Tianchi “Heavenly” Lake

Rewind to last night (as I forgot to include in last post): After dinner, Mischa and us went to pick our luggage in Hasnat’s aunty’s house, and we felt so bad for bringing the inconvenience to him (for not telling earlier that we had arrived early because plans changed, Kuqa disaster etc, and now we’re dragging him to some strangers’ house to pick our luggage at dark night). We then took bus to Xinjiang University – where Mischa’s house is located. Yes, he’s a Masters student in English and lives in a nice cozy apartment inside campus, and we’re given his lovely guest room to stay. Details about Mischa and his house will be in separate post.

After breakfast (Mischa cooked pilaf rice for us, how wonderful is that?) he walked us to the bus stop outside university gate and and helped us to get a taxi to get to the tour agent office near Red Hill, and arriving there, the tour office lady said we’re late (!) and we got into the van quickly.  The van then went to pick a couple of other passenger, and later stopped by the highway, where we had to change for a bigger bus. Now we understand that this agent’s van only sends us to the tour bus that actually goes to Tianchi Lake, combining with passengers from other tour agents as well.

In the bus, we paid 100 yuan each to the bus representative, and when the bus representative asked for a few extra yuan for more extras, we freaked out and said our travel agent (who dont actually come along in this bus!! =.=) said it was 100 yuan only all in. Now the bus rep said it was only for bus going to lake and entrance ticket and lunch, but not including transfers until top (wth??) and tour guide. We said fine, we could walk by our own and we dont need guide in the first place. By the way, the conversation was translated by Jacky, a businessman from Shanghai having a quick getaway to Tianchi and is the only person who can speak English the bus. The bus rep gave a uneasy expression and asked us to sign some agreement (handwritten) that two of us (Az and I) will go around the lake without their guidance and they will not be responsible should anything happens to us. OMG!!!!! We started feeling regret for coming with tour agent but we have no choice now. We quickly signed the agreement, and to our surprise, Jacky, and a student (who got into the bus later), and 2 other Chinese woman behind us deciced to join us and sign the agreement as well!! :D We’ve now suddenly got friends – yes, friends who think just like us – detest guided tour!

The ride to Tianchi Lake took less than 1 hour, and there’s a very huge building complex which is the entrance! Hundreds of tour buses and cars are seen at the car park, and we’re now ready to bear some sappy touristy experience. After ticket checking, our group get into a smaller bus, which the designated tour bus inside the lake.

Now the nightmare begins. From the entrance gate to the top of hill (where the actual lake can be seen) I suppose shouldnt take too long. But can you belive that our bus first went to this herbal medicine show room and we have to waste 30 minutes listening to promoter about herbal medicine?? =.= Being the only foreigner around, it’s even worse to us not understand a word what she’s talking about. And they gave another 30 minutes for the tourists to browse the goods (and probably buy them) before we got into the bus again and continued the ride.

And it’s not ending here. The bus stopped at a large area where other tour buses stopped here as well. And this is the Kazakh yurt village (which I guess are fake and only tourist traps), one of visits that we didnt subscribe as “Add-ons” earlier, so we are not supposed to join them, yet still have to waste 1.5 hour waiting!!! (grr!!) We started hating the tour altogether, and Jacky screamed out loud “We’re not coming for these craps, we’re coming for the lake!!” Unfortunately only 6 of us who think the same way, while the rest of “pure” tourists from the bus were having fun watching Kazakh performance and trying out traditional costume to take photos. Therefor after more than 2 hours, we still couldnt see a sight of the lake.

The picture is me with the ladies who joined us excluding ourselves from the tourist traps! They’re so excited seeing me and asking to take alot of pictures together although they speak only Chinese. And Az with Hill, the student, who express his regret joining the tour as well. Later, we again (!) stopped at a restaurant and having the sappiest lunch ever. Yes, lunch is provided (plain pilaf rice) and again they gave time for the tourists to check souvenir shops nearby selling jade and stuff. Haih.

Alright, so I guess around noon, bus reached the parking space for tour buses. And we’re supposed to arrive soon. But not before everyone get a ride on a train buggy to transfer them to the lake. Again, we didnt subscribe for this service so we had to walk =.= We dont mind walking, and in fact, it’s so weird that these Chinese tourists are so lazy to walk for 5 minutes and need a buggy ride! When walking, you could hear love songs are played out loud from hidden speakers along the road. OMG, they do think tourists would enjoy the scenery more with music played in the air rather than nature sound?? I just can’t believe how commercialized this lake has been!

And finally, we saw the so-called Heavenly lake. After hours of journey!! Probably our mood isn’t as good by now, but the view is pretty stunning to enjoy anyhow. Finally, despite getting out from Mischa’s house early in the morning, we only, actually, arrived at the lake at 1pm!!! And we were told to gather at bus by 4pm to go back!

