Tashkurgan: China’s Most Beautiful City?

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Civilization’s last bastion on the drive west towards the Sino-Pakistani border is the unassuming town of Tashkurgan. It’s perhaps surprising to find one of China’s most beautiful cities here, but maybe not. The all consuming machine of consumerism and China’s drive has yet to reach this far west. It can’t last forever.

Once the seat of a fledgling Tajikistan empire – it’s name literally means ‘stone fort’, and the eponymous fort still looms large over the entire town. But more on that later.

It is the final stop on our journey along the Karakorum Highway before the two hour drive out to Khunjerab Pass, where China ends and Pakistan begins. It is China’s most westward settlement and it isn’t always accessible to tourists. A checkpoint some two hours back down the road to Kashgar checks passports and permits and has the right to deny access to the quaint border town.

I hadn’t expected much when I noted Tashkurgan on our two day itinerary, but it came to be the absolute highlight of my week in Xinjiang. Indeed, thus far it’s been the highlight of my near three month stay in China. It may just be China’s most beautiful city.

Why? Let me show you.

The Stone Fort

Tashkurgan’s imaginatively named ‘Stone Fort’ was another unfortunate casualty of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but you can still soak in its 2,000+ year history as you pick through the crumbled remains of what must have once been quite an impressive fortress. Built as the seat of a long dead empire, little remains now save a few crumbling walls and a few deep holes that were once wells used to bring water from the neighboring grasslands.

It’s a crisp and clear morning as Kara, Kasim, and I ascend an unassuming set of stairs and emerge atop the plateau that holds the fort. It costs 20 RMB to access the ruins and a pair of tired looking guards usher us through as soon as they’ve got our money.

stone fort stairs
The stairs to the Stone Fort. Ominous?

At first it’s little more than a rock strewn stretch of land, but soon the fort comes into view. It looms out over the picturesque grasslands but pales in comparison to the majestic peaks that crown the entire region. The beauty of the place is layered and the cool morning air is bracing. I’m still feeling tender from my food poisoning – indeed, the worst is to come – but I’m able to enjoy the experience.

Stone Fort
The Stone Fort looms large on a chilly Thursday morning
Stone Fort
The rock strewn mountain top and the mountains beyond
stone fort wall
It was surreal to touch a wall that had been erect for almost 2,000 years

Kasim tells us stories from the town’s past as we explore. He tells of improbable virgin births and political marriages as Kara and I happily snap photo after photo of both the fort and the view our lofty porch affords us.

Golden Grasslands
A stunning view of the nearby Golden Grasslands

The Golden Grasslands

Sprawling out beneath the watchful eye of the Stone Fort is a picturesque stretch of verdant grassland that has been dubbed ‘The Golden Grasslands’. Up until the past few years it was a lush grazing land for cattle, yaks, and goats. But more recently it has been annexed by the Chinese government to turn into a tourist attraction.

While the new look walkways make the grasslands more accessible and provide some beautiful photo opportunities, I couldn’t help but feel saddened that the nomadic people had their lifestyle completely over-turned simply so the Chinese government could make a little more money.

But lucky us – the walkways have only just been finished and they had yet to start charging. Free exploration for us!

water wheel grasslands
A water wheel strictly for show. But still pretty.
A stream rolling away to from Tashkurgan
Water wheel
A different view of the water wheels
Water wheels
Can you tell I like water wheels?
Broken bridge
A frustratingly broken footbridge denies us access to the other side. We totes jumped.
mountain stream

Walking around the grasslands on a sunny day was a wonderfully relaxing experience. The bleating of goats and the joyful rill of water bubbling along the stream was immensely soothing. A few locals were out in the sun as well – sowing or tending to the herd. But mostly, we shared the grasslands with other tourists.

Nomad Woman
A local nomadic woman sews by the stream

The walkway network also sports a large performance space and stage where concerts will take place. While local ambitions don’t stretch much beyond local dance and music, I’d kill to see a Coldplay or John Mayer concert in such a stunning location. The grasslands spread out on all sides and the mountains watching on from the distance. It would be something else entirely.

stone fort
The stone fort against a dramatic mountain backdrop

China’s Most Beautiful City?

