Earth : Asia : East Asia : China : Northwest China : Xinjiang : Tarim (China) : Karakol Lake
Karakul Lake (meaning "black lake") is located approximately 200km from Kashgar, Xinjiang province, China, in Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture on the Karakoram Highway, before reaching Tashkurgan and the Khunjerab Pass on the China - Pakistan border. At an altitude of 3600m (though a height of nearer 3,900 m has been quoted), it is the highest lake of the Pamir plateau, near the junction of the Pamir, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountain ranges. Surrounded by mountains which remain snow-covered throughout the year, the three highest peaks visible from the lake are Muztagh Ata (7546m), Kongur Tagh (7649m) and Kongur Tiube (7530m). The lake is popular among travelers for its unreal scenery and the clarity of its reflection in the water, whose color ranges from a dark green to azure and light blue. There are two Kirgiz settlements along the shore of Karakul lake, a small number of yurts about 1km east of the bus drop-off point and a village with stone houses located on the western shores.
Flora and fauna
Fall can be quite cold and windy, and a same day return to Kashgar should be considered if you're not well prepared. Summer is also quite cool, and a fleece is recommended. Altitude sickness is a concern; people may experience headaches after only a few hours at the lake. This may be another consideration for a day trip.
A permit may be required for visitors who wish to stay the night, although overnight visitors to the lake in May 2013 were not required to get permits. This permit is checked sometimes by the local police in the lake area. This can be very difficult to arrange on your own, but all travel agencies in Kashgar are familiar with the process. However, ignore all agents who tell you that daytrips require a permit. You can try to stay and sleep around there a few days without permit, if you're lucky nobody will bother you.
Three daily buses (¥36) heading for Tashkurgan which passes the lake leaves from the long distance bus station in Kashgar at 10AM, 11AM, and noon Beijing Time. It arrives at the lake after about 4-5 hours (in May 2013 it was taking up to six hours). However, tickets tend to sell out early, so it is best to buy tickets the day before. It is not always possible to buy a ticket the day before, however, because sometimes the buses ate not scheduled that far in advance due to weather concerns. The buses sometimes leave as much as an hour early, so it's best to be at the bus station early.
A more reliable means of travelling there is a bus that leaves from TaXian BanShiChu 塔县办事处 (It is best to take a taxi to this is at the edge of Kashgar town). Tickets are ¥51 per person and buses leave at daily 9:30 a.m daily. It is also possible to hitch a ride with trucks from here. As always, bargain hard!
Another way to get to Karakul Lake is to book a tour through a travel agency. A reasonable price is ¥200 per person round trip for a day trip with about 2-3 hours at the lake, although such a low price must be bargained hard. There are tourists who are willing to pay ¥4,000 for a two day trip to the lake, and the travel agencies would like to charge that much if possible. ¥200 is on the very low side, actually, but is possible depending on the season. As of July 2013, the travel agency outside of the Qini Bagh hotel offered day trips for ¥700.
Alternatively, a taxi can be booked from most hotels in Kashgar for a set price of ¥500 per car, per day (i.e. it can be done as a day trip). The plus is that a shared taxi will take about 2-3 hours to get there.
As of the summer of 2017, foreigners are forbidden from going without joining a tour group. This simply means that foreigners are not in a position to obtain individual permits, and so are dependent on tour groups, which can obtain tour group permits (the only permits out there, apparently). The rules and their degree of enforcement change frequently, so if planning a trip, you could try writing or calling on of the several international youth hostels, who will almost certainly have up-to-date information for foreigners.
There is a small area in the center of the west bank of the lake that requires an entrance fee of ¥50 (tickets available at the entrance). It's better to avoid this rip-off and walk around the lake, if you want to stop just for a drink in the small restaurant nobody is likely to ask you for the entrance fee.
Local Kirgiz have camels & horses which can be rented for a ride around the lake (5 hours by camels and 3 hours by horses)
The Kygriz locals outside the park will do a three hour horse or camel trek around the lake and a long motorcycle ride up Mutgaza Ata and hiking until you're tired, all for 100 kuai. Definitely a bargain and will be very memorable. Have them drive you around the lake on your way back down, definitely worth it.
Local Kirgiz make traditional handicraft items and will be happy to sell some to you.
There is dining at the Chinese hotel, but prices are ridiculously high. Locals will cook meals for you inside their own yurts for about 10 kuai per person. Nearby the bus stop, kyrgyz sells some basic food (water, cakes), ask them.
There is a Chinese hotel with rooms (¥50) and semi-authentic yurts (¥40) at the bus drop-off point.
The much better way is to stay with a Kyrgiz family in a yurt (¥30 per yurt, ¥10 for tea/dinner/breakfast) or village house. Alternatively, there is hotel accommodation in nearby Tashkurgan.
Prices do vary, and the Chinese hotel will try to rip you off.
Staying with the Kyrgiz families is a much better experience. They are very honest and hospitable people and the young men who act as travel guides are great hosts.
You can bargain a little with Kyrgiz people but be careful, they are not Chinese and will let you know it. Moreover the motorbike trip is definitely worth its price, and they are the only one in the area to propose it, so be reasonable with them.
Nights are cold, and there can be a lot of wind, but camping is possible around the lake.
Given the high altitude, rough terrain, and proximity to international borders, one should be careful to not wander too far without previous preparation.
Two overnighters in a yurt reported mild carbon monoxide poisoning from a coal heater in the yurt. Symptoms (headache, fatigue, nausea) can be mistaken for altitude sickness, so be aware of potential poisoning.
Despite the cold, the lake is swarmed with mosquitoes. Be sure to bring repellant!
The daily bus from Tashkurgan, heading back to Kashgar, arrives at the drop-off point near the Chinese hotel at around 12pm Beijing Time. If all seats are taken, there might be the chance to catch a shared taxi for around ¥120-150. Alternatively it may be possible to hitch a ride going either way as this is the only road between Tashkurgan and Kashgar, although some form of payment will be expected (possibly around ¥50).