Xinjiang: Flirting on the Nalati Prairie

Meet Azhatae, my horseman and guide for his home, the Nalati Grassland.

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I’m laughing hard here because my horseman was using some incredibly cheesy pick-up lines as he snapped away.

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“Stay here with me; you can ride my horse every day!”
(I couldn’t tell whether that was a true innuendo because he sounded so earnest and he is keenly passionate about his six horses…)

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Originally, we trotted along a well-trodden path. Then, slowly but certainly, we trotted away into grass plains.

He then asked, “Do you trust me?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I want you to trust me.”
“Why?”
“Hold tight.”
And with a kick, the horse leapt into a quick gallop and I squealed across the plains.

(Then he completely spoilt it with more lame ‘pick-up lines’)
“Was I good?”
“Yea!!!”
“Come over tonight and I’ll show you just how good I am.”
“Umm…I’ll pass…”
“Come! I’ll take you to my home now!”
“Nonononono.”

And he took me safely back to base at the end of two hours. Haha.

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Xinjiang: Nalati Prairie

This is the Nalati Grassland near the Sino-Kazakhstan border. This was my favourite place on the whole trip – it’s not difficult to see why.

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Visitors to Nalati on a group tour have a few options to while away the time with… there are a couple of hiking routes, but as I didn’t try them out, I can’t give any recommendations or say how safe/well-labelled they are. Here’s the start of one trail though –

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There’s also a sight-seeing jeep of sorts that takes you up to various scenic-viewing platforms. But the city girl has to opt for horseback-riding, right? What a rare chance – I was so excited!

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The owner, Azhatae, let me take the reins for a bit after he taught me the basic commands…unfortunately I was not firm enough and the horse kept going to munch on juicy grass.

The experience costs RMB160 for two hours. They take you up a tourist trail to a spot where there’s a break in the trees and you see the endless grassland before you, and a trek back. (more about this in an upcoming post!)

These Kazakh men start riding at the age of 5, and the ladies by the age of 9, frequently earlier. I watched some teenagers race each other on a mud track – it was beautiful and thrilling to see it so up-close! More next time!

Xinjiang: The Bayanbulak Swan Lake (with no swans)

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Grazing animals are lovely to watch.

China has a thing about fencing up natural wonders and charging (exorbitant ticket prices) for them. They do so for lakes, and prairies, and mountains… I understand charging a fee for landscaped parks and historical wonders, collecting donations for museums and places of worship, but charging for natural wonders is simply being opportunistic. Paying for services is acceptable, as is paying a fee for maintenance upkeep, but for a view…? Perhaps I am merely being naive and miserly.

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(The descriptions in English can be read if you enlarge the photographs.)

Here, we were given some time to take a walk (uphill) to see a meandering river.

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I was super cold, and luckily there were coats for rent (100RMB, 50RMB refunded on return of the coat). The domestic Chinese tourists had some good-natured fun teasing me, a foreigner, for wearing the Red Army coat.

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Yes, I do look warm enough to hike the Himalayas, not some highland lake. Ignore my messy hair and check out the curvey river behind!

Given that there were no real swans around…are swans migratory? Or is ‘The Swan Lake’ merely a description of the graceful arches of the river?

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Xinjiang: Just one of the Chinese-Russian borders

So the tour I booked saw us staying one night in Yining city, Yili region, with a little evening tour of the ‘minority ethnic streets’. Yes, evening – this is broad daylight at 8pm or so because all of China follows Beijing time (GMT+8) even when we are at the far west border.

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We sat in decorated horse-drawn carts – the cart could sit 6 comfortably, including the driver. Mostly I was wondering whether we were too heavy for the horses but the cart-driver told me not to underestimate the horse.

Around the neighbourhood we went, and visited several house-shops. Some owners of well-maintained houses open up portions of their homes for view – the garden and dining area, the living room, and in one case, the prayer room.

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Here’s a dining room with Uigher & Russian influences which the owner claims he designed. Apparently, many of these owners have, at some point in their lives, lived in Russia (and also have Russian blood somewhere in their ancestry). The merchandise available in these house shops (usually laid out in a spare room) tend to be scarves or little trinkets out of Aladdin.

And of course there’s the classic little cultural performance that all tours include –

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Mostly amateur but still entertaining. There was this really cute 70+ year old man who did a lively balance-a-flower-pot-on-head dance and received the loudest cheers.

Xinjiang: Sayram Lake

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I joined a tour to Yili, and visited Sayram Lake along the way.

Look at the pebbles on the ground – we were told to pick three up each.

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We were then driven to a viewing platform –

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And invited to make three wishes using the three pebbles.

Bit of a Tibetan practice: Walk clockwise around the pebble mound, make a wish, then cast your pebble onto the mound. Repeat for the remaining two pebbles.

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A general word of advice – have a care with what you pray for. The local belief, as far as i understand, is that if your wish is granted, you must make a return trip for thanksgiving (actually, applies to Buddhist sites across Asia). Therefore, if you are uncertain about your ability to return as a pilgrim, it may be best not to request for something major there. These would include stuff like a childless couple praying to conceive, a long-time single praying to be married etc.

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On a side note, what do people actually do at lakes (and beaches?) The bus drops you off, gives you time to enjoy the view and take pictures, and off you go. This was the same at Loch Lomond in Scotland…where my friends and I pottered about on the pebbly shore until it was time to board the bus. Perhaps I sometimes simply do not know how to relax and do nothing.

On another side note/warning: Lonely Planet says you could find accommodation with some herdsmen around the lake. They are few and far between, also sparsely located – by that I mean these lone clusters of 2-3 huts are located 8-10mins drive apart, if any…if one group has no space for you, it’s a long walk with no real certainty that you’ll find accommodation down the road! Either be prepared to join a tour, or rent a car, or book one with a driver for several hours…or pitch your own tent maybe.
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Ben Okri’s In Arcadia

I picked up Ben Okri’s In Arcadia at a library book fair some years ago, attracted by the title, thinking mostly of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia which I had enjoyed very much. The book came to rest in the corner of the bookshelf reserved for travel reading, i.e. books I take with me on holiday and do not intend to come home with.

The blurb reads: Imagine a journey undertaken by discontented people to paradise. Imagine also that they’ve been brought together by a mysterious benefactor. Beginning and end unknown. In this novel about anger, meaning, folly, friendship and art, Ben Okri combines adventure and mystery to reveal serendipities of the heart and mind. In Arcadia is one of his most intriguing and provocative novels.

What I was quite annoyed by was the lack of an actual story – it is premised on media personnel making a documentary about a paradise on earth (or, given that I was reading it in China, perhaps a Shangri-La), but that gets interjected by reflective ‘chapters’ where the protagonist, Lao, drifts off into meditation and contemplation. While that contained some lovely passages on┬átravel (and these I intend to share with you in upcoming posts), making the book highly appropriate as holiday reading while waiting at the airport, on the train, long bus journeys etc., it was highly distracting too. I would have much preferred those pieces to be expanded into essays, and the story fully developed. The whole book felt disappointingly neither here nor there, and instead it was Terry Pratchett who entertained me for the rest of the trip.

Stay tuned for the gems though – they make for some interesting discussion.

Roses in a park

Just thought I’d follow the previous post with a better view –

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Colourful roses!
This was in a small park just off Parkson Shopping Mall in Urumqi.

I quite like city parks in China – it’s always full of activity with aunties dancing with various props such as fabric fans or little flower drums, the classic taichi, and my personal favourite, water calligraphy on the pavement.