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Karakoram Highway Hitchhiker

Karakoram Highway Hitchhiker

A lost lake in a lost place; Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake: 3,600m altitude, 200km from Kashgar, 200km from Pakistan. It is 1pm, and 4 hours earlier I was in one of the hottest places in China, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, in the city of Kashgar. Between here and the city, there’s 2300m difference in altitude and something like 40 degrees difference in temperature. According to my guide book, the famous Karakoram Highway, going all the way up from Kashgar to here and then running to the Pakistani border at Khunjerab Pass, is the most stunning road on Earth… I struggled in the city to find a minibus to drive me up here but its windows were so dirty I couldn’t see anything of the scenery…

What I was supposed to find and what I actually find…

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

I drop my bag next to the buildings settled on the side of the road – a couple of Kirgiz yurts and a concrete building used as a Chinese restaurant. For a few Yuan, it is normally possible to spend the night in one of the yurts and to have a meal but they are both closed today, probably because of the snow. In clear weather conditions, the sight of the lake is apparently breathtaking. The high mountainous peaks covered in snow and the deep blue skies are reflected in the mirror lake. The surrounding slopes shine in beautiful colours, flashing their red, grey and green rocks. But today, Mount Muztagh Ata, Mount Kongur Tagh and mount Kongur Tiube, all higher than 7,500m, are hiding behind a heavy ceiling of white clouds…

I walk down to the lake toward the wooden path built on its shore. There, I slowly turn to take a look around through the mist rising out of my mouth as I exhale. Everything is white, except a few coloured stains here and there. A green one on the other side of the lake must be a patch of grass which managed to escape from the snow. A bit further on a high slope, some grey ones remind me of the existence of stone under this white carpet. It is freezing here, and my head is slightly aching due to altitude.

Much too cold to stay here

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

The only living things around are birds, yaks, and a couple of Kirgiz guys willing to sell fur hats or pieces of local craft. Now and again, a truck breaks the absolute silence, roaring on the road above and disappearing amongst its meanders. My improvised friends – the yaks – graze frozen grass through some holes they’ve dug in the snow, and probably wonder which crazy human being would have the idea to visit this place today… Well me… and the more I walk the more my mind is clouded by the altitude and the cold.

Only my imagination is able to see the lush spectacle Karakul Lake has to offer. I keep on trekking along the shore for a few hours, but today’s conditions are too extreme and there is no place to warm myself up. I decide it is time to come back down to Kashgar. I grab my bag and walk back to the road. The Kirgiz guys are still there sitting on their motorcycles, and watch me with the same wondering look the yaks had for me. “Hitchhiking? It’s too late! You’ll never get any one to drive you now… You’d better buy a fur hat!” I politely decline the offer once more, and head toward the side of the road. Settling there, I am now alert to the slightest engine noise.

Hitchhiking session at 3,600m

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

30 minutes passes in perfect silence. In less than 2 hours, night will fall. I start to become slightly worried with my now quite severe altitude headache and the freezing cold exacerbating my yearning for a lift to a warmer, lower place.

I am about to lose hope when a truck eventually appears at the turning point of the road. I need to catch it. I raise my arm. The truck drives by. The clouds in my mind get thicker. Then I see the rear red lights come on; the truck brakes. It stops 100m from me. I catch my stuff, and run. Opening the door, I simply ask “Kashgar?” The driver nods with his head. I throw my bag inside and climb in the cab. The guy comes from Pakistan, and his trailer tank is full with fuel. He knows the road by heart and drives pretty fast.

Salvation and the most beautiful scenery…

The mist in my mind starts dispersing as we drive down. The clouds in the sky clear as well and the scenery appears at last. The road winds down into a large valley. The Karakoram has the highest concentration of peaks over 7,500m on Earth, and I now have a clear vision of the giant scale of the place. The sunset spreads a bright golden light between the peaks and fires the rocky slopes on the eastern side of the road. On the left, the Yarkand River runs its shallow trickles on the bed of the wide valley. We drive past Bulun Kul – no more than a few stone houses thrown on the side of the road – and show our passport at Ghez checkpoint.

Further on, the road crosses an arid area. Grey sands invade the bottom of the valley and gather in massive dunes on the base of the cliffs. It is the south west edge of the Taklamakan Desert, sweeping as high as 2,000m altitude. As we drive down again, the rocky faces of the surrounding mountains take the red coloration of sandstone. The deep green of the poplar trees stands out against the red cliffs creating a bicolour surrealistic landscape. The road makes it way turning amongst the steep face of the canyon. I witness this incredible nature movie through the cinemascope windshield of the truck.

Back to Kashgar, safe and sound…

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

After a 4 hour drive on the Karakoram Highway, night has fallen and we leave the mountains behind us. The lights of Kashgar sparkle in the desert’s darkness. The driver stops his truck somewhere in the city. He refuses to take the few Yuan I offer him. I can only thank him… After not too long, I find my way back to the hotel where I slept the night before and rest my weary body.

Today I experienced all Xingjiang’s extreme conditions in just a few hours. In the morning I left the hot oasis city lost in the sands of Taklamakan, at noon I was walking on the snow covered slopes of high Karakoram, and in the evening I was watching the sunset flaming the green and grey rocks of the Yarkand River’s deep valley. Now the night is clear and mild and there is no cloud in sight, neither in the sky nor in my mind.

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