Edge of the Taklamakan

Uggla finalMy journey on the Karakoram highway, described in previous posts, ends in Kashgar and on the edge of the great Taklamakan desert. Crossing this vast expanse of dead, sandy nothingness was a nightmare for earlier travellers along the Silk Roads. The origins of the name is unclear, it may mean “To abandon”, or “Place of no return”, while some say it may derive from Turkish “taqlar makan” or “Place of ruins”, which made a lot of sense to early 20th century explorers and archaeologists here.

The Taklamakan is the world’s second largest sand desert, 1 000 km long and 400 km wide. Historically, two Silk Road routes ran along its edges to the north and to the south. They both started at the Jade gate in the Great wall of China at present Dunhuang to the east, which was for most of history also the western rim of Chinese empires. Along these routes were series of petty city states and then the two Silk Road branches met again in Kashgar to the west.


Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveller, went on the northern Silk Road route in AD 629, describing the oasis kingdoms of Turpan, Karasahr and Kucha. He visited Kashgar on his way back and wrote about the whole thing in a remarkable travel book. His book is the basis for the much later Ming dynasty novel Journey to the west, published in 1592 and a classic of Chinese literature.

Marco Polo went on the southern route in the 1270s, passing the oasis kingdoms of Yarkant, Khotan and Lop. Among other things he noted the production of jade in Khotan, where the most precious white jade was collected and caravanned east to China proper.

The histories and legends of the Taklamakan are endlessly rich. One of the most significant periods here were the hey days of desert exploration and archaeology which all started with Swedish explorer Sven Hedin.

This was the time of the Great Game of empires competing for control of Central Asia but the Taklamakan area was unexplored, its history little known, which soon attracted men like Hedin, who was the first to explore the desert ruins archaeologically. Arriving in Kashgar in 1894 he set out on an expedition trying to cross a part of the desert, which ended in disaster. After resting he set out again in 1896 and investigated two ruined cities to the north of Khotan with spectacular results, finding ancient buildings, wall-paintings and manuscripts. Most importantly, he wrote a bestselling book about it, Through Asia (1898), speaking about “a Pompeii of the desert”.

This alerted explorers, archaeologists and collecting European museums and the race was on to explore the ruins of the Taklamakan. Orientalist and archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was soon around, excavating cities sponsored by the British Museum. Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq of the great ethnological museum in Berlin made large excavations of Turpan to the north of the desert, stunning emperor Wilhelm II. Sven Hedin was also back a few times, most famously investigating a place called Loulan and all this went on until the 1930s, filling up museum collections in the West.

Reading their reports today, their motives and methods seem steadily more questionable in the light of new understandings of the age of colonialism and debates on repatriation.

The finds from the Taklamakan ruins of Khotan, Turpan and Loulan are still to be seen in museums in London, Berlin and Stockholm, exciting new generations, while names such as Stein, Hedin and von le Coq perish like echoes in the desert wind.


Great Game heritage

On my second day in Kashgar I discover, to my surprise, that behind the brutal concrete hotel in which I stay, the old British consulate is fully preserved though stripped of its famous garden.

The British interpreter, later diplomat George Macartney arrived in Kashgar on expedition in 1890 and soon became the first British consul here. He was to stay until 1918 as a major player in The Great Game – the struggle between empires for ultimate control of the roof of the world in Central Asia.

Macartney married Catherine Borland in 1898 and together they managed the British general consulate in Kashgar – the Qini bagh – which was a grand house with beautiful gardens famous for their views over the mountain ranges in the south.

The Qini bagh

Diplomats, spies, explorers and archaeologists investigating the ruins of the Taklamakan desert all stayed at Qini bagh and most famously archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein, who often recuperated here after desert expeditions.

Russia, the main British counterpart in The Great Game, already had a consulate in Kashgar when Macartney arrived.

Though Kashgar was formally a Chinese city in the 1890s, the most powerful man there was the Russian consul Nikolai Petrovsky who kept a military garrison on the consulate.

When the Swedish explorer (and rival of Aurel Stein) Sven Hedin arrived in Kashgar in 1894 he was greeted by Petrovsky with free vodka and Hedin stayed several times here, receiving all kinds of support from Petrovsky in his desert explorations.

Previous Russian consulate in Kashgar

I find that the cheapest rooms of the Seman hotel in Kashgar are actually inside what was previously the Russian consulate, so for my second night I reside there.

It’s not well kept but strolling around the house I manage to enter the dining hall, where Petrovsky held banquets for diplomats, explorers and Chinese dignitaries a hundred years ago.

