The Heavenly Way
Part 1 of The Land of Nomads
It was a road trip through one of the most sensitive regions of China’s most sensitive province.
There are so many unknowns, but the fact that this was a journey the government did not want us to partake was not of them. Outside the edge of ancient Kuqa, standing alongside the noisy highway, we are attempting to ascend into the land of nomads. They are the northern realms of Xinjiang graced by the Tianshan (Heavenly) and Altai (Golden) Mountains - a place of itinerants with their golden eagles, rolling green meadows set against snowy peaks, and landscapes of the bluest alpine lakes and granite towers dotted with cozy yurts. Kazakhs, Mongols and Altais have shared these lands for thousands of years. Our ambition as simple passerby’s is to just glimpse their way of life. A question lingers: do they still hold to those legendary traditions, or are they now merely a remnant of the past?
A Farewell to the Land of the Uyghurs
Rain danced between heavy and light throughout the day, transforming the dry and arid northern outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert into a muddy terrain. We quickly find shelter under a tree when the rain switches to heavy. Across from us we gaze at Uyghur children dancing in the puddles - the simple joy of being a child. And in a moment like this, it feels as if we are too.
We are in ancient Kuqa, a northern outpost of one of earth’s most treacherous deserts, a town that certainly witnessed better days - one where Silk Road caravans arrived by the hundreds exchanging numerous treasures from around the world. But the time has come to say goodbye to the land of the Uyghurs and venture into the northern realms of Xinjiang. We retreat from the shelter of the tree to the western outskirts of town, where the 217 highway extends far north for hundreds of miles through some of the most scenic landscapes of the Tianshan Mountains - or so we heard.
I cautiously extend my thumb out to the passing vehicles as my wife half hides herself in a roadside storefront. The Chinese government has spewed lies mixed in with scant truth how the local population are terrorists, all in an effort to prevent mass tourism. And the majority tourists that do make it out to this remote western region of China do it with a carefully crafted itinerary and guide. Our means was off-script and slightly radical. We are hoping to traverse upwards of a thousand miles, relying on the kindness of the local populace.
The start could have been better.
Not one vehicle has decreased their speed at my roadside pose for nearly an hour, dampening our hopes to reach the canyons and grasslands that lay a few hundred miles to the north. Let’s at least try a few more, I thought to myself. In an unexpected moment nearing our breaking point, a unassuming car stops in front of us.
“Where are you headed?” a cheerful man queried. Mary retreated from her shelter in response, “As far north as you can take us along this road.”
“Come on in.”
We clambered in his car with our backpacks sprawled across our laps. The vehicle swiftly left the outskirts of Kuqa for rocky hills and grey canyons. We watched a gentle patter of rain dampen the landscape that changed by the minute - soon the grey rocks were replaced with red towers of sandstone and conglomerate, likely holding many uncharted crevices and canyons. The man, a local Uyghur, was quiet yet full of peace. The few questions he did ask were out of respect, a far cry from the regimes intended portrait of these people. His intended destination we did not know, but we went on for the ride as we were nearing our destination - the Bayanbulak Grasslands. We’ve heard praises and wonders from those who made it to those green lands where meandering streams cut across the vibrant grass and nomads yurts are flanked by heavenly peaks. We eagerly anticipated what adventures awaited…
The Tianshan Grand Canyon
A large sign zoomed across the road.
“The Mysterious Tianshan Grand Canyon.”
It sounds too enticing to pass up, even though it could be a cheesy marketing ploy. Nonetheless, we motioned our kind driver to drop us off. We were greeted with a gentle drizzle and cool breeze when we stepped out the vehicle and bid farewell to the man. A large and relatively recently built entrance stands in a strategic position in front of the narrow slot canyon. To our dismay, the Canyon is closed due to light rain, and our kind driver has already vanished. I persistently waited at the entrance, badgering the guard if they could let us in, hoping he could understand in my limited Chinese. The rain eventually settled down and the gate opened. We traversed the narrow gorge, awestruck by the grand size of the cliff face and the crack that allowed us to wander through. We both agreed the canyon lived up to its grand name.
Into the Heavenly Mountains
Once again, we found ourselves roadside with thumbs sticking out. But the tides have changed. As the warm sun highlighted the canyons around us, one of the first vehicle’s to pass us pulls off the road in front of us. A man waves his hand from inside the window, motioning us to come. Inside the car we find a cheerful man with his wife seated beside him and their 3 year old son in the backseat.
“We want to go to Bayanbulak.”
“No problem, we will pass that area,” the father said.
And once again, we are on the road. This family was very talkative and curious of our origins and whereabouts. After explaining as simply as possible, they told us they are a Uyghur family on a road trip to visit family. The boy, seated beside me, was bright eyed and curious at this strange foreigner next to him, but he soon warmed up and began typical toddler antics.
The scenery changed to utterly spectacular as the road ascended into the Tianshan Mountains. The red rock walls were replaced with bright green meadows laced with clear streams and blue lakes. One vantage point was so spectacular the father stopped his vehicle off the side of the road for a short pause at the beauty. And of course a picture with us two dirty backpackers.
