On the Path to Greatness
The Karakoram Highway, consistently regarded as one of earth's most spectacular and dangerous journeys, proved more spectacular than advertised.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited June 2017
Cramped in the back of a truck, the views captivated us and our eyes were locked onto the immense and incredible views. Every foot we climbed, the temperature dropped and the air thinned, but nothing could stop our breath for what lied before us. Impossible yet spectacular peak after peak appeared then vanished in the mysterious mist, while the paved road weaved and crossed glaciated valleys. The fact that a paved road even exists around these massifs and frightening elevations proves the engineering capabilities of our modern world. But imagine being a merchant hundreds of years ago trying to brave these mountains and cross into China on the ancient Silk Road. Just ask Marco Polo, the Silk Road's most famous explorer who had to traverse this range to enter China for the first time. Here is an excerpt of his account on the Pamirs:
"And you ride three days north-east, always among mountains, you get to such a height that 'tis said to be the highest place in the world!... The plain in called PAMIR, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travelers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of."
That may not sound like a fun holiday to most, but we couldn't wait to get on the road and see first-hand what Marco Polo had to traverse by foot. In the modern world, the Karakoram highway starts in Kashgar and heads south towards the Pamir Mountains, crossing soaring peaks, alpine lakes, glacial rivers, and stone ruins before heading into Pakistan through the highest international border in the world. We took the road to Taxkurgan, an ancient outpost and likewise the furthest-west town in China right before the high pass to Pakistan. Along the way, we witnessed numerous peaks, including the massive Kongur Tagh and Muztagh Ata. These peaks towered to heights of 25,095 ft (7,649 m) and 24,636 ft (7,509 m) respectively, with Mustagh Ata dominating its own horizon. The name of the highway is borrowed from a neighboring range, the Karakoram Mountains, that is home to the world's second tallest and perhaps deadliest peak - Mount Godwin-Austen a.k.a. K2. This daunting highway and engineering marvel is exactly the reason we took all the trouble to reach here.
The Journey There
Like many places in Xinjiang, visiting the highway requires patience, planning, and most importantly, a flexible attitude. The regulations and laws seem to change daily here; one moment foreigners can travel freely whereas another moment they need a permit, and then out of no where it can be closed. When we arrived in Kashgar in mid June, the newest reports indicated that foreigners need a permit granted only by a tourist agency, permitting you take their car. This doubles, even triples, the costs and restricts us from traveling freely. Therefore, we decided to just take our chances without a permit (Chinese have always needed permits, and it took Mary a long five hours of waiting the day before to pick hers up). We found a local driver willing to take us to Taxkurgan, the last outpost of China before Pakistan. However, he did not promise we would make it past the checkpoints and stated he would continue without us or not. We paid him and went on our way, really hoping the police were having a good day.
It turns out they were! At the main checkpoint, the officer glanced at my passport, made a reference to my American citizenship, and let us on our way; far too simple. (The following day we ran into three Malaysians we met the day before and they said they had their official permits and passports inspected thoroughly before letting them in.) In conclusion, there is no conclusion to the regulations on the Karakoram highway. We took a gamble and it paid off. But I'm sure each traveler to this part of the world has their own story. Putting the regulations behind us, we continued up the highway in amazement by the sheer size of the ranges and peaks.
In the Midst of Beauty
Around every turn a new angle emerges of a daunting mountain, displaying their immense folds and structures. China has a bevy of mountain ranges, from the Himalayas to the Altai Mountains, but seldom do they appear so accessible as if we could reach out our hand and touch them, a testament to their size. But in these Pamirs, its not just the mountains that attract the most awes. Two lakes, The White Sand and the Karakul, stand above the rest and appear to have been crafted to perfection by God. The White Sand Lake in particular, with its towering sand dunes eclipsed by snow capped peaks, presented the diversity of nature. The Karakul Lake, with the shepherding Kyrgyz nomads and the reflection of Muztagh Ata, presented the tranquility of nature. And of course, those glistening mountains full of snow presented the might and power of nature. It is here where a smile is found on our faces, enjoying the presence of God through his perfection in nature.