The lake was frozen, although the air was not that cold (probably coz it’s noon). During summer, the tourist would have a cruise by boat in the lake (with extra fees, of course). Now we escaped from the tourists bunch to walk around, although don’t know the route. This is so opposite to what I have read on internet, that you could hike around the lake and find Kazakh yurts settlement by the lakeside. At this point of time, they even put a No Entry sign to avoid people reaching the lakebank, with reason it’s dangerous at this time.

Some views. At the lookout point with our tripod.

A Kazakh boy who claimed from Rashit Yurt (featured in LP book) greeted us and asking if we’d like to stay in yurt. Yes, we were planning to overnight in yurt, but after all the “surprises” of how Tianchi Lake really is, I still don’t know if it’s still worth to stay. Chinese tourists will not overnight here, so the boy was targetting us. And he quoted 120 yuan per person (!) when I read it should be only 50 yuan! He said it was old rate, but still, we asked to have a look at the yurt first. So he walked us up to the village (which I forgot to take any pics, but it was in the video clip at the end of this post), and it seems the Kazakh nomads were shifted from lakeside to this hill top area, to build their yurts. There are around 30 yurts in the “village”, and some are located outside facing the lake. Other than this boy, other yurts seem like residential yurts, and the Kazakh people live here starting this season. We told him it’s too expensive, and he started lowering the price (until 80 yuan). We asked if he knows any public transport /or his father could send us to the bus station tomorrow to go back to Urumqi, since our return journey with the tour agent would void if we overnight here. There’s no sight of public taxi around the lake (only the designated tour buses!) except few local Kazakh’s cars so we can’t be sure how to go back to Urumqi if we decide to stay. And to our surprise and disappointment, he couldnt even answer our simple question!! =.= if he really stays here, how would usually he help travelers to get a ride back to Urumqi? Therefore, sorry dude, we have had so much disappointment today already. And apparently, there are no other yurt owners offering us to stay. Which is weird, but probably it’s not the right season for travelers to overnight here anyways (which explains why we dont see any foreigners around).

We’re back to the lookout point. And yes, these are part of hundreds other tourists enjoying the view with you. While Tianchi Lake is undoubtedly pretty, it’s TOTALLY the opposite of Karakul Lake in Kashgar we had been earlier, when there were only 3 visitors including us! Having said that, we felt so lucky that we made a visit to Karakul, if we only chose to come to Tianchi, I bet we’ll be regretting our Xinjiang trip for the rest of our life.

To cheer up ourselves, we started making all-time favorite jumping photos!

Az take one.

Ilyani take one.

Az take two. Flying, actually!

Ilyani take two. My best!

Our friend Jacky (yes, the businessman from Shanghai). He’s a skillful jumper, no doubt.

We left Tianchi Lake around 4pm, and still had to wait 30minutes in the bus for everyone to come back =.= And on our way back to Urumqi, there’s this emcee speaking non-stop in the bus throughout the journey about jade. Tired with another sappy trap already, but we had no choice when the bus stopped again (!) at a jade shop near the city for a good 30minutes to let everyone shopping. Jacky and some other people who got fed-up immediately took a cab by their own to continue the journey, but we, on the other hand, couldnt do the same as we dont even know what to say to taxi driver. Finally the sappy tourist bus managed to continue journey and dropped us nearby bazaar, where we then took BRT bus heading back to Mischa’s place in Xinjiang university.

Here’s the video. Our verdict on Tianchi? You can happily skip it, thank you.

Karakul Lake – Part 1

How to get there: Take bus from South Bus Station in Kashgar, 36 yuan. Bus departs 8am Beijing time (10am local time, double check with ticket counter person). Buying ticket one day in advance is advisable. Bus takes around 4 hours to reach the lake, including a stop for breakfast in the middle for half an hour.

We woke up in the morning to the biggest shock that we didnt charge all our devices (camera, camcorder, phone) last night, thanks to full day walking around Kashgar until late plus eating like mad at the night market before went to shop for some bowl instant noodle for tomorrow, and returned to hostel totally flat. Now all we can do is to wish there’s some village in the mountains where power sockets are available, although it’s hard to think the possibility.

We have to check-out from hostel since we’re planning to overnight in the lake, and thankfully the hostel manager is nice enough to let us leave our big luggage in the management office while we’re away. We dont bring any stuff other than (wearing) extra layers of clothings, gadgets and chargers, instant noodle, some Milo and Nescafe, and tripod.

