Xinjiang - An autonomous province in far northwestern China Tranquil – Free from commotion or disturbance Separated - To set or keep apart; disunited Raw – Being in a natural condition; not processed or refined Changing - Giving a completely different form or appearance to; transforming. Definitions taken from The Free Dictionary
The landscape from Bu’erjin to Kanas was in itself worth the trip this far North: fields of sunflowers mixed with craggy hill sides, desert plains and rocky outcropments, oases, dipping ridges, grasslands and deep descending forested valleys: sand, soil, rock and grass, lakes, rivers, wild flora, fauna and soaring eagles, with sporadic yurt communities scattered upon hillsides. Great.
The Kanas Lake Nature Reserve is an amazing place to visit but it is now experiencing some pretty incredible levels of tourism. You arrive all excited, having heard tales of an epic wilderness. However, before you know it you are buying an expensive ticket and finding yourself herded with the unexpected masses onto a silky smooth coaching system, that deposits you into an ever growing village terminal. Here you end up on another bus wondering if this is actually the Kanas you’d heard so much about. Once you are off this coach, it is down to the lakeside with the motley dressed China brigade: in their office shoes, vests and white shirts or matching walking boots, waterproofs and carbon fibre walking sticks. If you want to continue to play this game of follow my leader, then it is onto the ferry system and its criss-crossing symmetry down on the lake.
If not, branch off right around the lake and suddenly you will find the Kanas you came all this way for. A lake environment sourced by a Siberian ecosystem and protected by other worldly alpine forestry. No sooner do you make that turn right do the masses disappear and the raw nature of Kanas confront you. Initially you are helped along by a lakeside boardwalk, which was a bit of a godsend with tent and supplies quickly hanging heavily on our backs. We headed happily off around the lake to find a good spot for the tent.
The boats stop about 8 at night and begin again at about 11 in the morning. This gives those who have managed to stray from the tourist villages, Yurt communities and Bu’erjin taxis, a 14 hour window of late evening and early morning opportunity to really enjoy absolute tranquillity, absolute silence. That is apart from the odd bird chirping, insect buzzing and Eagle soaring: complete stillness out on the lake- amazing, beautiful, incredible. These were Happy Days indeed.
I wrote this sitting out on a cool, early morning rock plateau; a proud Siberian Larch standing over me to the right, the opening bay of the lake drifting out to my left and the sun just beginning to warm me from behind. There was not a person in sight or human noise in ear shot. “This is perfect!” I found myself shouting out to my girlfriend above, breaking the silence like the heathen I am.
After heading down from the lake side I would have liked to have sat and dwelt on the immense, bounding turquoise Kanas river for longer, in true Siddharta style, but we were quickly off with the speed of the indelible rushing current to Tranquillity Bay, to find our next camping spot.
A thin barbed wire fence accompanied us on our hike through the wide-open meadows of these epic valleys, with their larch smothered hillsides. The fence was there to protect the now rambling river from rambling hikers and was seemingly going to prevent us getting close to the river again, and stop us finding another perfect place to pitch the tent.
My initial thoughts were of the privatisation and rigid control that this natural environment was now experiencing, so comprehensively. However, later, from a vantage point atop a hill above Tranquillity Bay, where we pitched the tent, we watched a bunch of tourists off loaded from a bus and mingle like ants below us. One of their number broke through the fence, with the others soon in hot pursuit. It was only then did I realise the value of keeping these hordes at bay and the herds of horses still grazing undisturbed in the meadows, the Tuwa Yurt households still able to get on with their traditional ways of life.
The biggest problem that has befallen Kanas, though of course open to debate, is the ease with which people can now get there. Flights from all over China to Urumqi, or worse still now to a meadow in a valley just a few kilometres from the Kanas Nature Reserve itself. And particularly, the very cheap tour groups that can be joined in Urumqi to get up to Kanas. In this context the sealing off of certain areas from us tourists, so the river life and local Yurt communities can go about their daily lives without being bothered by peering faces and poking camera lenses, is laudable.
The nature reserve here is awesome in its magnitude, exhilarating in its beauty and inspiring in the still almost inescapable rawness of its nature. Just one night here is worth a few hundred days in a Chinese city and for that fact alone it’s worth the journey this far North.
