The start of Tajik Autonomous County

Green pasture lands

A Tajik shepherd moves his flock

Boardwalks in the pasture land

The mountains behind the village

Made for tourism suspension bridge

Ancient Stone City in front of the mountains

School kids on their way to class

Ancient Stone City on the hilltop

Ruins of the walls

The entrance to the Stone City

Inside the kitchen in a restaurant

Building a new main plaza for tourism

Tashkorgan, China

Tajik Autonomous Land

May 4, 2012

Long may you run

Although these changes have come

With your chrome heart shining in the sun

Long may you run

- Neil Young

Like so many places in China, Tashkurgan illustrates what is wrong with traveling in China. Essentially the last major town in China before Pakistan on the Karakorum Highway, Tashkurgan is located on a high plain in between mountain passes. Its location has made it a strategic position for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and the remnants of an ancient stone fortress still sit on top of a hillside at the edge of town. The population is largely Tajik and it is the regional capital of the Tajik Autonomous County, although knowing the Chinese government and their penchant for strong armed rule, I can’t imagine the region is very autonomous in reality.

I am sure the town used to be exactly what I was expecting it to be: a small, isolated mountain town with an authentic flavor of local life and Tajik character. These days the town is being transformed into a made for tourism attraction by the government. An enormous plaza, nearly the size of a quarter of the town is being constructed with touristy yurts and pathways around statues and probably some type of fountain. In the space between the town and the surrounding mountains there is vibrant green pasture land where the shepherds tend to their animals. A maze of boardwalks has been built in this area, a good idea since it saves the marshy grassland from being trampled by the tourists. Sadly, the beauty of the scene is marred by gaudy waterwheels and a pointless wooden suspension bridge that no doubt appeals to the Chinese tourists’ need for a photo opportunity, as if the scenery weren’t picturesque enough. The whole mess is complete with a performing arts stage at the beginning of the boardwalks. Luckily the ancient Stone City fortress on the hillside has remained unchanged but probably looks down on all this with disapproval.

The long main street is lined with tall thin trees on either side and during the day you can walk amidst school kids coming and going and locals hanging out while passing the time with seemingly nothing to do. The people look decidedly different and not Chinese, they have a dark ruddy complexion from life at such altitude, and nearly everyone seems to be wearing some type of hat. The women are often seen wearing colorful jackets and skirts with elaborate hats or head coverings.

As authentic as the main street seems, the secondary street has been studded with bright elaborate colored lights at night that hardly seem to fit the aura of a small mountain town. The tallest structures in town are the cellular tower and radio tower. Whereas other places try to camouflage their existence, China lines their sides with lights that illuminate in an alternating fashion, piercing the high altitude darkness.

Overlooking the town is the Stone City fortress with thick mud brick walls that must have been a towering sight in the valley during its prime. It offers strategic and commanding views with the ability to detect anyone approaching from either direction. There is not much left of the fortress and only a few sections of the walls are even remotely complete but it does add to the picturesque quality of the area. On a clear day in the sunlight it is easy to see why this was one of the filming locations for parts of the movie The Kite Runner. Unfortunately that beauty is being transformed in the name of tourism into something incongruous that will no doubt bring more tourists and only propagate the destruction, a similar theme found in all too many parts of China.