Looking for the most epic road trip in China (or the entire world, for that matter)? The drive between Kashgar and Tashkurgan along the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway is OUT OF THIS WORLD and will literally take your breath away!

The Karakoram Highway is often called the Eighth Wonder of the World, and this road that runs between Kashgar in China and Islamabad in Pakistan is what road trip dreams are made of.

It is one of the highest paved roads in the world, which cuts through the Karakoram mountain range and reaches a maximum elevation of 4,714 m.

We recently travelled along the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway as part of our Xinjiang trip. If you, too, are planning on taking the high road, here is our guide of the best things to see between Kashgar and Tashkurgan.

Kashgar to Tashkurgan

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The Karakoram Highway in China

Karakoram Highway in China between Kashgar and Tashkurgan

The total length of the highway is 1 300 km, known as the Karakoram Highway on the Pakistan side and the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway on the Chinese side. 

The China-Pakistan Friendship Highway runs for 414 km between Kashgar and Khunjerab Pass on the border with Pakistan. Due to Covid 19, it was only possible to travel up to Tashkurgan when we visited. 

From Kashgar to Tashkurgan, the road goes through some of the most dramatic scenery in China for 290 km and reaches an elevation of just over 4 000m. 

How to Travel from Kashgar to Tashkurgan

Kashgar and Tashkurgan
Karakoram Highway China from Kashgar to Tashkurgan

Self-drive: If you want to drive anywhere in China, you must first procure a valid Chinese driving licence. China does not recognize international driving permits, which means you must pass a written exam in China. 

Xinjiang province is infamous for ever-changing policies, countless police checks and other shenanigans, making a self-drive road trip even more challenging than elsewhere in China. 

Taking this into account, it’s most practical to join an organized tour or find a guide in Kashgar to drive you. 

Karakoram Highway Guide in Kashgar: We joined a tour and had a local Uyghur guide in Kashgar who took us to Tashkurgan. Our guide, Sadik, took care of everything, helped us get the necessary paperwork done and arranged a minibus for our group. 

Sadik comes highly recommended, and he can also take you all the way to the Khunjerab Pass or even across the border into Pakistan once borders eventually reopen. 

You can contact Sadik by email at sadikh@163.com or on WeChat: (WeChat ID: wxid_zti16ud7s4i122)

Best Scenery Between Kashgar and Tashkurgan

Red Mountain / Oytagh Canyon

Oytagh Canyon or Red Mountain in Xinjiang, China

About 90 km after leaving Kashgar is when the surreal landscapes really start. The aptly named Red Mountain, or Oytagh Canyon, sits right next to the road. 

By the looks of it, this place is quite popular with Chinese campervans, but we’re sure that foreigners won’t be allowed to stay over.

Stop here for a short while to stretch your legs, snap some photos and use the bathroom before hitting the road again. 

After leaving Red Mountain, the drive continues getting more and more spectacular. We went through a police checkpoint where we all had to leave the bus, but Sadik prepared us for it and guided us through the whole process.

Bulongkol Lake / White Sand Lake (白沙湖)

White Sand Lake along the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway in Xinjiang province.
Kyrgyz man and yak at Bulongkol Lake, or White Sand Lake in Xinjiang province, China
Bulongkol Lake, Xinjiang
Bulongkol Lake, or White Sand Lake between Kashgar and Tashkurgan


Bulongkol Lake (or White Sand Lake) is the next spectacular stop, and it’s a stunner! Surreal is the only way to describe this gorgeous lake sitting at an elevation of 3300 meters.

The white sand dunes reflecting in the teal-coloured lake and piercing blue skies behind it is unbelievable. Plan to spend a decent amount of time here to enjoy the fantastic scenery and take photos.

Kyrgyz men with their distinguished tall hats have their yaks and Bactrian camels by the shore to pose for photos. You can probably sneak a photo for free, but they ask RMB20 if you want to pose on the animals.

Tip: Remember your sunglasses. There is no shade and the reflecting sun bouncing off the white dunes and water is pretty damn harsh!

Lake Karakul (卡拉库里湖)

Lake Kakakul with Muztagh Ata in Xinjiang Province, China
Horse riding at Lake Kakakul in Xinjiang Province, China
Lake Kakakul in Xinjiang Province, China
Lake Kakakul in Xinjiang Province, China
Lake Kakakul in Xinjiang Province, China

The road continues to gain elevation until it reaches Lake Karakul at 3 600m above sea level. Lake Karakul (Black Lake) is the highest lake on the Pamir Plateau, and it’s spectacular.

Snow-covered mountains surround this dazzling Alpine lake, with Muztagh Ata (7 546m) and Gonger Tagh (7 719m) mountains being the most prominent. The snow-capped peaks are genuinely majestic. Yet again, plan to spend quite some time here to appreciate the beauty of the Karakoram highway.

All visitors (including Chinese) needed a special permit to travel beyond Bulongkol Lake during our visit. Due to this, we had the entire shore of Lake Karakol to ourselves.

You can rent a horse from one of the Kyrgyz men on the lakeshore if you feel like a gallop in this incredible scenery. There is also one no-frill restaurant where you can get something to eat.