Turpan and Beyond
The heat out in the desert around Turpan left me only able to semi-consciously acknowledge that the ruins of Jiao He were 1600 years old. The fact did seem somewhat insignificant compared to the here and now experience of temperatures searing my soul at 47 °C. A vacuum of heat encased my head as I concentrated on just simply placing one leaden foot in front of another, over roasting desert rock. The so-called sights around Turpan paled into insignificance compared to the general desert- canyon landscape and imposing heat. I found the present day craggy, sandy cliff escarpments, half hidden beneath shifting sands, offered an immensely greater impact on my being than robbed and defaced Buddhist murals and ancient ruins.
The breathtaking immensity of this sanded dryness and the encasing presence of these sharp and rounded desert cliffs is to really feel the magnitude of this place and why back in the day, before the strategic ransacking and defacing of historical cave storerooms, these Buddhist frescoes and motifs were prayed before. So that journeys embarked upon and desert crossings continued upon could be simply survived in this most mouth fastening of places.
There is a hooded depth to how these ochre coloured mountains grip you, where viewing a few remnant ruins amongst dry foothills leaves you wondering how a home may ever have been desired here. Though it is an incredible sight to move deeper into this arid, encapsulating terrain to find a valley full of green trees, standing as tall and proud as young soldiers, pointing immaculately to the sky, a river current rushing and bounding over boulders beneath them. Settlement ruins in this valley are easier to understand and in the present context of travelling through this immense land, a desire even stirs in me to throw my belongings from our on rushing train and settle my tent at the rivers edge, leaving me with a view interrupted through this oasis-like ravine.
Still on the train, later that night, a youngish Uighur gentleman sleeping on the bunk below invited us to share his bag of almonds and raisons, as we sat and ate he proceeded to discuss the circumstances of contemporary Xinjiang. He worked on the railways, working twenty days on, ten days off. He was well educated, majoring in Chinese at a University in Urumqi. He spoke a little English and was also at least able to read Arabic. He was a softly spoken critic of the modern Chinese government. He described the difficulty for Uighur people to get a passport compared to the Han. He described the difficulty in having to speak Putonghua with fellow Uighur students at University.
He articulated the problems that the pressure of having to learn Putonghua is having on the Uighur’s indigenous language. Resulting in many young people not being able to read very well, let alone write Uighur. The learning of Putonghua, combined with the modern pressure to learn English, plus many peoples religious need to learn Arabic meant that the Uighur’s national language was being lost. He went so far as to compare the modern Chinese government with the Fascist government of Hitler’s Germany.
He was softly spoken, calm, he renounced violence and recognised the difficulties in managing modern China with its huge population and lands, but he was passionate in his interpretation of modern events. The destruction of “old” Kashgar, the touristification of Uighur heritage and the general dilution of the fact that the Uighur population had a distinct history and for most of that history was separate from Chinese governance (though the tributary system does provide a slightly more ambiguous context). And, that this is now a culture, a language disappearing within the fast developing, superhighway of the modern Chinese State.
Arriving in Kashgar and finding a place to stay tucked away in the old part of town, was to give us an opportunity to truly get a feeling of the historical destruction that has befallen not only the ancient old towns of Xinjiang, but across the country, from Dunhuang to Beijing and beyond. The past, with its faults, its fallibilities, its frailties and instabilities has been destroyed; raised to the ground in the name of modernity, safety, security and other “appropriate” descriptions. It has been replaced with a modernity wrought with faults, fallibilities, frailties and instabilities.
My emotional response to this seeming destruction was one of deep sadness. Lone houses standing amongst dusty construction sites, twisted wooden beams protruding out of walls, a marker of the building they once held together, now gone. The most moving aspect was walking in the muddy dust realising it was in essence the ashes of the buildings that had stood on that same spot for generations, for hundreds of years; the dust of those walls now at my feet. A local taxi driver explained this to me in a more pragmatic way while he was taking me out to the animal market.
He told me that the Uighur community are basically unhappy on the basis that they are forced to move into houses that are some distance from their original homes and that they are generally lacking the communities of previous generations. He noted that before everything was at their door, from food to friends, but that now they have to take a bus, bike or taxi to do anything. Neighbours of centuries past swept far and wide. Neighbourhoods that had for generations created a certain social atmosphere have gone. Neighbours that marked relationships by generational depth are dispersed to different corners of this fast modernizing city.
