Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

This was the second time that I led this fascinating trek to a little visited Chinese side of the Karakoram Himalaya. I did not write a 'report' after the trip, so here is the original itinerary that I prepared in advance.

 

Introduction


This trek visits the north side of the mighty Karakoram Range in Chinese Central Asia, an area made famous by the travels of British explorers Sir Francis Younghusband and Eric Shipton. The journey to the mountains is a major adventure in its own right, visiting fabled cities of the ancient silk route and crossing high mountain passes. Camels carry the baggage on the dramatic trek to base camp and help team members to cross the many fast flowing rivers that are characteristic of the area. The huge North Face of K2 rising above the ice pinnacles of the North K2 Glacier is one of the most dramatic sights in the Himalaya. We spend more than a week exploring the glaciers and valleys above Base Camp, visiting Advance Base Camp and climbing 6,040m Sughet Ri. The trek to ABC involves challenging terrain in a dramatic setting and the optional ascent of Sughet Ri is not technically difficult requiring only basic ice axe and crampon skills. However, extreme remoteness and complicated logistics combine to make this trek a challenging undertaking.


The Chinese Karakoram


The North base camp of K2 lies in a remote corner of China's Xingjiang province. Only a handful of people have ever travelled to this isolated mountain wilderness on the north side of the Karakoram range. Recently opened to foreigners, this is one of the most unspoilt and least visited parts of the entire Himalayas. The mighty Yarkand and Shagskam rivers drain the waters flowing north from the great Karakoram peaks and carve deep channels through the mountainous landscape. The valleys here are at a much lower altitude than those on the Pakistan side of the range, giving a greater vertical height gain to the high summits. Many thousands of trekkers and climbers have seen the majestic Karakoram 8000m peaks from the Pakistan side, but few have ventured on the long trek through China to view K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums from the north.

Sir Francis Younghusband became the first western explorer to see the north side of K2 during his epic 1887 journey to cross the Old Muztagh Pass. This trek follows the same route, approaching the mountains along the valleys of the Yarkand and Shagskam rivers. The area was first explored in detail and mapped by members of Eric Shipton's 1937 'Blank on the Map' expedition. Even a hardened traveler like Shipton was overwhelmed by the scenery. He wrote "The cliffs and ridges of K2 rose out of the glacier in one stupendous sweep to the summit of the mountain 12,000 ft above. The sight was beyond my comprehension and I sat gazing at it with a kind of timid fascination..."

The highest point reached on the trek to base camp is the 4,870m Aghil Pass. From here, there is a magnificent view of the high peaks of the Karakoram range. The Shagskam River cannot be forded safely in the summer months, therefore travel in this area is restricted to the spring and autumn. This expedition takes place in September, when the intense heat of the summer has passed and the water levels in the rivers are reduced.

Those who have experienced the grandeur of the Karakoram from the Pakistan side find that the Chinese side offers a different but no less rewarding experience. Seasoned travelers who have visited other parts of the Himalayas should not want to miss this opportunity to witness at first hand the most dramatic side of this impressive mountain range.

 

Expedition Itinerary


Day 1        Fly to Bishkek

Direct flight from London Heathrow Airport to Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan.


Day 2        Arrive in Bishkek / Drive to Tash Rabat

We are met at the airport by a private bus which leaves immediately for the long drive East towards the Chinese border.  After passing the city of Naryn the road starts climbing into the foothills of the At Bashy Range.  Leaving the main road in the late afternoon we make a short detour to reach the historic caravanserai at Tash Rabat (c3,000m). Here we spend the night in a comfortable yurt encampment.  (8-9hrs)


Day 3        Drive to Kashgar

The bus sets off early in the morning for the 100km climb to Chinese frontier.  The road crosses two mountain passes giving views over the Fergana range before reaching the top of the 3,752m Torugart pass.  This journey has been called 'the most exiting route into Central Asia'.  At the top of the pass we say goodbye to our Kyrgyz guide and transfer to a Chinese bus for the descent into the Chinese province of Xinjiang.  The landscape changes from dry dusty hillsides to irrigated, tree lined farmland on the 160km drive to Kashgar. (8-9hrs)


Day 4        Rest day in Kashgar

After two days on the road we have a full day to rest and look around this fascinating oasis city located on the historic silk route.  Modern Kashgar is actually two cities which coexist in a sometimes surreal juxtaposition of the ancient and modern.  The population is split into two very different communities: Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese.  During a full day of sightseeing we will visit the Id kah Mosque, the Akbar Hoja tomb, the old town and bazaar, the famous 'Sunday' market, and the sights of modern Chinese Kashgar including the huge statue of Mao towering above People's park.


