Near Death on the Silk Road: Driving the Karakoram Highway

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Maybe I’m being just a mite dramatic, but when you’re hunched over the ragged hole in the concrete floor that acts as a latrine and vomiting what little remains in your stomach onto the reeking pile of shit and piss only inches below your face, death seems like it might be not so far off.

In hindsight I was either battling food poisoning or altitude sickness, but at that moment in muddy Opal on the side of China’s Karakoram Highway – I might as well have been battling the bubonic plague.

As I alternated between retching and steadying myself while emptying my bowels into an increasingly fetid hole in the ground, the public bathroom’s sole other occupant made a hasty retreat. He was still trying to pull his pants up as I sprayed the wall in front of me with bile and the water I’d tried to force down only minutes earlier.

I feel completely empty as I stumble out across the dusty car-park with tears streaming down my cheeks. A pair of burly Uighur construction workers flinch away from me and our driver – a friendly Han man without a word of English beyond ‘Hello’ – looks grave while guiding me back to the van where I slump motionless into my seat.

It’s the lowest point I’ve ever reached traveling, but I’m still smiling. My two days driving along the Karakoram Highway in far western China have been unforgettable.

Two Days Earlier…

It’s a rainy afternoon in Kashgar as Kara and I return from exploring the city and decide it’s time we actually planned something on our Xinjiang trip. As luck would have it, I spot a brochure for a tour company in our hotel lobby. I dial the number and hear a phone in the lobby ringing. Moments later, a rotund and smiling Chinese woman rushes across to me.

And just like that, we’re forking over 2,200 RMB (roughly $400) for our four day Kashgar itinerary. Not only have we landed a driver and guide for our two day trek as the Karakoram Highway follows the old Silk Road, but we’ve also got the guide and driver for a day in the desert and a final day exploring Kashgar’s surrounds. We think we’ve made out okay.

In hindsight, we did and we didn’t. While our two day tour of the Karakoram Highway and various stops along the old Silk Road are well worth the money – the final two days of our trip seemed to be hastily slapped together and even our guide was apologising too us for the situation.

Kara and I pose on the roadside as we prepare for our excellent adventure

But as we climbed into our private eight seater van for the trip out to where China ends and Pakistan begins, we were over the moon. We’d finally organised something and it was all actually playing out. A far cry from our nightmarish time in Urumqi.

Our guide, a good natured Uighur man by the name of Kasim, introduces himself and we’re almost immediately at ease with the diminutive man. He sounds like Borat and looks more than a little bit like Mario, but he’s soon chattering away happily about a land for which he obviously feels a great deal of pride.

Old lady on a motor bike
The baddest ass old lady on earth cruises alongside us as we drive the Karakoram Highway

We farewell first skyscrapers and then the sprawl of Old Town, and soon we’re racing past rood huts and a seemingly endless stretch of barren earth. Already we can see the distant, snow capped peaks that are our destination and we share the road with an odd mixture of modern cars, pieced together motor-bikes, and the occasional donkey drawn cart. Even tractors join in on the fun.

Karakoram Highway
Next stop: Adventure!

Opal

Opal (pronounced Oh-pahl) is the first stop on our two day Silk Road odyssey. The paved Karakoram highway cuts a distinct line through the mostly mud streets of Opal. Both sides of it are cluttered with vendors and their customers.

“We’re here!” Kasim shouts enthusiastically before yanking open our door and gesturing towards the muddy streets.

“Shall we eat now or would you like to explore?”

Old mirror in Opal
An old mirror for sale on the side of the road in Opal

We opt to explore and he happily waves us away before disappearing into the crowd. It seems as if he knows people everywhere, but of course, he’s probably been down the Karakoram Highway more times than he cares to remember.

Our exploration takes us away from the cluttered market and into a land completely unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere. The muddy roads are churned up with a mixture of motor-cycle tires and donkey’s hooves, and the locals eye as warily as we eagerly snap photo after photo of the quaint town.

Muddy streets in Opal
The muddy streets of Opal
Houses in Opal
Traditional housing in Opal
raven
Badass Raven is badass

With our photography done and our stomachs rumbling, we return to where we left Kasim and find he has already secured us a table atop a low platform. We’re soon feasting on naan bread, noodles with lamb, and a spicy vegetable broth. The sun is shining brightly but the air still holds something like a winter chill.

“We will have all four seasons today,” Kasim explains around a mouthful of lamb, “Sometimes summer and sometimes winter and sometimes spring”.