There is of course the new city evolving; with lakes, parks, shops and high rises, the former making many of China’s down town areas more pleasant. And, as you go around many people are enjoying these new amenities. But, as in so many Chinese cities, towns and villages, and to be fair throughout the world it is somewhat similar, something has been lost. Here it is an intimate sense of community; a unique neighbourhood’s social and cultural lifestyle that is disappearing.
There is however something else noticeable here and that is the genuine openness and friendliness noted in the eyes of, and in the communication with, the Uighur population. This is not present in the Uighur communities I have come across in Urumqi and Xi’an, where there are far greater levels of mutual mistrust and wariness than there are here. I will leave it to further reading and experience to interpret the reasons why that might be the case. Though, the fact that they have been able to enjoy a sense of their own community and cultural ways of life for longer may have something to do with it. This is a part of China with one foot in Central Asia, though with a giant westward stride being made from Beijing.
This trip to Xinjiang has been interesting on a number of levels that I had only given superficial thought to before leaving, partly due to the rushed nature of our choice of destination and generally due to the fact I was swayed by the photographs and stories I was told of wilderness hideaways that we had planned to disappear off to. So, getting a greater sense of the so-called Uighur issue, while also getting a far more encompassing sense of China’s multi-ethnic base, as well as an initial introduction to some of the countries and peoples that border China’s North and West, has been fascinating.
However, before leaving Xi’an the one place I really wanted to get out to was Karakul Lake, west of Kashgar, on the Karakoum Highway heading to Pakistan. Tourism is beginning to grip Xinjiang as it has many other parts of China but on arriving here you only have to put off a few young hawkers of horse rides, camel rides, motor bike rides and Yurt habitation, before it is possible to be absolutely awe struck by the immense beauty of this place.
A 7000 meter plus, snow capped mountain is a sight in itself to behold but when you are also faced with a glistening turquoise lake, beneath a radiant mountain high sun, with those quite awesome white ice peaks peering down upon you, above the desert brown foothills, themselves dazzling in reflection within the lakes sheer glass visage, clear blue sky overhead with only the whisping of light cloud or brushed snow breaking the clarity of the mountain’s peak, you really realise it was worth the trip.
There is a bit of a tourist crowd growing around the entrance to the lake, the result of a private company purchasing the rights for that bit of land, which includes the yurts and restaurant in that close vicinity. However, you only have to disappear a little around the lake to the left to be out of reach of those wishing to charge the company’s ticket price. You can stay in a yurt at a few spots around the lake but again this is where the tent was to come in handy and we were able to enjoy three days of absolute lakeside tranquillity and bliss. With only the occasional local lad still trying to hawk his wears to disturb us, but that was ok.
In the mornings the camels were actually put out to graze next to where we were camping, so Ling did end up having a much enjoyed camel ride around the lake. An experience I had had for a number of hours in the Sahara of Morocco many years ago, which I had sworn at the time never to repeat, as it had then been the first leg of a 48 hour journey, an experience that had left my lower regions in no fit state to face such a journey. It was fun though to watch Ling astride one of these most fascinating of creatures, especially as they had become our morning neighbours.
Here, as in Kanas, you can sit, breathe, lie and wash in nature. You can remind yourself of the magicality of our earth’s existence, and you can put aside for a short time the mundanity that has been forced on the majority of our human population, not to mention the odd camel or two, and you can for a few moments hold back the thoughts of the destruction that has befallen and continues to befall so much of our natural world. For a while all really is ok:
“I woke this morning with the sun just beginning to appear from behind the nearest mountain. I walked slowly across the fresh, dew dripping grass, crouched by the lakes edge, peering in almost disbelief at the clarity of the water, I leant forward, placed my cupped hands beneath the icy water and splashed my not fully awoken face; rubbing over my eyes, behind my ears, across my face and around my neck. Still crouched by the lakeside I closed my eyes and felt the already intense sun on my face. I now sit on a flat stone slab on an area of slightly raised grassland, the lake drifting out all around me. All I can see as I gaze out left to right are dazzling sheer white mountain peaks and a sparkling sun dappled lake, with a couple of camels just grazing off to my left, and all I can say is, the heathen in me is goddamn happy.”