Monday, October 09, 2006

X I N J I A N G Escapades

Xinjiang - where deserts, marshes, meadows, snow capped mountains, forests and plains live in perfect harmony. Located in the north western part of China, this province borders with Kazakhstan, Kirgistan, Russia and Mongolia thereby containing plethora of ethnic groups - Mongols, Kazakhs, Kirghs, Muslims to name a few. The incredibly diverse and vivid landscapes could be experienced during traveling; deserts change to alpine forests to bald brown rockies to lush green forests. Here I've tried to describe my recent odyssey to this marvelous place on earth, in quite an elaborate manner.

Urumqi, the capital of the province, is like any another Chinese city, only notable difference being the boards had Urdu scripts alongside Chinese. Since we touched down at dinnertime, the pleasant smell of the kebabs did not take much time to hit our senses. We rushed to food street on South Yahao Road for relishing the epicurean pleasures of mountain bred sheep kebabs - tender, delicious and inexpensive. Wheat Nan, sheep rice (a less spicy version of our Indian biriyani), noodles and soup were also on the list of items we "hogged".

Non-availability of tickets to Buerjin on the next day morning, compelled us to plan for Tian lake. About three hours journey across Jungarpendi led us to this spell binding lake which defined the color blue. The lake acted as a mirror to the sky, reflecting the entire blue color. Surrounded all sides by mountains with one snow capped mountain in the center, the gorgeous splendour of the lake mesmerized me. Spent a couple of hours straying around the lake and showing it to my camera and returned to Urumqi.

A cozy sleeper coach drove us to Burqin, a cute little city that was just a night away from Urumqi. A Volkswagen Santana picked us from where we set our foot in Burqin and drove us to "Little White Deer" inn. The city, albeit I had a very superficial gaze to describe the least, gave me a feeling that it had a tad Russian influence for its pointed red roofs. The breakfast, the best I had in China, at "Little White Deer" inn included hot rice gruel, milk tea, fresh vegetable salads, oven fresh cookies, butter roasted bread slices with four different varieties of fruit jams to spread over. Next two hours were spent in the sedan, which made its way along the picturesque mountains and valleys. For a moment I felt I was taken to Mongolia - circular white tents emitting thin white smoke, the horsemen acting as shepherds and cowboys, hordes of horses grazing among the green meadows caressed by the mild northern light.

A quick and simple lunch at Jiadengyu followed by baggage loading onto horse-caravan marked the beginning of our hiking. Yellow birch and pine trees welcomed our start and accompanied us till the end of journey. An hour's gait along the mountains, like a bolt in the blue, we were mesmerized by the vistas of sylvan beauty - a river with the bluest water surrounded by colorful woods of birch, yellow as gold and red as wine. I had seen such incarnation of mother earth on the desktop wallpapers but never in real. To add to beauty there were stables and barns as brown as sweet smelling loam, innocent white lambs grazing next to river - just like a wonderland without Alice. Appreciating the beauty to myself and showing it to my camera every now and then, I walked along till I reached our camping site. Mysterious and invincible darkness complemented with poorly lit torches slowed down our last descent towards the camping area. It was 10 in the night; we opened the tents and lit the stoves. The cold made my teeth chatter like an olden day calling bell and my body occasionally shiver like a dog shaking its body when it’s wet. These actions were mitigated by a cup of hot coffee and yummy noodles. The following morning was cold but the surrounding nature cast a spell on me. The dreaded darkness of the previous night had masked the beauty of our camping site. We camped next to the blue river, fenced around by the mountains. The brown hills were embraced by the gray clouds that slowly unveiled the deep blue sky. In the nick of time the whole area was being kissed by the tender rays of northern sun, energizing even the dead ones.

A hot breakfast prepared us for the next stretch. As we ascended the first hill special guests welcomed us - two gaiety double hump backed camels were grazing the dry brown grass with a back drop of a snow mountains and my camera thanked me for allowing her to capture this wallpaper-esque shot. We happened to see more snow capped mountains, crossed many tiny tributaries joining the bigger blue river, walked among yellow and brown pine wood forests before we reached Hemu by evening.

