January 10, 2017

How to lose something larger than the Empire State Building. Shipton's Arch

It is easy to lose things. I have lost count of the number of decent pairs of sunglasses I have lost in my travels around the world. Yet to lose an arch, and not just any arch, but the largest arch in the world, which could easily fit the Empire State Building in New York into it with room to spare, well that seems to be a whole new level of carelessness.

Shipton's Arch, also known as ‘The Heavenly Gate’ 阿图什天门 in Chinese and ‘Hole Mountain’ تۆشۈك تاغ in Uyghar, is in Xinjiang Uyghar Autonomous Region in China, close to the borders with Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. Already located in one of most rarely visited spots in China, the arch is in a remote uninhabited area in the Kara Tagh mountain range.

The story of the arch begins with Eric Shipton, the newly appointed British Consul in the provincial capital of nearby Kashgar in 1940. Possibly one of the most isolated postings in the British Empire.

Kashgar would not have suited many diplomats. Hard to get to, and surrounded by the Taklimakan desert, it would have been considered a hardship posting to many, but not to Shipton who was already a noted adventurer. He had attempted Mt Everest several times, and had recently conquered many peaks for the first time in the nearby Karakoram ranges in Pakistan.

On one of his early diplomatic trips to Tashkent, probably for intelligence purposes, as he was monitoring Soviet troop activity, he caught a glimpse of a strange formation in the far distance. he described the unusual sight as “…a peak pierced by a hole…of a thousand feet in size”.

It proved to be extremely difficult to find, taking Shipton three separate expeditions to actually reach the arch, and then report of his discovery back to London, where it made front page news.

The Guinness Book of Records, using Shipton's own estimates, immediately listed it as the world's largest arch, with its height at 1,000 feet (300 metres) with a width of 150 feet (45 metres).

And then it was lost.

China looked inward and became isolationist in its policies. When it opened up again for tourism in the 1980's, mountain climbers went to the Kara Tagh mountains and looked for the arch. Nobody could find it, and the Guinness Book of Records was forced to remove the listing.

Until the year 2000, when a National Geographic Expedition, after many weeks of searching re-discovered the arch. Using modern equipment they found it was even larger than Shipton estimated, with its height at 1,500 feet (460 metres) and width at 1,200 feet (365 metres). For reference the Empire State Building in New York is 1,250 feet (381 metres) high.

The worlds largest arch was back on the map, and the more adventurous climbers could visit again.

The local government has been a great supporter of the natural wonder on their doorstep and in 2015/16 built wooden staircases over many of the rock obstacles so that tourists did not need to use ropes and crampons to get up to the archway.

To get to the arch you can find tours from nearby Kashgar for around 600 Yuan, although they are infrequently run and seem to require 4 people before they will depart. A better bet is to find an English speaking taxi driver (rare, but they do exist) who can get you there for around 500 Yuan, after some negotiating.

Your hotel may be able to organise a driver for you also, but they will add a percentage to the price.

Depending on traffic, the drive is around 90 minutes from the centre of Kashgar, to the newly signed turnoff to the arch. Until recently you could only travel to it in a 4WD down a rough dry river bed, a new road was laid in 2014.

Ten minutes later you will reach the large empty car park, and small visitors centre. You may, or may not, find an official there to sell you a ticket for 45 Yuan to climb up to the arch. The office was deserted the day I was there.

The walk is easy to begin with, as it is paved for the first part, but soon descends onto a dry river bed (the hike is closed during and after wet weather, as well as in the winter months when snow and ice make it too difficult to attempt).

Arrows are drawn in red paint on the rocks to ensure you do not wander it to any of the canyons that appear to the left and right of the route. It is easy to see why Shipton, and the later climbers, had found it so hard to find. The route is a maze of riverbeds, canyons, and high mountain peaks, with no signs of a massive hole through the rock until you have almost reached it.

A number of wooden staircases slicing through sheer rock outcrops signal the start of the climb, soon after the track becomes a steep narrow dry stream with pebbles underfoot. Thirty minutes later, after climbing another set of wooden steps over a very steep crag,  a massive blue-sky hole appears in the rocks above; this is Shipton’s Arch.

A grassy steep hill leads up to the archway, along with a very newly built wooden staircase, zig-zagging to the top with thoughtfully placed seats on each corner for those struggling with the steps and altitude.

Without all the recent development the climb could easily have taken a day, now you can do it in less than two hours, with moderate fitness.

After the steep 200 steps to the viewing platform, you look through the top of the arch. It appears like a window, through which you can see mountains, bisected by rows of canyons, all set against the clear blue sky.

Standing in front of the arch, all that could be heard was the eerie noise of the wind blowing through the large hole, with the occasional sharp ping as a small pebble was loosened and hit the ground nearby. Its sheer size makes photographs difficult, you really have to see it in person.

This majestic and rarely visited arch has been called one of the twenty natural wonders of the world. That such a massive geological feature could be lost for so long, and its location being unknown as recently as twenty years ago, is hard to comprehend when actually standing before it.

Far Flung Tips

* In Kashgar you are already at a high altitude, climbing up to Shipton's Arch takes you a lot higher. Hopefully you will have acclimatised already, if not, do not attempt the climb on your first day in the area in case you get altitude sickness.

* It does get very cold near the top, even at the height of summer, so bring cold weather gear, as well as water and snacks for the journey, there are no shops anywhere nearby.

* Leave Kashgar around lunchtime, so that you arrive in the mountains with the sun behind you, which is best for photographs of the arch. Bring a torch in case some of your journey back is in the dark.

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