Northern Routes

Atop the World: The Xinjiang–Tibet Hwy

With at least two passes above 5400m, the Xīnjiāng–Tibet Hwy is the highest road in the world. Approximately 1350km from Kashgar to Ali, this is an epic journey that can form a wild extension to a trip along the Karakoram Hwy. The route can be bitterly cold, however, and closes down for the winter months from December to February.

The whole trip takes at least four days of travel. There are truck stops along the way, about a day’s travel apart, but it’s wise to bring food and a sleeping bag. A tent can be useful in emergencies. Coming from Kashgar, you have to be particularly careful about altitude sickness as the initial rate of altitude gain is dramatic.

The Xīnjiāng–Tibet Hwy is off limits without travel permits, but companies such as John’s Café (www.johncafe.net) in Kashgar, or any agency in Lhasa can arrange vehicle hire (and permits) along this route.

Leaving Karghilik (Yèchéng in Chinese), the road climbs past Akmeqit village to Kudi Pass (3240m) then follows a narrow gorge to the truck stop and checkpost at Kudi (2960m). From Kudi it’s 80km over the Chiragsaldi Pass (4960m) to the village of Mazar (3700m), 240km from Karghilik. The road turns east and climbs over the Kirgizjangal Pass (4930m) to the large village of Xaidulla (Sài Túlā; 3700m), the largest town en route and 363km from Karghilik. The road climbs again over the 4250m Koshbel Pass to the truck stop of Dàhóngliǔtān (4200m), which offers basic food and lodging.

From here the road turns south, and climbs to the Khitai Pass (5150m), past the military base of Tianshuihai. About 100km from the pass you cross another 5180m pass, 670km from Karghalik, to enter the remote region of Aksai Chin. The construction of the road here, through a triangle of territory that India claimed as part of Ladakh, was a principal cause of the border war between India and China in 1962. The fact that China managed to build this road without India even realising that it was under construction is an indication of the utter isolation of the region!

The road passes Lungma-tso, shortly afterwards entering the Changtang Nature Reserve, and 15km later reaches the small village of Sumzhi (Sōngxī; 5200m). Finally at Km740 you come to the edge of the Aksai Chin region and climb up to the Jieshan Daban pass (5200m). From here, Ali is around 420km away via the village of Domar (4440m), the eastern end of Pangong-tso and Rutok Xian. From here it is 130km south to Ali.

Gegye to Ali Drive

Ali is just a couple of hours (120km) from Gegye. At first the road follows the meandering infant Indus River, then enters a marshland rich in bird life, including golden ducks and graceful black-necked cranes. After passing through a canyon landscape painted in swirling desert hues of butterscotch, caramel and popcorn, you reach Cuocuo village and a dramatic escarpment.

Ali gradually emerges like a desert mirage, revealing paved grids of department stores, karaoke bars and taxis. It’s a surreal experience to arrive in town after days in the wilds of the northern plateau.

Gertse to Gegye Drive

It’s a seven- to eight-hour drive (368km) from Gertse to Gegye. The initial landscape is a dreamy blur of lake and sky, cut by salt rings and brooding mountains of rust, mustard, turmeric and green barley. Around Oma-chu, a small village huddled beneath a small rocky splinter, 54km from Gertse, keep your eyes open for the round, tomblike buildings that are actually tsampa (roasted barley) storage bins.

The road passes some impressive peaks to the south and then the attractive village of Sherma, squeezed between the two lakes of Rali-tso and Loma Gyari-tso. After more peaks the road drops down to large and photogenic aquamarines of Peri-tso (a good picnic spot) and the nearby village of Wenbu Dangsang, two hours from Gertse.

It’s another 50km past a stony plain and a huge salt lake that looks like it’s full of icebergs to ramshackle Tsaka (擦咔; Cākā), a small salt- and sheepskin-processing community. The centre of town has simple food and rather overpriced guesthouses should you need them. The Qiāngmàicūn Fúpín Zhāodàisuǒ offers the best value, while the Qiāngmàicūn Shāngwù Bīnguǎn offers the most modern rooms.

