XinJiang Uygur Autonomous Region located in North West is the largest province in China. Its area (1,650,000 km2) alone covers 1/6 of China. There is a saying in Chinese; “if you’ve never been to Xinjiang, you never know how big XinJiang is”. I only realized how true this statement was after I travelled to this magnificence land. XinJiang neighboring countries are Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Uygur ethnic make up about 50% of population in XinJiang with the rest Han ethnic. Minority such as Kazakh and others make up small percentage of population in this autonomous.
I’d wanted to visit XinJiang for few years. However, due to personal schedule, I kept delaying my plan. This time I finally did it with my friend Tay. Nevertheless, due to time limitation, our travel plan covered only popular parts of northern XinJiang, the Kanas Natural Reserve. Expecting mainly natural landscaping and some cultural shots, gears I brought along were:
Canon 17-40 F4
Canon 24-105 F4 IS (my most used lens)
Battery charger, wired remote control
CPL and plenty of CF cards
Of course, last but not least, my old trusty Velbon Carmag640 tripod attached with Markin M10 ball head. Later I regret did not bring 70-200 zoom.
Day1 (25 Sept.’09 Shanghai to Urumqi)
Direct flight from Hong Qiao, Shanghai airport to Urumqi took about five hours. There we met Mr.Gu who had shown us the outmost hospitality of the local XinJiang people. We felt like home already. Be aware that even though officially XinJiang follows Beijing time, it’s time zone is actually two hours behind. Sun does not rise until 8am and does not set until 8pm (during autumn).
Day2 (26 Sept.’09 Urumqi to Altay)
Dzungaria basin covered approximately 777,000 km2 and mostly within northern half of XinJiang. Gurbantunggut Desert, China second largest desert was located within the basin.
Road Crossing Gurbantunggut Desert
We left early in the morning by car (with driver cost RMB900 per car) to Altay, a small town up north, a journey that took around seven hours across Gurbantunggut Desert. Unlike Taklamakan Desert in southern XinJiang, it is a semi-desert that capable to support thin vegetation and wild animals such as Asian wild ass, Goitered gazelle and Bactrian camels. We did spot a few Goitered gazelles and wild horses along desert Highway during this journey. It was my first experience with desert so the first one to two hours was exciting. But after that, the rest of few hours were pretty boring.
Day3 (27 Sept.’09 Altay to Hemu)
Our next five days itinerary had been arranged by a friend of mine, Mr.Xu. He grew up in this region and also a part time photography tour guide. He also owns an inn in Hemu and Baihaba. Hence, the next few days we just concentrate to take pictures. What a relax way to travel :p . The best way to travel in northern XinJiang is renting a car and a local guide, especially if your purpose is photography. A good experienced guide like Xu knows the best location to shoot and best time to be there. This is important as I rather spent an additional hour in bed than waiting in dark chilly morning waiting for sun to rise. Don’t you?
As we entered Kanas Natural Reserve, the geological scenery literally transformed from semi-desert to Alps-like mountain. This region is part of Altay Mountains (a mountain range in central Asia where China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together). Unfortunately, it was gloomy day with light rain. Pictures came out pretty flat but I managed to find few that I like.
Colorful scene of Kanas
On the way to Hemu, we stopped by a tiny Duwa’s village. What presented in front of me was something I used to see in Western cowboy shows. Houses were entirely built with logs. Horses and cows were common life stocks here. Really, it was much like an oriental cowboy village to me. ;p
By the time we arrived in Hemu, it was dark. That night, we enjoyed another round of local XinJiang hospitality with great foods and hard liquor from Xu and his friends. I must say they are very friendly folks. It is importance to know the culture of the local in order to prevent any misunderstanding. Serving meats (usually beef or mutton) to you with his hand is nothing about unhygienic but showing his respect to you. Bottom up with you with white wine (50% alcohol level) is gesture of welcoming. Tay and I were knocked out after few round of alcohol.
Day4 (28 Sept.’09 Hemu to Baihaba)
Waking up with heavy head (after last night drinking), but I soon totally refreshed after breath in mouthful of cool and fresh morning air. Like many places around this region, Hemu village is unpolluted. All the houses are made of logs taken from nearby forest. They all looked similar; single rectangular level house with pointed triangle roof top, which is suitable to withstand heavy snow in winter. Hemu is a Mongolian’s village but most people stays here are Kazakh and Tuwa ethnics. Han people also make their way in mainly settle down to run business.
Due to increasing tourists, many houses are built for rent (just like the one we stayed). Diesel powered generators are used to generate electricity and usually switched off at night. So if you plan to recharge your batteries, do speak to the owner and plan accordingly. Facility around here is basic; enough to provide a comfortable sleep. But don’t expect a hot shower or someone to offer you a cup of coffee. Worth to note that temperature difference up in the mountain between day and night is big. During mid of autumn, day high can be 20 C and at night, it can drops to zero. So, prepare warm clothing accordingly.
Early morning at Hemu Village viewing from nearby hill
That morning was gloomy and cloud was thick. We waited on top of nearby hill to take sunrise pictures of Hemu. After three hours passed, the cloud still refused to give way. I was somewhat upset did not get what I want. Descending down the hill we were greeted by another full course of breakfast at Xu’s friend motel. And for the record, we had couple of local white wine before “allowed” to go, ha. We stopped by another house after the heavy breakfast. And to our surprise, owner of the house, Mr.Ma, a friend of Xu cooked us another round delicious meal. This is why I say hospitality of the local is the warmest.
Out of sudden, the long expected sun peaked through the thick cloud to greet us to Hemu. Color came back to this graceful village. I could not wait to finish my lunch but grabbed my camera and ran out. Blue sky, snow capped mountains, white cloud, colorful tree leaves, crystal clear stream and perfect weather, what else could I ask for?
We left Hemu to Baihaba in the afternoon and routed to Kanas Lake on the way. Kanas Lake is surrounded by Altay Mountains. It is 1.4 km long and covers an area of 45.7 km2. On top of rich forest and the only place in China one can find South Siberia animals and plants species, Kanas Lake is also famous for sighting of unidentified lake creature. To date, this mystery is not resolve. As weather was turning bad, we spent little time at the lake side before heading to Baihaba.
Patient was one of many keys leading to successful landscape photography. This could not be any truer. It was cold, wet and getting dark when we arrived at Baihaba, at a border overlook Kazakhstan. Despite poor weather, we insisted to wait for last sign of light. Unexpectedly, cloud started to breakup. Ray of last golden sunlight shinned through the horizon, painted Baihaba the best light I had even seen. We were very lucky to see this scene but we could have missed it if we gave up waiting. I also captured a series of photo to stitch up as a panorama. We stayed at Xu’s cabin for next two nights. He ran a small but cozy “room and board” kind of hostel.