I’ll start again with a legend. In Chinese mythology, it is said that one day, a Chinese goddess was washing her feet in heaven. When she was done, she tipped out her basin of bath water over part of the Tianshan mountain range, and the water pooled in a long valley, to form Tianchi, or Heaven’s Lake.
And Heavenly it certainly is. I just got back from three days hiking and horseriding around the lake and in the mountains above it, and I have to say that life back on the ground seems pretty dreary by comparison.
We dropped Aussie Pat off at the airport on our way to Urumqi, bidding him farewell and safe journey – he’s doing Tailand and India before going to do a semester at Georgetown in Washington DC. But by the time we got INTO Urumqi, it seems that all the buses for Tianchi had left already, so Christine and I had to hire a car to take us up there. The driver was not too talkative, which was actually a blessing, because it meant that we could enjoy the countryside heading up into the mountains.
Xin Jiang has returned to how it was when I first arrived – fields of sunflowers and corn, tall poplar trees marking the field boundaries in gorgeous green. I remember the euphoria I felt when I first arrived, and it brings on a kind of bittersweet melancholy when I think about it now. But at the time, I was excited to be heading up to the beautiful lake, and looking forward to staying plenty of time there, rather than when I’d visited it almost a year ago with a Chinese tour group.
Once we reached as far as our car could take us, we switched to the cable car, up a steep slope of temperal forest. The ground below was green, and dotted with pine trees. To one side was the river, whooshing down and swollen with snow melt. Here’s me and Chris, showing our happiness:
Once we got to the end of the wire, we began to walk the rest of the way to the lake, perhaps a 15 minute walk. An old Kazak man began to walk with us, asking us if we wanted to ride a horse, or if we wanted to stay in his yurt. But we’d studied our Lonely Planet, and in the short section on Tianchi, there’s a mention of one Rashit, a Kazak who’s been hosting travelers in his yurt for years and years. I told the old Kazak man who was walking with us that we had plans to meet friends at Rashit’s – Pat The Crazy Canadian and friends were up at the lake, and we had arranged to meet up on the one night of overlap of our stays.
Anyway, this old Kazak dude knew exactly who we were talking about, and told us that that was fine. Then he promptly asked again if we wanted to ride horses round to Rashit’s (a good 45 minute walk around the lake), at only 30 Yuan a pop. Christine and I consulted a little, and then we eventually drove him down to 10 Yuan each. Silly me, though, I had not anticipated a horse ride on the first day, and had worn a skirt that morning. So here I was, riding this horse with my skirt hiked up around my knees, baring my pearly white (unshaven!) legs for all to see. Have you ever tried to climb onto a horse with a skirt on? Suffice it to say that Christine was considerably more dignified than I… But I did feel a little like a troubadour though, with my guitar on my back and my bag tied to the saddle knot. I wish that guitars were smaller, so that one could easily spin them round to the front and serenade the forest. I suppose they call small guitars mandolins. Or perhaps ukeleles…
A twenty minute horse ride later, through forest that was strangely reminiscent of Myst Island (have any of you played that game?), and we were greeted by Rashit, who’s English was waaaay better than I had imagined. He’d been told of our coming by the Kazak folk at the entrance to the lake area, and had come out to meet us.
Let me just say, that Rashit is The MAN. He’s open, and friendly, and interesting, and funny, and helpful. He understands western humour (a rarity in China), and has the language skills to appreciate irony, sarcasm, and even the self depreciating Australian humour. We liked Rashit a lot.
Here he is, at the front of the lake. His village is in a cove sort of just below his left ear. His left, not yours.
Anyway, Rashit’s village is tucked into a cove about halfway around the lake, and as he walked us the short way from where the horses dropped us off, he asked if I could play the guitar I had slung behind my back. I demurred, saying that no, I was not such a good player, but that our friend who we were meeting at Rashit’s that night could play up a storm. We got to comparing notes, and Rashit told us that Pat and co had indeed been at his village the night before, but had left that afternoon. Christine and I managed to contain our disappointment somehow… (Pat, you piker! *grin*) As it turns out, the guitar did not go to waste – there were a few other backpackers hanging out who could pluck a note or two, and Rashit is quite a lovely player himself.
We rounded the final corner, and there we saw Rashit’s village, made up of round yurts in the traditional Kazak style, and more functional square ones, covered with tarpaulin to keep out the rain:
There was only one other guest at Rashit’s that night, a German bloke called Stefan, so Chistine and I got a whole big round yurt to ourselves, and Stefan would sleep in the other, smaller one. We were served with tea at an outside wooden table, and Chris decided that it was time for her to brave the icy waters and go for a swim. I couldn’t actually see the shoreline from where I was sitting, writing in my diary, but I did hear the screams that told me just how cold the waters of Tianchi really were. Brave lass, that.
