Lost and Found
The story of discovery then rediscovery in the far reaches of Xinjiang, where the tallest natural arch in the world lies hidden.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited June 2017
In the far reaches of the barren landscape between Kashgar and Kygyzstan in far Western China lies a hidden gem so remote and guarded it was pronounced a legend as recently as 20 years ago.
A geological structure, so immense, it was placed in the Guinness Book of World Records at the turn of the twentieth century, only to be taken out due to disbelief of its existence. A natural wonder so improbable and implausible, stuck in the middle of a labyrinth of sharp terraces, cavernous ravines, and erosional slopes, the local Kyrgyz shepherds even forgot of its whereabouts. This is the Earth's tallest natural arch, standing at an impressive 1,500 feet (460 meters). When one takes into account its staggering height (considering its nearly four times the height of the next tallest arch - Fairy bridge in Guangxi) combined with the puzzling fact it has remained a mystery until very recently, the story behind this rock reignites modern day exploration. This arch, later called Shipton's Arch in honor of the first Westerner to witness this colossus, comes with an intriguing history so bizarre until you realize the true barrenness and harshness of this environment.
A Game of Hide and Go Seek
This arch, I would assume, had been discovered and gazed upon by the native wanderers and sheepherders for centuries. But serving no real purpose other than its magnificence and posing a dangerous passageway to its base, this arch would easily be forgotten, Westerners, particularly those adventures of the twentieth century, have a thing for records and discovery. Famed explorer and mountaineer Eric Shipton, known for his Himalayan ascents, was no exception. Stationed in Kashgar during World War 2 as a British consul, he heard of reports of an arch of exceeding height in the inhospitable mountains to the west and soon set off to find it. After several failed attempts, he finally "discovered" the arch, and became the first to put its place in world geography.
But like all good stories, it doesn't end there. Years have past, and although reports have surfaced in Europe and America of this massive arch, doubts crept up when no proof was presented. In the year 2000, National Geographic sent out a team of explorers to settle this game of fact or fiction - they set off to Kashgar to locate this arch. After consulting with nearby villagers, in some cases the same ones who met Shipton more than 50 years prior, they finally rediscovered the arch. Eric Shipton's biography is further validated, and since then the arch has been called 'Shipton's Arch.'
My Personal Discovery
Fast forward to today, and much more have changed in this region in the past 15 years than the thousands of year prior. Like all sites of touristic value in China, the local government has erected a modern building at the mouth of the canyon leading to the arch for the sole purpose of collecting money. In a region that has historically belong to Kygyz shepherds, the local authorities have ripped this corner of the mountains from their hands. The remoteness, at the time of writing, is still a blessing, as many traveller's don't make it out this far. I joined forces with a few Malaysian friends to find this arch, and we started waving our hands on the side of the street to catch a taxi driver's attention. Foreigners waving for a taxi in this part of the world is a rare and possibly exciting occurrence, but it soon turned into confusion when he wasn't sure of the whereabouts of Shipton's Arch (or Heavenly Arch as translated from Chinese). Still, like all 'good'taxi drivers in Asia, he accepted our offer and drove us into the middle of nowhere. After several wrong turns, we arrived at the gate of the hike, a two hour drive in total.
At the time of our arrival, we were the only visitors, save for the two lonely guards in the visitor center. We bought our tickets and promptly set off through the comglomeritic canyon. The canyon reminisced those found in the far reaches of Death Valley with its crumbling, oatmeal-colored cliffs and desolate barrenness. The hike - a walk through the alluvial basins slicing the canyons - twisted and turned. After each turn, my heart raced if the arch would come in focus, only to be disappointed there is yet another bend. The mountains are discombobulated here; if the trail was not marked so clearly, finding the arch would be like finding a needle in a hay-stack. I now realize why it took Eric Shipton months and months of exploration in these canyons to find it.
Finally, as completely unexpected as expected, the arch stood calm before me. Its scale appeared so out of place - yet felt belonged because this is, after-all, the wild-west of China. Its immensity was not fully glorified until we climbed up the several-hundred steps to its 'base'. This is not your typical arch that is found in Utah - this is in its own category. To put its height of 1,500 feet in perspective, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, stacked on top of eachother, can fit comfortably inside the arch. The Empire State Building, the world's tallest building from 1931 to 1970, concedes to the natural wonder that is Shipton's Arch, the Heavenly Gate. Nature never ceases to amaze, again and again.
My journey to the arch, and witnessing what Eric Shipton first stood in awe of, is a now blissful memory. I hope the remoteness, limited access, and scant fame of this geologic remains this way. In a world where the greatest feats of nature have turned into theme-park like attractions, very few remain like they were for thousands of years. Exploration is discovery, even if the path is already trodden. Every explorer should have that moment where time-freezes, and you are left face to face with natures might - with only a huge smile on your face.