Jason and Jeremy at rest stop on Karakoram Highway. Photo by Tina Su
Back in 2006, when I was roaming around Tibet on my own, I was approached by a couple of Americans to join them on an overland Jeep trip to Nepal. I remember how relieved I felt knowing that I wouldn’t be venturing out all alone. Besides, it’s so much cheaper to split the rental car costs and much more interesting doing a trip with other souls.
In Kashgar, when I saw the very colorful Jason Carter in the hotel lobby, I knew I had to approach him. He was traveling alone and he decided to join us on the 2 day road trip to Karakul Lake.
As my intuition had suggested, Jason is one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered. A bloke from London living in Spain, has sold everything he owned and plans to travel for the next 3 years. Jason was hilarious, fast talking and he swore twice with every sentence he spoke. He had just spent a month in Mongolia and passionately disliked his remote highland prairie experience. Oh the stories he had… I laughed until tears came out.
Top: Jason mingling with locals at rest stop.
Bottom: On Karakoram highway.
We learned that there are group day trips to Karakul Lake at 300 RMB ($45) a person. But when we learned that driving one way took 4 hours and we’d only be stopping at the lake for an hour, we wanted a rental car to go at our own pace. I still don’t understand how people can be okay with sitting in a car for 8 hours just so they can dabble at their destination for an hour, before being rushed back on the bus again. I don’t get it!
So, we booked a car for two days, a driver and a guide from a travel agent attached to the Chini Bagh Hotel. We were told by the agent that a travel guide is mandated by the Chinese government, so we reluctantly got the guide. We later learned that we had over paid and could have traveled alternative ways for less (See travel tips at the end of this post if you’re planning to visit here and learn from our mistakes). Anyways, we paid 800 RMB ($120) for the car, gas, driver, and travel permits for two days and 300 RMB ($45) for the guide . Not a bad split between 3 people.
The drive along the highway was breathtaking, literally, as the driver sped along the curvy mountain side roads at alarming speeds, often driving on the wrong side of the road towards oncoming traffic. Several times, I had to shout at him to slow down and only when I began swearing in Chinese did he actually slow down.
Top-Left: Tina riding a horse. Top-Right: Main lake area of Karakul Lake.
Bottom-Left: Kyrgyz yurt. Bottom-Right: Kyrgyzstan embroidering design with rice sak material.
In all seriousness, the scenery along the highway was stunningly beautiful. It reminded me of the high altitude overland trip from Lhasa to the Everest base camp in Tibet. This famous highway is the highest paved international highway in the world, took 20 years to complete, 800 people died during its construction, and serves as a direct link from Kashgar, China to Islamabad, Pakistan.
During a rest stop along the highway, we were surrounded by a swarm of souvenir sellers. Many held up colorful stones in the shape of eggs for us to see under the sun; “come have a look, I give you good price.”, they would say. I had walked past them oblivious and immune to the common harassments found at tourist traps, but when I turned around, Jason had struck up a conversation with several of the sellers. Instead of being sold to, Jason thought it’d be funny to try to sell something to them, as a form of mockery and self-entertainment.
Video (press play):
Video of Jason playing around with souvenir sellers
Above is a video I recorded of Jason trying to sell his watch to them. Comically, in the end, one of the guys offered a bartering trade to exchange Jason’s sunglasses (worth $260) with a plastic camel statue, and the dude was totally serious. Note the random women holding up egg shaped rocks for me to see as I walk through the crowd.
At around 2pm Beijing time, our guide announced that we have arrived at the lake. Jason shouted “this doesn’t look like any of the pictures I’ve seen!”. He was right. We later learned that there are two sections/openings/entrances for the Karakul lake (next to one another), and the guide had taken us to the first one (not the main destination for the lake) hoping that we would stay at his preferred yurt for an extra commission for himself.
The guide turned out to be useless and completely shady. He lied several times and had tried to “guide” us into situations that would cost us more money, which would result in a little extra money for himself. It’s a matter of a few dollars, but we didn’t comply with him out of principle. I hate that feeling of being ripped off and taken advantage of by locals. They seem to think that travelers are stupid and gullible. I missed Mr. Happy from TianChi, it’s so rare to find an honest person at tourist destinations.
To protect ourselves, we decided to separate from the guide and driver, and went about finding our own yurt for the night. Even then, the guide continued to follow us for about 10 minutes, before we bluntly told him, that we do not wish for him to follow us around.
The settlements around the lake are inhabited by people of the Kyrgyz ethnic group (from Kyrgyzstan). And several Kyrgyz yurts are sparsely sprinkled about on both land sections near the lake.
All the yurts we saw were pretty primitive and basic. These yurts made Mr. Happy’s Tian Chi yurt look like a 5 star hotel at hostel prices. We decided on a yurt made of stone and wood instead of the Mongolian-style canvas tarp, for warmth. The high altitude made the whether extremely cold in October, I was once again decked out in two pairs of long-underwear pants and two winter jackets. The 3600 meter elevation, from sea level, also caused us to experience slight altitude sickness (Bring Advil if you’re coming here).
