It’s a strange and rather spooky bus ride from Tashkurgan to Kashgar along the Karakoram Highway on the roof of the world. The wide valley is framed on all sides by the solemn Pamir mountains, the air supremely clear, the odd wild yak wanders the valley and I get a feeling we are the last people on earth on a road to nowhere.
About two hours from Tashkurgan the bus pauses at the oddly beautiful, perfectly still and crystal-clear Kalakule lake. The weather is calm and sunny and there is a group of small buildings by the lake, including a couple of Mountain Tajik yurts.
Looking up at the mountain scenery behind the lake a chill runs down my spine as I see the clouds around a great peak and realize it’s the notorious Muztagh Ata, the Father of ice mountains.
Muztagh Ata, at 7 509 m, is actually known as one of the easier plus 7 000 m peaks to climb, since the ascent to the top is not that steep. It still took a long time before anyone got up there.
The first known attempt was made by a countryman of mine, the (in)famous explorer Sven Hedin who made a failed run for it in 1894. Hedin tried to reach the summit twice but didn’t even get close. It almost broke him and he went off to Kashgar to recuperate for weeks. My chill from seeing it comes from reading his account, with terrible marches in the snow. The difficulty is not the altitude or the climbing, but the arduous going and unpredictable weather.
Several others tried to climb it during the early 1900s but no one succeeded until a Soviet-Chinese expedition as late as 1956. Since then it has been ascended many times.
The bus leaves Kalakule at noon. We follow the valley for a while, still along the Karakoram Highway, the Silk Road and on the same tracks as Marco Polo 700 odd years ago, but then turn right after a while and go through a series of passes in the eastern Pamirs.
We descend on the other side, now in the Tarim basin and on the outskirts of the immense Taklamakan desert. We are approaching the main centre of this part of the world, the great oasis town of Kashgar, a Silk Road centre since the dawn of history.
For some miles the road continues along the edge of the desert and then, by late afternoon, we enter Kashgar. I manage to get a room in a dreadful concrete bunker they call “Qini wage”. The place used to be known as Qini bagh, was a British consulate and a major hub in the Great Game between 19th century empires.
This is the far frontier of China proper, outside the Jade gate of the Great Wall and where most people are Uyghur Turkish and Muslims. It’s been a site of conflict and repression in the 20th century, where majority China have clashed with one of its largest minorities, which continues today. Its also a place of fascinating Silk Road history.