Northern Xinjiang is a nature-lover’s paradise. The magnificent Tien Shan Mountains down south and the gorgeous Altai Mountains up north surround the entire region. Even the flatter areas are not spared from the gifts of nature – beautiful grasslands, pristine lakes and meandering rivers fill whatever that is left. Opportunities for hiking are aplenty, but even those who prefer a laid-back vacation can still have an amazing time in northern Xinjiang. Find inspiration in the top six places you have to visit in northern Xinjiang:
1. Duku highway (独库公路)
Open only during summer and early autumn, the Duku highway has one of the most scenic landscapes I have seen in northern Xinjiang. The road from the south begins with dry and rocky mountain faces then changes to beautiful pine forests and alpine lakes. Eventually, the forests disappear and you will drive pass endless rolling green grasslands. Here are some must-see places along the Duku highway:
a. Tien Shan Mysterious Canyon (天山神秘大峡谷)
Take a short and easy walk along the Tien Shan Mysterious Canyon, which is flanked by towering, red-faced mountains. Marvel at the changing red hues of the mountains as the sun rises or falls. Shout your hearts out and listen to the resounding echoes. You will be amazed by the natural acoustics of the Tien Shan Mysterious Canyon.
b. Big and Small Dragon Lakes (大小龙湖)
Stop by the Big and Small Dragon Lakes along the highway. The dramatic views of the towering snow mountains in the background make for a picture-perfect photo! You can even stop near the Big Dragon Lake for a cup of tea over the stunning views.
After crossing countless hairpin turns up a mountain and going through a tunnel, you will enter a region full of beautiful grasslands. Watch the grazing yaks or just run along freely on these vast grasslands. Many locals pick a nice spot here for a picnic and you can do so too.
d. Booming wild flowers
In late summer, wild flowers boom all over the vast grasslands. You will see huge areas of yellow, pink and purple along the highway. Great to just watch the flowers go by from your car, or stop and have a picnic. Watch out for yak poop though!
2. Nalati grassland (那拉提草原)
The Nalati grassland is a huge area that is admissible only by purchasing a ticket. However, there is no real need to go in as you can see the beautiful grasslands from the main road. Walk along the meandering river that forms the natural fence of the area and take in the amazing views. Buy a ticket only if you wish to ride a horse or live in a nomadic yurt within the area.
3. Tekes trigram (特克斯八卦城)
The city of Tekes is designed like a trigram (bagua), which is an important concept in the world of Fengshui. Take a hot air balloon over the city to witness the grandiose of this design from above. Alternatively, you can also choose to fly a drone above the city. There is no third option though and you will not be able to see the design from the street.
4. Zhao Su’s rapeseed fields (昭苏油菜花)
The road that goes south of Zhao Su comes alive in July with kilometres of bright yellow and violet fields of rapeseed and other flowers. Stand in between the brightly coloured flowers for a photo or climb one of the viewing towers for a panoramic view. With the stunning Tien Shan mountains as a backdrop, be prepared to glue your eyes to the car window.
5. Xiata scenic area (夏塔旅遊区)
Deep within the Tien Shan Mountains lies a picturesque valley that is now converted into a scenic area. Despite the hordes of tourists, you can always find a beautiful, quiet spot for yourself. Most Chinese tourists take the bus to the photo-spot and leave. I suggest that you hike along the river instead and explore the various landforms on foot. Here are some things you must do in the Xiata scenic area:
a. Ride a horse
I must say that Kazakhs are definitely the masters of horses. Ride a horse with a Kazakh behind you, or take the challenge to ride a horse solo. Fret not, the Kazakhs are so good with horses, you will be safe even if you ride solo. You can also do horse trekking to the various places deep in the valley, such as the Xiata glacier.
b. Hike along the valley
The walk towards the Xiata glacier is absolutely stunning and scenic. Yet this is something 99% of the Chinese tourists do not do, for some strange reason. Along the way you will pass by rivers, virgin forests, snow-capped mountains, small lakes and vast grassland. You will not regret this 16km hike.
c. Stay in a yurt and experience local hospitality
Staying in a yurt is an interesting experience. In the evenings, the host family would cook up a sumptuous dinner and invite you to an evening of song and dance! I was really luck to stay with a group of locals who cooked amazing food and were full of fun and laughter.
6. Chinese Altai Mountains
Oh how I love the Altai Mountains. The Chinese Altai Mountains have definitely won me over and I would say this is the best area for hiking in northern Xinjiang. Note though that this is also one of the most popular tourist areas in Xinjiang. However, most Chinese tourists take the bus from one point to another, missing out on the goodness in between. This also means that hiking through the Altai Mountains is a peaceful, yet spectacular experience! Here are two hikes you have to do:
a. 1 day hike from Jiadengyu tourist area (贾登峪) to Hemu village (禾木村)
This is a pretty easy, yet picturesque hike. You will pass through beautiful forests and walk along a gushing, turquoise river. Every now and then a local would walk by with his army of sheep, or someone would beckon you over for a cup of tea. The locals here are extremely hospitable, especially in areas that are spared from the tourist tramp!
b. 2 days hike from Hemu village (禾木村) to Kanas Lake (喀納斯湖)
Depending on your speed, this can be done in a long one-day hike or in two days. Along the way, you will pass by pristine blue lakes and colourful forests. The end point is something to look forward to. Your sweat and tears will pay off with the legendary Kanas Lake appearing before your very eyes.
These are the six top places to visit in northern Xinjiang. While most of the amazing places are concentrated near the Tien Shan Mountains, the trip out to the Altai Mountains is also worthwhile. The Uyghurs say that if you do not visit Kashgar, you have not visited southern Xinjiang. There is a similar saying for northern Xinjiang as well! “If you have not visited Yili (the region near the Tien Shan Mountains), you have not visited northern Xinjiang.”
Every road trip in northern Xinjiang is bound to be a scenic one, so grab a car and explore the various regions in northern Xinjiang!