Raiders of the lost arch

In 1947, nearing the end of a journey from Tashkent to Kashgar, Eric Shipton looked to his right and saw something odd. There seemed to be a hole in the mountainside. It wasn't anything new, of course; it was just that few outsiders had passed this way and, to his knowledge, none of them had noticed it before. Shipton was former consul general in Kashgar and had spent a good proportion of his life in the area. Even so, he hadn't heard of the hole before.

The locals had seen it often enough, of course, but how were they to know that such things are extremely rare and are supposed to be marvelled at? They referred to it in the local Uyghur language as "Tushuk Tash", which translates prosaically as "hole in the mountain”. They had no way of knowing that on their doorstep stood possibly the world's biggest natural arch.

Shipton knew it was a freak of geology and set about seeing it from up close. He travelled the 30 odd miles back to where he'd seen it, and approached the site. He tried from several different angles but couldn't get to within a mile or two of the thing. If it wasn't an impassable canyon or a vertical cliff barring his way, it was a steep scree slope. Worse still, the hole disappeared the closer he got to it. The local shepherds couldn't show him the way either, because there isn't one: at least not from the south. Eventually Shipton was forced to give up.

Between 1947 and 2000, nothing more was heard about the arch. The Guinness Book of Records had included an entry on it, based on Shipton's estimated measurements, but soon dropped it in the absence of any corroborating reports.

Perhaps the arch would still be unknown to the outside world, but for National Geographic Magazine. In 2000, a team set out to see if they could find it. They quickly found a southern viewpoint, but gaining access to the arch itself was much harder. They tried from the south, as Shipton had done, and with good reason. From there, it looks to sit at the front of a small range of sharp mountains: there was nothing to suggest that going round the back would be any easier. Even with 4WD vehicles and modern rock-climbing equipment, they were barred by the same obstacles as Shipton had been, but they kept on trying and ultimately found a way.

I didn't have the resources of National Geographic, but I was going to give it a go anyway. I roped in Dan, a fellow backpacker, and we talked to various agencies around town. The Caravan Cafe knew a guide who had been several times to the north side, but he was fully booked for the duration of our time in Kashgar. John's Information Cafe said that it needed a two day trip and quoted an astronomical price accordingly. Uighur Travel said they knew a driver who had been to the north side and a guide, both of whom were available the following day for half the price quoted by the Caravan Cafe people. Always the cheapskate, I was interested.

”Did the guide know the way?” The driver did.

”Did we need a 4WD car?” No, a Volkswagen Santana taxi would be fine.

”Did we need any special equipment?” No, just walking boots.

This sounded ideal, so we handed over the money.  Only then did the agent decide to be a bit more cautious.

"Maybe you take .... what you call it? You use to tie horses...."


"Yes.  Ropes."

"You said we didn't need any special equipment. Anyway, we don't know how to use ropes. We're not rock-climbers."

"The guide will show you."

"This isn't really the time or place to learn rock-climbing."

"OK. It's not difficult and maybe you don't need."

By now we weren't inspired with any confidence but maybe once the guide turned up we would be dealing with someone who knew what he was talking about. Anyway, this was the only way we stood any chance of seeing the arch.

The guide, Abdul, turned up early the next morning in office shoes and newly-pressed slacks. He had no jacket, no water and no clue. I couldn't imagine him showing us the finer points of rock-climbing. The driver set off purposefully, though, and confidently turned off the paved road onto a dry river bed. This was good: we knew that the journey should involve this sort of off-roading. We made pretty good progress along the river bed, although we did have to get out of the car at certain points so that the undercarriage wouldn't scrape on the rocks. I wouldn't have done this trip in any two wheel drive car that I was responsible for, but the driver seemed happy enough.

We drove through pretty, rustic villages: one called Mush (meaning fist) and the other called Tukuch (meaning bread, although I suspected that it could have had some other meaning judging by how funny Abdul found this). After a good deal of hard driving, we found Shipton's view. The locals couldn't have described it any better. There, in the mountain, was an almost circular hole. But we were on the south side and we knew the approach to the hole or arch was from the north. This was when it became apparent that I had a better idea of the way to get there than did our driver or guide, and all I had to go by was a glimpse of the National Geographic article map on the wall of the Caravan Cafe tour office.

