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.

Always be prepared with the best Camping Gear to enjoy every adventure to its fullest.

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.

Urumqi with CouchSurfers

Right after train arrived, we’re now no longer strangers to Urumqi Railway station since having been here for short transit before Kashgar earlier. We quickly took Bus no 10 going to the Bazaar, and before that, we informed Nazar that we’re back in Urumqi and if he’s free for meet-up.

We’re also going to meet Hasnat – the Pakistani student I knew from Xinjiang Facebook page – whom we didnt have a chance to see during last short transit. Nazar said he would be free, so would Hasnat after his class, so I guess we’d spend time with them for afternoon. We waited for Nazar at the Bazaar as usual while having pomegranate juice.

Because of plans change, we didnt really prepare anything for Urumqi for today, so when Hasnat offered us to visit Red Hill, we just said OK. Nazar came first to meet us, and it was Zuhur time so we went to the mosque first. This is Uyghur mosque in Urumqi, among the biggest ones. Although, it’s only him and Az praying inside while I had to wait outside (no prayer space for women, unfortunately). Which later it was such a hassle to find a place for me to do prayers  which we ended up asking from a boutique so I could do my prayers inside.

So our itinerary for Urumqi is roughly like this:

Today (Wednesday): go around town with Hasnat, Nazar, later meet our CS host, Mischa
Thursday: visit Tianchi Lake, maybe overnight there
Friday: visit Nanshan pasture
Saturday: fly to Xian afternoon

But unlike Kashgar, Urumqi is a very big city that we’re not sure how to go to those places by our own feet, or probably we have taken Urumqi for granted for not having much studies on bus stations and routes (then again, least we thought that Urumqi is actually this BIG!) and getting to meet 3 locals here kind of made us less independent in a way ;D I mean, we can easily ask Hasnat and Nazar and Mischa and maybe ask them to go with us, no?

Having told Nazar our stories in Kuqa and how we managed to leave our shoes in the sleeper bus and now are left with crocs, he brought us to several shoe shops around the town to see if we like to buy our new shoes here. Which we couldnt find any – they look cheap but aren’t that cheap either, so we said we’re going to survive with crocs only. Later we asked Nazar to bring us to his favorite restaurant in Urumqi, and we ended up in this posh-looking restaurant!

We havent been in any restaurant this standard while traveling so I had to ask Nazar a few times if it’s expensive. And to our surprise, the food is rather affordable! We had two plates of polo rice (I share with Az), and a big portion of grilled lamb, all for 45 yuan. They even serve yoghurt as dessert. I was overwhelmed to see the big lamb chunk with bones and didnt really know how to start with it. It taste really good! Shortly when we’re done, I got a call from Hasnat that he’s arrived at Bazaar, then we directly made our way to the place again.

Now a group of Malay – Pakistani – Uyghur friends in Urumqi! :) We introduced ourselves and exchanged stories, and when Hasnat said he was bringing us to Red Hill, Nazar then offered us to leave our big luggage in his aunty’s house, some steps away down main road in the town. Nazar then left for having some matters and we’re now following Hasnat to Red Hill.

We aren’t fan of parks like this, let alone parks with heaps of tourists. But since it’s near and we dont have any other plans in mind and it’s Hasnat nice offer to bring us there so there’s nothing much to complain. Other than having to climb very high stairs to the top! (I had to stop several times taking breath). That’s the view of Urumqi city we get to see from the hill top. You wouldn’t imagine Urumqi looks like this, no? ;)

After Red Hill, we followed Hasnat to nearby tour agent office from which he took his trip for Tianchi Lake earlier, for only 100 yuan. Initially we had in mind to do the trip to Tianchi by ourselves as we did for Karakul Lake, but knowing that we dont even know which bus station to take in Urumqi, and the tour package is offering 100 yuan including transportation and entrance ticket (which we understood earlier from internet it’s 100 yuan alone for entrance) so we thought it’s a good deal and bought the trip for tomorrow from the agent.

When it’s getting dark, a friend of Hasnat, Nitasha came to join us. She’s a university mate of Hasnat, and although she’s from Pakistani descent, she lives in Saudi Arabia, and at the same time, an American citizen! (how complicated is that?). Our CS host, Mischa called us and joined us as well. Mischa is Kazakh Chinese and now we’re a bunch of multi-national group having a dinner at this decent restaurant. Pity that Nazar wasn’t around to join! Anyways. We had a large platter of spicy chicken and in fact the largest plate I have ever seen in my life! They dont serve forks so you’d better be good at using chopstick already!

Here’s a short video to summarize today’s places and people: