A day in the life of the Kazak horsemen
by Carrie Lee
MY Xinjiang tour was eventful: pickpockets ripped open my handbag without me noticing and I had an argument with a horse owner who tried to make me pay him more for the ride than had been agreed.
But my compensation was a visit to Tian Chi - translated as Heavenly Lake.
The majestic mountain peaks, pine-studded slopes and glacier-fed sapphire blue lake make up a landscape with a striking resemblance to that of Switzerland.
It nestles in the foothills of the mountain range of Tian Shan - meaning Heavenly Mountains - which spans the centre of Xinjiang forming a natural division between the north and south.
The mountain range is often the subject of Chinese martial art novels in which the heroes pick the 'heavenly lotus' growing on Tian Shan to improve their martial arts and to cure 'lethal' wounds.
Tian Chi is about two hours' drive from Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital.
Xinjiang is rich in cultural diversity. The 13 minority tribes are one of its main attractions.
Although the Uygurs form the majority of Xinjiang's population, the people around Tian Chi are mainly Kazaks.
At Tian Chi, melting snow forms waterfalls which flow into the lake, which lies 1,980 metres above sea level.
We went on a cruise on the lake, close to the mountains, which are lined with cypresses and pines. You must wear warm clothing. It is very cold and windy at this altitude, even on a summer's day.
Many woman visitors hired traditional Kazak costumes for picture-taking sessions, and Kazak horse-owners touted tourists aggressively.
You do not need to know how to ride, the horse owners take care of you. But the rides, though thrilling, are far from comfortable as the saddles are makeshift affairs. We reached a waterfall which fed another small lake, but were unable to ride down to the lake as the descent was too dangerous. But I later dismounted, and took some steps instead.
We rode on to see Kazak tents, or yurts, surrounded by grazing sheep, goats and horses.
Back at the starting spot, the horse owner asked me to pay 120 yuan, saying he had taken me to additional places. But I insisted on giving him only 15 yuan, the price we agreed upon before setting off.
After buying some drinks from a friendly vendor, we sat outside his small stall, enjoying the scenery and serenity - a far cry from Hong Kong.
From time to time, however, there were arguments between horse owners and riders over the riding fee.
One of the yurts I came to had been hired out to tourists as a 'lodge.' Inside, the walls were covered with tapestries and carpets peculiar to the ethnic minorities. The owners serve guests with nan and butter tea.
The Kazaks are certainly aware of the opportunities of boosting their income from tourism. We asked to take a photograph of a cute baby and were taken into the yurt where an elderly woman who said she was the owner, asked for one yuan from each photographer.