A Landscape So Simple, yet Starkly Beautiful
However, beyond this viewpoint lay a landscape I still think about to this day- several years later. A scene so simple yet starkly beautiful of a meandering stream with rolling green hills and nomads with their sheep and yurts filling it to perfection. There was an urge for us to step out of the vehicle and wander aimlessly. Could Bayanbulak be more beautiful? It is after all one of the most famous of Xinjiang’s many grasslands. A silent debate formed in my head: to get off or not to get off. Should we pursue the moment, even though slightly reckless and entirely unknown, or should we fulfill our earlier goal by reaching our intended destination of Bayanbulak.
We chose the latter, playing it safe. The anticipation escalated for what Bayanbulak holds...
"You Can't Come In."
A deathly serious Chinese officer stated without a hint of persuasion. And he was looking squarely at me, the lone white foreigner.
“Foreigners are banned from entering Bayanbulak.” He stated once again, not in the mood for bargaining.
Mary gave up negotiating with the officer positioned in this remote land, so I got out of the vehicle to have a talk with him - to no avail. There wasn’t anything that could change his mind. We explained as simply as could that we had no vehicle and turning back would entail us waiting at this police outpost for another vehicle to take us the opposite way, at 10:30 pm mind you and several hours from the nearest town in the opposite direction. He therefore graciously let us pass through Bayanbulak, but with a strong warning to not step out of the vehicle until clear of the next police station.
What secrets could be at Bayanbulak that the Chinese government feels threatened by a lone backpacking foreigner? What would worry the government with engaging the nomads and local villagers?
Even though I felt dejected at not visiting the grasslands, a quick lesson formed - seize the opportunity. Our good Samaritans seized the opportunity without hesitating when they found two strangers on the road. They didn’t calculate the risks, but prioritized relationship.
How I wish to this day we could have stepped out of that vehicle and wander into those grasslands, into the unknown.
With that said and done, we piled back into the vehicle to watch the Bayanbulak Grasslands glide by through the window panes. The sun was nearly retired, highlighting the sky with bright purple hues for a grand finale. And as suddenly as we were denied access to this area, the landscape darkened, closing itself off from our very eyes. The road ahead was long and narrow, no doubt beautiful I imagine, but one we are forced to endure in the darkness a 90 kilometer journey to the nearest town of Nalati.
Well past midnight, our kind driver and his family dropped us off in Nalati.
Farewells were exchanged, capping off with then refusing any compensation whatsoever from us, which ended up being a road trip lasting nearly four hours. For them their road trip continued, while ours ended. We were beyond tired at this point so we quickly scanned the small town for accommodations. Mary discovered some cozy guest houses and one hostel catering to Chinese travellers, but they all refused to give us a bed when they glanced at me, an obvious foreigner. The government has made it plain that locals shall not accommodate, or even interact with foreigners. They all directed us to the one place that will welcome us - an overpriced concrete-structure of a hotel. At approximately eight stories high (an overkill for a town of this size) and ghostly empty save a lady at the front desk, we still had to fork out 200 yuan for a room in the basement. It was all they could give us, the lady explained to Mary. We had enough debates for one day, so we grudgingly accepted. And that ended a rather unexpected day, one we envisioned ending sound asleep in wide open grasslands next to a nomads yurt, not in a dusty basement.
A new day dawned.
We climbed out of the squeaky bed and basement to gather fresh air - and see where exactly we are. It turns out it is beautiful. The bluest morning sky contrasted with the rolling green hills in the foreground and the higher snowy peaks in the background. A dirt track led from the main road to these meadows, which we walked partially until being forced back by an unfriendly horse.
With Bayanbulak out of the picture, I pondered last night where we could attempt to reach instead. It was ambitious, but I proposed to Mary we reach the Pearl of the Silk Road, as it once was coined and now known as Sayram Lake. But with only a night to spare, it lies 360 kilometers away, and just kilometers from the border of Kazakhstan. It is a risk as time is drawing short on our traverse through Xinjiang, but the few photos I’ve seen of it suggested it was worth it. Hence we couldn’t wander too far off as we had another day to find an unlikely set of drivers to bring us to the blue shores of Sayram.
To spare the details this time, our Good Samaritan’s consisted of an old man on a donkey cart, a middle aged Kazakh with a pick up truck, and finally, as if back in civilization, a regular bus that dropped us off in Illi, the largest town on the Chinese side of the China/Kazakhstan border. It was a long affair though, as we arrived in Illi as the sun set, approximately 11:30 pm. On the long bus ride, Mary located a simple guesthouse that would take us, as we planned on taking a taxi to Sayram Lake in the morning. However, upon stepping off the bus in Illi, a taxi driver approached us. He seemed desperate for business, so I asked him if he could meet us tomorrow morning to take us to Sayram Lake.
“I can take you now,” he answered.
“Umm... how long of drive is it?”
“Just two hours,” the taxi driver responded.
I glanced at Mary. It is nearly midnight. Meaning we will arrive on the shores of Sayram Lake at 2 in the morning. It’s risky. The outcome is unknown. But somehow, and I don’t know why to this day, we took up his offer.
Into the unknown, we go.