A journey to the far west of China.
With the objective of ending a short pan-China journey with an ultimate side-trip, I set off for Lake Sailimu, in the far, far northwestern side of the country. There is such little information about the said lake on the internet that I wonder if it actually exists, but now, here it is right in front of me, in all it splendor. Off-the-beaten-path travel pays huge dividends.
I turn around and start climbing the mountains that surround the whole body of water, and soon I am surrounded by the most majestic scenery I have ever seen; behind, the lake in all its blue glory, on one side, a pine forest (a forest!!! in China!!!), on the other side, a vast plateau covered with colorful wild flowers and a few horses roaming around freely, and in front of me, imposing mountains sprinkled with eternal snow. I feel like I am in some little fairytale of some sort, and have it all for myself.
…well, not quite. There are a few people living in the area after all, all of them nomadic Kazakhs. I go down by another flank, and I see two or three pairs of yurts in the large grass field underneath me, surrounded by herds of sheep and the odd human. I pass by one of the camps, and soon I am invited to stay overnight with them. I can’t refuse! I drop my bag in the smaller one, and am quite astonished at the level of ingenuity on display: there is a complex and sturdy wooden frame, an elevated wooden floor covered with thick carpets, and a small generator to recharge their cell phones and fuel a small lightbulb (its only uses, as they do all their heating and cooking with old-school stoves).
They are a half-dozen living there: a toothless grandma, a woman in her early thirties and her three-year-old, and two chicks and a guy, all in their twenties. The latter performs all the “man duties” for the family, and explains me in perfect Chinese (that, along with one of his sisters, he is the only one to speak, the others being monolingual in Kazakh) that they stay in the plain during summer and in mid-fall they move to the city, where his uncles and cousins are working. As a true 21st century cowboy, he spends most of his time herding their 23 cows, 300 sheep, a few horses and several chickens as well. But no piggies; they’re Muslim. Pretty liberal Muslims though it seems, since as I’m about to find out when night falls, he doesn’t mind at all having a beer or a glass of baijiu or ten. Drinking to excess with a Kazakh cowboy in a yurt: Achievement Unlocked.
By this time, two solo Chinese travelers have joined us, also passing through the area: Wang Lei comes from Shandong and works in Shanghai, He Meng hails from Jiangsu and works in Zhuhai, and well, I come from Henan and am an unemployed bum. Both of them seem to have their basic English down, but only talk to me in Chinese, which I take as an enormous compliment, as it means I am better at Chinese than them at English! We converse a bit about our travels, they sure have been around (He Meng had just crossed all of Tibet by hitch-hiking, and she’s female, by the way) and they comment with a bit of criticism in their voices about the mass tourism industry in their country, AC buses from which people take pictures with their iPhones, and lack of true independent tourism.
For the two days I stay there, I eat breakfast and dinner with the whole family: all the meals are exclusively composed of dry, hard, flat bread (naan) and meat dishes… sheep legs with the hooves still on, boiled horse, intestines that have a rather strong “rural” taste and other five-star delicacies. I am not complaining, far from that, it is hearty and interesting, but forgive me for not imagining myself eating that every day of the year for the rest of my life, especially given the incredible food tradition of other parts of China, the rest of Xinjiang included. But I am realistic, they can’t grow nor buy produce around here, and besides, cowboys need their calories. Their tea is also extremely rich, as they mix it with milk; not as heavy as the butter tea of the Tibetans, though (which I am not a fan of at all).
While our Kazakh hosts perform their family duties, the three of us set off for a hike in the mountains. We cross valleys, trample snow-covered plains, high-five trees, and take four billion pictures (they’re Chinese after all). At some point, I am walking a bit ahead, and see a guy sitting on the top of a hill on the horizon, facing the other way. He is the only other human I have seen in the past few hours, so I bifurcate and walk his way, wanting to say hi. As I am getting closer, he lies on his back, and I notice that he is JERKING OFF!!! Just like that, looking at the mountains! He sees me in his peripheral vision, and all surprised, flips on his belly and does the bacon wiggle to get his pants up, but too late buddy, the ocular damage is done. I run back downhill towards my two companions, shouting “他打飞机! 他打飞机!.” We all laughed at this comical incident.
We keep walking until we reach our destination: the massive construction site we each saw on our way in by bus the day before. Every single person that has ever traveled to China for the past decade knows about how impressive Chinese civil engineering is, and here, in this sparsely-populated, remote corner of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, several hundred kilometers west of Urumqi, it is the case as well. There are dozens of huge trucks, a small village of temporary buildings and hundreds of workers moving around like ants on a gigantic, half-completed bridge. I can’t help but mentally applaud the level of skill on display, as well as the will to invest in the road network.
Road network that is not yet ideal and ready to use, though: after bidding my farewells to my hosts and fellow road lovers, I set off to hitchhike (the only way out, unless you are ready to wait for the sporadic bus passing by) and even though my destination (Khorgas, right on the Kazakh border) is only 80 km away, it takes me and my benevolent truck driver a full 4 hours to reach it. The scenery was beauteous, though.
Upon getting to Khorgas, I check in an inexpensive hotel, take a long shower, eat some Sichuan food and watch a soccer game on CCTV-5. I don’t do much else in that small, slow-paced border town, catching my breath before crossing over to the proper Central Asian countries.
Info from June 2010, might have changed slightly.
How to get there: The only way, as of 2010, to get to Lake Sailimu was to take a bus from Yining 伊宁, a medium-sized town a full overnight bus ride west from Urumqi. The bus doesn’t have Sailimu Lake 赛里木湖 as its final destination, but Bole 博乐. Ask the driver or passengers to point you the lake out, even though it’s pretty hard to miss it. I remember the ride taking a bit more than three hours.
Where to stay: There is actually a small hotel by the lake, I noticed it on my way out. It has a small store with snacks, a large restaurant that seems to be mostly used as a lunch stopover for tourist buses in the area, and they can organize horse rentals and the like. However, I strongly recommend just trying your luck and getting a homestay with the nomad families in the plain.
Costs: I paid 100 yuan a day for accommodation in a yurt (comfy blankets provided, the yurt might be shared depending if there are other travelers passing through, but the Kazakhs told me it is a pretty rare occurrence to have two at a time, much less three), two meals and I could use the horse to explore when they were not using it. I think the two Chinese bargained it down and paid less, but I was happy and satisfied with the 200 they asked me.
What to do: If you stay with locals, that’s cool and all, but even though they hosts tourists from time to time they are not touristic guides per se and won’t take you by the hand to entertain you. There is not much else “to do” but hiking, horse-riding, and learning about their ways of life. The lake is all rocky, and even in the heat of June was too cold for swimming.