At Lake Karakul, I started feeling the effect of the altitude and came down with a headache and felt nauseated.

Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County

Muztagh Ata along the Karakoram Highway in China
Tashkorgan Tajik Autonomous Region
Kashgar to Tashkurgan

After Lake Karakul, the road goes over the Shubash Pass at 4081 metres, the highest point on the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway. The view from the top of the pass down towards Tajikistan (just 20 km away) is unreal!

 After the pass, we reached a colossal sign welcoming us to the Tashkorgan Tajik Autonomous Region. Behind the sign was an equally big police checkpoint we had to go through and do Covid tests. 

In the eastern Pamir Plateau, the Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindukush and Tian Shan Mountains meet, and Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India are all just behind the mountains. It is a sensitive border area with ever-changing regulations. 

  • Just after we visited Xinjiang, the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous Region was entirely off-limits for all travellers due to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

Taheman Grasslands (塔合曼)

Xinjiang grasslands

Before reaching the town of Tashkurgan, it’s worthwhile to make a quick stop at the viewpoint overlooking the Taheman Grasslands. After enjoying the peaceful view of the grasslands, winding river and snow-capped mountains, it is just a short drive until reaching Tashkurgan.

Tashkurgan

We arrived in Tashkurgan just before sunset and booked into our hotel. Tashkurgan dates back almost 2 000 years and is located along the main branch of the Old Silk Road leading from China into Western Asia.

By the time we reached Tashkurgan, most of our group were suffering from the altitude, so we had an early dinner, took some paracetamol and hit the pillows.

Stone Fort

Stone Fort, Tashkurgan
Stone Fort, Tashkurgan

The Stone Fort, or Stone City, overlooking Tashkurgan was the seat of the Tajik Kingdom and guarded camel caravans along the Silk Road for aeons.

Some historians believe the Stone Fort to be the Stone Tower that Ptolemy mentioned almost 2 000 years ago. Ptolemy’s Stone Tower was believed to mark the midway point between Europe and China.

Not much of the Stone Fort remains today, but the top of the walls grants a fantastic view over the grasslands and mountains. 

Entrance to the fort costs RMB 30 and includes the Golden Grasslands at its base.

Golden Grassland

Golden Grasslands in Tashkurgan, China
Golden Grasslands in Tashkurgan, China

At the foot of the Stone Fort lies the scenic Tashkurgan Grassland (also called the Golden Grasslands). The clear streams, and warm shifting colours of the grass against the cool and dark mountains beyond make for excellent photos.

A series of wooden walkways makes walking in the grassland easy to explore without getting dirty with mud or grass.

Tashkurgan to Pakistan

From Tashkurgan, you will only be allowed onward travel to Khenjerab on the Pakistan border with a valid Pakistan visa. Until borders reopen after Covid, the only way to leave Tashkurgan is to backtrack the same way you came back to Kashgar.

Travelling The Karakoram Highway in China: Q&A

How long to spend between Kashgar and Tashkurgan?

You will need at least two full days to make the return trip from Kashgar to Tashkurgan. Foreigners are not allowed to spend the night anywhere between the two cities. 

Is it safe to travel the Karakoram Highway in China?

Yes. The China-Pakistan Friendship Highway is in excellent condition. If there is any turmoil in the region, the area will be off-limits to tourists, even if there is no real threat.

The only danger you might face is altitude sickness or camels in the middle of the road. Pack paracetamol, drink enough water and help your driver spot camels on the road. 

Kashgar to Tashkurgan

Do I need a special permit to travel from Kashgar to Tashkurgan?

Travelling in Xinjiang is tricky, and things are constantly changing. It was possible to go up to Bulongkol Lake without a special permit when we visited. To visit Karakul Lake and Tashkurgan, we needed a special permit. Our guide took care of it all for us in Kashgar before our trip. 

The best advice we can give you is to contact a local tour guide to get the most up-to-date information. Even then, regulations can change at a drop of a hat. 

We wholeheartedly recommend our Kashgar guide, Sadik, to anyone wishing to travel the Karakoram Highway or anywhere else in Xinjiang. Contact him on sadikh@163.com or on WeChat : (ID: wxid_zti16ud7s4i122)

We put together a customized tour with a local outfit in Shanghai, who arranged everything for us. This tour operator is mainly geared towards ex-pat groups living in China, so individual travellers might like Sadik better. 

Karakoram Highway between Kashgar and Tashkurgan: Final Thoughts

If you’re undecided about whether to embark on this journey: JUST GO! It is an incredible road trip through the most spectacular scenery in China. Travelling the KKH across the Roof of the World is a journey you’ll never forget.

I, for one, can’t wait to return and complete the entire journey all the way to Islamabad!

#openthedamnborders

2 Comments

  1. Hi! The wechat ID you left for Sadik does not exist.. I am wondering if you are still in contact with him?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Kas,
      I still have Sadik on my Wechat and he updates his moments now and then, so he is still around. This is the ID that I see: WeChat ID: wxid_zti16ud7s4i122.
      Or try his email: sadikh@163.com
      Hope you can track him down, he is a great man to show you around Xinjiang.

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