We asked local shepherds for directions, and all gave conflicting responses. One almost got it right - up the road to the Tourgart Pass to Kyrghyzstan and turn left - but only Dan and I seemed to consider that a sensible suggestion. We toured the regional river beds, got some great photographs of the magnificent rocky scenery all around us, and were twice smuggled through an army training camp (with tanks and everything standing by).  But we didn't come close to finding the north face of Shipton's Arch.

I almost followed Shipton and gave up.  But, unlike him, I knew that this was achievable. So I rearranged my travel plans, waited until the Caravan Cafe guide was free, and paid (by myself - Dan was by now in Pakistan) more than twice the price we'd paid for the previous trip. The Caravan Cafe people seemed to know what they were talking about: I would need a full day, a 4WD car, and a ladder.

”A ladder?” Apparently there were some steep sections but you just needed an extendable aluminium ladder to tackle them. “No ropes?” No - just a ladder. So much for those things you use to tie up horses.

My guide was Tahir. He looked very young (though he was 23, with 5 years' guiding experience) but did have a jacket and hiking boots, and confirmed that he had been to the north side of the arch several times, although not yet this year. The vehicle he turned up in was indeed 4WD and it had the promised aluminium ladder strapped to the roof.

The car dealt with most of the ascent from Kashgar (altitude 1500m) to the arch (3000m), 45 minutes by paved road towards Kyrghyzstan and 45 by a permanently dry river bed. When the car could take us no further, Tahir unstrapped the ladder and we continued up the river bed on foot, Tahir recalling the route perfectly from last year. The 4WD had been essential, and when we could go no further it was because the former river had narrowed and, in places, formed slim cascades through the rock. This was where the ladders came in. Going up was relatively easy, although there was quite some scrambling involved, but on the way down - because of the way the ladder extended, which I won't bore you with - Tahir had to lower himself as far as he dared and then jump six feet or so to the ground, several times, so that I could pass him the ladder and he could set it up from below. I began to think I wasn't paying him enough.

It was quite extraordinary that there was a route to the arch from this direction. It didn't seem possible, but whenever the mountains seemed to cut off the path, I just had to remember that the path was a river bed and that the water must have found a way through somehow. It seemed ever so obliging that the river had its source right up by the arch.

After the final ladder ascent, we rounded a corner and there was Shipton's Arch: larger even than I had hoped, and we weren't even all the way there yet. The National Geographic picture I had seen showed the arch from a distance, and I had assumed that it was impossible to get closer. But it was, and we hiked through some soft snow left over from the harsh winter, and up a grassy bank until I stood only a matter of feet away from what is thought to be the world’s tallest natural arch. And the word "natural" is surely redundant here.

"Wow!", was all I could say for the first minute or so. From the north, this hole in the rock is a clear arch, and a massive one. No photograph can do justice to the spectacle. It towered hundreds of feet above me, and below me the ground dropped away even further. National Geographic had revisited the arch in April 2005 and rappelled down 200 metres (the length of their ropes). According to Tahir, they reported that they weren't anywhere near the foot of the arch, and found the experience rather scary. It's a damn big arch, is what I'm trying to say. If you want numbers, no one is really sure because no one has yet found the bottom, but it's around 400m tall from base to tip, with a span of around 60m.

Tahir had his own method for gauging the height: after he'd finished his packed lunch (a tomato) he passed the time by hurling rocks into the void below, with inconclusive results. Given all the minor rock slides going on around us, this seemed a little irresponsible, but there was surely no one below. There was evidence around us of greater irresponsibility, anyway. Tahir found used bullet shells on the ground (an attempt to bring down the arch?) and as usual in China there was litter, including professional film wrapping left by someone who really should have known better.

We stayed at the top for about an hour, and of course were not troubled by any other sightseers. I could happily have stayed longer, but it was cold up at 3000m and the wind was picking up. The sky had been a dull grey all morning, and spots of rain were now falling, but as we descended the sun came out. I looked around for a rainbow over the arch, but that would have been too much to ask for.

(The Arch can be seen, just about, at the left of the picture at the top of this page.)

(c) Nicholas White 2005