Now you have seen from my pictures that the northwest region of China has some shocking beauty. A stark, desert beauty of rainbow mountains with no vegetation, or towering sand dunes in all directions. But what you haven’t seen a lot of is trees and lush forests. That’s because Xinjiang is a dry, mountainous region with a desert on one side (the Gobi) and another smack dab in the middle of the province (the Taklamakan).
So, when I took a bus a few hours outside Urumqi, the capital city, to Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake) I wasn’t expecting much. In fact, I was expecting a slightly crappy place. Lonely Planet is not kind to this place and says you will be greeted with mobs of tourists and plastic trees piping out It’s a Small World from hidden speakers. I almost didn’t go. But Urumqi was just a kinda boring city, and I had time, so I found a bus and went.
Holy S&%^$ am I glad I did.
This place was beautiful! I couldn’t shut up all day. In fact, I randomly ran into a friend (a fellow silk road traveler) at the ticket counter (with a friend) and I bothered them all day by just continually saying “Oh my go. Oh my GOD! This place is amazing!!”
And I get out in nature all the time. I just went camping at a reservoir the other night. But something about this place was so….I hate to say this but….so “un-chinesy.” You see, in China, nature isn’t exactly natural. There are paths, walkways and stairs. Nature has more of a cultural meaning in China. Important places for Taoists, Buddhist, political leaders, no huge nature area is left untouched.
But something about this place made me feel like I was in the Swiss Alps or the American Pacific Northwest. Sure, the entrance was packed, with hawkers and thousands of people (all with selfie sticks), but just a few minutes along the paths and you could escape everyone.
There was very little garbage on the path and in several places you actually walked on dirt. (A rare treat in a Chinese park.) We found ourselves totally alone on several occasions and the air was fresh with the scent of fresh pine and clean dirt. In fact the air is super oxygenated from the specific trees in that area and I swear my body could feel it. Hiking was easier and every breath made me feel awake.
And the amazing part is this is basically in the desert. You need to take a 30-minute bus from the ticket office to the lake and a guide pointed out, as we lumbered into the mountains, that you could see the desert in the distance.
But you would have no idea otherwise. Crisp, clear water roaring down the mountainside, fresh air, even a bit of a chill. It was one of the most pleasant days I had.
Travels tips: The lake is about an hour and a half by bus from Urumqi. Everyday buses leave around 9am from the north entrance of the People’s Park. (Buy your ticket the day before. It’s 50rmb for a round trip ticket.) I had heard that the buses stop at shopping places, but mine went directly to the lake. They dropped us off at 10:30 and I had to be back by 5 to meet the bus to go back (take a picture of your buses license plate so you can find the right one. All the buses leave at the same time and they all kinda look alike.) On the way back the bus did stop at some tourist stops, which sucked especially because I was hot and tired at that point. At the last one, which was on the outskirts of the city, I just hopped in a cab and went back to my hostel. Cause, fuck it.