The Karakorum Highway (KKH), a spectacular road winding across some of the most dramatic and inhospitable terrain on Earth, traces one of the major ancient silk routes, from Kashgar south for 2,100 km (1,300 miles) through three great mountain ranges over the Khunjerab Pass (the highest border crossing in the world) into Pakistan. The journey can be hair-raising in part because of rock- and mudslides and in part because of daredevil driving.
At an altitude of 3,600 meters (11,800 feet), Karakul Lake is surrounded by mountains which remain snow-covered throughout the year, with the 7,800-meter (25,600-foot) peak of Muztagata, the "Father of the Ice Mountains," dominating the landscape. Arriving at the lake, you'll practically be assaulted by would-be hosts on camelback, horseback, and motorcycle. Avoid the expensive yurts near the entrance and head back along the road to the more secluded yurts, where it is possible to stay with a local family for Y50 including simple
meals. Standard food will be limited to bread and butter, tea, and fried rice dishes, but there is an expensive Chinese restaurant. Toilet facilities in this area are some of the worst in China, and there are no showers, but the area's beauty makes it worthwhile. Tour the lake via camel, horse, or motorbike, or just walk around, which will take about three hours. Bring warm clothing even in the summer, as it can be downright chilly: during our visit in July, we were applying sunscreen in the morning and battling sleet in the afternoon.
Any travel agent can arrange tours to Karakul Lake, but most people make the breathtaking journey by public bus. At the time of this writing, permits are not required, but this may change. However, bring your passport or you'll be turned back at a border checkpoint in Gezcun or at one of the other checkpoints that have sprung up along the way. Buses headed for Tashkurgan, two hours south of the lake, leave Kashgar's long-distance bus station on Xiyu Dadao every morning at 9:30 Beijing Time (the bus station operates on Xinjiang time, off by two hours). You'll have to pay the full price of Y51 for your ticket even though you're not traveling the full distance. Buses reach the lake in about four hours. To catch the bus back, wait by the side of the highway and flag it down—the bus returning to Kashgar from Tashkurgan passes the lake between 11 am and 1 pm. A seat should only cost Y40, but enterprising drivers may demand Y50. Either way, the bus is much cheaper than private tours, which will set you back about Y600 per day.