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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:51 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:51 | SYDNEY

Notes on the Silk Road: Tashkorgan

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4 November 2010 09:03

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Hiring a taxi in Kashgar, we kept going first to the spectacular Karakul Lake and then on to Tashkorgan, the last city before the Pakistani border. On the Karakoram Highway, we passed through Kyrgyz villages and drove adjacent to the Tajikistan border. Tashkorgan itself is a majority Tajik city (according to 1995 figures, the latest I could find, the population is less that 30,000; 84% are Tajik) which is a very strange experience for a European in China, as the population look more Eastern European than anything else.

The city itself is little more than a town square with a few roads running off it. At the northeast corner is something called the 'Stone Fort', which is exactly what it sounds like (since returning, I have read that Tashkorgan is a rough approximation of the Uighur word for 'stone fort'). The fort is mostly rubble these days, but from the ramparts you can see clearly in both directions down the pass and it is easy to appreciate how rulers of old would have appreciated its strategic value.

At the gate, a group of four Tajik girls entertained visitors and were far more interested in practicing their Mandarin with a group of Han Chinese tourists than any Westerners.

Beyond the fort, there is not much to do in the city, and it is used simply as a staging point before the taking on the final part of the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway to the Kunjerab Pass, where the line of demarcation between China and Pakistan lies. With a spectacular view in either direction, the border is at around 4700m elevation.

Before you enter the Tashkorgan nature reserve which takes you out there, you have to report to a PLA base in Tashkorgan where you hand over travel documents and a small fee. From there it is an almost two-hour car ride across a desolate moonscape environment dotted with small communities, to the border itself.

Guarding the border was an 18-year old soldier from inner China who was desperately trying to keep the Chinese tourists from wandering too far into Pakistan. They asked to take pictures with him, reassuring him it was fine as 'no-one was looking'. On the Pakistani side, some buildings in the distance appeared to offer signs of life, but no soldiers came out to greet or scare people away.

Aside from the spectacular views, the roads are the most interesting thing. The road across the border stops rather abruptly when it gets to the actual line of demarcation, transforming from a well-tarmaced Chinese highway into a rather grueling Pakistani version. A Pakistani businessman we met in Kashgar complained to us about the state of the roads in his home country, pointing out that recent floods had completely cut off many of the roads and one was now obliged to make part of the journey by boat. On the Chinese side, the roads are clean and new; occasional wandering herds of cattle, sheep or camels and tired truckers are the main threat.

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