The place that first got me thinking about China

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Monday and Tuesday, October 1st and 2nd

Not every experience that you've been anticipating for six months lives up to your imaginings, especially when you've seen pictures ("Somehow I thought it would be bigger."), but the time we spent at and around Shipton's Arch, in the mountains northwest of Kashgar, was every bit the breathtaking, word-defying, "like, wow, man" experience I'd pictured.

This time we did not take the minibus. Taher arranged for two Jeeps with drivers to haul us and most of our bags, and arranged for two trucks to haul tents and other camping gear, food and cooking gear, a cook, and a couple of helpers to set everything up. We set off Monday morning on a road west of Kashgar that soon enough turned to dirt and then to rocky riverbed. If you squinted hard and used your imagination, you could almost see something that sometimes looked as if it might have been a road in Eric Shipton's time, back in the 1940s. Shortly after we looped around the west end of a small mountain range and continued up the riverbed to the northeast, we got our first site of the arch, from the vantage point at which Shipton himself first saw it. Yes, it looked a lot like a hole in the mountain. From that location, it didn't look that big; in the pictures I took with the equivalent of a 300 mm lens, it's still little more than a speck. (Effective lens length with my camera is 1.5 times actual lens length.) We were a few miles south and several thousand feet below the opening, though, so it was pretty easy to imagine a hole that size looking a lot bigger up close.

Riverbed turned into dirt road and back again a few times, we stopped for lunch, and we even drove on a paved highway again briefly, but most of the last 17 kilometers of the drive was on more riverbed that only looks like road if you had playmates no one else could see when you were a kid or you spotted the odd rock cairn. The road was so rough that the locked hatch on our Jeep popped open twice.

We reached the Shipton's Arch trailhead late in the afternoon, a couple of hours before dinner time; we used the free time to hike up two nearby canyons. The first dead-ended maybe a half-hour up, so we doubled back and set off up a slot so narrow that we had to squeeze through. This we expected to dead-end even sooner, but it widened out more than enough to make for a comfortable hike, and folks had fun spotting miniature arches high up the canyon wall. As usual, I was lagging behind taking pictures, so I was the last to see why everyone had stopped. We had reached the top of a ridge, and the other side looked nothing at all like the side we had just hiked up. Instead, the ridge dropped away several hundred feet or more to the canyon floor. (On that scale and with no visual clues like nearby 50-story buildings, judging distance is difficult.) As the canyon receded from us, it widened and continued on for a half-mile or more before curving away out of sight. I tried to get some pictures of it, but the light that late in the day offered little contrast, and it was too big to get into a single shot even with a 27 mm lens.

That evening's dinner, cooked at 8000 feet over a propane stove, was better than several of the meals we'd had in restaurants in China. We asked Taher to call the cook into the dining tent so we could give him a round of applause. Taher reported that this cook was highly sought by trekkers in that area. No surprise.

After a chilly night (lows in the thirties, I'd guess), we had a terrific breakfast, put on hardhats in case rocks cut loose and fell on us, and then headed up the trail toward Shipton's Arch. As with the second hike the previous day, we had some squeezes through narrow slots. We also came across a few climbs up short ladders that someone had custom made from tree branches, which squared with Diana Shipton's account of having to be pushed and pulled up in some places that were too high for her to scramble up. The top of the arch came into view well before we arrived at the ridge from which you look (roughly) through the middle of it, but you don't begin to grasp the size of the arch until you're standing on the ridge and gazing down into the abyss. The ridge drops away too gradually to be able to see the bottom of the arch, which adds to the mystery of the experience.

We wandered around the small area of the ridge for, Gary thought, about an hour an a half. I can't speak for the others, but I spent the time marveling at the contours and the size of the arch, watching how the changing position of the sun affected direct and indirect lighting of the opening, and being generally amazed at where I was. We took pictures of one another in various combinations with our own and each others' cameras and eventually grudgingly acknowledged that, with six hours of driving and another night of camping ahead of us (this time at 12,000 feet), we'd better get going. Even as we hiked down, we turned back several more times for one last look and one last picture.
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