I’m glad for the sweater as we eat and indulge in a bit of people watching. Kara is particularly amused when a large, bearded man enters the open air restaurant with the back of his pants torn completely off and his ass hanging out for the world to see.

If this is unusual, the locals do a good job of hiding their surprise.

The meal is delicious. The lamb is not of the highest quality but the flavorful pilaf and the crisp naan more than compensate. We’re a pair of happy campers.

Food in Opal
The first meal on our road trip
pilaf
Pilaf is a popular traditional food in the region

Back on the Karakoram Highway

With our stomachs full it’s time to hit the road again, and we wave goodbye to Opal. Our progress is hindered by a lengthy military convoy heading out into Xinjiang’s mineral rich mountains. The Silk Road is no longer for silk and spices – but it’s still a lifeline in the dry and harsh environment.

Mountains outside Opal
A military convoy heads towards the distant mountains

Roughly half an hour after Opal we stop to take in the Burning Mountains and make use of a restroom. I feel like our tour along the Karakoram Highway was also a tour of the world’s worst toilets. I thank God that I can stand up to pee and pity Kara for having to hunker down over the fly-ridden holes.

The Burning Mountains are named for their fiery red coloration, and I spot my first sign of glaciers in the form of the wide, rock strewn valley through which dirty water churns violently. I’m in the process of showing off my glacier knowledge (garnered from my visit to Franz Josef in 2010) when Kasim helpfully points out every single fact I was about to mention.

Thanks a lot, jerk!

Burning Mountains
The distinct coloration of the Burning (or Red) Mountains is quite beautiful against the blue sky
Glacier fed water turned red by the Burning Mountains
burning mountains
A distant snow-capped mountain peeks through the fiery red of the Burning Mountains

From there it’s more of the increasingly treacherous highway. As the road hugs mountainsides it regularly slips to being no more than a single lane of road, and even this lane is occasionally blocked by fallen rocks. Our driver handles it all with seeming ease – weaving past debris and honking his horn as we approach each of the many, many blind corners on the road.

They say a man died for every mile of the Karakoram Highway when it was built. I’m surprised that number isn’t regularly added to by hapless drivers.

This area is also heavily mined and we passed many trucks hauling supplies to the mines and power plants that have recently sprung up in the rapidly developing region.

A hut in the mountains
A stop off to visit a nomadic family was a real treat

The drive isn’t all treacherous roads and industrial development though. Another highlight of our drive is a brief stop off to visit a nomadic family by the road. Raising goats (and a small horde of children) in the shadow of the mountains can’t be easy, but you could sense the family’s happiness with their simple life as you explored. It was a real treat.

yurt
A yurt is a traditional style of house popular with nomads in Xinjiang
bridge
A rope bridge provides precarious access to the nomad’s farm
nomad goats
A simple enclosure for goats
nomad family
A grandmother cares for her grandchildren
nomad woman
The family’s mother works to light a fire so she can bake bread for her family

The Sand Mountains

The next ‘stop’ along our increasingly high altitude climb towards the Pakistan border is the aptly named ‘Sand Mountains’. While they may be snow-capped at their peaks, the mountains themselves appear to be sand dunes thanks to the sand which covers their stony exterior.

The highway – where it still exists – passes through the mountains in what seems to exist halfway between being a lake and halfway between being a swamp. Yaks and goats dot the side of the road, but it’s the jarring transition from relatively smooth paved roads to hastily constructed dirt tracks that sticks with me after all is said and done. I’m not sure what disaster/stalled roadwork interrupted such a lengthy stretch of the Karakoram Highway, but damn did it make for a sore ass.

sand mountains
Half swamp – half desert = all awesome
sand mountains
The snow-capped sand mountains

While it wasn’t quite as spectacular as the verdant grasslands, brightly colored mountains, or crystal clear lakes that followed and preceded it, I can honestly say I’ve never seen what I must assume is a ‘sand swamp’ before.

Karakul Lake

One of Xinjiang’s most visited locations would have to be Karakul Lake. High in the mountains and rimmed by the yurts that local Uighur, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan nomadic people call home – its bright blue waters and the mountains that surround it are something of a mecca for photographers in the summer months.

lake karakul
Looking out across Karakul’s icy waters towards the distant mountains
lake karakul
The wind whips snow and clouds alike across the horizon 
karakul yurts
Lakeside yurts. Prime real estate!

It’s May when we visit but the air still hold the winter cold. My fingers go numb and begin to turn blue as I attempt to capture a photo of Kara jumping. I fail miserably.

