We met Jason at 10:15 this morning, after breakfast. Today, we plan to cycle and drive to Baiyang Gou, or “Southern Pastures,” and then in the late afternoon to go to the Grand Bazaar in the Uygur Moslem district of Urumqi. It’s sunny, about 29 degrees, and a bit breezy, not at all the oven-like heat I was expecting here in Xinjiang Province.
About sixty kilometers south of Urumqi, the Southern Pastures are where Kazakh families move their yurts between May and October, to graze their herds of sheep and cattle. Some families also earn extra income from tourists to the Pastures, who rent their horses for rides up a steep grade to a beautiful twenty-meter high waterfall, or stay overnight in their yurts, or just drink milk tea and have fresh baked bread with them.
The day started out roughly – literally! Shortly outside of downtown Urumqi, the road south turned out to be under serious reconstruction, to the point where there was no roadbed at all for much of the sixty kilometer drive – just a succession of huge potholes, detours upon detours, and dust and gravel made airborne by the huge trucks passing by in the other “lane.”. What should have been an hour or ninety minute drive turned into almost three hours of feeling like we were in an electric blender, to the point that about halfway through the trip there, we began to regret ever deciding to go in the first place! Of course, our original plan to cycle up to the Pastures had to be shelved, because of the terrible road conditions.
Once we arrived at Baiyang Gou, not only did the road become smooth, but all our misgivings immediately disappeared, too, because the landscape there is absolutely beautiful! And even better, there were almost no other visitors, possibly because of the difficulty in getting there. From the parking area, we started to cycle up the steep road, about four kilometers to the amazing waterfall, but on the way, our attention was diverted by the sights and sounds of what seemed to be a party coming from two yurts pitched very close to the creek.
It was a party in fact – a large group of young nursing students from a nearby university had rented the use of the yurts to have an outdoor get-together in Baiyang Gou. They were primarily ethnic Kazakhs, but there were also Han Chinese, Tibetan and Tajik students, too (Xinjiang is home to thirteen different ethnic minorities). When we timidly approached with our bikes, they enthusiastically welcomed us into their yurts, fed us, and affectionally posed for endless photos with their arms around us. We were taken a bit aback by how wonderfully they treated a couple of foreign gatecrashers at their party!
We continued up to see the beautiful waterfall, then turned around and began cycling the 10 kilometers of clear road, before the construction chaos began again. On the way, we stopped at a yurt for milk tea and bread with some of the best, freshest butter I’ve ever tasted! We chatted a bit with our hosts, translated by Jason, and found out that they were shepherds who hosted tourists during the summer months, while their herds grazed nearby.
We then returned to town, to visit the International Grand Bazaar, an indoor market spread out over 100,000 square meters in several beautiful brick buildings in the Moslem quarter of Urumqi. The market itself had a series of endless stalls that were almost identical – each aisle offered a selection of decorative knives, a local specialty, silks and cashmeres, an astounding selection of dried fruits and nuts, animal-fur hats and scarves, gold jewelry, and stringed musical instruments. Taken together, two or three aisles gave you the idea of what was on offer, because each aisle basically repeated the one before it.
But it was the people walking the aisles, and also of course the streets around the Bazaar, who were truly amazing! Most all of Xinjiang Province’s thirteen different ethnic minorities were there, giving the visitor a sense of Russia one moment, Turkey the next, then possibly Afghanistan or Kazakhstan the next. It wasn’t anything like anything we’ve ever seen in China, up until now. As we walked the streets and people-watched, we munched on the sesame-topped flatbread that is baked locally, as almost all of the Uygur restaurants are all-meat-all-the-time kinds of places, and we couldn’t figure out how to ask for a vegetable dish!
What a memorable day!