Standing high above Tashkurgen, surrounded by old Tajik homes and alleys, the Stone City rests on a shattered foundation: a sea of stones littered on a mound of dirt. A rocky path leads up to the remains of what could only have been a magnificent city wall. As I pass the wall, the unthinkable happens: a city of ghosts emerges from the rubble. The wall completes itself in my mind’s eye, as do corridors and doorways. Piles of stones on the ground become abstractions as I ponder countless fascinating possibilities of what could have been there. I see homes, streets, and markets. I see faceless inhabitants, and like true ghosts, only I can see them. My reconstruction makes this city mine in a sense. And for the first time on my vacation. I am truly lost. In this moment, there is nowhere else or no one else in the entire world.
At the edge of the mound, the great city wall winds and points to the lofty snow covered peaks in the background. Many itineraries promise “cultural experiences” or opportunities to “learn” local cultures. This is a lofty promise, though, and one that has lost meaning to me over years of traveling. Facts and stories are great, but I collect them everywhere I go. Being a tourist, at best, only makes me aware of other cultrues. Tashkurgan is appealing on paper in its display of Tajik people and “culture (to use this abstraction again),” and it is cool to see the light hair, pale eyes, and unique headware in this remote outpost of China, but a glimpse is only a glimpse. Rebuilding an entire ancient city from stone rubble is true involvement. This brings Tashkurgan to life for me.
The true highlight of this adventure for me, though, is a much more simple one. On the drive back to Kashgar, the Karakorum Highway achieves the impossible, visibly and sensationally.
The Karakorum Highway reaches around mammoth snow capped peaks (many of which surpass 7000M, higher than any mountain outside of Asia). For the drive back to Kashgar in the morning, the weather is beautiful, leaving Tashkurgan behind in a morning haze that paints the surrounding snowcapped peaks in a subtle lavender. As the sun rises, the highway becomes surreal, much like a photomosaic of nature magazines. Sitting in the car, taking in the scenery is a lucid dream. I “wake up” when we reach partially frozen Karakul Lake. I had visited the lake on the drive toward Tashkugan yesterday afternoon, with the view surrounded by clouds. On one side of the lake, (names of two highest mountains) stand high above the lake, crowned in wispy clouds. The mountains’ distorted images and colors echo in the gently swaying waters. Yes, this image is an overplayed pop song on websites and on walls in many Xinjiang youth hostels, but seeing it in person is something else. On the other side of the lake, the Kunlun Mountains stretch across the horizon, with tops of white so perfect and thick they must have been painted. I walk around every stretch of shore I can, trying to prolong this experience. I end up in a Kyrgyz village with stone buildings and yurts, only inflating the Kunlun Mountains in the background through perspective.
I have fallen out of time. Facing these mountains, there are no minutes, hours, appointments, or obligations. All that matters, or even exists, is this moment. Sadly, it means that any finite amount of time here is inherently too short. The highway reaches on toward the Kunlun Mountains, and they reach into the sky. This is new for me. Not only the sheer elevation of these peaks, but the knowledge of how small I am. This is humbling and liberating, not depressing. I am in awe of the sky, the clouds, the mountains, and the road. Most importantly, I am in awe, which is the most invigorating sensation I know. I have traveled to many places for amazing landscapes and gotten to see indescribable beauty, but this journey on the Karakorum Highway transcends beauty, language, and even art. Adventures like this can only really be understood and appreciated through direct experience. This occurs to me as the highway descends into the dusty surroundings of the Silk Road gem Kashgar.
My journey to Tashkurgen and Karakul is unquestionably the highlight of my trip to Kashgar.