The old consulate houses remain in Kashgar as memorials to the clash of empires on the roof of the world and to the strange age of imperial explorers stripping the amazing ruins of Silk Road cities in the Taklamakan of antiquities to bring home to European museums, which is another story.

Dining hall of the previous Russian consulate





Kashgar, Silk Road Oasis

Uggla finalWe are at the end of the Karakoram Highway, on the rim of the Taklamakan desert and in the great city of Kashgar, a regional center for the western part of the Chinese Xinjiang province, an oasis on the Silk Road and historically a small, independent kingdom of its own.

Few foreigners visit Kashgar today due to current tensions between official China and its Muslim Uyghur minority here which have been covered in international media and was commented on, for example, by Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post in February.

Current events are the latest phase of a long history of independence movements, repression and terrorism during the 20th century – though my own impressions going here 20 odd years ago were mostly of other things.

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the previous ones here, here, here and here.

On the square outside the Id Kah Mosque (right) in Kashgar

Having left Tashkurgan on a bright summers morning I reached Kashgar by bus going through the eastern Pamir mountains and then by the rim of the Taklamakan desert.

Kashgar is an oasis city, surrounded by vast stretches of poplar trees and it’s been a crucial waypoint on the Silk Road forever. You either got here after a hard trip over the Himalayas or after the deadly journey across the Taklamakan.

The city is flat, with straight, wide boulevards lined with poplars and dusty with desert sand. There’s little left of old Kashgar since it has been bulldozed to make way for modernity. A few blocks of “old town” are seen within minutes. On my first day I walk up to the main historical landmark, the striking, yellow-tiled, AD 1442 Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, of great symbolic value and a site of major events in the past.

Uyghur “Doppa” hats on sale

The Tarim Basin, which is the largest part of present Xinjiang province and which mainly consist of the Taklamakan desert, is a true crossroads of history.

In the early centuries AD, there was a line of small, independent oasis kingdoms here along the Silk Road routes north and south of the desert. Kashgar in the far west was one of them. This is while direct Chinese control ended behind the Jade gate of the Great Wall, to the east of the Taklamakan.

Tang dynasty Chinese rulers tried to conquer the Tarim Basin with temporal success. Later on, the entire area fell to Muslim, Turkic peoples in the 11th century and the following 1 000 years was a complex tapestry of struggles between different powers. Xinjiang was set up as a regular Chinese province in the late 19th century.

The 1930s and 40s saw failed rebellions aimed at establishing an independent “eastern Turkestan” state. In 1933 the head of the executed Uyghur leader Timur Beg was put on a spike outside the Id Kah Mosque. 

I explore the city on a rented “Flying Pidgeon” bike and I soon get the idea to bicycle out to the edge of town to see the desert. Going for hours on an endless poplar-lined avenue seems to take me nowhere and I am forced to give up, hitching a truck ride back.

On the outskirts of Kashgar

So Kashgar is mainly a Muslim city, but Islam looks quite different here from in Pakistan and Afghanistan which I just came from. Women are seen everywhere and are seldom as veiled as further south. There is also nightlife here with bars selling liquor.

Another main difference is language. No one speak English and I don’t understand the signs in Chinese, which builds up a huge cultural barrier.

The Great Bazaar of Kashgar is one of the largest in Asia. It’s a maze of small stores and gives you a glimpse of past Silk Road glories.

On my second day, I suddenly discover the famous old British consulate building is actually preserved just behind the huge concrete block in which I stay. The Qini bagh was a major hub in the Great Game – the late 19th century powerplay of empires on the roof of the world, and I can’t wait to explore it.


Father of Ice Mountains

Uggla finalIt’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.

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the previous ones here, here, and here.

Kalakule lake with Muztagh Ata in the background
At Kalakule lake

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.


The Stone Tower

Ancient sources about the Silk Road mention a mysterious place, “The Stone tower”, which was a midpoint between China and the far West and located in the most remote mountain areas of Central Asia.

The Stone tower was a crucial way-point and a place for caravans to rest and store provisions for the long journey, but where was it?

Geographers, historians and early explorers debated the true location of this Stone tower, which is an important historical place for sure. One of the best candidates is Tashkurgan in the west Xinjiang region of present China – a town high up in the Pamir and one of the most remote places on earth. I got there by crossing the Himalayas from the south on the Karakoram Highway.

This is the third in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the first and second one here and here.

Var nånstans
Arriving in Tashkurgan

After crossing the world’s highest border, between Pakistan and China in the Khunjerab pass, I change to a Chinese bus continuing on the Karakoram Highway. We soon enter the Tashkurgan valley, following the Tashkurgan River northwards and reach the regional capital city of Tashkurgan after just a few hours’ drive.