No prose-poetry-painting-photograph can describe this village to its fullest. If I were given three wishes by God, first one would be to live in Hemu. Let me try to describe this heaven - It had a distinctive warm brown color because of wooden huts and mud roads. No single concrete structure could be found in the town, people commute on retro jeeps and horses, which gives rise to a golden dust in the presence of evening sunlight. Dominated by Kazakhs, it has pine and birch wooded mountains on one side and snow-capped ones on the other, Hemu River embellishes the town's grandeur. Photographers are ubiquitous in the town; they wait, like a bird waiting for spring after winter, for sunrise and sunset. Many of the people were kind enough to pose for my camera. A sumptuous dinner at Youth hostel, followed by a hot bath terminated the day. I climbed the nearby hill, next morning, and waited for sunrise along with other photographers. Hasselblads, Mamiyas and L-series lenses in others hands gave rise, in me, an inferiority complex. And my camera was angry with me for having a cheap kit lens. I did not have time to give a damn to my camera's grievances and started clicking the picturesque little town in front of me that was being adorned by the sun god with golden light. The haze on the town was so exotic that it double folded the beauty of the village. Our further journey was just a breakfast away. This is one place that gave me an ache in the heart when I had to part.

We headed towards Kanasi and started ascending hills surrounding Hemu. We kept ascending till the dusk; the scenery remained the same, yellow-green-brown birch and pine trees on mountains, blue waters in the valley. After a quick lunch of rough wheat bread along riverside, we started drifting closer towards the snow-caps and had to cross marshes before we could actually touch and feel the snow. The mercury levels were much lower here; the snow-capped hills that we saw the previous day were now being treaded by us now. We played with snowballs as we proceeded. Hired a Mongolian tent at Xiaoheihu, a camping site next to, what they call, little black lake. The whole team was tired with a dull listless fatigue and hiring the tent turned out to be a blessing, bestowing and welcoming decision. Coffee and noodles served as our dinner. The following morning I had to please my camera, she wanted to click the Kazak family members living there, the herd of camels, the snow around tent, the lake and I fulfilled her wish.

Our journey continued towards Kanasi after a sumptuous breakfast of oatmeal and soup. The landscape now was slightly different - bald hills and meadows in the foreground with snow mountains in the horizon. After a small stop for cookies and fruits, which we reckoned to be our lunch, we entered yellow and brown coniferous forest. A big descend led us directly to Kanasi town. A lot of fancy buildings made up this town and unlike Hemu, it was quite a commercialized place. I happened to pass a very attractive and aesthetically built structure with green pointed roof and brown colored walls and was stupefied to know that it was toilet, and it was extremely well maintained; all the toilets in town were in this fashion. A buffet consisting of lamb noodles, mutton capsicum curry, couple of soups and a Nan dish was our dinner. The best part is that the hotel authorities warn you against wasting food - a fine of 50 RMB in case of any wastage. I greatly appreciate and support this idea. Albeit fine is not collected, food wastage is reduced to a considerable extent. A nutritious breakfast started off the next day - local sight seeing in Kanasi. We visited Wulong bend and Crescent bend - fancy names for the Kanasi river meanders that makes the scenery around quite attractive. A visit to Kanasi Lake was quite cold and not so luminous.

Kanasi brought our trekking to halt, for we hired a couple of Jeep Cherokees that drove us to Baihaba, a town at which China stops and Kazakhstan starts. Baihaba, a town which somewhat resembled Hemu, was one of the prettiest towns I've ever seen. On one side there are a series of white peaks and pinnacles and on the other, brown bald hills of Kazakhstan. It contained only wooden structures; the roads were canopied by yellow birch trees and were adorned by the withered leaves of the same. A horse-wagon drove us, like a tortoise, to Kazakh border and the bogey of bad luck followed us, for we were spotted by the army personnel who confiscated all my friend's identification cards. But we had our share of good luck too; they returned it later without any bickering. Just as in Hemu, I rushed to surrounding hills at wee hours to satisfy my camera's lust and waited for the sun to cheer the morn. She was happy as she saw and recorded the misty Kazak hills and the resplendent vista of Baihaba town.

About four hours of hitchhike through the alternating desolate mountains and tiny scattered villages, the jeep brought us to Rainbow beach, close to Burqin town. Vast stretches of queer and colorful formation of soft rocks along the river Eerqisi was what we witnessed here. I could see orange, indigo, green and red colored mounds that substantiated the name - Rainbow beach. Gasoline for our jeeps, fresh fruits purchase and a quick lunch of mutton noodles and Nan at Burqin and we were all set for our visit to Devil's city.