I’m not really qualified to judge this objectively. After all, I’ve been to no more than five or six cities in a country that boasts a number that might contest that they are rightful holders to being China’s most beautiful city.

But in my eyes, it would be hard to unseat beautiful Tashkurgan. With its stunning grasslands and the ever present vista of snow capped peaks, it’s breath-taking from all sides. Its history, its friendly people, and its isolation reminded me of my own home in a way. Sure, Ben Lomond in Australia isn’t steeped in history, nor is it comparable in its beauty – but there’s an allure to me in these isolated mountain towns.

I could see myself living in a place like Tashkurgan except for one thing. Whether altitude sickness or dodgy lamb, it started in this sleepy little town. And I’m not sure I’m quite ready to forgive just yet.

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  1. I wonder if you might have gone up to Tashkurgan with the guys from Thirsty Camel Tours, who are based in Kashgar in the lobby of the (forget its name) hotel just opposite the ‘Mao Statue’ Square? Lovely folks, just wanted to give ’em a plug 😉

    This June, we (me and Kendrick from Taiwan and Jill from The Philippines) met in (hottest place in the world) Turpan, then after time spent in Kashgar and other places, reconvened for a drive up the ‘highway’ to Tashkurgan and beyond. You can spot giant 7500 metre-plus mountains like Kongur and Muztag-Ata as you go. Sections of the road (though not all of it) are an absolute nightmare, having been under reconstruction for about 3 years, with no sign of a finish in sight. Landslides and floods etc keep stuffing it up, but lord, is it spectacular country! On top of that, we got stuck behind a Chinese Army convoy of about 200 trucks so, slow going.

    Tashkurgan is indeed a special place, and I could happily have stayed longer. Quite a chilled, slow-paced vibe, and all those remarkable green-eyed Tajik ladies around town. We took a dip in that stream through the meadows, and it was icy and delicious. Couldn’t resist: it might have been the altitude doing things to my head.

    We also stayed a night at Karakul Lake, in a yurt owned by some of the Uigher locals who are friends of the Thirsty Camel blokes. Yaks don’t moo, they grunt, and they do it right outside your yurt at 3am. You wake up and think, ‘Where the hell am I?’ You can, also, arrange to take a trip (on the back of a beat-up herder’s bike) to the base of a nearby glacier. Worth all the discomfort (toilets? What toilets?) for sure.

    • Sounds like you had a really authentic experience! I’m just a tad jealous!

      I honestly never learned the name of the company we met with (I was a newbie traveller back then), but I’m hoping to do Xinjiang again sometime in the next 1-2 years as part of my Silk Road trip. I’ll definitely try and emulate some of your experiences!

    • I wish I could tell you! We literally found a little tour desk in the hotel we were staying in and chatted with them about it. I was a bit of a rookie traveller back then, so it wasn’t a very well planned trip.

  2. the walkways are only a tiny section of the glassland. the nomads are still living their life’s without any issue. I got invited by a local to their section of the glassland while I was there.

    • That’s great to hear, and I’m jealous of your adventure with a local nomad. That would have been awesome 🙂

      It’s a shame that progress has to come to Xinjiang, however. Their traditional way of life and religion seem to be being oppressed at every turn 🙁

  3. Awesome post Chris! I’ve seen the “China’s most beautiful city” accolade previously go to Qingdao or Dalian on other blogs, but this is the first time I’ve read anything on Tashkurgan. Gorgeous photos, especially the one you simply call “perfection.” Showed it to my boyf and his reaction was, “wahhhhhhh!” (that’s a good thing).

    • Glad you liked it. I don’t actually remember even framing up the shot. My camera was low on battery, so I must have snapped it in a hurry. Turned out quite well.

      Tashkurgan technically isn’t a city, I guess. I’d be surprised if it had more than 10,000 people.

    • Having now been to Qingdao, I can see why it gets mentioned. It’s not a patch on Tashgorkan in my opinion, but it’s quite lovely.

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