The Tallest Natural Arch in the World
Note: An abridged version of this post appears on Atlas Obscura.
Update: For the latest info and videos about Shipton’s Arch visit Josh Summer’s excellent Blog: Far West China
Eric Shipton (1907-1977), the famed British mountaineer, was well-known for a quip he once made with his climbing partner, Bill Tilman, that they could “organise a Himalayan expedition in half an hour on the back of an envelope.” In 1947, when he was the British consul in Kashgar, he used to take hikes around the area and that was when he first spotted the largest natural arch in the world.
“At last, emerging from one of these clefts, we were confronted with a sight that made us gasp with surprise and excitement. The gorge widened into a valley which ended a quarter of a mile away in a grassy slope leading to a U-shaped col. Above and beyond the col stood a curtain of rock, pierced by a graceful arch.”
Eric Shipton “ Mountains of Tartary” (1947)
In Uyghur it is known as تۆشۈك تاغ, – töshük tagh; or Hole Mountain . After three failed attempts to approach it from the south, he and his wife, Diana, finally found a local guide to lead them to it from the north. That is the route by which most travellers reach it today. Unfortunately, after Shipton’s dramatic discovery, the arch was seemingly forgotten until the year 2000, when National Geographic magazine sent an expedition to relocate it. It was only then that they could measure it and determine that it was tall enough to put the Empire State Building underneath.
“Directly overhead, the arch split the sky. Sheer in places, embellished in others with mushroom shapes and wind-carved hollows, its underbelly was a Daliesque sculpture garden. After six rope lengths we were at the base of the arch, standing in a grotto and gazing up at what appeared to be an impossibly slender, impossibly fragile span of stone. We counted our rope lengths and were astonished: We had just dropped nearly a thousand feet. Added to the 500-foot (152.4 meters) upper section that we had measured earlier, it meant that Shipton’s arch was about 1,500 feet (457.2 meters) high, with a 1,200-foot (366 meters) opening—far and away the tallest natural arch in the world.”
Jeremy Schmidt “Journey to Shipton’s Lost Arch” – National Geographic magazine – December 2000
Since the year 2000, perhaps several hundred people per year have visited this remote attraction 80 kilometers northwest of Kashgar. This hidden, unique, curious arch has been called one of the top twenty natural wonders of the world. After several bumpy hours by 4WD you will finally reach the end of the narrow track. Then, after you pay a 20 yuan entrance fee, a raggedy watchman will point you to the beginning of the trail. From there you must hike uphill for at least another 45 minutes, climbing several precarious, though strategically placed, metal ladders. Bring snacks and plenty of water. Despite the travails of the journey, the rewarding vista when you finally reach the spectacular arch, make it well worth the extraordinary effort.
There are several travel agencies around Kashgar that will rent a 4WD and driver for the trip. John’s Café in the Chini Bagh, is one of the more reliable ones. Alas, it is not cheap for someone going solo and it might be difficult to find other travellers adventurous enough to share expenses.