By Pat Brown, RSGS Collections Team

The Karakoram Highway (KKH) has attracted me for a long time.
1300km separates Kashgar at its north end from the Punjab in the south. The Khunjerab Pass at 4700m (the height of Europe's highest mountain) is the highest road border in the world, where major mountain ranges merge - the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalaya, the Pamirs nearby, their glaciers invaluable watersheds. At one section the road descends 1000m in 17km. The extreme weather and often hazardous road conditions are legendary,  yet it has been a Silk Road trade route with a history etched into past centuries.
This was the part I yearned to see.
China is vast, full of breath-taking landscapes - and empty solitude. Nearly 25 years ago, with two friends, rucksacks, a Lonely Planet guide and workable sign language, I boarded a train in Beijing on a Monday and got off on the Thursday 3000 km later, still only 2/3 of the way to the western border, having watched a full range of superb topography seamlessly unfolding, from fertile fields to high mountains and extensive deserts. It was all on a scale greater and more varied than I had seen when travelling on other continents.
We had arrived in the industrial smog of Urumqi, capital of the immense Xinjiang province in the far northwest, with its wealth of oil, gas and mineral reserves. Now embarked on our month of a roughly- planned circular route round China, we sacrificed scenery for precious time, flying the 250km to Kashgar. This was our only concession to western-type tourism, preferring Chinese hotels, transport, food etc. The train journey alone had been a fascinating open book of Chinese life 24/7 - even to the communal metal sinks for washing in, a washing line along the corridors where everyone dried their face flannels.
We spent two days in the old town of Kashgar, a colourful, vibrant place, the great mix of tribes and races obvious with all their cultural characteristics: a traveller's delight.
This is the start of the KKH. On the first leg of the 300km bus journey to Tashkurgan, we were treated to more ever-changing,sometimes breathtaking geography, including my gem of the journey, the idyllic Karakul Lake. Captivated, we set our hearts on returning there, rewarded by staying overnight in a yurt on its sandy shores, with the local Tajik nomads and their yaks, ponies and camels among the desert hills. The memory of that, and the reflections of the massive snowclad Pamir mountains across the azure lake, remain imprinted on my memory.
We had a food-less, late-night arrival in Tashkurgan, a straggly, desolate town with a wealth of history. A strategic windswept outpost at over 3000m in the middle of nowhere, its huge crumbling fort eyes up its near neighbours across the plains: Tajikstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Early next morning, we changed to a rusty but rugged bus with the aura of Ming dynasty longevity about it. Grossly overloaded with passengers and luggage, both inside and out, it would doggedly lurch on and up, repelling all challenges on the gruelling 130km to the Khunjerab Pass, and Sost, our destination. The rugged mountain scenery was superb, becoming progressively more majestic as we gained altitude. 
Always justifiably complaining, the Ming bus knew where the infrequent streams were, where its constantly overheating radiator could be topped up with a can as rusty as the bus. Frequently in bottom gear, it rested thankfully when any oncoming lorry meant a chat between drivers, probably comparing notes on the road and gossip. The Pakistani lorries were characteristically gaudy and decorative, contrasting with the bleak landscapes of high-level altitudes. Undaunted, our bus staggered over off-piste detours where a fast-flowing river had washed away part of the road, braved damaged bridges, squeezed past large holes, gathered speed where a trickle of stones from high might presage a rockfall: stumbled over a past one.
The driver took all this in his stride: this was his mission, providing a lifeline for the variety of passengers - at least whenever the unpredictable road conditions, weather and start and finish of a Himalayan winter blockade permitted. Higher still, at a desolate and exposed checkpoint, a thin Chinese border guard emerged from a small wooden hut to check our papers. This involved us all scrambling over boxes, bulging plastic bags, large packages, even other passengers.
Now some 400km from Kashgar, nearing the Khunjerab pass, the bus was insignificant in these realms of mountains over 7000m, in the lap of the gods. Often snaking between steep rocky walls, through the filthy windows I had an occasional glimpse of soaring peaks far above - even that was magic. The long, steep and tortuous descent to the Pakistani border entered another world, a western one, a shock to the system - as was hearing English spoken and driving on the left. The portly customs official who performed his somewhat enhanced official formalities must have used his spare time to study the pompous Captain Mannering!  Then, regretfully, we were dropping down to our destination, Sost, sheltered by the dramatic mountains surrounding it. It was a small, well-cultivated, busy and cheerful town, flowers and colour everywhere, as were the smiling, friendly faces.
My dream had come true.
Cameos from my journal jump out. The huge expanses of fertile rolling grasslands, tundra, plains, deserts; the majesty of great mountains; a lone yak meditating; an abandoned bicycle in the middle of nowhere;  poor, brightly-clad families harvesting crops with their patient, hardy animals; thin sheep scavenging a barren slope under the watchful eye of a ragged child; the scant shelter for man and beast huddled behind the walled enclosures of low houses during the relentless rains, gales and blizzards each year would bring: the panoramic empty landscapes. Hard to forget.
Sadly, so very much has changed since then, as we know from news from China and the far-reaching, critical effects of climate change on these fragile, distant places. Sweeping new highways and comfortable modern facilities have radically changed it too. However, the compelling array of landscape photos of the KKH on the internet will do far more justice  to the stunning scenery than my words. The spectacular display of geography will thankfully remain.