Our arrival does not go unnoticed. Local nomads soon approach on motor bikes and hastily lay out their wares for us to inspect. It’s the usual collection of gaudy jewelry, rock carvings, and locally made hats. Kara buys herself a trio of stone billy goats while I splash out on a hat I’m sure I’ll never wear again (sober).

We also have our first brush with bartering as the three old men banter back and forth with our guide in search of the best deal. We end up paying 100 RMB (less than $15) for our booty.

A nomad at Lake Karakul
A local woman shows me her wares. I purchased a gift for a certain pretty American reader
motor bikes
Motorbikes are the preferred mode of transport in the mountains
Wearing a funny hat
Sporting the world’s least cool impulse buy

Despite visiting Lake Karakul both on our way to and from the Pakistan border, we never seem to catch it in any season aside from Winterfell style winter. It’s all we can do to spend fifteen or twenty minutes out in the freezing air and take a few photos before it’s time to return to the relative warmth of our Hyundai.

Tashgorkan

We’re approaching Tashgorkan – China’s westernmost city – when we happen upon a Kyrgyzstan food festival along the side of the highway. Brightly colored outfits catch our eyes long before the aisles of tents and the odd sight of a car park full of horses and donkeys prompts us to request a quick stop.

The air is thick with the smell of roasting lamb and fresh baked naan bread as we make our way up to where a huge crowd has gathered to watch some traditional dance. The brightly colored outfits of the dancers and the women in attendance are in stark contrast to the generally dour and dirty attire of the men.

horse drawn cart
A high roller’s mode of transportation
Kyrgyzstan dancer
A dancer at the Kyrgyzstan food festival

Kara’s dark skin and clearly foreign accent draw many appreciative (and sometimes downright rapey) looks from the men we pass, but she soon ducks back to the van after our exploration brings us face to face with a yak in the process of being gutted and skinned. I’m made of sterner stuff, clearly.

But soon we’re back in the van and on our way to our final stopping off point before heading on to Khunjerab Pass and the Sino-Pakistani border.

I’ll talk more about my time in Tashgorkan – which was definitely my favorite part of my Xinjiang trip – in a later entry, but I’m almost certain this is where I ate whatever it was that delivered me to death’s door later in the trip.

I blame the lamb…

stone fort tashkorgan
A preview of what’s to come when I write about my day in Tashkorgan

Delirious at Khunjerab Pass

“How are you feeling?” Kasim asked the both of us on multiple occasions during the day, “Any sick? Any headache?”

We’d both shaken our heads every time, but as we wound our way further into the mountains and crept slowly towards the 4,800m mark where China gives way to Pakistan, we both began to feel just a little tender. It started with noticing just how short of breath we were after relatively little exercise, but soon both of us were feeling drowsy and sporting headaches.

khunjerab 1
A truck slaves ever upwards towards Khunjerab Pass

I had the added plus of begining to feel light headed and something like delirious. I dozed fitfully for the entire two hours it took us to reach the pass. Truth be told, I remember precious little of our time at the icy (both literally and figuratively) point where China’s authority stops and Pakistan’s begins. Thank God I had my camera.

Stray but friendly dogs greeted us enthusiastically, I remember that. A horde of Korean and Chinese tourists sang to the sun while we watched on confused and just a little bit uncomfortable. And there were icicles at eye level as I made use of the bathroom before we began our trek back to Tashkorgan for the night.

stray dog
A friendly pup at the Sino-Pakistani border
khunjerab pass
You wouldn’t think this was a border between two nuclear powers…
Christians at Khunjerab Pass
These Christians were singing to the sun or the border, I’m not sure which
barbed wire
The ironclad defense on the Chinese border
Worst toilet
I pray I *never* need to go that badly…

If I felt bad heading into the mountains, I only felt worse as we descended to a more acceptable 2,400m. By the time we reached our hotel, I burst into the room and immediately laid claim to the bathroom. I’d spend the majority of my evening alternating between my porcelain throne and being doubled over with cramps.

Sick as a dog on the Silk Road

If I’d hoped a night’s sleep in our inexplicably freezing room was going to bring an end to my woes, I was sorely mistaken. My resolution not to make use of a dodgy ‘squatter’ style toilet went out the window almost as soon as our time exploring Tashkorgan had come to an end.

I was lucky enough to make use of a shit streaked, unflushable toilet at a border checkpoint – but on other occasions it was a case of grip something, squat, and pray you don’t get shit all over your pants. I have no idea how girls in China seem so naturally gifted when it comes to squatting over a dank hole without getting bodily fluids all over themselves. I certainly struggled to achieve the feat.