After Chris had dried off and regained feeling in her toes (perhaps I’m exaggerating a little…), we took a walk around the lake, to the far end where it is fed by the rivers of melted snow. To give you an idea of just how big the lake is, Rashit is more than a quarter of the way round the full circuit of the lake, but with the two hours that we had to stroll around and get back in time for dinner, we didn’t even make it to the beach at the far end. Granted, we did stop to take lots of piccies:
Dinner that night was Lamian (lah-mee-en), which is just a type of flat noodle, kinda like linguine, with ratatouille type sauce, a traditional Turkic people’s dish.
A little guitar playing happened after dinner – Rashit played some traditional Kazak music, some of which I recognized from a Kazak wedding I went to weeks ago. But we didn’t stay out long – it gets cold fast up in the mountains, and Chris and I found ourselves getting to bed before the dusk had passed. But bear in mind that there is still sunlight here at 10.30pm (Beijing time). Rashit’s wife had built us a merrily roaring fire in the little pot bellied stove in the yurt, and that night, sleeping involved kicking off most of the blankets that we thought we’d need.
The next morning, we were awoken to the sounds of wind in the fir trees, horses whinnying, cows lowing, and sheep baa-ing. I ask you, is there any better way to awaken? I lurched out of the tent, pashmina wrapped around me, thinking that it would be cold outside, but the sun was already beating down on the lake, and I found that being cold in the mountains, at least during the day, was not something I’d have to worry too much about.
We spoken with Rashit the night before about what we should do the next day, and Chris and I were keen to do the horse trek up to the snow line. So, we ate our breakfast with Stephan, noodles in a lamby broth, and were greeted by our two Kazak guides. Each of them was standing next to the horses we would ride that day, and Chris and I realized to our dismay that they were planning on *leading* the horses all the way to the top of the mountain.
But we clambered on anyway, and started on the day long journey. Rashit had told us that it could take anywhere between 8 to 10 hours round trip, so we got comfortable, and took in the breath taking scenery. I got to talking to my guide in Chinese (SO glad he could speak Chinese – there are stacks of Kazaks and Uyghurs in more remote areas, or less Han areas, who can speak worse Chinese than I can, like in Kashgar!). His name was, as close as I could understand it, Hkalhkan (I’ll write it Kalkan, cause it’s easier), the “hk” being a back of the throat kinda lurgie sound. He looked about thirty, but we got to talking about how old we were, and it turns out he’s 2 years younger than me, only 23. I guess that the mountains and harsh conditions age people quicker. He was singing a song in Kazak as he walked, and I asked him to teach it to me:
Bileh-shi, bileh-shi, halva hunder tiumeshi
Bileh bileh halva hunder, tiumeshi
All I know is that it’s about dancing, and blinking. I then tried to think of a good Irish song for traveling, but all the “rambling” songs have been crowded out by Chinese. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
Our horses were lead around the lake, well above the semi-tasteful concrete path that rings the shore, dismounting at one point to scrabble over a particularly steep rocky part of the path. Then we finally reached the beach, and our guides began to argue with each other as to the best way to cross the river that needed to be crossed, without getting their feet too muddy. Kalkan turned and handed the reins to me, and saide, “you cross by yourself, I’ll go up on these rocks”.
Oh, the JOY, Torgat (the horse’s name) and I finally free to go as we liked. We went on, Torgat and I, and he knew the path like the back of his hoof – he’d been doing this same trek for years and years. Chistine’s guide was a little more anal – at one point, we asked him if he could do the same for Chris and let her ride her horse herself without being lead, and he basically said “no”. I’m not sure if it had to do with a lack of faith in his horse’s capabilities for being sensible, or a lack of faith in Chris’s riding skills – a tad unfounded, cause she’d had plenty of horseriding experience as a kid, just as I had. But at any rate, it wasn’t until much much later that her guide gave her the reins, and then only because he had to cause he couldn’t lead.
The entrance to the long, zigzagging valley that we would follow up to the snow line was broad and flat, and was filled with fir trees and other deciduous trees. There was grass wherever it could take root, all cropped short by goats and cows, giving the place a spotlessly manicured look:
That’s Chris on the horse in front.