Day 5        Drive to Kargilik (Yecheng)

On this section of the journey we travel in  4-wheel drive cars - most likely Toyota Landcruisers.  Driving south from Kashgar the road crosses a large level plain, following the historic trade route which led to the Karakoram pass and British India. On clear days the snow covered peaks of the Kongur / Muztag Ata massif can be seen to the west.  We stop for lunch at an outdoor restaurant in Yarkand (Chinese name: Sache) before continuing to Kargilik (Chinese name: Yecheng).  Here we stay in the comfortable, modern, but strangely named 'Electricity Hotel'.  (4-5 hrs)


Day 6        Drive to Mazar Darra

Once we leave the fertile fields of Kargilik the terrain becomes dry and dusty.  The road climbs a dramatic series of hairpin bends to reach the summit of a 3,150m mountain pass, and then drops down the other side towards the Kudi river valley.  After lunch the road follows the river valley rising relentlessly to the top of a 5000m road pass. Another dramatic descent takes us to the army checkpoint at Mazar beside the Yarkand River.  Here we leave the Xinjiang/Tibet highway and follow a dirt road into the mountains to reach our fist camp site: Mazar Darra (3,500m). (10hrs)


Day 7        Trek Mazar Darra to Yilik

We meet with our camel drivers and load all the group's equipment onto their animals.  We walk along the military road following the Yarkand river valley to Yilik, located at the junction with the Surakwat river.  There is a small army post here overlooking a steep sided gorge.  A modern bridge crosses the river and leads to our camp on a grassy patch at a height of 3,500m. (5-6 hrs)


Day 8         Trek Yilik to Sarak

The terrain underfoot becomes more difficult as we follow the valley of the Surakwat river past the junction with the Zug Shagskam. Much of the walking is on smooth 'river washed' stones.  High cliffs of river deposited conglomerate rise on either side of the narrow valley.  After 5-6 hours we reach a small campsite on a terrace overlooking a tributary of the main river (3,800m)


Day 9         Trek Sarak to Kotaz

The valley turns into a narrow gorge in places as we follow the river higher into the mountains along a faint path made by the nomadic herders who visit this area in the summer months.  We turn up a side valley to reach some abandoned mud and stone huts where we camp at a height of 4,330m below the Aghil pass. (5-6hrs)


Day 10         Trek Kotaz to Quinghongtan - Crossing Aghil Pass

The ascent of the 4870m Aghil pass is quite gentle and takes approx 3hrs.  From the top there is a panoramic view of the great snow covered peaks of the Karakoram in the distance.  The descent into the valley of the Shagskam river is straightforward.  On reaching the silt laden river we ride the camels to reach the campsite on the other side.  We camp in a grove of willow bushes at 3,950m, the only green in this dry landscape.  (7-8hrs)


Day 11         Trek Quinghongtan to river junction camp

A slight drop in altitude today as we follow the Shagskam river downstream to the junction with the Sarpo Lago river.  The river meanders across the 2km wide flood plan and we must cross it several times. If the level is low we can wade.  High water levels (or a dislike of freezing water) can cause us to climb onto the camels.  Camp is at 3,800m.  (7-8 hrs)


Day 12         Trek river junction camp to Sughet Jangal

Shortly after leaving camp we get our first clear view of K2 as we climb a small shoulder above camp.  It is then an easy walk south along the Sarpo Lago river valley to the green campsite at Sughet Jangal (3,900m).  The crossing of the K2 river can add a little interest to the final part of this journey.  (4 hrs)


Day 13         Rest day at Sughet Jangal

This camping spot was used by Younghusband in 1887 and was the base camp site of Shipton's 1937 'Blank on the Map' expedition.  It is now known as 'Chinese base camp' although expeditions attempting K2 from this side use several advance camps on the North K2 glacier.  The peak was first climbed from this side by a Japanese team in 1982.  Only a handful of mountaineers have tried to repeat their route, and few have succeeded.  We spend the day packing and preparing for the climbing programme: sorting supplies of food fuel and equipment.


Days 14-18    Glacier exploration and climbing programme

'Advance base camp' at 5200m is more than 20km along the North K2 glacier from 'Chinese base camp'.  We complete this journey in three days, crossing a variety of difficult glacial terrain.  We will walk an average of 6-8 hrs each day.  The huge pyramid of K2 dominates the view ahead as we trek southwards, passing rows of giant ice pinnacles.  ABC sits in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the near vertical North face of K2.  Camping in this spot enables us to watch the changing light on the peak as the sun tracks from East to West during the day.


Days 19-23     Trek Sughet Jangal to Yilik

All the group equipment is loaded onto the camels and we retrace the approach trek route along the Shagskam and Yarkand river valleys to reach Yilik.


Days 24-25     Drive from Yilik to Kashgar

From Yilik we follow dirt roads out of the mountains, crossing two high passes to reach the town of Kargilik (Yecheng) on the plains. The following day involves a shorter journey on better roads and we reach Kashgar by mid afternoon.


Day 26     Train from Kashgar to Urumchi

We have a free morning to complete souvenir shopping in Kashgar before boarding our train in the early afternoon. We travel in a first class sleeper compartment on this recently completed railway.  The 23 hour journey passes through dramatic scenery along the way, including a high mountain pass and the Turpan depression, 154m below sea level.


Day 27         Arrive in Urumchi

We arrive in the modern Chinese city of Urumchi, the administrative capital of Xinjiang province, in the afternoon.  Transfer to a city centre hotel.


Day 28         Fly to Bishkek

An early morning flight eastwards from Urumchi crossing the Tien Shan mountains to Bishkek.


Day 29        At leisure in Bishkek

Bishkek is a fascinating city combining Soviet era architecture and monuments with a historic and vibrant nomadic culture.  The broad tree lined streets, museums, craft shops and restaurants are full of interesting sights.  A great place to relax on the last full day of the trip.


Day 30        Fly from Bishkek to London Heathrow Airport

 

 


David Hamilton
High Adventure
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Email:  david@highadventure.org.uk

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