Karakoram highs

Last weekend, The Australian ran a travel piece of mine about trundling up the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar towards the Pakistan border. You can read it here. The Australian has recently instituted a paywall for a lot of its web content, but clearly my story isn’t deemed premium because it appears to be freely accessible.

Doing some very amateurish forensic etymology, I figure that “Karakoram” includes elements of Turkic (kara = black) and Persian (kor = ember) languages. An alternative interpretation is that the name comes from the Kirghiz (itself a Turkic language) for “black gravel”.

It seems to me appropriate that the mountains in this neck of the woods should have a Turko-Persian moniker, as this is a corner of the world where Turkic and Persian peoples have commingled for a very long time, although there’s nothing particularly black about the mountains, from my observations. It’s appropriate for my experience, too, having travelled from Uyghur Kashgar, into the realm of the Kirghiz and finally the Tajiks (a Persianate people thought to be the descendants of the Bactrians and the Sogdians of classical antiquity).

As with many stories, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to include – beginning in the market at Upal and continuing to the wedding in Tashkurgan and beyond – but it turned out that I had way more to say than the 1500-ish word limit would allow and I ended up paring back a lot.

I had set out along the Karakoram Highway after a couple of days in Kashgar. The trip up the highway, gaining almost 3000 metres from Kashgar to the mountain pass into the Tashkurgan district the following day, was quite exhausting considering that the bulk of the time I was just sitting in the back of a taxi. Perhaps it’s a travel thing:  moving long distances, be it by train in Europe, by bus in Turkey, or as in this case uphill in a taxi just tends to be wearying.

The altitude, too, as my article points out, knocked me for six. Karakul Lake is at 3600 metres above sea level. I was exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. Taking a motorcycle tour with some of the local Kirghiz guys, I clung on for dear life, grimacing at every bump, of which there were many. I exchanged one word with my motorcycle chauffeur – “yak”, which I took to mean “yak”, and which of course has a very Turkic ring to it. They took us to a place which my fellow traveller, Ibrahim, described as “jennet” (heaven). The rolling hills, the serene blue skies, the brittle wind, the looming snow-topped domes were all intoxicating. I couldn’t get the refrain from REM’s Near Wild Heaven out of my head: a wussy song, but the experience felt wild and the location had a rough-around-the-edges nearly heaven feel.

There was something compelling about racing by motorbike around the lake in the late afternoon.  A lustrous sky, somehow the shade and resilience of pale-blue nacre; immaculate white mountains that seemed to draw the light in, to retain a dull pulsing radiance, a presence that was irrefutable; the earthy grey of the hillsides and roads that we travelled on. It was a million miles from home but somehow familiar.

Returning to the yurt, we gathered around the brazier, which roared and gave off a pleasing smoky tang. We ate dinner, hearing the wind – the coldness made tangible – outside, seeing the utter darkness through the window. I bedded down on a raised, carpeted platform (I’m sure these have a specific name – they appeared in a lot of houses that I saw in Xinjiang), all the while struggling with a thumping altitude headache (which I didn’t think I should highlight in my piece for The Australian).

In the morning the highway reached an elevation of 4200 metres at the entry to Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County then descended into Tashkurgan town. Tashkurgan undeniably is a Turkic name (tash/taş = stone; kurgan = fortress), although the fortress that is the centrepiece of the town, described by Peter Fleming as “excessively romantic”, is made of what appears to be mud brick. Ibrahim explained to me that it is in fact the town itself that is the stone fortress, in that it is ringed by the precipitous peaks of the Pamirs.

Interestingly “Tajik”, too, is a Turkic word, first attributed to the great 11th-century Uyghur scribe Mahmud Kashgari, who used it to refer to all of the Persian-speaking people of Central Asia. The Tajiks of Tashkurgan are Nizari Ismailis (that is, a sect within Shi’ism); their language is related to that of the Wakhis in nearby Afghanistan, and, of course, to the residents of Tajikistan.

The Tajik wedding was somehow familiar too. The way the women went about the tasks at hand, preparing food, distributing cakes and cups of tea. The way the men hovered, muttering, at ease. It was, of course, a family gathering, but it somehow called to mind family gatherings I had experienced at my grandparents’ house in Berkeley Street, Hawthorn, in the 1970s. All that was missing was the Savoury Shapes and Schweppes lime juice cordial.

It was all over quickly. We headed back down the highway, passing the turn off to Tajikistan (the border is closed to Western travellers, I believe). Then the taxi suddenly stopped, due to a leak in a radiator pipe. After Ibrahim made several unsuccessful attempts to fix it we waved down a minivan of Chinese who were heading our way. We squeezed in, and some distance on they suddenly broke into a Chinese song that sounded uncannily familiar. It turns out they were Chinese Christians and we duly rolled back down the Karakoram Highway into the gloaming singing Chinese-language versions of Amazing Grace and Song of Joy. Amazing Grace indeed!


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