Roadtrip: Karakul Lake via Karakoram Highway


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.

Top: Jason face covered with sunscreen. Horse drivers in the back ground.
Middle: Jeremy and Jason hiking around the lake.
Bottom: Cute camel for rent.

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:

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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12 Responses (10 Comments, 2 Trackbacks ):


  1. Sagar Tamrakar


    Hi Tina,
    It was a real pleasure going through your road trip.

  2. 2

    Tina, that sounds like an amazing adventure.

  3. 3

    Wow, sounds like quite the trip though I don’t think my wife would be willing to go. These days, our vacations consist of 4 star hotels and good dining. I’d love to rough it one of these days but I’d probably have to do it with my guy friends. Love your pictures. What do you shoot with?

  4. 4

    Your pictures are great. Just by seeing them makes me want to go on a vacation.

    Personal Development Blogger

  5. 5

    Hey, this is fantastic. The photos look really great! Quite like the one with local people “Kyrgyzstan embroidering design with rice sak material”. And the camel, very cute. Sorry to hear about the nasty guide. A bad guide ruins the trip while a good one helps out. : )
    local guides, local wisdom

  6. Bill Goldman


    Hi, or rather Nihao, Tina! I stumbled across your site by accident and paused to browse because Tian Chi and Lake Karakul were two of the many beautiful places I backpacked through during my vacations while teaching in Chinese universities for three years. I also stayed in a Kazakh yurt by Tian Chi and three Kyrghiz ones by Lake Karakul. How I got to the second one was by walking across a desert between the lovely snowy peaks, 15-20 km, with two guides, one from Kashgar, and another, local Kyrghiz one, since the latter knew the area and the culture itself intimately, while the Kashgar guide could speak some English. Neither of them tried to cheat me, but were honest. It was one of the stunningly beautiful places, in China, yes. The only thing I remember buying was a beautiful handmade Kyrghiz rug, not very expensive. I rode a horse round the lake, too – because it was fun, a romantic thing to do, as you also found it. I’m back in England now – maybe I should learn how to actually build a website; then I could write a blog, or write up my experiences in China, and post some of my hundreds of photos, too! So, I suppose I want to say – Thanks, for reminding me of that extraordinary, marvellous place. I visited the old Uighur towns around the Silk Road, too – the old parts of Kuqa, Kashgar and Yarkand. No Chinese there, no westerners (apart from me), just Uighurs, and it was like stepping back 500 years! Wow! even now I’m awestruck by the places i visited, and can hardly believe I did so. My favourite province, though, was Yunnan. Lovely Yunnan, beautiful country, people poor but not miserable-poor (as far as i could tell), since the land there is so fertile that anything you plant, grows. Tiger-Leaping Gorge. Liajiang of course, touristy now but still wonderful, in my opinion. Down south – I’ve forgotten the name of it, south of Kunming, wonderful to explore. Best wishes, Bill

  7. Bill Goldman


    Sorry, I forgot to mention Tibet! I went to Lhasa, on a bus from Golmud in Qinghai Province, full of Tibetans and one Chinese student girl I made friends with. From Lhasa I hired a Toyota Landcruiser with driver, who took me and a Chinese couple and a British Indian young doctor, to Base Camp Everest, also through the most stunning, uncanny landscapes. The lakes, the mountains, the desert, the fresh air! We stopped at little village and met Tibetan children – very poor, with a lifespan averaging 30-40 I think my doctor friend estimated, but beautiful, especially compared to city children in the West. Also we took a trip to Lake Namtso in northern Tibet, the 2nd biggest freshwater lake in the whole Chinese region, after Qinghai Lake (which I swam in on the way to Tibet).I think I’ve got those figures right. I hope I haven’t gone on too long! Sorry if so.

  8. 8

    im planning a trip to China and iam wondering do you think it is worth the trip to Kashgar or would you see similiar scenery/culture in Urumqi..just wondering as Kashgar seems an awful long way to travel to…

  9. Bill Goldman


    I spent a few days around Lake Karakul, and I had an amazing and wonderful time. I wasn’t ripped off, I slept in three different yurts, my guide from Kashgar was cool and walked 30 km with me in the desert, along with another guide who was Kyrghiz so could speak the local language and knew where the tiny villages were away from the lake. It was cheap, too, and the food was OK, unless you thought it should be like some hotel.

    I bought a very beautiful, homemade rug, vivid colours and kyrghiz patterns. I wish I’d bought a bigger one, now. I rode a horse all round the lake. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, and the people were fine. You have to like people, for them to be genuine with you. Silly Jason trying to sell his watch – in my opinion: no need to make fun of them; what else can they do to try to scrape a living but sell things if they can? Well, some of them made these beautiful rugs, actually. Also they live by yaks – milk, meat, yak fur – and in a bad winter things get pretty difficult. I recommend it strongly – but go with humility and friendliness and desire to meet people. Not naively, but I didn’t meet anyone who tried to rip me off, by Lake Karakul.

    My photos are on flickr – at, if you’re interested. You have to search among the albums, for Lake Karakul. I travelled from Lanzhou, then Dunhuang, round the northern route of the Silk Road, then part way down the southern route (after Lake Karakul and Tashkurgan, I went to Yarkand and somewhere else – the jade capital of China, I forget the name. Unforgettable trip. Utterly unforgettable.

  10. Bill Goldman


    In answer to Starr: of course Kashgar’s worth seeing: the whole trip is worth making – although I hear the Chinese government has demolished a great deal of the old town of Kashgar recently, which sounds disastrous. But go into the old towns, where the Uigurs live, the old parts of Kuqa, Kashgar if it isn’t all destroyed (the famous Sunday market in Kashgar is amazing), and Yarkand on the southern route. If you don’t bother going that far you’re just a tourist! It’s an adventure. I’ll never forget my trip. The Heavenly Lake, too, outside of Urumqi – where the woods are unmapped and you can get lost in them, the lake is a wonderful blue, and only Kazakh people live around the lake in a few yurts. I stayed there, too. But of course Kashgar is worth going to: Urumqi, though OK, is pretty much just Chinese, now; Kashgar is amazing. But don’t forget Kuqa. Say hello to Minewa if you see her there! A Uigur student who showed me the ruins in the desert outside the city.

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  1. Kashgar: A Colorful Celebration of Life - Part 2 | Simply Tina » Kashgar: A Colorful Celebration of Life - Part 2 - Nov 10 08
  2. Kashgar: A Colorful Celebration of Life - Part 1 | Simply Tina » Kashgar: A Colorful Celebration of Life - Part 1 - Nov 10 08
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