TRIP REPORT – NORTH XINJIANG
Dates: 10th to 22nd September 2013, extended to 23rd September by typhoon in Guangzhou
Flights: On China Southern Airline
10th Sept 2013
Kuala Lumpur-Guangzhou CZ366 0940 -- 1345
Guangzhou-Urumqi CZ6888 1550 -- 2125
22nd Sept 2013
Urumqi-Guangzhou CZ6957 0945 -- 1425
Guangzhou-Kuala Lumpur CZ365 1720 – 2115 (was delayed to 23rd Sept 1810 - 2200)
Air Fare was 5612 Yuan all inclusive each
Ground Package Costs:-
Yuan :) per person for Hotels, Transport, Breakfasts & Lunches, Guide Services and Entrance fees.
Plus Yuan :) for Kanas Lake Boat Cruise, Yuan :) for Roast Lamb, Yuan 20 for Gaochang Donkey Taxi and Yuan :) for tips to Guide Ayeesha and Driver Ma Shifu.
BRIEF TRIP REPORT
The flight from KUL to CAN was on time, while CAN to Urumqi arrived early at 8.30 pm. The Group was met by Ayeesha and driven to Yidu Hotel in Urumqi for check-in and introductions. All paid the Ground Package costs in cash to Lesley Lee, CEO of Xinjiang CITIC Tour and went up to rooms to rest.
We had breakfast in the Hotel. The whole group had complaints of Yidu Hotel (warm room and old unclean rooms, and non functioning toilet for us) and it was changed in the last 2 days of tour to Mei Yu Hotel near the Grand Bazaar. Today’s drive was 550 km, with a straight run all the way till lunch at a nowhere place with hot springs. Lousy food there. Then soon after, we had a tour stop at Multi Coloured Bay, some two-thirds of the distance. We loved the beautiful Yadan landscape of layers of reds, yellows, orange, white, grey, blue and black in a Canyon like scene, with very little grass vegetation and no trees. Then we continued the journey on long stretches of unsealed uneven roads (while they were repairing the main road). It was bumpy and dusty and time-consuming and was the worst part of the trip. Check-in to Baifulong Hotel in Fuyun County after arriving at sunset at 8.05pm. Thirteen of us then went out together for Dinner at a nearby Restaurant and were surprised by non-Halal courses. We ate the best meal of the trip here with rich Duck Soup, Pork ribs, spicy chicken and Khow Yoke plus other vegetables for a low price of Yuan 31 each. Later in the rooms, there was some noise in the night from other Restaurant customers after their dinner. It rained lightly throughout the night.
We agreed to have packed breakfast in the bus to save time and ate the boiled eggs, mantou with pickled vegetable and milk. It was raining the whole morning till we reached Cocoa Surrey Lake. We stopped for 20 minutes for walking around and photos. Weather was gloomy and dull, but the rain had stopped. Close up shots of nice sunflowers. A very nice lake with some waterbirds in the distance, but they were too far to ID. Scenery was good. Then, we continued the drive uphill to 1400 metres ASL before descending to 1200m ASL as we arrived at Keketouhai Scenic Area. We walked to the Ticket area and the Eco Buses in heavy rain. The Buses went some 15 kms into the Park driving along the Iyrtish River. We got off for walking around at the Shenzhong Mountain area. The rain stopped just in time here for us. Some climbed the short flight of steps for nice views.
After the tour, we went to a nearby Restaurant for lunch. It was a better lunch today with delicious but bony fish, and chicken soup. From there, we drove towards Burqin. At the road collapse area, some trucks were stuck in the mud and blocked the road. So, most tour buses had to go “off-road” to pass with their passengers walking over the valley. After this adventure, it was a long drive across the Junggar Basin with Altay Mountains in the distance. A few bumpy stretches here but not as bad as the day before. We arrived at Burqin at 7.20pm and checked in at the huge Tourism Hotel complex. We showered and went out for Dinner at the Burqin Night Market. We had BBQ fish, lamb skewers, chicken etc. Quite good but expensive at Yuan 75 each, but we also included Guide and Driver’s shares. Gen bought 2 bottles of LouLan wine and that went down at dinner. Road distance today was 480 km.
