On forays outside of Kashgar he occasionally caught glimpses of the formation that local people called Tushuk Tash, or Hole Rock. Intrigued, he set out to find it. Three times he and his wife, Diana, along with other companions, tried to approach it from the south side. Three times the labyrinthine fortress of eroded rock south of the arch thwarted their efforts. Finally they found a successful approach from the north. Shipton put his hand on the arch, but he lacked the modern climbing equipment that would have allowed him to ascend it safely.
If he could visit Kashgar today, Shipton would probably wince at its new Chinese-style business district, crowded with what he called "that great scourge of modern civilization, the internal combustion engine." He'd feel more at home, as we did, among the old rhythms beyond the city center. Kashgar grew up in a vast green oasis fed by the melting snows of surrounding mountains—a huge garden of barley, wheat, vegetables, and melons. The city still resembles Shipton's "curious, medieval land," where donkey carts haul goods and people along tree-lined lanes and where country people pour into the city once a week to attend the Sunday bazaar, said to be the largest of its kind in Asia. Graybeards in black robes and fur-trimmed hats head for the stock market—where they argue the merits of camels, horses, fat-tailed sheep, and cattle—while their wives stream through rows of bright fabrics, household goods, carpets, and jewelry.
As for the big arch, although it lies just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Kashgar, it remains obscure. Our liaison in the city, Abdullah Hallick, had never been near it. Nor had his friends and neighbors. We had acquired a set of Russian topographic maps, but they were practically useless. The maps showed the mountains accurately, but in the core of the range, where it really mattered, their contour lines went haywire. The cartographers had simply given up. I called these areas Vales of Despair. The mapmaker's despair, that is—and our joy. Blank spots on the map are dishearteningly rare in these days of the global positioning system.
So to find the arch, we followed our imagi-nary companion Shipton—an expert in blank spots—to Mingyol, where we met the old man who remembered him. Entering the village that day, we found it a peaceful, shady place echoing with the sound of irrigation water, the soil damp beneath rows of poplars, cuckoos singing in the trees. It was home to some 50 Uygur and Kyrgyz families.
In Mingyol, Shipton had enlisted the help of a local villager to find the arch. His name was Usman Akhun, a man of "splendid physique and the easy rhythmical movements and self-assurance of an Alpine guide." Hoping that such an impressive character would be remembered, we asked around and were soon led to the home of Torogan Usman, the youngest son of Usman. He leaned on a shovel with a shy smile and told us that his father had died some years ago at an old age.