Xinjiang usually conjures images of the vast deserts of the Gobi or ancient stops along the ancient silk road—but much of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is covered in beautiful grasslands that extend to the northwestern edges of China.
Heading west from the deserts of Urumqi will lead you to Ili (known as 伊宁/yīníng in Chinese), the capital city of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture (伊犁州/yīlízhōu) in the northwestern-most reaches of the country.
The road from Urumqi to Ili is long (eight to ten hours by car), but the journey offers spectacular views and places to stop, including the huge, crystal-clear Sayram Lake (塞里木湖/sàilǐmù hú). The marvelous natural scenery that surrounds the lake is dotted by Mongolian homesteads offering horseback rides (RMB20 to 40 per hour) and is an ideal stopping point for a late lunch before continuing on the journey.
After a late-day arrival in Ili, rise early the next day to visit the Nalati (Narat) grasslands (那拉提草原/nàlādī cǎoyuán), which are divided into two parts—to the right, a plateau grassland that is the summer home to a large nomadic Mongolian population (wintertime snow drives them to lower ground during the cold season).
At this part of the grasslands, locals offer horseback rides, meals (including locally made cheese), and yurt-stays to tourists. The other part of the grasslands is mountainous and much less set up for tourism.
Although it can provide the traveler a glimpse at the winter residences of the locals, any additional sightseeing comes at a premium that seems a much lesser value than the offerings of the other side of the grasslands. Entrance and bus tickets for both parts of the park are sold separately.
To the southeast of Nalati is the Bayinbuluke prairie (巴音布鲁克草原/bāyīnbùlǔkè cǎoyuán). The terrain here is a mixture of grassland and marsh; the large, grassy fields teem with life. For anyone interested in birding, this location—which was until recently closed off to foreign visitors due to its military bases—offers a fantastic array of migratory birds.
The highlight of the marshland is a winding river that snakes from one side to the other as it disappears into the horizon, a view immortalized in poetry. The park has a hill that overlooks the bends as far as the eye can see, guaranteeing one of the most amazing sunsets in the world (weather cooperating).
The most practical way to explore this sprawling region is by hiring a car and driver, which allows you to stop along the road (highly recommended). Finding accommodation can be tricky at times, and the area's tourism industry is still very much under development.
It's best to ask around for prices before choosing a place. For all of the above places, snacks and good hiking shoes are essential. Temperatures can drop, so layers are recommended, even if the daytime weather doesn't require them. Use of mosquito repellent is highly advised, especially at dusk around the marshlands.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 62 ("year of the snake").
Photos provided by PureQuest Adventures. For more adventure ideas, please visit PureQuest.