The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Hitchhiking the Karakoram Hwy

From Karakul to Tashkurgan, a city near the China-Pakistan border, one continues on Karakorum Highway along an old path of the Silk Road up the mountains and then down into a small oasis. The highway has been dubbed both the “ninth wonder of the world,” and “the most beautiful road in the world.”

Not wanting to take a cramped bus that might limit my views, I decided I would hitchhike the one hundred kilometers. It’s still quite common along the Karakoram, and as I waited, I saw many other vehicles already filled with hitchhikers. “It’s safe,” I thought to myself, “Nothing will happen. I’m certain.”

After about thirty minutes, a red truck stopped to pick me up. Mouth agape, I stared unabashedly out the window at the naked ridges and barren scree. The Karakoram Highway supplies the grandest views of nature I’ve seen from an automobile, but it has none of the intimacy of Highway One on the West Coast. Along the Karakoram, the plains are vast; the mountain peaks are perennially hidden in clouds, and the vegetation is sparse. You don’t feel close to nature; you’re made to feel insignificant by it.

But after only about thirty minutes of enjoying the view, the truck came to a slow halt. The driver calmly jumped out, futzed with his engine, and looked underneath the truck. He then walked around to the passenger side, shrugged his shoulders, and gave me an apologetic look. He never said a word, but the message was clear: We’d broken down, and there was nothing he could do about it.

I got out and waited by the side of a road. With the help of the driver, I flagged down a 1980s GM compact car. The vehicle already had three hitchhikers and a driver. I squeezed in the back, and we were off.

As we approached Tashkurgan, one comes across a large billboard of a Han man and woman in police uniform saluting. As if on cue, the four other people in the car saluted back at the advertisement and then proceeded to burst into laughter. Clearly, these were not fans of the police.

The rest of the trip proceeded without incident, and I ended up in Tashkurgan, pleased that I’d hitchhiked for the first time, but less than enthusiastic about trying it on the way back. Being stuck at an elevation of about 4,000 meters should only happen once a trip.

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