Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake), Urumqi, China

Tian Chi, also known as Heavenly Lake, is located about 150km away from Urumqi in the Tian Shan mountain range and is a popular a day trip from the city. Regular buses leave at 9am from the People’s Park in Urumqi so on our first evening we purchased some tickets for 150 Yuan each for the following day.  We thought, through conversing with the bus operator in his basic English (and my rudimentary Mandarin) the fee would cover the transport to Tian Chi as well as an entrance ticket to the Heavenly Lake.

The following morning we arrived at the bus station to be hustled onto a bus with about ten or so local Chinese tourists. It turned out we’d somehow booked ourselves onto an actual day tour, conducted in Mandarin. We also found out that the 150 Yuan only covered transport to the Tian Chi complex and that we would need to fork out an additional 180 Yuan for the tour (totally about $50 each) which included a few other attractions, lunch and transport to the lake itself.  Our outdated guidebook advised there was a 15 Yuan chairlift to the top of the mountains however we were informed this had been shut down.  We caused quite a bit of commotion and amusement on our bus, being the only foreigners and also our adamant reluctance to pay the extra 180 Yuan to join the tour (after a few months of travel every penny counts!).   Anyway, having no better option, in the end we joined the tour. Funnily enough, one of the highlights of the tour was one of the friendly Chinese tourists, Yu, she seemed to be the only person who spoke a bit of English and was helping us with some of the translation. The tour itself was quite a disappointment after having already visited Central Asia.  The Tian Chi region is populated by local Kazakhs and as such the Kazakhstan culture was on show.  There were a few yurts set up for tourists to take photos inside, a costume section where we could dress up in traditional wear, a Kazakh song and dance show, a traditional fighting event.  Lunch was a merely a plate of plov which was disappointing.  In general, the tour was rushed, the tour guides were super loud as each wore a speaker set trying to talk over one another and there were just so many tour groups. After travelling independently it was quite painful to be told “times up, next site”.  It was, though, interesting to observe the local Chinese tourists enjoying their holidays.  It is clear that a growing number of Chinese are enjoying higher levels of income and as such domestic tourism is booming.

Anyhow, the lovely blue lake itself is stunning, located over two thousand metres high in the mountains.  A few yurts lie atop the hills, owned by Kazakhs. We had a pleasant chat to a local Kazakh man who told us that during peak season 20,000 Chinese tourists visit the site.  We also visited a temple as part of the tour, which we found out, was built only last year.

In the spirit of organised tours, our last stop was a massive three-level handicraft shop selling everything from jade to perfumes.

Kyrgyzstan man playing the komuz and singing traditional music
Kyrgyzstan traditional folk dance
Travis wearing a traditional Uighur hat
Bogda Shan range of the Tian Shan Mountains
Bogda Shan range of the Tian Shan Mountains
View of Kyrgyz yurts on a hill
Buddhist monastery built on three-hundred steps
Dragon head and on Turtle body a common Chinese symbol
Red wooden blocks hanging outside
Red wooden blocks hanging outside
A Dharmapala, Buddhist protector
A Dharmapala, Buddhist protector

Urumqi, China

We caught a soft-sleeper train from Kashgar to Urumqi, a full day of travelling, as we had a room to ourselves the time went by fairly quickly.

Urumqi is a large gateway city connecting Central Asia to China, we didn’t spend too much time in the city, but did enjoy the People’s Park with leafy surrounds, pond and the pavilion in traditional Chinese architecture was a nice change from the Islamic architecture we were now used to.

The highlight was  a day trip to Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake).

Pavilion in the Peoples Park Urumqi

Karakol, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China

We left Karakol intending to spend the day travelling to Sary Tash, a border town roughly 100km from the Kyrgyzstan/China border, a 950km route that we thought would take approximately twelve hours. We made a few poor judgments, first we left too late, at around 9am from Karakol, we then had trouble finding transport from Karakol, it was low-season, and nobody would go directly to Osh so we had to make do with hoping from one city to another.  Another thing was we planned to cross on the Friday, the border was closed on weekends, and we couldn’t afford to lose another two days waiting for it to reopen.

Our initial transport was a marshrutka (Russian for ‘Fixed Route’), a small slow bus, that stops many times and doesn’t go above 60km/h.  In three hours we reached the Barskoon junction, a measly 80kms from Karakol. We decided to hitchhike as there was no sign of public transport.  Fortunately within ten minutes, two friendly young Kyrgyz men picked us up, who were making pharmaceutical deliveries around Lake Issyk Kol and were then heading back to Bishkek.

The Lonely Planet recommended taking transport from Balykchy, and then towards Naryn and onto Osh.  However we further read that from October to June the Fergana Pass was closed, presumably due to snow cover, this meant we could no longer take the direct route through the centre of Kyrgyzstan and needed to go via Bishkek, an extra 200km journey.  Fortunately, our drivers were going that way.  We stopped for a lunch of traditional Kyrgyz dish beshbarmak (literally ‘five fingers’ as it is traditionally eaten by hand), it is a dish of noodles with lamb and a small slice of horse meat. It was the first time Sonya and I had eaten horse, the way it was cooked was quite spicy.

We reached Bishkek at around four o’clock and headed straight for a tour agency.  During the ride we also happened to read that during May 1st to May 10th the border was closed due to a number of national holidays, we wanted to confirm if it would be open, we were informed that it was, but also reality struck that there wasn’t enough time to reach Sary Tash. We had done the Osh to Bishkek route previously and knew it took around eight hours in daylight.  Osh to Sary Tash would a further three to four hours, then there was the time need to go from Sary Tash to the border, reaching for a planned 9am crossing. If we did attempt it, we would be cutting it extremely close, the driver would be driving all night and through two mountain passes, there was a lot of risk.

After much thought and great disappointment, we eventually decided to fly to Kashgar via Urumqi instead, it was a hard decision to make, but we believe we made the best choice for us. It was particularly painful knowing that if we had planned it a little better this may have worked out differently.