Karakul Lake lies at 3600 meters above sea level along the Karakoram Highway between the Pakistani border and Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. While the name literally means Black Lake, the waters actually range from a dark green to a light blue and often reflect the surrounding snow-capped mountains, three of which top 7500 meters. It is an incredibly beautiful scenic area that is well worth a visit on a day trip from Kashgar or on the way to or from Pakistan. Better yet, spend a night on the lake’s shore in a local Kyrgyz yurt. Read about my visit to Karakul Lake here.
Best Time to Go
Summer is the best time to go. The days are hot and due to the altitude, you can burn very quickly, but the nights get very cold. Even at the height of summer, the temperatures can drop to freezing at night.
Getting to Karakul Lake
The cheapest way of getting to the lake is the bus for Tashkurgan that leaves from the Kashgar Long Distance Bus Station at 11:30am Beijing Time. It costs 35 RMB and takes 4-5 hours.
Another option is a bus from Taxian Banshichu at the edge of Kashgar. It costs ¥51 and leaves daily at 9:30 a.m. You can hitch a ride on a truck from here as well, but you can expect to pay around 50 Yuan for this too, depending on your bargaining skills.
Of course you can also hire a taxi, which will take 2 to 3 hours and cost around 500 Yuan per day. Finally, you can book a tour through a travel agent. These start at ¥200 per person for a day trip (with some very hard bargaining, naturally) and can reach over ¥4,000 for a two-day trip.
Note that a permit is now apparently required for all foreigners traveling along the Karakorum Highway. I’ve heard you don’t need it if you’re only going on a day trip, but this is likely only true if you’re part of a tour. If you’re going by public bus, there’s a good chance you’ll be turned back without the permit, unless you bribe the officials at the checkpoints—this is China after all and you’re not often able to do anything without giving the government a little something. I’d get the permit from a travel agent before leaving, as it is very difficult to do on your own.
There is no need, however, to pay the 50 Yuan to ‘enter the lake area’; you can just walk around.
The Chinese hotel at the lake will likely try to overcharge you quite a bit, but there’s no reason whatsoever to stay there. Spend the night in a Kyrgyz yurt for 30 Yuan, but be warned: these were the bathroom facilities when I was there in 2008. I’m not sure if they’ve been upgraded (perhaps by adding a door).
Eating & Drinking
The Chinese hotel offers food too, but it is even more overpriced than the rooms. For 10 Yuan you can get dinner, breakfast and tea in one of the Kyrgyz yurts.
Altitude sickness might be a problem for some people, as this helpful sign attempts—and fails—to indicate.
Things to Do
- Camel or Horse Rides: you can ride a camel or a horse around the lake for around 100 Yuan
- Mutgaza Ata: you can hire a motorcycle to take you up this mountain where you can hike around; this will cost around 100 RMB
- Trekking and climbing: you can spend weeks trekking around the Karakul Lake area or climbing Mutgaza Ata at 7546 meters; you’ll have to arrange any major trekking or climbing trips beforehand, which is probably best done in Kashgar
Leaving Karakul Lake
Unless you’ve arranged for private transport, you’ll have to wait for the bus to come by and hope for a seat. It’s scheduled to arrive around noon Beijing time, but it’s usually late. Alternatively, you can hitch a ride on a truck or in a private car fairly easily. You’ll have to pay though and it will likely cost you around 50 Yuan.