Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring


Since my first trip to the Chinese side of the Karakoram in 1989 I have visited the area a total of nine times: two private trips (1989, 1990), five climbing expeditions to Muztag Ata (1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007) and two trekking expeditions to the north side of K2 (2002, 2003). In the summer of 2011 I made my tenth visit leading a private trekking trip to the north base camps of K2 and the Gasherbrums from 27th Aug to 27th Sept.

This trip was created in response to requests from two couples. B & H from London has asked me run a trip to the north side of K2 and while I was planning this J & P from Scotland requested a trip to the north base camp of the Gasherbrum peaks. I reworked the itinerary that I had used on my previous trips and created a programme that would visit both the base camps in a four week programme from the UK.

The trip could have failed before we left the UK. The Xinjiang-Tibet highway was undergoing major reconstruction work and the Chinese authorities announced that it would only be open to traffic for 3 days in every 10 throughout the summer months. This almost led to our trip being cancelled as it was not at all clear if the change in dates required would be suitable to all 4 clients. Once this issue was resolved the Chinese visa issuing authorities in the UK placed numerous obstacles in our way, despite the fact that we had obtained all the necessary permits and an official invitation from the China Xinjiang Mountaineering Association.

It was with some relief that the five members of the party were united in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan on 29th August. Over two days we drove east reaching the Chinese frontier at the 3,752m Torugart Pass before descending to the city of Kashgar. The following day we set off on the two day drive south on the Xinjiang-Tibet highway. The road passed through some dramatic mountain scenery crossing two high passes, the first at 3,150m and the second at over 5,000m. For several hundred kilometres we drove through a huge construction site employing hundreds of large earth moving machines, and thousands of Chinese labourers. Even after we left the main road there was still a lot of building work on the 'side' road from Mazar to Yilik.

The next morning we loaded our equipment onto ten camels and left the village together with two Kyrgyz camel drivers and our two Chinese Staff (Mr Li and Mr Liu). After five days of air and road travel it was good to start walking. The trail followed a river valley bounded by high walls of unstable conglomerate until we reached a campsite at the junction of two rivers.  It took a further four days to reach Sughet Jangal, the site known locally as the 'Chinese Base Camp' for expeditions climbing K2.  On average we travelled for 6-7 hours each day, including about an hour of rests and stops. The days were generally warm and sunny, with a build up of cloud and increasing winds in the afternoons.  We chose to keep our watches set to 'local' Xinjiang time (like the camel drivers) while the Chinese staff set their watches to Beijing time (2hrs ahead). We generally started walking around 09.00 and this enabled us to reach camp in mid afternoon before the strengthening winds whipped up too much sand and dust.

The route was interesting and varied, passing through steep sided river valleys before crossing the open grasslands of the Aghil Pass (4,870m) and descending to the wide stony valley of the Shagskam River. The river meandered across the floor of the wide valley and we were forced to cross it a few times each day. In many places the water was over a metre deep and we had to climb on top of the baggage camel's loads to cross the fast flowing river. On the final day of the trek to Sughet Jangal we took an optional 'high level' shortcut and were rewarded with excellent views of K2 on a day of clear blue skies. The terrain on the north side of the Karakoram is generally dry and dusty with little vegetation, but Sughet Jangal is one of the largest areas of greenery in the region with a variety of bushes and small trees watered by a clear stream. We spent a rest day here preparing for a three day round trip to visit the Advance BC of K2.

The trail to ABC was too difficult for the camels so this had to be a 'lightweight' trip.  All the heavy equipment was left behind at Sughet Jangal. The two camel men plus Mr Liu the cook carried basic camping equipment and food for the team on the long hike to ABC. In the course of a 10hr day we trekked from BC at 3,900m to ABC at 4,700m on a small shelf above the North K2 Glacier. The following day started cloudy and although we knew that K2 was close at hand we had only fleeting glimpses of its outline. The clouds cleared later in the day and we had good views of the dramatic north face of K2 as we trekked back from a vantage point in the middle of the boulder covered glacier.

On our return to Sughet Jangal we were reunited with the camels and the bulk of our equipment for the four day trek to Gasherbrum Base Camp. We retraced our journey along the valley of the Shakskam River as far as the foot of the Aghil Pass before continuing east and following the river upstream towards the glaciers that fed the river. The weather became more unsettled as we approached Gasherbrum BC. By the time we arrived at the campsite there was low cloud in the valley and soon after the rain started. We were scheduled to spend three days exploring the area around Gasherbrum BC. For the first two days we were shrouded in mist and the rain continued to fall. It was with some relief that we woke on the morning of our final day at GBC to find clear skies and a magnificent view of the snow covered peaks overlooking camp.

We spent the day exploring the ice pinnacles on the North Gasherbrum Glacier and photographing the high peaks of the Gasherbrum range. Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II were the most easily identifiable features. Scanning the skyline from left to right the ridgeline of the Urdok peaks rose to the summit of Gasherbrum I (8,068m) then fell to the Gasherbrum Pass (6,511m) before rising again to the summit of Gasherbrum II (8,035m). Beyond GII the topography was more complex with several high subsidiary summits making it difficult to identify the summits of Gasherbrum III (7,946m) and Gasherbrum IV (7,932m). A decade ago I spent several summers climbing some of these peaks from the Pakistan side and looking down onto the glaciers and valleys on the Chinese side. It was interesting to be able to look up at these same summits from the north side of the range.

We would have preferred more time to explore the area around Gasherbrum base camp, investigating the approaches to the Gasherbrum Peaks and Broad Peak (8,047m). However the two days of bad weather had eaten into our schedule and we had to start the return trek to the roadhead the next day. The weather had turning noticeably colder during our stay at Gasherbrum base camp, perhaps indicating the end of the summer weather and the start of autumn. We had two cloudy days as we approached and re-crossed the Aghil Pass, followed by two sunnier days as we left the high mountains behind.

On the morning of the fourth day the trek was shortened considerably by the arrival of our vehicles that came to find us long before we reached Yilik. It still required several hours for the camels to arrive and be unloaded before we could complete the formalities at the Chinese army post and start the long journey northward to Kashgar.

The party were anxious to avoid a repeat stay at the rather basic Kun Lun hotel in Kudu where we had stopped on the outward journey. We therefore drove late into the night, through the roadworks, to reach the relative comfort of Yecheng. The next day better roads took us out of the mountains and across a dry and sandy landscape to Kashgar. The hot showers at the Xinlong hotel were very welcome and the following day we had time to visit some of the sights of Kashgar before taking an early evening flight to Urumchi. The homeward journey proceeded without any hold ups and we spent an enjoyable day visiting a National Park close to Bishkek (in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan) before flying onwards to the UK, thirty one days after setting out

There are different experiences to be had visiting each of the Himalayan 8000m peaks: whether you travel from the Northern or Southern side of the range, or travel through Pakistan, China, Nepal, Tibet or India. Each of these areas have their own unique characteristics, cultures and landscapes. The Chinese side of the Karakoram is probably the least visited part of the high Himalayas, and therein lies its main attraction. The access is not terribly easy, but the trekking is not extreme and the scenery rivals that found anywhere in the Himalayas.

David Hamilton October 2011


David Hamilton
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