Sixteen hours sojourn...
I've visited places with most exotic landscapes - deserts, mountains, valleys, marshes, and beaches. I've visited places that made me exclaim "Ah!!! This is the most wonderful place I've seen". I've been to places that are of historical significance, of geographical miracles, of ethnical importance and of spiritual prominence. But one place that gave me a feeling of déjà vu, that took me to my childhood days despite being my first visit, that made me determine that I had to visit again, that hurt me when I had to depart, is a tiny village by name "Hemu" in the Northern Xinjiang Autonomous region of China.
Our trek started from Jiadengyu, another tiny village. We had to hike mountains with glittering yellow birch trees, cross deep blue rivers, walk along snow capped peaks for two days to reach Hemu. It was about three in the afternoon, the whole team was almost wearied by the daylong trek. One more peak was all we had to cover to reach the hamlet. With almost all the water bottles empty, that final hike, even though not very high, was an exacting one and lumbering over the steep was quite a task. Few cottages started to unveil as we reached the summit and we now had to descend and walk for about a kilometer or so. The appearance of the cottages raised our spirits and gave us a much-needed kick to rush towards them. We crossed a small bridge across a stream and walked for fifteen more minutes before we approached the banks of Hemu River. Hemu River, the source of water to town, flows very next to the village. The water was crystal clear and freezing. Most of us quickly unlaced our shoes and relieved our blistered legs in the ice-cold water, the act that I think, would have dirtied such a lucid river. We did not have enough time to spend by the riverbanks, we headed towards the wooden bridge that crossed the river and formed the gateway to Hemu village. My camera quickly saved some wallpaper-esque shots at this juncture.
Dark untarred roads, speeding horses giving rise to ghostly dust smoke, pretty cottages made of birch woods and classy country jeeps are the first few things which most visitors encounter, apart from healthy, beautiful Kazakh ethnics. The youth hostel, the place where we stayed, was not very far from the entrance of the town. After unloading backpacks and taking a short break, I set out to explore this pretty little hamlet. I saw a herd of photographers juxtaposed themselves on an embankment seeing the village through their lenses. I made my way up the embankment and copied their action for a short duration, and then I turned towards a sort of main road (which again was not asphalted) and strode along briskly to make up more within the available time. My team members had given me a walkie-talkie and had told that I should return upon receiving their call.
I saw a very pretty Kazak lady in her red shirt resting her elbows on gate, I requested for her portrait shot using the universal symbol language, she refused twice and third time she nodded to indicate acceptance and gave a beautiful smile. As I was strolling through the streets, I came across a very chubby and cute little girl, playing with a lamb. Suddenly she noticed me and she was surprised to see a foreigner in her town I guess. I called her, she approached nearer to me and my camera was fast enough to get some nice shots of hers. I could get some wonderful portraits of the people, a candid family portrait, some nice street shots and few landscapes before I got a call on walkie-talkie. I was almost near the embankment, the evening winter sun was still pouring his golden light on the town, out of the blues a herd of horses led by two men appeared in front of me giving rise to a brown dust storm. It was very artistic in fact and without getting irked by the dust, I captured this moment. It was almost time for sun to reach his home in the west; I clicked some more shots at the sundown time (I regretted for not carrying my tripod), rushed to youth hostel for dinner. The dinner consisted of varieties of typical Chinese cuisine, cooked vegetables and meat. A bony mutton cooked in onions was something new for me and it tasted awesome.
Had a short stroll on pitch-dark roads, just for digestion sake. A hot shower terminated the day; hit the sacks with my mind full of glimpses of this exotic village.
Got out of bed by seven in the morning, rushed towards the neighboring hill. Lots of people were on the way along with us, some were already atop the hill and everybody’s task now was to await the sun god to wake up. It may be surprising for the readers that I said I was out of bed by seven and by this time the sun would already be up, but remember that Xinjiang province is located on the extreme western part of China and to simplify things, China follows single time zone. To make things clear, I was in Indian time zone following Beijing time. Within an hour, there was a huge assemblage, everybody equipped with a camera and waiting like a bird waiting for spring after winter for the sunrise. The cameras ranged from pocket sized Sonys and Casios to gigantic medium/large format Hasselblads, Mamiyas and Sinars. Most SLRs were equipped with gigantic lenses mounted on hefty tripods; there were Canons, Nikons, Minoltas and many more. Everybody patiently waited for the sun to pour his divine light over the town. When it was fifteen minutes to nine, the sun god finally unveiled from the mountaintops and the town was truly blessed with splendid, mild morning sunrays. This particular moment is the most priced one and travelers come to Hemu just for witnessing this. The whole village, surrounded by mountains with yellow birch and alpine trees, thin white smoke oozing out of chimneys from the cottages, gives a feeling that if there is something called "Heaven", this is it. I have not seen a more elegant sunrise than this. Even though I took quite a lot of photos, I spent more time in relishing this aesthetic scenery before my eyes. It was as short as butter melting away, the beauty slightly reduced as the sunlight became stronger.
We descended the hill, had a sumptuous breakfast of rice porridge, egg, peanuts, breads and salads. Started the journey towards Kanas without any delay. We had to ascend one of the hills to head towards Kanas. I felt so much pain to depart from this village that I kept seeing backwards more than the rocky, steep road up the hill.