Up and up the river valley we climbed, and we were joined along the way by Rashit’s brother (who’s name I never quite got), who was busy trying to train a five year old horse, who obviously was not as experienced in following the path as Torgat was, and was infinitely less willing to carry someone up the mountain. Kalkan decided that if Torgat and I didn’t need leading, he’s jump on to Rashit’s brother’s horse too, so there he rode for much of the rest of the way, sitting on plastic grain sack behind the saddle. At the same time as being joined by Rashit’s brother, a Kazak girl of maybe 17 or so joined us for part of the walk up. The road became steeper, and the valley narrower, and soon we came to a small yurt tucked into the mountain on one side, and an old Kazak couple came out to greet us. The girl, whose name turned out to be Anar (ie Anna) went to each of them and gave them each a hug that said “I’ve not seen you in ages”. Rashit’s brother explained to me that she was actually their daughter. I can only imagine that she’d been at school down the mountain, and had just got back for the Summer break.
Anyway, this old couple laid out the welcome mat for us in the form of a rug on that spotlessly manicured lawn, and served us salty Kazak tea with fresh milk, solid bread, and soft white cheese, kinda like pretty hardened cottage cheese. They were really something, these two – they were Russian, but had moved up to Tianchi decades ago.
Christine and I talked a little about what it would be like to live this lifestyle, isolated in the mountains, living in a yurt with no electricity, no running water (unless you count the rapids of the river outside), but with such serenity as could make you cry. What do you get up for in the morning? What do you do with your day? It was like they were living in their own little private time capsule, and I found myself envying them.
We sallied forth again after our break, stopping only once at this amazingly picturesque little area, grass cut short, fir trees giving shade, and the river whooshing by over massive rounded boulders. Here’s Chris with our three guides:
L-R: Chris; Rashit’s brother; my guide, Kalkan; Chris’s guide.
Here’s the gorgeous bloke who was kind enough to carry me up the mountain, the 13 year old Torgan. He was a most obliging fellow, and totally knew his stuff – whenever I was unsure as to which path we should take, I could usually just let him do his thing, and he’d pick the best path.
Here is Chris and the blokes, relaxin’. Chris’s horse is tied to the three in the background, and Rashit’s brothers untrained horse was just hanging around, tethered by a long rope. Torgan was just left to wander around, not tied up at all. He was such a good bloke.
Rashit’s brother, and the “naughty” horse. Rashit’s brother’s horse was a bit of a “scallywag”, as my mum would say. Delighted in doing just what they didn’t want him to. And he was skittish as all hell
It’s not a blog entry without the obligatory self-taken two person headshot…
Next came the really steep climb, and the fir trees just stopped once we got above a certain point. The hillsides were slashed with goat and sheep tracks, and we randomly followed them up the valley’s edge, going higher and higher. The sides of the hills were steep as steep can be without becoming grassy cliffs, and I kept telling myself, “the horse wants to fall even less than I do… the horse wants to fall even less than I do”.
We saw few people, but plenty of goats. These guys looked like they had seen postcards and had been practicing how picturesque they could be:
Finally we reached a point where our guides said, “no more riding, this is as far as the horses can go, cause it’s too craggy from here on in”, and that if we wanted to go further up, they’d wait for us, and have tea in the yurt where we’d stopped. We could just go on until we felt tired, and then come on back down again.
So we did. We started climbing. And climbing. And climbing! The snow line was in view, but every time we came to the top of a rise, another rise presented itself for the climbing. We finally reached the point where we felt on top of the world, even though there was a little more world above us, and here we stopped for water and photos, and general contemplation. As Chris pointed out, there was something surreal about being up there, away from civilization, away from distractions. All that was there was the wind, the sun, the mountains and the occasional goat.
Looking at the photos, you really can’t understand just how high up we were, and how much of the world we could see. But here they are anyway, images from a magic time:
Chris coming up the mountain.
The lichen and moss on a lot of these rocks were so pretty, I couldn’t help myself.
Chris, with the snow behind her, looking serene.
My first foray into the timer function on my camera. Thanks to Aussie Pat for the idea.
Here’s me on the mountain. No commentary necessary. I was awestruck.
These people fed us some bread, hard cheese, and tea at the top of the mountain. Can you IMAGINE waking up to this view every morning?
They also had a camel up there. Chris spent some time bonding with it, from a distance – I’d seen a camel spit several metres in Kashgar, and so we both kept our distance from this magnificent gent:
My god, I just have so many photos that I want to share, but I know that if I make this blog entry any longer, certain people with attention span problems will tune out. So I’ll publish this now. I’ll try to do some more blogging about Tianchi later on, but I’m rapidly running out of time.
Today marks the two weeks mark, until I get home to Australia, and only one week till I leave Xin Jiang. And with the nights I’ve got spent away from home, visiting folk, taking my cat to his new home, or the couple of nights that I’ll be spending in Urumqi, I only have three nights left in this apartment. Wierd…
Cheers, Charlotte6 comments
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