As all the world knows (or ought to, or will very soon) the mainland Chinese LOOOOOVE their mobile phones. They also love shouting. And chicken feet, but that’s a different post.
But surely, at one of Xinjiang’s most beautiful places; a fairyland lake of sapphire blue water surrounded by emerald hills, watched over by spectacular snowy peaks; an alpine region that earns complimentary comparisons to the European alps; a place totally, amazingly different to the hundreds of kilometres of red-rock deserts that surrounds it; surely, surely they’d just shut up and drink in the views.
Right? Right? Ummmmmmm, nope.
My visit to Tian Chi Lake (Heavenly Lake) about three hours outside of Urumqi started, and not for the first time, with me slightly hung over and getting up far later than expected.
I went with a friend, Emma, Ian being too lazy to get out of bed. We’d had two main choices in the way to get to the lake. One involved getting a special direct tourist bus, that goes directly to the lake, nice and simple. The problem here is that we’d read reviews online about the bus, and the reviews were entirely unpleasant; the company would take you to half a dozen “cultural” displays or shopping “opportunities” before taking you to the lake.
“Well, why is that so bad?” you might ask. “Surely, you went to China for a cultural experience, right? And everyone likes shopping, at least, every girl does.” And, indeed, you are right, I love shopping.
The problem is that the way the Chinese do tourism and the way we do tourism are, well, not quite the same. For one, this is a land that has most certainly never been in any way influenced by what could be termed political correctness. “Well, that’s great”, you might say … (hi Dad) … “bloody everything’s bloody PC these days anway, and it’s all bloody crap and it’s ruining every bloody thing and… (etc, etc).”
But the net effect of this comes when it’s time to interact and engage with some of the minority cultures within the borders of Xinjiang (or “ethnics” as they are called here: in this case, Kazakh horse-herders, a minority of whom still cling to a nomadic lifestyle). Culturally informed and sensitive, tour companies here are not. The whole effect is entirely: “hey, look at them! Look at the ethnics! Look, they’re wearing funny clothes! You know, ethnics like to sing and dance. Dance, ethnic, dance!!!!”
So, we wanted to avoid that crap, which means we had to go the longer and more time consuming way of getting there. A bus to Urumqi’s long distance bus station, a bus to another town, Fukang, then a minibus to the national park entrance and a bus to the lake itself from there. Amazingly, everything went seamlessly and by midday local time we were at the lake. And, stunning it is. No question.
But, back to the mobile phones. The area of the lake nearest to the bus station is filled with tourists, the women in high heels and the men in suits, about 50 per cent of both groups talking on their phones. WTF??? Thanfully, we were there on a Monday before the true peak season and it was still not that loud. Without consulting the map, we decide the lake looks tolerably small (hint: this is foreshadowing) and so we decide to walk around it. We consult the map, and see there is a dock and botanic gardens marked on the other side of the lake. We can see ferries regularly leaving the near side of the lake. We apply logic (see previous posts) and decide to walk around the lake as far as we can, and if we’re tired by the time we reach the dock, half way around the lake, then we will catch the ferry back. (Logical, no???)
So, off we merrily trot. We stop every five minutes to take photos and paddle our feet (snowmelt lake = really fucking cold) and then eventually reach the main walking path (past a few colourfully dressed ethnics along the way, sadly, they were not singing at that precise moment). Only to run into the back of a Chinese man dressed in a suit, shouting into his mobile phone. He talks. And talks. And talks. And talks. And takes up the whole path. Until there’s a trail of 4-5 Chinese people, then us, then two older Australian men. We edge off the path so as to not be part of the convoy, trapped in line (hey, it was almost a queue, Ian would have loved it!!!). We soon catch up to the crowd, and find the Aussie gentlemen edging to the side and trying to find a way through, then politely clearing their throats hoping the hint would be taken, then mumbling about being allowed past. I guess they were China newbies. That guy wasn’t going anywhere.
Eventually, the path opens up and even suit-guy can’t manage to take up the whole space. Hurrah! We’re in the clear. And then the well maintained path ends. After a short but exhilarating trip, bush-bashing down a steep, extremely rocky and moderately thistle-indested stretch of mountain, we find ourselves in the clear, by the lake and OFF THE PATH.
