When we arrived yesterday in Aksu, we first thought to stay just for one night, as we could not find anything to do in the area, either on the Internet or in our guidebook, which describes Aksu, unfairly, as offering nothing of interest. It would just be a rest stop on the way to Kashgar, nothing more, we figured.
But then Tali saw a framed photo of a beautiful gorge on the wall behind the receptionist at our hotel, and inquired about it. The receptionist told us that this spot wasn’t too far from where we were. So now we had something of a plan, and a reason to stay a second night!
Today, we met Jason for lunch at 12:30pm, then drove to the outskirts of Aksu, to explore this area, called the Wen Chu Mysterious Mountain, about thirty minutes outside of town. When we got there, we were amazed at how beautiful it was! This was a wide dry desert river valley that wound its way between two sets of towering multi-colored wind and rain-eroded mountains. And, even better, it was virtually empty – when we arrived, there were only four visitors they had admitted that day, and they were somewhere back among the mountains, nowhere to be seen!
The path the river valley took between the Mountains lasted for about 15 km, with no way out at the other end, and it was way too sandy for our hard-tail bikes to negotiate…so we had three exploration choices: one was to go by foot, which considering the terrain and the heat, didn’t seem that practical; the second was to go by a four wheel drive Hummer-like truck, which was available to rent for the day; and the third was to rent a dune buggy.
Since neither Tali nor I had ever ridden a dune buggy before, that seemed like the clear choice! We would be out in the open, unlike driving the Hummer, and how exciting…exploring a massive mountain gorge by dune buggy! The young attendants at the start of the valley were a little reluctant to rent it (there was only one there) to us, because they were unsure if it was working perfectly, but we were determined, and we let them know that they could come out and look for us if we weren’t back within two and a half hours…so, we were ready to go off on another adventure!
After a two minute demonstration, in Chinese, of how to drive the dune buggy, we left the entrance area and headed out into the valley. It was exhilarating! The fun of riding the ATV, the fact that we were alone in this huge valley between towering beautiful mountains, it all added up to incredible fun, and it was quite exciting, too, since the deep sand in many places made the driving a bit challenging. But I soon got the hang of it, and it was just a blast! And the landscape was awe-inspiring, with the craggy, eroded mountains on either side of us looking like natural grottoes, with the formations creating Buddha-like sculptures lining the cliff faces.
After a few kilometers, Tali suddenly spotted a small antelope-like animal, with ears like a rabbit, a bit less than a meter tall, and quite fast, approaching us. It bounded along to within perhaps ten meters of us, and stayed close to us for quite few minutes. It was very moving that this beautiful wild creature had chosen to reveal itself to us, and to accompany us on a part of our exploration of Wen Chu. We later learned from the attendants that it was probably a rare, protected species that lives back in the valley, along with cougars, mountain lions, and other wild animals.
Unfortunately our time for going out into the valley soon exceeded an hour, and we had to turn around, or there would be a search party sent out for us! Unfortunately there was no way to change the arrangements we had made to return within two hours, as of course there was no cell phone coverage back where we were, or we would have gladly stayed out there for another few hours, at least!
After we returned the dune buggy, and thanked the attendants, we got on our bicycles to cycle, as the road was beautiful, and without many trucks on it. We went about 40km on a lovely, shaded poplar-lined road to the town of Wen Chi, then packed our bikes and had an early dinner.
It was a wonderful, surprisingly adventurous day, one that demonstrated the natural beauty of Xinjiang Province’s wild places, just waiting to be explored!