Tashkurgan valley, with the eastern Pamirs in the background

The name of the city literally means Stone tower. It is flat, earth-colored and full of poplar trees and signs in Chinese that I don’t understand. I am tired beyond belief and crash in the filthiest little cheap hostel you ever saw, the “Pamir”. Some of the floorboards are missing in my dormitory.

We are now in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of present China which is dominated by the great Taklamakan desert and historically a periphery with small kingdoms just outside the main Chinese sphere of power. One of its many minorities, the 40 000 or so strong Mountain Tajiks live here in an autonomous region with Tashkurgan as centre.

The Mountain Tajiks are generally Shia Muslims and speak an eastern Iranian language. Their religious practices are allowed but very restricted.


Tashkurgan has got its name from a large, old fortress sitting on a high hill at the outskirts of the present town. The ruins were off-limits at my visit, unfortunately, but images of it appear directly if you search the web for it. The river valley is otherwise flat and the lone, marked hill with the castle on it must have looked very much like a mighty “Stone tower” to caravans passing here in the old days. And it’s visible for miles.

The place is significant as way-point since this is a last outpost in many ways, At Tashkurgan the Silk Road caravans from China had to make a choice if they were headed south across the Karakoram for the subcontinent or west through the Wakhan corridor of Pamir to present north Afghanistan and the great Silk Road cities there.

Where the Stone tower of ancient sources was really located is probably an unsolvable historical mystery, but a number of factors clearly speak for Tashkurgan.

In Tashkurgan

I leave Tashkurgan on an early morning bus northwards to Kashgar, the oasis town on the rim of the great Taklamakan desert. The Tashkurgan valley is wide, fertile and with small villages and wandering camels and jaks. Here and there are a few Tajik yurts.

The air is supremely clear and the light very sharp. After about two hours on this comparably well kept and paved stretch of the Karakoram Highway we reach the delicately beautiful, blue-grey and perfectly still Kalakule Lake. But above the calm lake towers an untamed giant, notoriously unpredictable.

On the bus from Tashkurgan to Kashgar

Karakoram highway

Uggla finalThe road onwards from Gilgit is narrow, boulder-strewn and treacherous. The bus got cancelled so I took off in a rented jeep with two Pakistanis and a German.

We are moving north very slowly on the Karakoram highway to Sost in the stunningly beautiful Hunza valley and then to the Chinese border in the Khunjerab pass.

This unrealistic road between Pakistan and China was literally cut out of the highest mountain ranges in the world in the Himalayas. It is a true wonder but came at a terrible cost. Tens of thousands of people worked on building it and more than a thousand died from accidents. While military engineers worked on the Pakistani side, the Chinese used its army, paid volunteers and also convicts. Most deaths occurred on the Chinese side.

This is the second in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram highway. Read the first one here.


The mountain ranges meet in Gilgit. To the east is the Karakoram and in the south one end of the Himalayas. To the west you find Hindu Kush and Pamir is waiting to the north. In the north-east is the Kunlun, protecting Tibet.

Everything else is diminished by the gigantic presence of the mountains. Their deep-grey colors and brutal zick-zack lines are setting the tone for the entire landscape and all things human becomes miniatures. Some kilometers away is the mighty Rakaposhi, known as “the mother of clouds” and rising almost eight kilometers straight up in the sky. A bit further east looms the terrifying K2.

Karakoram is a Turkish word, meaning “black gravel” and it’s self-explanatory since the valleys here are covered in dark pebbles having eroded down from the mountain sides.


The British Raj was the governing of an Indian empire by the British crown between 1858 and 1947. Securing this rule, and the incomes generated from it, was a major concern and though the mountainous parts to the north first seemed impregnable, a disturbing insight soon grew among the British that it might still be possible for the Russian empire to send troops down through the mountains to conquer the subcontinent.

Imperial Russia thought exactly the same way, but so to speak from the other side, fearing British expansion northwards. The Royal Geographical Society in London started sending explorers with military training north to map the mountain passes, which was mirrored by the Imperial Geographical Society in St Petersburg and so started “The Great Game”, a cynical hide and seek game of mapping, espionage and intriguing for ultimate control of the roof of the world.


In the autumn of 1889, Captain Francis Edward Younghusband is slowly and arduously moving north in the high valleys above Gilgit with a small escort of Ghurkas. They wander, climb and wade over mountain passes and rivers into the beautiful but deadly Hunza valley.