Buffet breakfast at Hotel was good with huge varied selection and nice tastes. Hall was crowded with other tour Groups. Then we did the slow drive up North to Kanas for the 140 km. The traffic police impose TIME checks on tour buses to force them to drive slowly for safety on twisting mountain roads. Beautiful scenery on route and we also stopped to kill time. We bought some melons to enjoy on the way. There was a new tourist town being built. Here was a SIX star toilet with video adverts and lots of mirrors and even a chandelier in the centre. The ladies spent precious time at the little stalls selling fruit and clothing. Finally we reached Jiadengyu at 12.30pm for lunch. The whole town of hotels, guest houses and restaurants was built to cater for tourists to Kanas. Then we took the shuttle buses some 16 kms into Kanas Park. It was a nice sunny day with medium clouds.
First visit was to Kanas Lake for a boat cruise at extra Yuan 120 each. We wasted some time waiting for the boat. I think this cruise was a waste of time and money as we saw nothing extra in that 1 hour. Lakeside was 1400 m ASL. Next we took another shuttle bus uphill towards the Guan Yu Pavilion. To get to the top required a climb of 1000+ steps mostly gentle. All of us made the climb happily to reach the Pavilion top at 2013 m ASL with fantastic views of the lake and valley on the way. Next we went to our shuttle buses to see the scenic spots of Kanas River at Moon Bay and Sleeping Dragon Bay. We had no time to walk between the Bays for scenery. Then, out by Bus again to the Park entrance. Check in at 8.20 pm to MeiLin Hotel, an average Spartan place in Jiadengyu. This was at 1410 m ASL. Five of us took Dinner with Driver Ma and Ayeesha at the restaurant across the road. We got a nice fancy menu with lovely Lamb skewers, spicy Mutton slices and chicken at a cost of Yuan 400 for whole meal = Yuan 80 each person. Admittedly, we paid tourist prices, but it was a very enjoyable meal with plenty of discussion of politics and ethnic issues with Ayeesha. Lai was yawning openly after dinner. We walked in darkness back to hotel as there were no street lamps. Distance covered today was only 170 km due to the speed limits.
I woke up early to see the touted sunrise, but it was nothing special. Temperature was 5.2°C then. We went out together for a very simple porridge at the same restaurant as last night. We started out, retracing the route from yesterday back to Burqin, where we stopped for lunch. We ate near the Night Market area, and lunch was good with fish soup, fish in soy sauce, and lamb with asparagus with Prawn Sambal. We went back to Tourism Hotel to use the toilet before resuming the drive. It was a really long drive south towards Karamay and we saw the rich oilfields for many kilometers and thousands of oil donkeys. It was a warm sunny day. Our driver could not locate the Yilong Hotel with several tries till 8.50pm and it was dark when we arrived. Upon arrival at the Hotel, Anita quickly arranged dinner for all of us for 9.25pm. We put the bags down and popped down to the Hotel’s Restaurant immediately. It was a decent meal after a long day and cost Yuan 40 each. Distance covered today was 520 km. Yilong Hotel was fairly new and good.
Next morning, I walked 5 minutes to the next road to buy beers, just in case our next Hotel was away from shops (True enough!). A big bottle of WUSU beer costs just Y 5 each in the towns everywhere. Breakfast in the same restaurant was good with choice of porridge and bread. We started out today at 9am and headed south towards Karamay, and Kuitun. Then, we turned West towards Jinghe. At 2pm, we stopped for lunch at a small Mongolian Restaurant along the Highway. Then at 5pm we arrived at Sayram Lake where we enjoyed ourselves at two stops with photos and watching the going-ons in the lovely bright sunshine and cool air. Sayram Lake side is 2060 m ASL.