We run quickly to the main road and catch a town bus for Southern Bus Station (luckily we already learned the route yesterday) and it doesnt take us long to reach the station on time, and we’re taken to a mini bus which is going to Tashkurgan. Here we are, to our ultimate destination! :) The bus leaves a little after 8am, and it’s almost full. After like half an hour when we’re somewhere outside the city, the bus stops to fetch a few more people, and now it’s full. Those people do not look like they’re going to the lake, and I guess they’re possibly heading to Tashkurgan.

We’re stopped after 1 hour at a small restaurant by the roadside for breakfast. We share a plate of polo rice and some manta (steamed bun). The stop is for around 30minutes so it’s an appropriate chance to find a restroom. While I am not sure how and whom to ask, I randomly approach one of the bus passengers, and she’s a well dressed lady. She doesnt know “toilet”, or “bathroom”, or “restroom”.. and I instantly remember universal sign “WC” (at least in China), and gotcha, she then walks us to the back of the restaurant around 100 meters, and there you go, the toilet!

We’re amazed to have finally come across this type of toilet :D It reminds me alot to the toilet one in the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, where it’s practically a hole and you can directly see the entire view of poops underneath. And Az has to take a photo of it!

Continue the ride, the bus stops to get some fuel, and you can notice the fuel price and somehow compare the fuel price back home. Sitting next to us are some curious Uyghur men who look like “they want to talk to us but dont know what language to use”. Body language works, though, and I somehow manage to let them know we’re going to Karakul Lake by showing the bus tickets.

A few hours gone, and the view start turning into a deserted mountains with no houses and trees in sight. Attempted to take more photos but have to save the (50%!) battery for the real destination. There’s a few small lakes we pass by and the more we anticipate to see the majestic Karakul Lake for real. And suddenly the bus stopped and the driver shouts to us, “Karakul! Karakul!” and in the midst of surprise, we get down the bus to the middle of nowhere. And even more surprising, the bus drops only US there, and nobody else!

Suddenly some five men in motorbikes approach us, they seem to be owners of yurts and houses nearby and asking if we need yurt, each of them busy making their offers, “50 yuan only, with 3 lunch”.. what, 3 lunch.?? Okay, I think he meant 3 meals. And another, “Come to house, yurt very cold! House not cold”.. It’s so much a tense of offering and bargaining for us being their only targets for that day. To be fair, Az asks if we can go to see the house and yurt first, and we’ll decide later. So Az jumps on the yurt owner’s bike, while I am on the house owner’s bike, along with 4 other their friends we’re convoying along the quiet road to see the house first, then then back to the lake to see the yurt. And the wind is so cold that I have to cover my face altogether!

We decided to choose the yurt over the brick house, being the house located a little farther from the lake. Although we have to be prepared when the house owner warns that it will be colder at night when staying in yurt. We pay 100 yuan for two persons staying 1 night, and it’s understood that it includes meals. The yurt owner is a Kyrgyz, who has a weird name too difficult to pronouce, we end up calling him “Mr Same Price” for some funny reason. He says that there’s a German lady who arrived earlier from Tashkurgan to stay here too, so it’s quite a relief that we’ll have a companion. But to our disappointment, he says there’s no power socket in the yurt, and no place to charge our camera in the village, although we silently wonder how he manages to own a mobile phone. Mr Same Price then goes back to his house (located in a village 10 minutes away) leaving us alone in this empty place.

After securing our luggage inside the yurt, we walk to the lake, and this is the view of the yurt from the lake! And see the outdoor toilet far to the left? It’s an epic! It may not be season yet, as I guess during summer, there should be alot more yurts set up in this large area to accomodate more tourists.

Until then, we have all the lakes for ourselves!! :D Isn’t this exciting?? The view just looks so amazing that somehow I couldnt believe it’s real. And we’re here!

The iconic Muztagh Ata mountain. Some hard core travelers would hike around it during summer. The summer starts very late in here being in high altitude, and it’s late April now and the lake is totally frozen! Imagine the cold wind!

We borrow some bigger jackets from the yurt and start taking photos. But we look fat in them, so forget it =.=

Centered view of Muztagh Ata….

Which is perfect for jumping photos! :D

And my turn!

Our favorite moments, trying to step onto the frozen lake. It may look frozen, but you can never sure how thick it is, the moment it breaks will straight away dumps you into the cold water! With extra precaution, Az steps and settles his position first, while I set the camera timer (thanks to bringing tripod, where else you can put your camera in this deserted, empty place?).

Okay, looking alright. Step further to get my space, and be calm. Next shot, yay, we’re on the lake!! :D

We wander around for a couple of hours, and it’s getting too cold so we go back into the yurt to curl ourselves in thick blankets, and somehow fall asleep for a short nap.