Kings of the wild frontier

JERKING his Beijing 212 jeep around a hair-pin bend, Wang Xin Wu said: ''I'm a Chinese cowboy. I can do anything except bear a child.'' Machismo, a mistress and mao tai are Mr Wang's fuel as he manoeuvres around ruts, ravines and rivers on the quickly disintegrating road - at the end of ''road season'' - to the middle of nowhere.

''Nowhere'' is Xinjiang's Kanas Nature Preserve, nestled in a forgotten triangle of China's most western province.

Slightly closer to Hong Kong than Moscow as the crow flies, Kanas has evolved from military outpost to natural neutral zone within the past two years. Until last year, Chinese army units kept a watchful eye across the Buerjin River into Kazakhstan.

Now, the only visible military presence is an abandoned watch tower which overlooks a prosperous Kazakh horse farm in the adjoining valley. Borders have disappeared and relations have continued to thaw since the establishment of the Confederation of Independent States, formerly the Soviet Union.

In this pristine frontier without fences, trading gun-fire has been replaced with trading horses - and the odd bottle of vodka and pack of cigarettes.

''Borders don't mean very much around here,'' said Mr Li, a Han Chinese ''settler'' who lives year round surrounded by the reserve's snow-capped peaks, sweeping grasslands and network of glacial green rivers.

With his Kazakh wife and the product of their cross-cultural contact - two-year-old Oscar - Mr Li runs a log cabin homestead, one of three rustic accommodations available to people travelling without their yurt.

Guests are prepared for their authentic slice of pioneer life by enduring the two-day jeep ride from Altai, one of three towns in Xinjiang and Mongolia sharing the same name, meaning ''gold mountain''.

Altai, a mining centre, is another two days by bus via the oilfields of Karamay to Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.

The last civilisation en route from Altai to Kanas, is Ha Ba He, the county seat and crossroads on the only passable road to Jieminay, bordering Kazakhstan.

It's there the road forks north and kidney belts should, but aren't, issued for the rough ride up to the preserve. The only other option for getting to one of the most unspoiled places in China is to saddle up a horse or camel for a five-day trek.

''The best time to come is in July when the grasslands are carpeted with flowers,'' said Jin Hai Long, Mr Wang's rough-and-ready soulmate in frontier frolicking, who joined our jeep caravan heading toward their mutual friend Mr Li's place.

''I hope we can get out before the storm comes in,'' Mr Wang said, looking at an approaching winter sky.

By September, in the centre of Central Asia, the ground has frozen and thawed a few times, creating slippery, snowy sections of muddy tracks and hidden ice patches.

These are perfect conditions for thrill-seekers to drive their 212s into the ground, bucking bronco demolition derby-style, an entertainment they incorrectly assume is also appreciated by their paying passengers.

Reaching Kanas is evidence enough that any outsider is out of his realm in uncharted territory - and subject to the mercies and magic of the place and its inhabitants.

Out of another time, camel caravans, heavily laden with household belongings, pass calmly by at a steady, rhythmic pace on their way down to lower pastures for the winter.

All summer, the nomads are busy grazing their animals, making Kazakh blankets and preparing for another winter.

The natural ebb and flow of the seasons are the only barometers needed to dictate movements and activities in Kanas, leaving 1993 and all the trappings of city life in a modern world far behind.

Slaughtering sheep, sorting and drying mountain herbs, gathering fire wood and fetching water from a well three kilometres away, are all daily chores at the homestead.

''It's a hard life, but we are free to do what we like,'' Mr Li said. ''This is important.'' The family and two young live-in hired hands live simply, with most meals consisting of noodles, fatty lamb and a few peppers when they are in season. Sometimes a one-hour jeep or horse ride down to the settlement by the shores of Kanas Lake - the jewel of the preserve - reaps a gift of Kazakh cheese and horse meat.

''Oscar's not afraid of the cold,'' said his mother, stoking the fire with wood brought in by one of the hired hands. ''He's a tough little guy.'' By his parent's choice, Oscar is growing up in the wilderness, learning the laws of nature and how to cope with harsh living conditions rather than being relatively pampered in an organised society.

For thousands of years, Kazakh, Mongol and Kirghiz herders have roamed the area, keeping ethnic ties as a priority over the political boundaries separating Xinjiang from Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia.

Modern-day boundaries or no, nomadic and semi-sedentary traditions and cultural heritage have been preserved, thanks in no small part to the remoteness and expanse of the Kanas region.

''Stop the jeep,'' yelled a travelling companion with a sharp eye. Up ahead, a horse and camel caravan was coming with a rare sight, a master hunter travelling with his hunting bird.

The bird looked deceptively placid on his trainer's arm. Once unhooded and unleashed, however, the bird, equipped with a three-metre wing span, swoops with stealth accuracy on to its prey, often diving successfully for animals as big as range wolves.

For centuries, hunting birds have been an integral tool for survival in the wilds of winter on barren grasslands - and for some, still are.

Traditional lifestyles of the wild west are practised with gusto in the last log cabin settlement within China's borders. More than a one-horse town, the muddy main street is the scene of town meetings, barter trade, colourful laundry hanging out to dry and neighbourly drinking sessions, all with a distinctive Kazakh flare.

''Try some mare's cheese,'' offers an acquaintance of Mr Jin. At least a few months' old, the cheese goes well with the local fire water, also of questionable vintage.

''You'll need some strength to walk around the lake,'' he said.

Kanas Lake, a crescent-shaped sea-green body of liquid beauty, has so far existed virtually undisturbed by human occupation.

The only people to have discovered the lake in addition to the assortment of nomads, are the recent influx of idle, picnicking soldiers in the area who have started throwing glass beer bottles in the lake, a handful of foreign adventurers and more recently, China tour operators who threaten to offer hunting tours to the highest bidder.

Such tours are already available in northeast China.

''There's so much wildlife here,'' said Mr Wang, who had brought his gun for some recreational shooting. Large populations of bear, mountain goat, mountain lion and other large animals roam the Kanas preserve as freely as their human co-inhabitants.

So far, the natural balance has been maintained through traditional hunting practices. Unlike other more accessible regions of China, Kanas has a fighting chance to stay what it is: a wildlife and cultural preserve, where visitors shoot cameras not guns.

This will only be possible if the local people, and the local and provincial governments continue to cherish their rare privilege to roam free on the range in a natural world without the constraints of modern society.

''Come back next year,'' Mr Wang said. ''Stay for a month by the lake in a yurt. My friend has a horse you can ride. I'll drive you back to Altai in my new jeep before the snow flies.'' How to get there CAAC flies from Hong Kong to Guangzhou daily. From there you can pick up a domestic flight to Urumqi every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Cost: round trip about $5,800.