Walking through northern Xinjiang, China (part 1)

2016.06.11

It has been a long time since I wrote my last post (almost two years ago) and I have been wanting to write about one of my last trips that made a deep impression and marking about cultural preservation and freedom. This was the trip to the far north west autonomous region Xinjiang in China, home to many minority ethnic groups (Kazakh, Tuvan, Uyghur) who grew up together speaking 2-3 languages where most of the young generation speak Kazakh, Uyghur, and mandarin Chinese.

I packed a backpack weighting about 13kgs with basic food for trekking, water, minimum clothes, a sleeping bag and a trekking pole (which almost didn’t make it on the plane because the check-in counter in Altay airport didn’t allow it at first), and embarked to this mysterious and beautiful land.

Initially I was debating whether to go to the north or south of Xinjiang. Thanks to friends’ recommendations and advice I chose to spend a week in Altay during the summer of June 2016, in the northern Xinjiang region, a part of China bordering Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan.

This region has become a hot touristic spot and unfortunately all the discovered beautiful nature in China gets spoiled by over-development. If you want to avoid crowds in this country then trekking into the wild is where you will find peace and truly enjoy the outdoors. During the 3-4 days hike I only met 2 groups doing the same route on horses and camels. No one else was walking and the entire area is very safe.

新疆 (Xinjiang), named by the Qing emperor (ruling from 1644–1912), means “new dominion” or “new frontier territory” meaning old borderland newly returned.

altay map
location of Altay, Xinjiang, China

How to get there: fly Santiago (Chile) -> Shanghai -> Wurumuqi (Xinjiang) -> Altay

  • Fly Santiago – USA – Shanghai (26+hrs)
  • Fly Shanghai – Wurumuqi (5.5hrs)
  • Fly Wurumuqi – Altay (1hr)
  • Bus Altay – Burqin (1.5hr)
  • Bus Burqin – Jiadengyu

Trekking route: total 70km

  • Day 1: Jiadengyu – joint of Kanas river and Hemu river (20km, 6+hrs)
  • Day 2: joint of Kanas river and Hemu river – Hemu (15km, 4+hrs)
  • Day 3: Hemu – Black Lake (20km, 8+hrs) (most challenging trek, all ascending from 2000m to 3500m) (I took a horse instead and it was the right choice as the trails were not visible at all due to the melted snow and rain before, and there were a couple of big rivers to cross, it would have been too dangerous and risky on foot. Some trekkers have gotten lost on this route last year.)
  • Day 4: Black Lake – Kanas (15km, 4-5hrs)

(PS: there are no signs for the trekking routes so I asked the locals to point me to the start of the trails. Google maps works most of the time and having a compass helped to guide me in the right direction)

Sleeping:

There are limited home stays and yurts along the trek (very cheap around CNY60-80 a night) so best is to ask the locals where to find them. A friend of mine had trekked in the further northern Altay region a week before my trip, and advised me not to camp outside in the open air as mosquitoes and ticks attack in the forests (there were plenty of mosquitoes and fire ants during the day too, which made my trek with no stops and very quick toilet breaks).

Trekking route from Jiadengyu to Kanas:

kanas_Trek_Map(2).jpg
I took the thin red walking trail starting at Jiadengyu towards Kanas as the final destination

Below is a clearer map of the trekking route I took shown in Chinese:

kanas trekking map chinese.jpeg

Thoughts…

The whole journey of the trek was fairly easy, during summer all the landscape was green and very peaceful. Only during the first day I encountered some light rain.

Having the basic needs of food and occasional hot shower when available reminded me of the simplicity of life that I am grateful for. During the road I encountered very friendly and curious locals, mostly Kazakh and some Tuvans. Luckily I speak Chinese and can communicate with the young locals. I learned just a few words of basic salutations in Kazakh, the main language spoken in this area (although they write in Arabic script, not Cyrillic) while the official language of Xinjiang is Uyghur. Talking with them made me see another unseen side of China, a beautiful side and different point of view of how the country is making it difficult for minority ethnicities to preserve their cultures and tradition. Changes in development and modern life is attracting the young people to move away from the traditional nomadic ways of living. The local Kazakhs and Tuvans live a very simple life with necessary modern technology such as mobile phone, many with electricity and running water (except those who live in yurts you will find no shower or toilet).

Here are memorable photos of Kanas:

IMG_8586
aerial view of Altay mountains
IMG_8602
communism is still evident everywhere in China
IMG_8606
the front door of a humble local Kazakh family house in Altay (written in Chinese and Uyghur–the official language of Xinjiang)
IMG_8608
the friendly Kazakh lady saw me taking photos of her home and invited me in for tea!
IMG_8610
traditional milk tea and hard bread (veeery hard)
IMG_8622
First day of the trek at my first stop/ stay on the way to the joint of Kanas river and Hemu river
IMG_8627
inside the home stay
IMG_8629
area around the home stay
IMG_8632
the home stay is owned by a Kazakh couple who speak only Kazakh and made this noodle for our dinner
IMG_8633
Day 2: walking towards Hemu
IMG_8653
good weather in June
IMG_8659
Day 3: arriving at Hemu village
IMG_8675
leaving Hemu and taking a horse towards Black Lake
IMG_8694
on the way riding towards Black Lake
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one of the various rivers to cross on the way towards Black Lake
IMG_8730
crossing another river on the way towards Black Lake

 

(continue reading part 2)

 

Some useful websites for trekking this route in Kanas, Altay, Xinjiang:

http://nicechinatour.blognet.me/2013/05/22/guide-for-trekking-kanas-in-xinjiang-china/

http://www.sohu.com/a/135952236_183235?_f=v2-index-feeds

http://www.8264.com/xianlu-2130642 (a great Chinese website for hikers with complete info and tips)

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