After an hour at the lake, we drove 10 minutes to the Long Lin Hotel, situated in a village away from everything. This village appeared to derive their electricity from Solar Panels thus explaining their controls on consumption. It commanded a wonderful view of the Valley and the special bridge- the highest elevation bridge in the world. It took 8 years to complete the 28 km highway. We checked in and then went for a walk outside to enjoy the cool atmosphere. We saw the Mongolian horsemen playing their sheep hunt on the steep slopes of the area. Back to the Hotel and some of us ate Dinner in its Restaurant at 7.40pm. We had “Finger Lamb” (a local specialty) and lamb soup, stir fried beef and a huge plate of chicken and veggies. Cost was Yuan 57 each. It was getting cold as we headed back to the room at 9.30pm. Hot water supply came at 9.45 pm for our showers. Due to an earlier guest’s stupid setting on the shower head, our room had low water pressure. So, we used the sink and “mandi kampong”. It was OK and comfortable. That night, it was 17°C in the room, but 6.5°C outside at dawn. Distance travelled today was 490 km.
We had breakfast of porridge and mantou in the Hotel, but were told we would be skipping lunch. So everyone boiled water to make cup noodles in the bus to eat with takeaway mantou. We left the Hotel and headed into the Tunnel at the start of the 28 km special Highway of the Fruit Valley (Guojigou Valley). It was scenic but we could not take photos due to poor lighting and raindrops on the windows. We were in the bus from 9.10am till we got to Nalati Grassland at 3.15pm and it rained quite heavily during the whole journey. We all ate our little lunches on the bus at 1.30 pm. and toilet stops were nasty affairs in the remote areas. The distance covered was 510 km.
At Nalati, we took their shuttle bus to the scenic areas, but with the rain becoming increasingly heavy, there were few takers to get off. Only Yoke Lin and I walked a bit, but it was too wet and cold to enjoy. So we went back to the Visitors Centre and shopped around, of course! From there, we drove another 15 km to our Hotel, Heyang Hotel. We had a hot shower and then went out in the rain for the Dinner at the Hotel’s restaurant which a substitute for the missed lunch today. The food was simple and not great. Over dinner Ayeesha received news that Bayanbulak Park and the Road 217 were closed today due to heavy snowfalls. We discussed alternatives should the situation not improve the next day, meaning that we may have to head straight for Korla. The elevation of Nalati is 1485 m ASL. That night at 8pm, the temp was down to 6.5°C. Two more buses arrived at the hotel later that night. It was still raining at midnight when I went to sleep.
Jumped out of bed at 7am, and opened the window to a beautiful clear sky and a dry day!! How very lucky!! Today’s sunrise at 7.30 am was the nicest so far and the sun’s rays gradually coloured the snow capped mountains with an orange glow. Temperature was just 5°C. Due to the heavy snowfall yesterday, the scenery had changed dramatically with snow at lower heights as well. I went down for the simple breakfast at 8.10am and looked for camera angles. The best place for photos was still from our room window. We started out at 9am, and the Driver had to backtrack a few km to fill gas. This gave us the chance to look at Nalati Park in the dry sunshine and it was beautiful today. And more photos were taken.
Today’s drive was only 80 km to Bayanbulak, but we took a really long time. No-one complained because the views were stunning. Snow covered a lot of the highlands and the pine trees had snow on the branches, all very photogenic. Everyone took more photos than they had expected with some getting their batteries flat by 11am - shorter battery life in the cold made it worse! The Tian Shan Mountains were amazingly beautiful in the clear blue skies. We stopped at several scenic spots for photos, purchases of honey, pollen etc, and snowball-fights. The snow was really clean and white, and I ate some of it too. The road condition in the snow was very good and did not appear dangerous, and we drove slowly too. After reaching the very top of the pass at 2800 m ASL, we started going down the other side. Immediately the bus went into cloud cover for 30 minutes. We saw some yak here for the first time. Then, we reached the junction of Roads 217 and 218. And 218 was OPEN –and not surprising as it was a bright sunny day. We reached Bayanbulak town at 12.20pm and headed straight for lunch at the Bayan Hotel’s restaurant.
After lunch, we took 4 minutes to reach Bayanbulak Park ticket office. Then we were driven in shuttle buses some 45 km into the Park. First stop was for the Swan Lake. The boardwalk still had some snow on it as we walked to see the Whooper Swans, but only about 12 of them were there. At the final bus stop, we opted to walk 3 km to the scenic spot up a very gentle gradient on a snow covered boardwalk. It was easy-going and a nice change from sitting for long hours in the bus. We saw the Mongolian sheep with black heads and Mongolian horses with shorter legs on the way. Then we got to the spot and enjoyed lovely weather. Some Egyptian Vultures were out hunting and gave us great views. Elevation here was 2460 m ASL. Then, some decided to take the electric vehicle back while the others walked. Back out of the park and to the Bayan Hotel for check-in.