That’s right my friends, off the path. No path, no order, no orders, no other people around. Take that, China, we were making our own path!!! And so, off we merrily went, hitting an evidently disused concrete path after 10-15 minutes of walking. The concrete path, most unfortunately, went directly up one of the steep hills surrounding the lake, as we cut from the edge of one inlet to the other. By directly up, I mean several thousand steps; steep, mossy and small. I hate steps, hate them, hate them, hate them and I bitched and whinged my entire way up the hill. I’m somewhat surprised Emma didn’t push me down the despised staircase to be honest.
(Pic coming: uploading in this county is a bitch)
A much more pleasant trip down the other side, and we’re a few hours away from the main dock area, in perfectly pure mountain air, with no sound but the faint wind and our own voices. And then two people appear from seemingly nowhere, settle themselves by the lake, pull out phones and start chatting away. ARE YOU SERIOUS, SHUT THE HELL UP AND ENJOY THE VIEW!!!
Right, onwards and upwards and away from the phones. We walk for sereral hours around the lake, up hills and down hills, around the most gorgeous rocky beaches and through wildflower strewn meadows, without the hint of a person. Bliss. Pure bliss. Except some of the steep bits, perhaps. Anyhow.
Eventually we hear voices behind us.
I believe my actual words where “what the hell? Is that a voice? What the hell are they doing here?” How dare they enter my little empress-dom! I didn’t make it all the way over that bloody hill to have other people here!!! The voices catch up quickly until two men appear on the path behind us, just across from a little lake-beach inlet. Just as they reach 50 metres of us, they squat and, you guessed it, pull out their bloody phones. OH NO YOU DIDN’T!!! Is the great nation of China conspiring to have her citizens chase me even to her most remote reaches and shout in my presence? What the hell is this?
Thanfully, that’s the last people we saw on the journey of eight hours and 30 kilometres round the lake. And in their defence, it was a short conversation and they were super smiley when that caught us up. Yes, that’s right, 30 kilometres, up and down hills and that’s not even counting a walk up to the lake and later on to our accomodation. The ‘dock’ on the other side was one dingy being filled with some unknown clanging substance by shouting workmen… it was all the way round the lake for us! Not that big, indeed… I need glasses. But, it was a great mistake to make, and I’m pleased we got to see the lake in all her glory, from all perspectives.
We eventually arrived back at the main area, tired and hungry and cooling down quickly. We’d been approached by a friendly Kazakh man earlier asking if we needed accomodation, and taken his number just in case, but I expected to have time to ask around a little more. But as we arrived back late, we gave him a call and found ourselves installed in a wonderfully warm and comfy yurt (giant tent) just as rain settled in on the mountains.
Yours truly is, I must admit, a little lazy these days (but still less lazy than Ian, seemingly! I intend to milk this one as far as can) and I honestly can’t even remember the last time that I walked more than thirty kilometres in one session. Has it ever happened? Possibly not, and if it did, it certainly would not have involved that many steps! I was genuinely struggling and sore by the time we finished, and was hobbling like an old lady. I’m remarkably impressed with myself for making it around the whole way, and even more impressed that I managed to avoid any other tourists for the rest of our stay, until we arrived back at the bus stop. Hurrah!
I can’t wait to get back to the area, but next time, I’ll drag Ian along and go wandering off even the unmarked paths and hopefully get into the surrounding hills (but not if the hill have steps. Steps, bah!) And if you read about a crazy Aussie girl in China who lost her marbles and launched a one-woman-anti-mobile-phone crusade, you’ll know what’s happened! Send me cheese and spices in prison, please.
One interesting thing, the people at our office here thought I was NUTS for wanting to get to the lake without taking any sort of tour. I’m taking it as an interesting point of comparision of my mindset versus the local mindset; they genuinely seemed to think I was a bit soft in the head for an insistence on staying overnight and not being part of a tour. I know it’s a stereotype but I guess the group-identity is genuinely stronger here than home.