From Tsaka one route continues northwest to meet the Ali–Kashgar road just north of Pangong-tso, offering an adventurous alternative loop route. The road to Ali branches south and climbs a side valley to the 4895m Namri-la, then descends past nomads’ camps to curve around salty Sher-tso (Bar-tso). After crossing the Drangan Lhan-la (4855m) the road descends to the pastures of Zhungba (Shungba; 雄巴; Xióngbā; 4590m) via a Gobi-like stony desert. There's food here and accommodation at the simple Tibetan-style Tashi Guesthouse.

Near Drungba, the road enters a gorge and follows the fledgling Indus River to Gegye. The Indus has its source in the northern flanks of Kailash and is known here as the Sengge (or Sengye) Tsangpo (Lion River). It’s astonishing to think that this little stream continues through Ladakh and Pakistan, crossing the world’s highest mountain ranges to become one of the great rivers of Asia.

Tsochen to Gertse Drive

From Tsochen to the junction of the northern road (S301) is a journey of about 180km; Gertse is another 77km, making a total drive of four to five hours. If you plan to stay in Gertse, take your time as the route is far more interesting and scenic than the town.

About 43km north of Tsochen, the road passes the 5090m Nor Chung-la (Small Wild Yak Pass) before descending to the dramatic turquoise waters of Dawa-tso (4680m), a superb camping spot. For the next 60km the route passes from one attractive valley to another, sometimes connected by the river and gorge, at other times by minor passes.

After the scenic Nor Gwa-la (Wild Yak Head Pass; 5250m), and for the next 50km, the road runs alongside a dramatic range of 6000m-plus glaciated mountains, some of the most dramatic mountain scenery of the entire northern route. After the road meets the northern road proper (linking Amdo with Ali) it’s a 15km drive in an arrow-straight line towards Dung-tso, with its purple mountain backdrop and salt marsh foreground looking like whitecaps on the water from a distance.

From the junction it’s 90km (90 minutes) west to Gertse through an arid valley dotted with sheep and prayer flags.

Raka to Tsochen Drive

Only 21km north of the Raka junction are the Tagyel Chutse (King Tiger Hot Springs), a collection of Yellowstone-style geysers, bubbling hot springs, puffing steam outlets and smoking holes that seem to lead straight down into the bowels of the earth. Walkways go around the main thermal features, which local Tibetans use to wash themselves and their clothes.

The best time to visit is during the Tibetan Bathing Festival (Karma Rikey; early July of the lunar calendar, usually September in the Gregorian), when hundreds of nomad families, with their herds of yak, set up camp around the springs. The festival is associated with the reappearance of Venus in the evening sky.

From the hot springs, the road skirts the western side of beautiful Tagyemang-tso, then enters a wide valley. From the 5250m Youlaley-la pass, the route descends to a much larger lake, Tagyel-tso, the waters of which are a miraculous shade of the deepest blue imaginable and ringed with snowy peaks. With luck you can spot gazelles, wild asses and even the occasional wolf, hungrily eyeing the valley’s many fat marmots. This is a great place to camp but only if you’re prepared for the cold and especially the altitude (around 5150m). If you’ve come from a night or two at Everest Base Camp, you should be OK; from Lhatse this is too big a jump in altitude to be considered safe.

After Tagyel-tso the road climbs past herding camps to the 5570m Semo-la. About 45km after the pass the road crests a smaller 5115m pass and leads down to the conjoined lakes of Garung-tso and Tseroe-tso. Eventually you pop out into the wide sandy valley of the Yutra Tsangpo.

Not far from Tsochen a collection of prayer flags and mani stones sit on a ledge above the road; 3km later is a major checkpoint where your passport and permit will be checked. The town of Tsochen is just ahead, 5km across the plains.