12th November 2018
Our trip along the Chinese Silk Road was nearing an end. Sadly, the recent tightening of security measures in Xinjiang Province meant that we were unable to get permission to undertake our planned overnight camping trip in the Taklamakan Desert or visit Yarkent, but we ventured out to the 39 Degrees desert camp all the same, where several of us opted to ride camels out into the sand dunes.
Out in the dunes we were greeted by Uighur musicians from the local village and enjoyed some traditional music and dancing as the sun went down.
After spending the night in Makit we headed to our final destination of the tour: the fabled Silk Road city of Kashgar. We found ourselves arriving early, although this was far from a problem: Kashgar is a fascinating city, with numerous markets and the old town to explore, as well as the Abak Hoja tomb and Id Kah Mosque to visit.
Our local Kashgar guide and inventive tour leader, Philip, came up with a great suggestion for an alternative excursion, though, and the next morning we headed off to discover Shipton’s Arch. Considered to be the tallest natural arch in the world, Shipton’s Arch was only re-discovered by a National Geographic expedition in the year 2000. It is located northwest of Kashgar, on the way to the Irkeshtam Pass to Kyrgyzstan, and the views of the mountains on the drive were just stunning.
English mountaineer Eric Shipton first introduced the arch to the world in his book Mountains of Tartary, written while he was stationed as the last British consul stationed in Kashgar. At this time, the Great Game was still afoot and this particular post along the old Silk Road was of key strategic importance. Shipton had caught glimpses of the big arch during various hikes around Kashgar when he was appointed HM Consul there during the Second World War from 1940 to 1942, but approaching it from the south proved impossible. Returning to Kashgar as Consul General in 1946, it wasn’t until 1947 when locals guided him from the north that he finally reached this magnificent natural phenomenon:
“At last, emerging from one of these clefts, we were confronted with a sight that made us gasp with surprise and excitement. The gorge widened into a valley which ended a quarter of a mile away in a grassy slope leading to a U-shaped col. Above and beyond the col stood a curtain of rock, pierced by a graceful arch.”
The hike to reach the arch today is certainly easier than in the past, although still a bit strenuous. A new road has recently been built and from the car park the hike up through the canyon over stones and up various staircases took around an hour for most of our group. But the views at the top were worth it!