Karakol lake (China), 22.06.2013
Anxious to start our discovery of the Karakoram Highway we woke up on time, packed our bags and tried the breakfast in the former Russian consulate to Kashgar. Boiled egg, toast with jam, soy beans, noodles, steamed vegetables, undrinkable coffee. As agreed with our guide at 10:00 we were putting our last things into the car, closed the rooftop rack cover over the camping equipment, spare wheel and chairs and were ready to go. No sign of our guide, probably we got some payback for our late arrival at the border. At some point we decided to leave without him, there was no point in waiting and no added value by having him with us. As we were driving out of the parking area a young Chinese guy that had been staring at us for a while stopped us, pointing towards another building, from where our guide came running.
We got lost on the way out of the city on a construction site (nice to see that this doesn’t only happen to us but also to locals), but finally found our way onto the highway. The car miraculously worked fine this morning, quite suspicious. I waited for the next error messages all the way long. After 55km on perfect tar roads through a scenic valley of reddish mountains, our guide recommended us to stop to take pictures. We did so, while he took a leak and then washed his hands in the grey river. Another 30km later we arrived at a village, supposedly the last one before the border where we could buy food. We had a sort of brunch at an eatery, plov with mutton, bought watermelon, bread and water, and drove on. The road started climbing up into the mountains, sometimes there were stretches of tar washed away or covered by landslides and big rocks. But generally it was very comfortable to drive on. We passed a military checkpoint, where everybody had to get out of the car to have their passports controlled. “Controlled” is a big word, a soldier opened the passport, looked on a random page for 2 seconds and handed back the document. I could have given him a Mickey Mouse book and would have passed. Back into the car another soldier started to open the doors, and at the first one things fell out onto the dusty, dirty ground. I hate when these people just start touching our car without asking!
Shortly after the checkpoint we reached a huge water reservoir. The silver grey water reflected the light brown and grey mountains around it. There were even some huge sand dunes on one shore of the lake. Spectacular! We overtook a convoy of 50 military trucks, half of them carrying bricks. All trucks were numbered, and escorted by a Hummer. A Hummer? Well, the Chinese copy of it. We’ve seen all kinds of Chinese copies of western cars on the roads here, Willis Jeep, Rovers, Toyotas, Lancia vans, Opel Fronteras, even a Mini, all in Chinese versions. Some are 100% close to the original, like the Hummer, others less so. They also have a car brand here with a Mercedes star with 5 rays.
At 14:30 we reached the attraction of the day. Since the program our Berlin agency for China had put together limited the driving to just 200km we expected a natural miracle, a sight that would take the afternoon to explore. Well, the lake is nice, yes, but compare to any lake on the Pamir Highway it pales. The two high mountains surrounding it were impressive, but covered in clouds. As we arrived at the tourist stop, a parking space surrounded by run down metal containers greeted us. We parked in front of what was supposed to be our hotel.
The moment we stepped out of the car a smell of urine and excrements greeted us. We looked around, and since we were not interested in riding on filthy camels that had lost half their hair and the other half kept gluing on them in blocks, there was not much more to do. Hungry, we asked if we could eat something at the restaurant. They made us two plates of rice, fatty and with egg in it, really disgusting. 9 USD! We needed a walk, to digest this opulent lunch, and went to the lake. The ground was full of litter and animal excrements. We walked on the wooden walkway around the lake as long as it didn’t crumble and disappear into the lake, fighting with clouds of mosquitoes and flies. After 20 mins we gave up and went back. What now? All afternoon in this place that LP describes as a tourist trap? “Let’s make the best out of it!”
In the car we made tea, and got our books and iPads. Two guys from the hotel started walking around the car at 1m distance looking into it. Great show of decency and manners. I asked them if I could help and they replied “just looking”. Then they sat on a bench a couple of meters from us, chatting, shouting, spitting and staring at us. We went to sit on a bench in front of the restaurant, to see the lake and mountains while we read and drank tea, still fighting mosquitoes. At some point we saw a guy from the hotel take two big teapots and walk to the lake. We looked at each other: “he is NOT getting the tea water from there!” Yes he did. And after filling the pots, he urinated into the lake. Soon after a party of local people arrived at the lake in their cars, the stereos blasting cheap dance folk music. They took pictures and then moved on to some yurts further down the lake, keeping the music up in their village afternoon disco. All this time our guide just sat around, looking at the lake, doing nothing. And that was it for the afternoon. A loss of time in a horrible place, and all this because in this country you cannot travel freely. We felt screwed by the agency, especially considering the huge amount of money this China trip did cost.
When the sun started to disappear behind a mountain we decided to go to sleep. Not in the mood for another experience in the restaurant and too exhausted by the altitude to cook, we got some snacks from the car, together with our bags and things. To our surprise we were shown a yurt beneath the hotel building with a wooden platform covered with a carpet on a concrete floor. The only lamp was not working, and nobody was able to fix it. There were mattresses and blankets, but the place was so filthy we preferred to take our sleeping bags from the roof. The toilet of the place was locked, there were no showers. The metal door was hardly locked by some wires. As we prepared for the night a guy came to light the small coal oven, the smell reminded us of the apartments in East Berlin. The fire barely warmed the room, as two candles barely lit it. And to make sure we don’t just fall asleep but enjoy this place a little longer, the guys from the hotel turned the power generator on in front of our yurt and started drinking alcohol, talking and shouting, clearing their throats, spitting and fighting.
Trip data for the day
– Km driven: 199
– Hrs on the road: approx 3,5h
– Diesel l/100km: 10,9