Note: The following is the second part of a guest post by Vivian Ngo. If you haven’t already, it is recommended that you first read Part 1: Introduction to the Karakoram Highway before continuing.
The geological sights along the Karakoram Highway were varied and contrasting: Rugged mountainscapes, sand marshes, crystal clear lakes, glaciers, green marsh lands. Although I’m not an expert on geology, it certainly piqued my interest to research more about what I saw along my journey.
After downloading all the photos I took along the way, I retraced my journey in Google Earth to help me appreciate and understand the geography I saw at eye level.
#1 RED MOUNTAINS OF KARAKORAM HIGHWAY
On the way to the first check point on the Karakoram Highway, we passed by the Red Mountain. The distinctive red tint of the mountain sandstone was from the oxidization of iron. The Karakoram Highway runs in-between the ridges on the valley bed next to the Ghez River.
You could see many mines in this area with all the infrastructure to support a major mining operation. It has been said that during heavy rain the river turns red. There were a few spots where we had to detour around minor landslides on the road. At the first check point in Ghez they recorded our passports and reasons for passing. There was also road side refreshment stands run by Kyrgyz. That day was so amazingly clear we were able to snap pictures of the snowy Kongur Peak.
We stopped at the base of Kongur Peak to take in the views of this strange but beautiful landscape. It seemed like as far as we could see there were white sand dunes and a river bed that projected a mirror image of the horizon.
There was a Kyrgyz family there trying to sell us some polished stones as well, but we managed to convince them to take a photo with us instead. The white giant snow peak on the left of the photo is a part of Mount Kongur.
#3 KARAKUL LAKE
This place along the Karakoram Highway makes you feel like you have just arrived in heaven. The lake at 3700m above sea level is surrounded by two Pamir peaks, 7546m Muztagh Ata to the south and 7718m Mt. Kongur to the north-east. We walked along the boardwalk along the lake and we could see all the way to the bottom of the lake because the water was so clear.
We could also see the open green grassland in a distance where live stock fed. We were going to stay in the yurts around the lake, but we didn’t bring enough warm clothes. I heard it could get below freezing even in August!
We arrived in Tashkurgan around sunset. It was really the best time to see the Stone Fortress bathed in golden sunshine. We first walked around in the wetland area, which is part of the Tashkorgan’s flood plain. What can’t be seen at eye-level but can be seen only on Google Maps is the geological form called an alluvial fan (highlighted in blue). It is created by melting glaciers flowing down from mountain peaks.
The Stone Fortress was high up on the hill that required a bit of a hike. We had to pay a small entrance fee to get access. It was well worth the hike and the fee because it was in a very surreal setting against the snowy peaks during sunset and hardly anyone else was there. About 1 km north of Tashkorgan is the check point post where we purchased a permit to drive up to the Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram Highway.
There is also a sign that says something like “Khunjerab Pass is not a tourist spot, but an important military posts. We reserve the right to refuse permit to any travelers.” I was worried we would be refused, but we just had to show them our passports and paid about 50 RMB per person for the permit.
#5 KHUNJERAB PASS
We arrived at the final point in our journey along the Karakoram Highway at the border of China and Pakistan after a long drive through breathtaking valleys, running rivers and clear skies. We noticed on the switchbacks leading up to the pass a torn up big rig that must have had better days. Just before we reached the pass, we obtained a military escort up the final few hundreds of meters to the border.
There was a three story gateway structure that couldn’t have been more than a few years old that was awaiting us at the top of the pass. The Chinese Military guard told us it took three rotating construction crews to complete the structure. The road pavement then abruptly ended with a marker signifying Pakistan on one side and China on the other.
A Pakistani guard representing the Kashmir Security Force rode up from his post to greet us on his motorcycle. His English was very good and he said his rotation keeps him in this location for about the length of a season. We managed to snap some pictures of some friendly foreign relations taking place from this most unique site. The mountain peaks seemed so close; almost at eye level. The 4700m altitude seemed to be getting the better of us after some time, so we decided to head down the mountain and get closer back to earth.
This is Part 2 of a guest post was written by Vivian Ngo (click to read part 1). Vivian is an architect living in Los Angeles. Her trip to Xinjiang gave her a new perspective in what it means to be “Chinese”.