The sun was happily reaching is home in the west when we reached Devil’s city. We reached just in-time and my camera did her job. Sorry for not introducing Devil’s city, its again formation of soft but tall knolls, made of sticky mud. Its difficult to climb the hillock for the surface is not stable and it disintegrates once you step on it. They were of all sizes and shapes, combined with the shining moon and artistic clouds; it enhanced the beauty of the surrounding landscape. We revisited this place the next morning for my camera was unhappy, as it got dark soon.

After chasing the mirage for nearly 600Km (We also happened to see Karamay Oil fields on the way) in 4x4 Cherokee, we made it to Sailimu Lake (aka Sayram lake). Located in the north of Yining city, the water here is crystal clear and ice cold. The surrounding landscape is a feast for eyes, meadows and mountains beautified by the calm flock of silver-fleeced sheep. The lake is a gigantic one and glimmered under the evening sun. My wish to stay in Mongolian tent again was satisfied here, for we could not find any hotels nearby and had to stay in an extremely well decorated and vivid tent just opposite to Sailimu Lake. We were treated with gourmet dinner consisting of sheep rice and various spicy curries of brinjals and potatoes. The following morning, witnessed the sunrise by the lakeside, hit the road towards Korgas.

Korgas, a town on the border of China and Kazakhstan and also a trade zone. A not so posh shopping mall sold the commodities of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. After an on-the-fly shopping of some Russian chocolates I hurried to see the border. I was delighted to see Kazakhstan from the border gate. The Chinese sentry post was a grand one, while the Kazakh one was quite simple. Armed people kept shouting at people who were pointing their cameras towards Sentry post and crossing the warning lines, others were busy smiling wide for a photograph, next to the stone marked Chinese border.

Bayanbulak was our destination next morning, stopped by at Tungbazaar for a hot and healthy breakfast of freshly baked veggie bread. The journey to Bayanbulak was a tough one, winding mud roads along the mountains and totally dusty. Threw the luggage in a hotel and headed towards Swan lake, the journey was absolutely gorgeous among the brownish yellow meadows. Entry to Swan Lake was stalled by a lady who asked us to pay money without issuing the tickets, for she was running out of them. We ditched Swan Lake and speeded towards Jioqishiwan Lake. The terrain put our jeep’s stability and balance systems to through testing during this small stretch, as it had to incline at 45 degrees at some places, was in air at other. Four miles was all we had walk to reach the lake which was elegant, exquisite and exotic and worth every pain we took to reach this serpent shaped lake (actually river). I got down to the bottom of the hill with the hope of feeling the water, but marshy quagmire put my effort to vain. Ascended the hill back quickly for I did not want to miss the colorful pomp of the setting sun. The reddish-yellow sunlight shimmered on multiple meanders of the lake and the blue sky with artistic clouds complemented the scenery.

A five hour-long bus journey, the next day, was the most memorable one in my life. It was the most tiring journey, five hours at a stretch on one of the worse roads in the world, full of dust, turmoil and smoke. Korla city was our destination for the evening.

Hired a wagon to Yuli, the next morning, place where the great Tarim Pendi desert is located. My intense love of excitement and adventure was catered to in this desert. A model of Lopnur village (a typical desert village at olden times) gives an aesthetic look to the overall place. We walked down the huge sand mountains and reached Shennu River. My camera had her virgin gaze of the desert and she was glad to see the colors of desert. Experienced the glider ride that flew over the desert and made me envy those birds, which can have such a magnificent aerial view at its will and for no cost. The dinner on the way back is definitely a worth mention and also a memorable one. The restaurant is named “Shenghui”. The sheep is cooked in an unique way, the whole sheep (of course, after stripping off wool), after smearing with spicy paste is hanged in a furnace that largely resembles Indian tandoor oven. Later its chopped and served hot with onion salads and a bowl of thick and tasty curd. It was absolutely delicious, my mouth wanted more but my stomach said no. A sleeper coach drove us that night to Urumqi.

The last day, sadly, was spent at Urumqi shopping at the Xinjiang international bazaar and flew back to Shanghai after a night’s short sojourn at Jinan. I was hoping to lose quite some weight during the journey, but unfortunately, the Xinjiang food did not help me to do so. Got to get back to fitness routine soon.

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