Following the ancient Silk Route through orange desert oases like Turpan was exactly what my wife Raquel and I imagined when we plotted our course through Xinjiang Province, but being surrounded by verdant and dense Siberian forests, taiga, and Kazakh horsemen was far from what we imagined. Yet here we are, sitting in front of our traditional yurt homestay, drinking butter tea, and realizing that the umpteen police checkpoints we had to pass through to get here are all part of the experience in this controversial region.
From picture-postcard alpine lakes to lush grasslands and ethnic Kazakh, Mongol, and Tuvan villages, the culture and scenery here is much closer to that of the Russian-Siberian north than any preconceptions might have of China. But, you will have to work to earn it. Passport checks, luggage scans, even being fingerprinted is the norm in security-over-conscious Xinjiang. By the end of each day, we’ve learnt to vent our frustrations over a cold beer or hot tea, and realize that the incredible views and being the only foreign visitors around make it all worthwhile.
Having grown up in California, I get pretty defensive when people try to make comparisons to Yosemite National Park. But listening to the ravings of a rock climber we met in Chengdu, Raquel and I make a beeline for Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi (a 3.5-hour flight from Chengdu to avoid the 35-hour train ride), from where we board an overnight bus to Fuyun another 310mi (500km) away. It’s the nearest town to Keketuohai village and its namesake national park, which the Chinese have dubbed “Little Yosemite.”
A day later, standing on the park’s valley floor, we can’t believe our eyes, as it really is as if we are standing on some hallowed (and familiar) ground. Surrounding us are immense bell towers of granite, rising smooth and vertical straight up from the mighty Irtysh River, which flows out of Mongolia, just a few miles up the valley. Our only regret is that rock climbing isn’t allowed, at least not without special permits. Alex Honnold (the only free climber to scale Yosemite’s mighty El Capitan wall of rock) and his peers would be drooling here, and I figure that the valley in front of us might contain some of the last rock maestro-worthy, multi-pitch granite faces left on the planet.
Even from ground level, it’s still pretty special, surrounded by northern white birch trees, pristine whitewater, and monstrous slabs of granite all set under blue skies. Not to mention that, while there are plenty of Chinese visitors, we are the only foreigners here, making us feel like a couple of explorers finding a secret natural wonder.
A day’s bus ride from Keketuohai, we are soon settling in to a homestay at Kanas Lake, in a valley in the Altai Mountains. Our weather-beaten old Tuvan host speaks enough Mandarin to explain to our Chinese friend Chen that most visitors come here for a glimpse of the Kanas Monster. This supposed giant creature, dubbed the “Chinese Nessie,” similar to the infamous beast of Scotland’s Loch Ness, is said to have been spotted beneath the lake surface. Scientists are sceptical, saying that the large shadows seen in the water are most likely Siberian giant trout which can grow up to 6ft (1.8m). Either way, we’re not here for Nessie, but to witness what might be China’s most beautiful spot.
Serpentine Kanas Lake cuts through the mountains, flanked by dense birch and pine forests, and we spend our days here climbing up to breathtaking viewpoints, or wandering silent paths along the outlet riverbanks, coming across both Kazakh yurt settlements and smoky log cabin villages that are home to Tuvans, the predominant ethnic group here.
Our homestay offers horseback riding, serves up delicious smoked fish, and is an easy walk to the lake, where we just sit and stare at the vivid turquoise water. It feels like a slice of Norway or Alaska in China, and words simply can’t do Kanas justice. Even though there are hordes of domestic visitors that descend here, the authorities have done a good job with park management, not allowing private cars in (you have to take shuttle buses) and making all the facilities inside the park resemble the simple timber homes of the Tuvan.
Chen says he always thought that the Great Wall was China’s best attraction, but that he’s completely changed his mind after coming here. I agree, and think it can’t get any more idyllic than this. I guess we are going to have to come back; we’re only seeing Kanas in summer, but in autumn there is a leaf-changing extravaganza that is supposed to be second to none.
From Kanas Lake we return to Buerjin city, a three-hour bus trip, where we take another bus four hours to Karamay where we spend the night, and then the next morning we take another bus some 310mi (500km) and six hours to Sayram Lake.
The entry gate before reaching the lake is fronted by gaudy Chinese hotels, which charge $100 or so to stay, and are all neon monstrosities. We bypass them and mime to a road worker that we want a yurt stay (for which the lake is noted). A phone call later, he’s hooked us up with a Kazakh friend who picks us up and drives us to his yurt near the lake.
An ethnic Kazakh man tells me that sayram means “blessing” in Kazakh, and right now I feel particularly blessed. The emerald lake just over the hill is one of the most gorgeous bodies of water I’ve ever seen, framed by the mighty Tian Shan Mountains in the background. But even better, my wife and I feel like we are in a Genghis Khan epic, as we’ll be sleeping in a traditional yurt, padded with colorful rugs and quilts, and are being served delicious skewers of freshly barbecued mutton by our Kazakh hosts. I never expected to sleep in a yurt in China, nor that they could be so comfortable (even outfitted with a wood-burning stove for warmth), and we’ve got it all out here, from mountains and grasslands to the immense lake and galaxy full of stars above.
Due to several random and isolated acts of violence that have occurred here and elsewhere in China, blamed on Uyghur separatists, the Chinese government has taken a hardline approach in putting Xinjiang under police control.
Visitors will experience ramped-up security everywhere in the province, and as a traveler you will be scanned and searched in all public places, ranging from markets to shopping centers, as well as hotels.
All public transport stations are under the heaviest scrutiny. Allow an extra 30 minutes or more in train and bus stations to go through multiple security checks, where your passport will be detailed and luggage will be searched. In smaller towns where local officials may not speak English or know what to do with foreign passports, expect delays while superiors are called to assist.
More recently, visitors into Xinjiang have had apps downloaded to their phones at entry points which can read texts and spy on messages, so you definitely don’t want to have anything that can be construed as Uyghur sympathetic in your data base.
Areas of China, like Tibet and Xinjiang, are always in a state of flux regarding which places are open or “closed” to tourism, so it’s best to do a final check before you lock in your travel plans.
At the time of writing (August 2019), all of the northern sites mentioned here are open for travel: Kanas Lake, Sayram Lake, and Keketuohai. In Kanas Lake, there is one unnamed place to stay in the Tuvan village near the lake (which locals will direct you to), while in Keketuohai, foreigners are accepted at the Yuan Fang Grand Hotel.
Note: if you are traveling from Kanas to Sayram Lake, it usually involves an overnight stop in Karamay City, where only the Zhengtian Landmark Hotel accepts foreigners.
You’ll want to completely avoid talking politics while in Xinjiang. Inter-ethnic tension between Han Chinese and the Uyghurs has been high for the last decade, and you’d be wise to read up on the situation before setting out for your trip. Whatever your opinions, once in Xinjiang they’re best kept to yourself, as China currently does not tolerate any discussion about Uyghur separatism and any evidence that you might be involved in it.
If you have books on your Kindle or have recently visited websites that might portray you as sympathetic to the cause, you could get in trouble with the authorities. While the heaviest police/security presence is found in southern Xinjiang (Hotan, Turpan, Hami), with the north more home to Kazakh and Mongol minorities, you should still avoid any discussion with people about the current Uyghur/Xinjiang situation. Most locals will not want to talk openly with strangers as it can land them in far more trouble than you, so it’s best to travel, observe, and take your opinions back home with you.