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Originally published Saturday, November 30, 2013 at 7:05 PM

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A Central Asia highway to history

The Karakoram Highway, the world’s highest transnational roadway, has done little to change the ancient Silk Road trade route through a timeless region of western China.

The New York Times

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Stretching more than 800 miles from Pakistan to China’s western Xinjiang region, the Karakoram Highway is the world’s highest transnational roadway and a testament to modern China’s determination to shape and contain nature’s most daunting obstacles. Completed in 1979, the roadway’s ostensible aim was to foster trade between China and Pakistan, but also to sweeten a marriage between two allies united in their enmity for India.

Except for the smooth asphalt and steady cellphone service that puts Verizon and AT&T to shame, the journey is little changed in the 2,000 years since Silk Road traders shuttling between Europe, Asia and the Middle East found safe passage through the Karakoram Mountains at the Khunjerab Pass.

Visitors today are confronted with the same barren stretches of dun-colored stone punctuated by the occasional glacial lake, the roiling Gez River and emerald grasslands speckled with white yurts and black yaks as the road winds between Abbottabad in Pakistan and the city of Kashgar in China.

For accredited journalists in China, like me and two others I was traveling with, a reporting trip to southern Xinjiang can be frustrating, with local police officers often serving as unwanted chaperones. This time we enlisted the services of Kashgar Guide, an officially sanctioned travel agency (, and made clear we would be on holiday. We would have a rare, unfiltered look at a timeless place, weaving through the myriad communities that call it home.

Despite some depressing modern structures, Kashgar retains much of its Central Asian charm. The streets of the Uighur quarter are a cacophony of blacksmiths hammering out copper ewers and donkey carts. At the Central Asia International Grand Bazaar, the gargantuan market overflows with Chinese-made textiles, Malaysian sweets, Turkish appliances and a full range of doppa, the traditional embroidered hats that crown the heads of Muslim men from Istanbul to Bishkek.

We headed south on the Karakoram Highway, past a fast-expanding Special Economic Zone, three years in the making, that the government hopes will turn Kashgar into the manufacturing and trading dynamo of Central Asia.

Marco Polo lives on

After whizzing past cotton fields and grape arbors watered by a centuries-old skein of irrigation canals, we stopped for provisions in Upal, a dusky town that hosts a lively market on Mondays. It is authentically Uighur; few people here speak fluent Mandarin, and the town and surrounding countryside have a timeless feel that highlights the challenges Beijing faces as it tries to nudge southern Xinjiang into its idealized vision of a harmonious Greater China.

Residents have a deep connection to their history and are quick to cite the region’s associations with Marco Polo, whose 13th-century crawl from the Republic of Venice to the Mongol-ruled imperial capital in Peking is said to have taken him along a route that follows the modern-day Karakoram Highway.

The explorer left his mark here, with residents insisting the origins of spaghetti trace back to the thick, chewy lahman noodles that are a staple of Uighur cuisine. “Italians think they invented pasta, but they are mistaken,” boasted an elderly man pulling noodles at a roadside stand.

Beyond Upal, the well-irrigated farms quickly give way to the parched foothills of the Kunlun Mountains and later, a deep river valley tracing the Gez River that can be challenging to the acrophobic. For hours, as the highway climbs higher, there is little sign of human habitation. Then the rock-strewn desolation is suddenly interrupted by a blinding expanse of aquamarine, a giant glacial lake whose southern end is framed by enormous sand dunes.

From there, the road ascended above 11,000 feet, leaving some in our party unpleasantly lightheaded. The next stop, Karakul Lake, offered little in the way of increased oxygen, but its placid waters reflecting glacier-capped peaks helped ease the malaise.

Karakul, a lake that has launched a million Chinese postcards, is surprisingly unspoiled, with almost no development along its banks except for a once-picturesque Kyrgyz village the local government is rapidly “modernizing” with rows of concrete boxes. We avoided the unsightly, Chinese-built hotel and instead settled down with a family of shepherds who had turned their summer encampment of yurts into no-frills tourist accommodations.

South of Karakul, the highway climbs to the wind-whipped Subash Pass, which rises to a woozy 13,400 feet. We gasped for air, briefly marveled at a lonely bus stop beneath a propaganda billboard extolling ethnic harmony, and then descended into Tashkurgan, a city noted by the Greek scholar Ptolemy in his second-century B.C. geographic guidebook of the known world.

Set in a lush river valley near the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the city is the westernmost settlement in China and still has the feel of a frontier outpost. Once the capital of the Sarikol Kingdom, it is peppered with evocative ruins, including a crumbling stone fortress at the center of town.

Tashkurgan remains a thoroughly Tajik city whose 5,000 residents speak an Indo-European dialect related to Persian. We arrived near sunset, and as we walked through the center of town looking for a place to eat, we found ourselves distracted by the faces of passers-by: women with striking green eyes, their heads topped by circular hats draped in colorful scarves, and square-jawed men who could easily blend into a lunchtime crowd in Rome.

A few blocks away, a group of Pakistani merchants from the Swat Valley had just stepped off a long-distance bus, weary from their travels, their white shalwar kameez garb flapping in the wind. Inside their oversize bundles were cheap metal bangles they planned to sell in cities farther east. “Chinese women love anything that shines like gold,” one of the traders, Mohamed Razwan, said hopefully.

It was their inaugural trip outside Pakistan, and the men, all in their 20s, were thrilled to be meeting Americans, their first face-to-face encounter with a people frequently vilified at home as hegemonic warmongers.

The two groups of strangers could barely communicate, but we reveled in the moment, snapping pictures of one another and marveling at our unlikely encounter in a far-flung corner of the world.

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