That night at 8pm, only 6 of us walked out to Bayanbulak town to scout around and have dinner. We chose a small clean Hui Restaurant that had a heater device in the dining hall. We ordered a bit too much and way too spicy (chicken, lamb, and veggies) with boiled hand-made noodles. Sadly, Matthew got sick the next day. It was very cold when we walked back. Luckily the room was heated and it was 21°C at 10pm. Elevation here was 2350 m ASL – the highest elevation for a night stop. Outside the mercury fell to 2.2°C at midnight. So it was very comfortable and a nice end to a most enjoyable day.
I woke up at 7am and measured the outside temperature to be minus 0.6°C. In the room, it was still 17°C even though the heating was said to have stopped after 1am. We went down for a simple porridge breakfast. Before we loaded the bags in the bus, the driver was seen boiling water to pour onto the fuel injectors of the bus engine. We all lent a helping hand by giving him all the hot water we had to get the engine started. It worked, and then the ladies got back to the rooms to boil more water for our lunch on the bus later today. The guys loaded the luggage onto the bus. We started at 9.15am, after a 30 minutes delay. The first part of the journey was a retracement back to the junction of Roads 217 and 218. The visibility was down to 80 metres only in the early morning mist for half hour. Then, we followed Road 218 and it was long straight stretches of good road with Tian Shan Range on both sides of the road, with flat plains for some 2 kilometers. This was another nice sunny day. We reached an elevation of 3200 m ASL but we hardly felt any rise due to gradual ascents. We followed the Kaidu River for long parts of the drive before descending to Korla. We ate lunch on the bus somewhere along the route. We finally reached Korla at 4.10pm after a 7 hours drive and 3 bad toilet stops. Elevation of Korla is just 950 m ASL and it was just cool in the shade as we visited the Iron Gate Pass. This was an important and strategic pass in the old Silk Road days.
Then check in at 6pm to Kaide Hotel, a nice high rise modern hotel. We were treated to a nice dinner as substitute to the missed lunch at the Restaurant next door at 7pm. Food was very nice and different from previous days’, but service was unfortunately slow. The highlight was great lamien noodle in spicy soup topped up with melons as dessert. Lai Yeastman bought 2 bottles of local Red wine and those were happily enjoyed. After dinner, we walked down to the Peacock River, which was almost dry. After a while, we headed back. We travelled 390 km today.
We got up early to have an early start today. Breakfast was at the noodle shop 30 metres away - beef soup noodle plus some yau char kway. It was a nice change from the usual. Then, we started out at 7.40am. Even with the nice expressway, the bus was time controlled and we wasted a lot of time stopping. We had extra toilet stops and melon stops too. But as it happened, our bus was not checked. So we headed for lunch at Gaochang hotel with many local noisy tour groups.
Then, we went sightseeing first at Emin Minaret or Sugong Tower. Next was Aydingkol Lake, which at 156 metres below sea level was the second lowest point on Earth. Parts of Turpan were also below sea level, as recorded by my ProTrekker watch. It was a hot sunny day with temperature at 37°C. Final place today was a long tour of Jiaohe Ancient City, which showed Ayeesha at her best! It was a very interesting tour. We came out of there after sunset!
Then we headed for Dinner at a local Uyger family home. Dinner was quite simple and we complemented it by ordering a whole Roast Lamb with extra cost of Yuan 120 per person. That came with more beers and red wine too. The lamb was delicious, and tasted moist to me as I took the shanks. The lamb and 2 bottles of wine were finished. Then check in at Grand Turpan Hotel, which was really dated and old and not so Grand any more. Anyway, it was late past 10.15pm and not much time to quibble. We had travelled 400 km today.