I spent almost all of our nine hour drive in a kind of daze – either asleep or gritting my teeth as another wave of cramps threatened to squeeze the contents of my stomach out and all over the interior of the van.

We stopped off briefly at Karakul Lake and rattled our way across the Sand Mountains before finally returning to Opal for lunch. But the very idea of food set my stomach churning and I opted to remain in the van.

Big mistake.

Soon enough I was doubled over a plastic bag and throwing up into it while trying desperately to keep my sphincter clenched for fear I’d shit myself in the van. I somehow managed to avoid doing this long enough for the driver to notice my plight and rush me across to the ‘toilet’ where all of this began.

It was a sad and sorry Aussie on the Road who staggered into the New Delhi Business Hotel upon our return. A half hour shower and twenty minutes with a working toilet (as well as five visits to the toilet while at the Karakoram Cafe that evening) didn’t seem to fix things, but Christ was I glad to wake up the following morning feeling like something wasn’t trying to crawl out of me.

A definite highlight

While over half of our journey along the Karakoram Highway was distinctly unpleasant for me on a personal level, I can now look back at the drive and appreciate just what a breath-taking journey it was. From urban Kashgar to rustic Opal, from the fiery Burning Mountains to beautiful Karakul Lake, and from the snow-capped peaks of the Karakoram Mountains to the stunning grasslands of Tashkorgan, the trip really was a feast for the eyes.

There was a feast for the soul to be had as well. The people who live along the old Silk Road are a friendly and warm people. The food (aside from whatever it was that struck me down for 24 hours) was delicious and the area’s rich historical culture was something I would never have learned about otherwise.

I feel truly grateful for the opportunity to explore such a scenic and under-appreciated corner of the world.

Want to see more photos from my trip? Check out my entire Karakoram Highway album.

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19 comments

  1. Felt your pain while chuckling throughout this piece! Not laughing at you of course- you just describe the experience of food poisoning during travel so perfectly! I had a similar experience while traveling in Vietnam while travelling on the railway. I very quickly went from trying to delicately figure out how to squat over the hole leading straight to the tracks while remaining upright (the old train doesn’t provide the smoothest of rides) – to wanting to just lay on the filthy ‘bathroom’ floor and shuke to death. 😛
    Your pics are truly stunning- I’m starting to think I might want to travel through China afterall!!

    • Haha, thanks 🙂 I definitely still remember the entire experience more clearly than I’d like. I’d have been embarrassed by it all had I not felt so awful.

      That Vietnamese ‘bathroom’ sounds like a real threat to my icy border toilet for the title of worst toilet in the world, haha.

      China has surprised me so far. I really had no interest in tourism here beyond the Great Wall and Beijing, but I’m finding hidden gems all over the place.

  2. What a great entry and omg the views are stunning! Am planning a trip to the KKH over the Oct National Holidays – I want to go the whole way into Pakistan and into Gilgit – Islamabad then fly back to Shanghai but am not sure if I’m being overly – ambitious.  Also should I book a driver when I reach Kashgar (are they relatively easy to find)  or arrange for one before I arrive? Sorry for all the questions – you can email me in order to spare the rest of your readers here! 🙂 And pray tell what on earth did you eat so we can all avoid it??!?

  3. Dude this is one hell of an adventure and some damn good writing – a really well-written post, felt like I was exploring with you. My stomach even has sympathy cramps. Great photos and glad you didn’t meet a grisly end in a squat toilet in central Asia.

  4. What an adventure (minus the shitting that it)… and I LOVE these photos – spectacular. I sadly won’t be making it around that way (the first time I’m in China) but it’s been on my list for ages 🙂

  5. What an adventure (minus the shitting that it)… and I LOVE these photos – spectacular. I sadly won’t be making it around that way (the first time I’m in China) but it’s been on my list for ages 🙂

    • It really was one hell of an experience. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Xinjiang before writing my ‘Top 10 places to visit in China’ piece. Seems like a real hidden gem.

  6. The trip itself sounds amazing but it’s so incredibly unfortunate you were so sick. I feel your pain. Whether it was food poisoning or altitude sickness or both I’m sure it was horrible and especially unpleasant to have to keep traveling through all that! 

  7. The trip itself sounds amazing but it’s so incredibly unfortunate you were so sick. I feel your pain. Whether it was food poisoning or altitude sickness or both I’m sure it was horrible and especially unpleasant to have to keep traveling through all that! 

    • I’m fairly confident it was food poisoning, as there were symptoms that don’t quite match those listed for altitude sickness. But either way, it was a rough 24 hours. I’m just glad it held off until I was halfway through the trip.

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