Karakul Lake

Karakul Lake, in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, sits at 3,600 meters (11,811 feet) in the eastern part of the Pamir Plateau. It’s a common stop for travelers taking the Karakoram Highway to or from Pakistan, and you can usually find homestays in houses or yurts in the area. The mountain scenery warrants at least a short stop for the few travelers passing by this way, and the photos below offer a taste.

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This was my yurt, situated on a nice, level bit of shore pushing out into the lake. In the morning, the sun comes up over the mountains pictured here, and at dusk it settles down in the west casting them in orange. It’s a quiet spot in the off-season and well worth the trip from Kashgar.

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The way from Kashgar to Karakul Lake covers a long, hot, gravely valley. The road is dirt, but China is quickly building a new highway with massive cement flyovers to speed up freight traffic through the corridor.

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There’s a small Kyrgyz community at Karakul Lake that expands somewhat in the summer months when tourism and mountaineering picks up. Men from the area make a living in the climbing season as porters for nearby mountaineering expeditions. Although tourist photos generally emphasize the yurts, most of the permanent homes are one-room, stone or mud-brick houses usually centered around a cookstove.

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Distances up here or deceptively large, and hills that appear nearby are often hours away by foot. On my visit, before this year’s tourist season had begun, there were only a few cars around the lake that occasionally moved people, and otherwise traffic was nonexistent. Once or twice a day a bus passes the lake heading up the valley to Tahkurgan or back down to Kashgar, five hours and 2,300 meters below.
IMG_6588 A collection of cement homes designed in the traditional shape of a Kyrgyz yurt.
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Buildings–barely visible here–are dwarfed by the nearly 4000-meter ascent to the permanently snow-covered mountaintops surrounding Karakul Lake.
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Muztagh Ata (translated as something like “ice mountain father”) is the most prominent of the peaks around Karakul, standing at 7,509 meters (24,636 feet). It’s considered an “easy” climb for its height, with gentle slopes and generally good weather. It may not look like it, but in this photo the vertical distance alone–from sheep to peak–is about 2.5 miles.
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A rare portrait for me. I couldn’t resist capturing my man Ben voguing in Ferrari jacket and Uighur hat. Thanks Benny. Don’t ever stop.
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“Modern” yurts made of canvass are not uncommon around here. They’re actually pretty huge and sleep a dozen or more people. This one is really huge. There are plenty of large stones around here, which are used in place of tent pins to support the structure.
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The canvass yurts are constructed more or less like the traditional Kyrgyz yurts. But the old style yurt is insulated with animal skins stuffed into the walls.IMG_6657

A sunset look at the upper-shelf of Muztagh Ata, swept with clouds before the sun disappears behind hills to the west and the valley becomes very, very cold. Even in late May, when I was here, temperatures dip below zero at night.