Breakfast of porridge again, and then out at 8am. We drove eastwards toward Tuyu Valley, but the police prevented us from proceeding. So we had to turn towards the Flaming Mountains and Bezeklik Grottoes instead. A photo stop for the Flaming Mountains and then a long detailed tour of the Grottoes with the lives of Buddha narrated and linked to the paintings, very nicely done by Ayeesha. Then, we headed to the Ancient City of Gaochang, where we used a Donkey taxi to go in as it was too far a walk in the hot sunny weather of 37°C. After that we visited the Astana Karakhoja Ancient Tombs. We went into two tombs with central wall murals and one with a pair of corpses. This was followed by a nice lunch at Turpan City. Cold beers at lunch were well taken. Our last stop at Turpan was the Karez underground irrigation system. We had seen the vertical well shafts on the way yesterday, so this was the rest of the story. It was well presented with exhibits showing the technology and the utensils used to dig the channels. We finished with Turpan by 3pm.
After that, it was supposed to be a straight drive back to Urumqi City and a chance to do the Grand Bazaar tonight. But midway, we were stuck in a non-moving jam for nearly 2 hours. When it got moving, it was still heavy traffic. We finally reached the Urumqi hotel- the Mei Yu Hotel at 9.30pm. Six of us went down to the Hotel’s Restaurant on ground floor for Dinner. We had a lovely non spicy dinner (see photos) for Yuan 298 total and enjoyed the mood. Back to the room at 11pm and showered.
We were up at 6.10am to have an early no breakfast start to a long day. But at 7.00am, there was no sign of Lee Kit and Kar Wui, so I phoned them and woke them up from sleep. They were down in 15 minutes. We had just packed eggs and milk for breakfast in the bus. It was cold as we drove to Tian Chi Heavenly Lake. We arrived at 8.20am and quite a lot of people were already there in the ticket centre. The shuttle bus departed at 8.30am and we got to the scenic area at 9.10am. It was dry at that moment but so very cold. Then as we walked up to the lake, a few drops of snow started. We moved fast and took the photos before the snow came down in increasing volume by the minute. We left Tian Chi Lake by 9.55am and headed back down to the Visitors Centre where it was dry!! Then, we walked back to our bus and headed back to Urumqi City. We went straight for lunch at the “Bon Voyage” Restaurant, with some nice different dishes. It was still very cold today.
After lunch, we went to Xinjiang Museum, and spent a long time listening to Ayeesha and looked over the several mummies there. The exhibition was superb and special. The only other section open for visits was the Ethnic Culture which was not that interesting. After that, Ayeesha took us to a Jade Shop in the Peoples’ Great Hall for her to score some points towards her qualification. We gave her 480 points. After that, we drove through a jam packed main road in the City towards our Hotel. There we took on more warm clothes and Ayeesha walked us to the Grand Bazaar for shopping. The ladies went berserk with more raisins, dates, nuts and fabrics. After 3 hours of shopping, we went for Dinner at the Street Food area next to the Bazaar. We ate sheep legs, lamb skewers, roast chicken and lamb and some hot pot noodles. We got back to the Hotel at 8.45 pm and it was very cold. We finished up the last of the beers as the ladies completed their packing and weighed the luggage.
We were up by 6am or even earlier! We checked out at 7am and no-one needed another call. I got a call at the hotel from Lesley to inform us that the Guangzhou to KL flight for today was cancelled, but I held on the information for a while. Then, I handed over the tips to Ayeesha and Ma. At the Airport, we were asked if we preferred to stay on in Urumqi or go to Guangzhou. Of course we selected the latter as it meant a chance to stay on at Airlines expense. With that, Ayeesha said goodbye. The Urumqi to Guangzhou flight was normal and landed on time. Then, we collected the luggage and proceeded to the Enquiries area. A lot of people milling around here. We were told to go to the New Century Hotel and wait for calls the next day. We took the Shuttle Bus and got to the Hotel in 30 minutes. There we were given rooms and meal vouchers. The rooms were nice and spacious and comfortable. Then, we went down for dinner- a western style set dinner at 7.00pm. After dinner, we walked down the streets to the nearby Supermarket and more shopping. There was only a little rain, but the wind was getting stronger. We got back to hotel at 10pm. I was watching the trees outside to see the typhoon, which came at midnight but was not a severe as feared.