The Kyrgyz yurt where we spent the night.
The Yurt cost 50 RMB ($7) per person. They promised us 3 meals, but that turned out to be one meal of rice, and two meals of tea without food. I’m serious. And even tho we were told that we would have the yurt to just the three of us, we had to share it with other travelers who arrived later. The more people per yurt, the less blankets to go around for everybody, the less comfortable it gets. Basically, you don’t get what you’re promised. If you come here, have very low expectations.
Many tourists spend the day walking around the lake. Our lying guide told us that it would take 8 hours to walk around the lake, but only 3 hours on horse, hoping that we would take a horse under his commission. Turns out, it took Jason 2.5 hours, and another traveler 3.5 hours to make it around the lake on foot.
Jeremy and I rented two horses, each costing 40 RMB ($6) an hour. Each horse came with a guide. Instead of agreeing to the 3-4 hours to go around the lake, we asked to have the horses for 2 hours to ride around. Believe me, riding a horse for 4 hours would resulted in one being unable to walk for several days. Even after 2 hours, my tail bone was bruised and I was in a lot of pain. *smiles*
Each horse came with a “horse driver” that pulled at the horse in front of us. We convinced them that we knew how to ride horses (which we didn’t), and they let go. When we got to the area of flat land (similar to Mongolia) on the right end of the lake, we took off with the horses and roamed freely away from the horse owners. I felt like a wild Mongolian chick – hair flowing in the air, horse under my control, and riding freely amongst a massive field of dried grass. It was loads of fun! It was here that I learned to ride a horse, the natural way.
Middle: local Kyrgyzstan girl feeding her dog.
Bottom: Jeremy having a hard time jumping due to high altitude.
Other Related Posts on Kashgar:
- Video: Glimpses of Kashgar
- Kashgar: In Pictures
- Kashgar: A Colorful Celebration of Life – Part 1
- Kashgar: A Colorful Celebration of Life – Part 2
Travel Tips for Karakul Lake
Transportation & Permits
We had arranged a car from the travel agency at the Chini Bagh Hotel for 1100 RMB (800 for car + driver, 300 for guide), and this included travel permits. I do not recommend these guys, unless you enjoy being ripped off and lied to.
We later learned that there are alternative ways to get there and a guide is not necessary if you go by public transport. You can ride in a bus that takes you there directly for around 40 RMB, if you’re not pressed for time. Alternatively, you can hire a cab for around 400 RMB round trip, you may need to pay a little extra if you want to stay over night. Ask around, approach taxi drivers, as someone is sure to take on the job.
If you go without a travel agency, travel permits are pretty simple to get, and are mandatory. Go to the police station (ask your hotel where it is) and the English speaking officers will gladly help you out. The station is close by and the permits cost 50 RMB per person.
Things to Bring:
- Advil for high altitude sickness headaches
- Bottled water (very limited our there)
- Food and Snacks (again, very limited out there)
- Warm clothing
Annoyances and Warnings
If you go with a guide, be warned that he will want to take you to places where he gets a commission. If he recommends something, yurt, horse rental, side trips, stores, etc… it’s because he’s getting something for it. be wary of prices for things he recommends and bargain before parting with your cash.
The locals may try to charge you a 50 RMB entrance fee. This is a scam they have and the guides are in on it. Do not pay it!!! Just ignore the dude who tries to charge you an entrance fee. This is not a government regulated site and as such, no entrance fees are formally charged.
Finding a Yurt
Yurts are worth 40-50 RMB per person including meals. Don’t let them fool you into paying more. Just walk away if they are trying to charge you more. Starting price if you are with a guide is 80 RMB. They will be glad to accept 50 RMB if you start to walk away. Trust me! Prepare to put on your bargaining face.
Renting a Horse
There are plenty of horses and camels for rent, they all charge an hourly rate that ranges widely. In the main lake area (near the Chinese restaurant), you’ll find a large number of horses to choose from. Be sure to test out the horse before agreeing to pay. I had made the mistake of trusting my Yurt owner to find a horse, and paid before seeing the horse. I ended up with a horse that didn’t want to move very quickly.
I was quoted 80 RMB an hour for horses from several sources, but ended up paying 40 RMB an hour. Make sure to bargain!
They will also try to convince you to take the horse around the lake. This takes 3-4 hours and you will end up in a lot of pain. If you’re set on going around the lake, you’re better off doing so on foot. Ask for a horse ride for 1-2 hours on the grass field.
Also, if your horse driver gets on the horse with you (behind you), and you are a female, be prepared to be dry humped and hit-on. I’m totally serious. I was hit-on twice while riding with the horse driver behind me, and it was completely gross and uncomfortable. Wearing a backpack is a good idea to keep a physical distance from these nomadic perverts. Alternatively, tell them to get off the horse.
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