Shipton's Arch | World's Tallest Natural Arch (Xinjiang, China)

Shipton’s Arch | World’s Tallest Arch

June 30, 2016 | 9 Comments

A Visit to Shiptons Arch

Shipton’s Arch, also known as “Toshuk Tagh” in the Uyghur language or 阿图什天门 (Ātúshi tiānmén) in Chinese, is considered to be the tallest natural arch in the world.

How tall is Shipton’s Arch, you ask?

Measured at 457m (roughly 1,500ft), the arch could theoretically fit the Empire State Building, which measures only 443m to the tip of the antennae. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but it is incredibly tall!

What I love about Shipton’s Arch is not only the magnificent beauty of the place, but also the story that led to its discovery…and later it’s rediscovery.

A Closer Look at Shipton’s Arch

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Shipton’s Arch is located in the mountains northwest of the city of Kashgar, part of China’s far west province of Xinjiang. It’s a curious arch that has been called one of the world’s top 20 natural wonders.

If you have the opportunity and enjoy hiking outdoors, a day trip to this extraordinary Silk Road destination is worth your time. Before you go, however, take a moment to understand the history behind the discovery of this arch.

The History Behind Shipton’s Arch

In this age of GPS mapping and satellite imagery, it’s not often that you can say that a place has been re-discovered in the year 2000. But that’s exactly what happened here in Xinjiang, China.

Eric Shipton, an English mountaineer famous for his Everest climbs, first introduced the arch to the world in his book Mountains of Tartary, written while he was stationed in Kashgar as British consul. It was during this period in history that the Great Game was still afoot and this particular post along the old Silk Road was of strategic importance.

A distant view of Shipton's arch from the south

Shipton’s Arch as seen from the south

He had caught glimpses of the big arch during hikes around Kashgar but multiple approaches from the south proved unsuccessful. It wasn’t until locals guided him from the north in 1947 that he finally came face to face with this magnificent natural phenomenon:

“At last, emerging from one of these clefts, we were confronted with a sight that made us gasp with surprise and excitement. The gorge widened into a valley which ended a quarter of a mile away in a grassy slope leading to a U-shaped col. Above and beyond the col stood a curtain of rock, pierced by a graceful arch.”

The first glimpses of Shiptons Arch

The first glimpse of the arch during the hike.

For years after Eric Shipton’s discovery, the arch was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the “tallest natural arch” but was later edited out. The reason for its deletion was not because a taller arch had been discovered; rather, it was because the editors at Guinness couldn’t confirm the location of Shipton’s Arch…or that it even existed!

National Geographic Nov. 2000 IssueFast-forward 50 years later. Believe it or not, no other foreigner recorded visiting the arch during those five decades until 2000 when a National Geographic sponsored expedition went in search.

Far better equipped than Eric Shipton, this group actually climbed to the top of the arch, a very dangerous climb considering the fact that the arch is made up of a very crumbly conglomerate that gives quite easily. Once they found a suitable route and reached the top, the climbers took measurements to verify that this was, in fact, the tallest natural arch in the world – 1,500 feet (457.2 meters) high, with a 1,200-foot (366 meters) opening.

Since 2000, the allure of Shipton’s Arch was reignited and a path has been beaten by the feet of more adventurous travelers.

Visiting Shipton’s Arch Today

Ladders used to climb Shipton's Arch in XinjiangFor the first decade following the National Geographic Expedition, foreign travelers began to request a visit to the arch with local travel agencies. Special arrangements had to be made and at first many of the agencies had no idea what the foreigners were talking about – a proper name in Chinese wasn’t given to the arch until the late 2000s.

These pioneering travelers, whose blogs you can still find and read today, talk about an arduous climb that included a 4-wheel drive vehicle, a local guide and a number of rickety ladders.

All of that – for better or worse – has changed.

A new road leads from the highway to a new visitor’s center right next to the trail head. Guides are no longer necessary and the ladders have been replaced by strong staircases.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a tiring climb that requires a certain level of fitness from those that visit. However, it’s no longer the dangerous expedition it once was.

Climbing the stairs up to Shiptons Arch

Climbing the stairs up the valley to Shipton’s Arch

How to Visit Shipton’s Arch

**For more information on this and many other places in Kashgar, make sure to check out the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide.

To make your own visit to Shipton’s Arch, all you need to do is arrange transportation from Kashgar for the day. This can be done either through a travel agency or by hiring a taxi off the street. For the latter, you can use the following to explain where you want to go:

  • Uyghur: تۆشۈك تاغ  (töshük tagh)
  • Mandarin: 阿图什天门 (Ātúshi tiānmén)

Entrance to the Shiptons Arch visitor center

The new paved entrance to Shipton’s Arch

Hired transportation, depending on the type of car and season, can cost anywhere from 500-800 per day, so it’s best to get a group together if possible.

Once you reach the visitors center, which can take 1-2 hours of driving, you will be required to purchase an entrance ticket. They point you on your way and off you go!

A staircase down from Shiptons Arch

Travel Tips for Shipton’s Arch

Check out the Kashgar City Guide

If you’re going to spend the time and money to trek up to one of Xinjiang’s hidden gems, you should make the best of it! Here are some tips and suggestions to make the journey awesome:

  • Bring Water and Snacks: you’ll be glad you did, because there’s no other place to stop and buy this during your hike.
  • Visit During Sunrise or Sunset: many tour companies offer this option to either arrive super early or stay late to see the sunrise/sunset. It’s gorgeous! The only problem is hiking in the dark, so bring light.
  • Camping: It used to be that travelers could easily camp at Shipton’s Arch, but with the development of the site as a tourist destination, it is unclear whether that is still an option. In addition, the grassy hill where people once camped is now a concrete-covered tourist viewing deck, so finding a good place to pitch a tent will be even harder (everything else is quite rocky!)

I’d love to hear from you – how was your experience visiting Shipton’s Arch?

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

Leave a Comment

  1. Was that an Elmo hat?

    Great visuals Josh. It must be impossible to get a sense of the scale of thing except to say it’s higher than Empire.

    How on earth was it formed?

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on July 2nd, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Yes, my son’s favorite hat at the time ;)

    Honestly, I have no idea how it was formed. It’s not a terribly windy area, at least compared to other such places I’ve been that don’t have an arch.

    [Reply]




The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide is here!