We woke up late and lazy and took a late breakfast at 9am. And sat there till 10am when the staff cleared us out. Then there was more shopping time in the rain. We got news at 11am to go to the Airport to check the situation today. We took an early lunch at 12 noon. So at 1.45 am, we were all promptly at the lobby for the 2pm bus. Once we got to the Airport, it was all pandemonium with unreliable information all the time. We were uncertain if some or all or none of us were getting on the plane that day. At 4.15pm, the picture was clear and all of us were put on the flight, and by 4.45pm we had checked in our luggage and given the boarding passes to proceed. It was a big rush after that to clear security checks, immigration, customs, etc. We got on the plane by 5.20pm at the scheduled departure time, but had to wait till 6.10pm due to heavy ground traffic before the flight took off. We landed at KLIA at 10pm with all our luggage intact.
MY PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS OF THE TRIP
The itinerary appeared tough with long distances. But in reality it was not difficult as the journey was comfortable on most days except the first 2 days where the roads were under repair for long stretches. The nice scenery along the way took away much of the boredom of the 6 hour drives and there were always snacks passed around. Our itinerary was more comprehensive than other tours.
The Scenic Areas:-
Excellent:- The snow covered Tian Shan Mountain range, Kanas valley, Bayanbulak, Multi Coloured Bay, Flaming Mountains.
Good:- Keketouhai, Sayram Lake, Fruit Valley, Tian Chi Lake in the snow (excellent on a sunny day)
Disappointing :- Urho Ghost City, Nalati Park in the rain
Excellent:- Jiaohe Ancient City, Bezeklik Grottoes, Xinjiang Museum, Karez Irrigation System, Aydingkol Lake, Emin Minaret, Astana Ancient Tombs.
Good:- Gaochang Ancient City, Iron Gate Pass. Urumqi Grand Bazaar, Mine no 3.
We had nearly all the possible weather conditions. Hot & sunny with 37°C in Turpan, cool & sunny at 18+/-°C in Kanas, Urho & Sayram and Korla, cold & sunny at
Most of the Hotels were very good and comfortable. On a tour like this, there isn’t much time left to enjoy the hotel facilities. All we want is a comfortable bed and nice temperature control for a good night’s sleep. We got that all the time except first night at Yidu Hotel Urumqi. Hotel breakfasts are usually simple porridge. Those that offered buffet breakfasts were enjoyed very much by us.
Lunches (or substitute dinners) Included:-
Mostly lunches were average to good with some (but not much) variety. Best was dinner at Korla. It was difficult in some remote places with not many options. Usually some small dishes of lamb or beef, but not much of it. Lots of vegetables. Fish at some places were excellent too, if you can mind the bones. But there was really too much chicken for me. Very good lamien. No mantou for 1 year!
Dinners on our own:-
Most of the time, such dinners was enjoyed by 6 of us - Matthew, Yoke Lin, Rocky, Lai, Anita and me. Usually our own selected dishes were very good and enjoyable. They were not that expensive even in top tourist areas, as feared. We had some wonderful lamb dishes and good vegetables ordered by Ayeesha at Jiadenyu. The Hui Food at Bayanbulak was too spicy & oily. The “finger lamb” and lamb soup at Sayram Lake were excellent. The roast lamb at Turpan was a nice experience for most of us. Those dinners at the hotels on late arrivals (Karamay, Urumqi) were good too.
To me, she was a top guide, the best I’ve had on any trip! She was well researched, and understood her areas clearly. She was passionate about her country and her people and hopes that the future will be better for them. She spoke clearly and loudly and we understood her very well. Only on a few rare occasions we could not get her pronunciation. She was funny, too and joined us to enjoy.
He was careful and a good driver. You never had to fear for your safety, and you could relax. But however, he was not so hard-working to clean the bus windows after a long drive. Then again, having to drive continuously for 7 hours takes a lot out of you, so it is hard to expect more work after that. So on some days we had dirty windows which spoilt the photos. I threw away a lot of photos due to this. He was also not careful to refuel at his own time rather than waste everyone’s time. But some of these stops were for the toilets, so that was OK.
The bus was in good condition and its brakes worked well. It sometimes felt that the suspension was not good and rather bumpy, but in view of the beating it took on the long stretches of bad roads, it was not surprising. The air conditioner was well controlled and we were very comfortable with 15 persons in a 35 seater bus. Luggage space was adequate.