The KKH, Eighth Wonder of the World (China 2009, Pakistan 2007)

When I had seen that we were visiting a lake out West somewhere near the end of our trip I must have got the Tien Shan Mountains mixed up with the Pamir Range and throught we were off to one of the pretty lakes in Northern Xinjiang, up near Mongolia somewhere. Nothing could have been further from the truth as it turned out because, for some reason, we were being taken for a day trip up the Karakoram Highway to Lake Karakul: remote, bleak, inhospitable, and very exciting.

Perhaps the fact that in China it is known as China National Highway 314 confused me because I had already visited “the other end” near Islamabad eighteen months before and felt, despite the fact that I had yet to negotiate any of the high passes, a certain proprietorial interest. No statistics can do justice to the highest paved road in the world, twenty years in the building at a cost of many hundreds of lives on both sides of the border but its passage through some of the most forbidding mountain ranges on the planet is breathtaking. And I’m not just talking about the altitude.

Altitude was a problem for us because, much as our little group wanted to make this trip, the only warning we had received was to bring some warm clothing. One of our number had casually overlooked his morning blood pressure tablet and suffered a burst blood vessel in one eye. It probably needn’t have happened. The surprising thing about this mighty engineering endeavour is how straight and steeply it rises, cutting its way through all intervening obstacles instead of snaking its way up and down the mountain sides along the ancient passes.

Some rather hostile security meant that I couldn’t get any pictures of the trucks waiting at the checkpoints on the Chinese side to counterbalance the delicious “truck art” captured in Pakistan a couple of years earlier (mostly by Elisabeth, I hasten to add) but I’ve posted a whole selection of photographs with detailed captions to recount the Chinese experience. There are a few reference shots to fill in the “middle bit” but of course I intend to go back up there to complete the adventure one day.

An important piece of information that I appear to have lost is the name of the “Post Office at the end of the World”, the little Chinese way-station selling altitude sickness tea and herbal medicines to truck drivers on their way over the pass. About twenty years ago, so the story goes, a magazine article in the Capital drew attention to a doctor and his wife, working to care for the nomadic people in this furthest outpost of the furthest province. The people coming in for treatment from their high pastures were so poor that all they could offer in exchange were a few specimens of the rarest plants and the ancestral stories of how they should be used. A flood of donations followed publication of the story, nearly all of them so vaguely addressed that the authorities had to set up a special Post Office, the most Westerly in all of China. I even had my passport stamped there but I’m sorry to say that I later lost that as well. Somewhere, someone will be able to tell me.

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