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December 6, 2010

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'Nature is the artwork of God'

BIVASH Mukherjee and Zhu Shenshen find divine joy in Tianchi and Kanas lakes

Italian poet Dante Alighieri could not have envisioned it better. It is not just the devout, but even the avowed atheists who would invoke the divine at nature's magnificence when staring down at Xinjiang's twin beauties - Tianchi and Kanas lakes.

Forgive us for repeating the oft-repeated cliche, but it just fits so perfectly here: If there is paradise on Earth, it is here.

Heavenly lake

Blessed with untouched nature, Xinjiang's total lake area accounts for 0.6 percent of the region's total.

Tianchi Lake's turquoise waters, backed by the snow-capped peaks of Mt Tianshan and arrow-shaped pine trees, paint a different picture from the mountains, valleys and deserts of the autonomous region. Understandably, it is on every tourist's itinerary.

But despite the clamor of people and the chaos that comes with it, Tianchi retains a heavenly charm and is justifiably christened "Heaven's Lake."

A little more than a 100-kilometer drive from Urumqi, the capital city, Tianchi Lake can be reached by a circumventing road but it is best enjoyed on a 20-minute cable car ride above pine trees. A quick trek up the paved path brings us face-to-face with nature's glory - pine-covered green valleys, white peaks and blue waters.

You are suddenly alone in a crowd even as the brave wander off on a journey of their own. For the less adventurous, there are golf carts that make for a pleasant ride beside the lake which is a little over 3.5 kilometers and 1.5 kilometers in width.

At 1,980 meters above sea level and with Mount Bogda gleaming in the distance, it is blessed with a cool breeze even in the harshest of summers, making for a perfect heavenly retreat.

Autumn is particularly beautiful when colorful leaves - yellow, orange and shiny red - bristle in the skyline. No amount of adjectives or metaphors can justify the romance of the place. Even the most amateur of photographers and painters suddenly seem to have mastered their art - such is its breathtaking beauty.

Tianchi Lake - originally a glacial lake - was also the muse for the Nanjing University student and Indian poet and author Vikram Seth, whose travelogue through Xinjiang and Tibet is brilliantly detailed in his book "From Heaven Lake." But even that - or any guidebook worth the name - cannot prepare you for the visual treat it has to offer. It is a sight to behold, to be seen and to be believed.

The evenings are particularly blissful as the lake, shaped like a half moon, glistens in the night sky. The nomadic Kazakhs who live around the lake offer horseback rides to the mountain top for more mesmerizing views of the lake and the peaks.

Their yurts (tents), made of hide and canvas, are also available for a night's stay which in itself can be an experience of a lifetime. The "walls" of the yurt are generally blanketed in decorative bright colors while a burning stove drives the evening chill away. The thick quilts at that time seem like a gift from heaven itself as you are lulled away to peaceful slumber.

For those on a day's trip, a minimum of 4-5 hours can make it satisfying, albeit rushed. Tianchi Lake is best enjoyed at leisure and a night's stay is suggested. You can wander away on your own and there would still be so much more to cover.

The good - and the danger of it as well - is that in the wilderness of Tianchi, you are on your own, and cut off from the noise and effluence of our everyday urban existence. Even the few boats and a rare speedboat fail to disturb the tranquility of the place. In that sense, Tianchi Lake offers a great escape.

Mysterious lake

Kanas Lake is in the northern part of Xinjiang, close to the border between China and Kazakhstan. It is a one-day drive from the capital city Urumqi.

Kanas Lake means "lake in canyon" or "beautiful and mysterious lake" in local language.

The area is often called "god's garden" or "paradise for photographers" due to the incredible colors. It contains snow-capped mountains, several hundred kinds of plants including South Siberia species and the sapphire-blue Kanas Lake.

If you have an iPad, bring it, but make sure you have the Star Walk app, an interactive astronomy guide, because of the pure and clean sky, totally different from Shanghai. It was an incredible experience to have an astronomy tour at night in Kanas though it was very cold outdoors. For the first time, we saw the whole Milky Way. It seemed even closer compared with what can be seen in Sarangkot, Nepal, at a higher altitude.

In autumn, Kanas is a mix of rusty reds, bright yellows and garden greens as the leaves on the trees change colors. Whether you are a photography fan or not, don't miss the sights listed below.

If you have only one day in Kanas, head to the Three Coves - Fairy Cove (Shen Xian), Moon Cove (Shen Xian) and Dinosaur Cove (Wo Long). The trip should include watching the morning fog at Fairy Cove, walking about 1 kilometer from Moon Cove to Dinosaur Cove and waiting for the sunset in the Fish Viewing Pavilion (Guan Yu Ting).

The morning fog in Fairy Cove is the best spectacle in Kanas.

It moves like snakes across colorful trees and blue lakes. Eventually the sun pokes through the blanket of fog. Luck with the weather is needed to see the fog but it's definitely worth the wait.

Another well-known spot is the Fish Viewing Pavilion, the top side of Kanas. At the pavilion, you can watch Kanas Lake from dark green to sky blue and then gray and white.

The color changes several times a day but a trip during sunrise or sunset is recommended.

Kanas is also known for a scary legend. It is said that huge lake monsters live in the deep water and often drag horses and camels, which usually stop at the shore to take a drink, into the water. The locals say the monsters are rare, huge red fish that are over 10 meters.

Last but not least, a village called Tuwa Tribe is near the lake. It's the only place for tourists to stay in Kanas and it costs about 50 yuan per person per night. It's a great place to see the faces of many lovely children.

Word To The Wise

Kanas is in the northern Burqin County of Xinjiang and 150 kilometers from the county town. Most tour groups take a one-day trip, but three days is strongly recommended although serious photographers may want to stay a couple of additional days.

Administration fee is 230 yuan including 80 yuan for shuttle bus. It's necessary because private cars are forbidden in Kanas.Local food includes staples such as potatoes, mutton and chicken.Photography and trekking fans can visit two other sites near Kanas. One is Hemu, famous for various trees and small houses made of wood. The other is Baihaba, which is great for hiking from seven hours to three days.


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