The Mir of Hunza rules an independent and untrustworthy small mountain kingdom just outside the reach of British India. The kingdom is often loyal to China and bandits based here have developed a habit of plundering caravans on the Silk Road passing through.

There is a terrible chance that Hunza may align with the Russians and Younghusband is to map the area and gather information about the current situation. 

A few days in to the expedition a courier gallops into Younghusbands camp, delivering a letter from Captain Bronislav Grombchevsky inviting him to dinner. Grombchevsky is camped nearby with an escort of Cossacks, on a mission from the Imperial Geographical society and Younghusbands exact mirror reflection on the other side.

They have an animated dinner where it turns out both are on a mission to establish contact with the Mir. Grombchevsky tries to fool Younghusband that Russian troops are ready to invade from the north. Younghusband gives Grombchevsky wrong directions on how to travel south, sending him and the Cossacks on a death march in the mountains.

In the Khunjerab pass

In the autumn of 1947 the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir decided to join the new Indian state, but his commanders in Gilgit and the north, where most people are Muslim, rebelled and soon Gilgit, the Hunza valley and the entire north Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought over it since then.

The Karakoram Highway serpents up the valleys, passing small, stone-built villages, over rock-slides and rivers. We have little to talk about, me, the two Pakistanis and the German.

Half a day’s journey from Gilgit we arrive in Sost, a big village along the road and I find a room in the terrible Karawan hotel. Someone tries to break into my room at midnight but I have barricaded the door with a chair.

We start from Sost at dawn in two Toyota landcruisers belonging to NATCO, Northern Areas Transport Company. No larger vehicles are getting through from Sost to the Khunjerab. The air is thin and cold, the mountains grey and the road appalling.

The border between Pakistan and China is in the 4 800 m Khunjerab pass, “the home of the running water”, the highest border crossing in the world, and the red landcruiser stops to pause at two large commemoration stones in the pass.

Soon afterwards a giant, stone-faced Chinese border guard, easily more than two meters tall and dressed in impressive green uniform full of shiny buttons and with high, black leather boots ask for my passport without even the slightest hint of a smile.

On top of the world

Uggla finalThe Karakoram highway between Pakistan and China was cut out of the Himalayan mountainsides and stretches some 1 300 km from the rich Punjabi plains in the south to the ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert to the north.

On top of the world is the first of a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram highway.

A trip on this road is a journey of a lifetime and may be the most scenic and adventurous one you can do anywhere. It takes you right through the greatest crossroads of the world. This is where the grand mountain ranges meet, where the prime historical empires clashed, where peoples and religions mixed and where fortunes were made on the Silk Road.

Travelling “the roof of the world” in the Pamir area is a physical and poetic experience as well. The human condition seems frail indeed when shadowed by giant mountains.


To me, it all started in the south. I got to a rainy Peshawar by plane, all shook up after some days living with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan while following in the steps of Marco Polo.

I knew I wanted to go over the mountains to Kashgar on the legendary Karakoram highway but soon found out I had to do it in stages. I boarded a minibus for Gilgit in Islamabad in the morning and took of across the lush, damp and fertile plains.

Rains in Peshawar

The bus soon passes by the ruins of Taxila, ancient capital of the Indus valley and conquered by Iranian empires and Alexander the Great. Taxila is UNESCO world heritage and worth stopping at if you’ve got the time.

After a while the road follows along the Indus itself, the source of all historical wealth here. The mighty river has its sources high up in the Himalayas and its grand scale brings a hint of what is to come.

Abbottabad is white, flat and well-ordered, I can see from the bus. Signs saying ”Officers mess” and ”Soldiers hospital” fly by. Everything is more British here than in England.

The landscape gets steadily more rocky and the road steadily worse as the hours pass. Late at night we must stop since the road is blocked by a landslide and I lie down to sleep with my backpack on the roof of the bus. In the early morning we march in column over the landslide and board another minibus on the far side.

High up in the Himalayan valleys now, still following the Indus, the mountains get higher and higher and the road truly frightful. There are minor landslides and large single rocks all over the driveway. The road often narrows down to a slim rock shelf over terrifying abysses. We constantly meet colourful Pakistani trucks for chicken-races.

In the afternoon we reach Gilgit. It’s a grey and gloomy place and a trekker’s paradise with small shops, hotels and restaurants serving banana pancakes. The Great Game may have been played here but that doesn’t make it much funnier.

Over the tiny assemblage of houses by the river the row of immense, dark peaks of the Karakoram towers in the north-east like a line of giants with snow-white crowns and immediately takes my breath away.