by around 60km of horrendous mega-scale construction to improve the road considerably and develop an epic hydroelectric scheme to dam the waters from multiple valleys and channel it through the mountains down into a couple of generating stations.
One of the casualties of the hydro scheme is the lake around Sand Mountain. When I was here in 2006 the mountain (which is draped in sand dunes, hence the name) had a large shallow river basin at its base with ribbons of water meandering across it – very scenic. Now, with the lake dammed up, it’s a (still beautiful) turquoise lake instead.
Sand Mountain marked the end of the construction, and with that behind us we made good time past some of the Kyrgyz villages to Karakul Lake @ 3700m for a late lunch. This was as far as I made it down the KKH in 2006, and the vista was just as stunning as I remember with Muztagh Ata (7546m, the “Father of Ice Mountains”) and Kongur (7719m) providing an incredible backdrop with great glaciers streaming down towards the lake.
While it had been raining in Kashgar that morning (a very rare occurrence), the weather had cleared throughout the day and as we continued our onward journey south conditions continued to clear. With Muztagh Ata looming high above us on the left hand side, we crested the pass at almost 4000m and started descending down the other side. The terrain was much drier and very barren, and we had moved from an ethnic Kyrgyz region to an ethnic Tajik one – at one point we were just 10km and one Pamir mountain range away from Tajikistan.
Our descent was gradual, and after another hour or so down a wide valley we reached our destination for the night: Tashkurgan. This town, the last one before we reach the border with Pakistan, has been strategically important for a couple of millennia as it sits at the junction of the Karakoram, Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains. Unfortunately, even with all that history, the town has very little to show for it today and I checked out all that is left in the ruins of the ancient double-walled mud brick fortress on the hill above the valley plains.