Highway in the sky

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THE view of Karakul Lake leaves me gasping. Literally. I have climbed a small hill beside the lake at the suggestion of my fellow traveller, Ibrahim, to get a better look at the ultramarine expanse of water amid the peaks of the Pamir Mountains in western China.

The air is crisp and clear, the sky a serene blue, the mountains imposing, but at 3600m above sea level, my heart is pounding and my legs feel like lead. I have to sit down. Ibrahim casually saunters off, chuckling at my lack of fortitude. We have travelled here, in a taxi of all things, along the Karakoram Highway. This is the highest paved international road in the world; it cuts through a formidable barrier of mountains to link Xinjiang, China's westernmost province, with South Asia. We will overnight here at Karakul, then continue tomorrow morning over a 4200m pass to Tashkurgan, the last town before the China-Pakistan border. A similar itinerary has been followed in one direction or the other by many a storied traveller throughout the ages. Marco Polo passed this way en route to Kublai Khan's court, Peter Fleming (brother of James Bond creator Ian) made the trip in the 1930s wearing an Eton sports jacket, and a dust-blown William Dalrymple bumped through, researching his 1980s classic In Xanadu.

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