Regular readers will know that I really enjoy traveling in China, despite the numerous frustrations and so far, I’ve written more posts on this blog about the Middle Kingdom than any other country. I have not yet written anything about China’s westernmost province, the Xianjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, though. That needs to change, since it was my favorite area in the whole country. One of the highlights of Xinjiang province is the ridiculously photogenic—and relatively tourist free—Karakul Lake.
Located in the westernmost corner of China, this stunning lake sits at an altitude of 3600 meters amidst snow-capped mountains topping 7500 meters. The remote location in China’s disputed Muslim-majority province keeps most domestic tourists away, but it also makes just getting to the area quite an adventure. That said, it is possible to simplify things considerably by combining two flights with a chartered private vehicle, if you don’t mind spending the money.
I do mind spending the money, so I opted for the more difficult but also decidedly more fun and adventurous route. Rather than flying into Urumqi from elsewhere in China, then boarding a second flight to the ancient Silk Road stop of Kashgar, I spent over 50 hours on a train from Shanghai to Urumqi and followed that up with an incredibly scenic 24 hour bus ride to Kashgar, skirting the edge of the Taklamakan desert.
After a few days in Kashgar that saw this desert market town climb all the way to second place on my list of favorite Chinese cities (I’ll be writing a number of posts about Kashgar one of these days), I got a ticket on a bus heading for Tashkurgan at the Pakistani border. I arrived at the bus station an hour early and prepared myself for a long wait, knowing that nothing ever leaves on time in China. Imagine my surprise when our bus actually left 30 minutes early; better yet, imagine the surprise of anyone who didn’t get to the station well before the scheduled departure time. I guess the bus driver had plans that evening and wanted to leave work early.
The views from the unfortunately tinted (unfortunate for anyone with a camera, which seemed to be everyone) bus windows were incredible as we left the oasis of Kashgar and headed up into the rugged and almost completely vegetation-free mountains of the Karakoram range. And just as we all began to think that nothing could top the amazing views we’d been soaking up, Karakul Lake made its first appearance and took everyone’s breath away.
Once at the lake, the few Chinese tourists on the bus practically ran to the large Chinese hotel in the area to secure the best rooms, but everyone else went straight for the yurts. Not only does the hotel tend to quote pretty ridiculous prices, it’s also a hotel—look around! You’re surrounded by Kyrgyz yurts, most of which charge visitors around 40 RMB (around US $6-7) for a night’s stay, including dinner and breakfast. Unless you absolutely can’t sleep on the floor, there is no reason to choose the generic hotel over a homestay in a yurt.
The most popular activities in the area are without a doubt the horse or camel rides around the lake. Since I prefer my transportation to not have a brain of its own and would rather eat a horse or a camel than sit on one (to be fair, I’d never actually been on a camel and was just assuming I’d hate it; it wasn’t until several years later that I proved my assumptions correct), I decided to simply move around on my own two feet. Given the altitude, that ended up being a lot more difficult than it should have been.
I climbed up a little hill that was at most 50 meters high and felt like curling up in a little ball and dying by the time I got to the top. And yes, I’m blaming all of that on the altitude and not my general fitness level which falls somewhere between amateur bowler and couch potato.
Once I could move again, I dragged myself over to a large rock to recover from the climb and admire the scenery. The second I sat down, an elderly woman was all over me, offering various little homemade handicrafts. I swear I had just seen her at the bottom of the hill less than a minute before, which made me feel appropriately pathetic for taking twenty minutes to get up there.
I asked her to give me some time to enjoy the view in peace, so she sat on another rock a few meters away and patiently waited. As soon as I stood up she was back, pulling knickknacks out of a seemingly endless supply of pockets. I usually get rid of anyone trying to sell me things I don’t need, but she was actually very sweet about it. Unfortunately, she had nothing I wanted, so I ended up just asking her if she could sell me something to eat. She loved that idea and took me to her yurt to meet her family and serve me a couple of cups of yak milk tea. Her family was nice, the tea was not—much too salty for my taste.
Continued in part 2: Yurt Life at Karakul Lake in Xinjiang Province