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May 25, 2007 - Tian Shan, China

The Western China Roundup III

View Over Tian Chi Lake

When friends here found out I was spending my May holiday in Xinjiang they inevitably asked if I was going to visit the splendid Tian Shan Mountians. Tian Shan is well cemented in the minds here as a place of excelling beauty and no small amount of mysticism.

Tian Shan is generally translated as the Heavenly or Celestial Mountains - tracing from the local Uyghur name Tangri Tagh. The mountains are north-west of Urumqi and extend 2,800km from the south in Tajikistani where it meets the Pamir Mountains and along the north edge of the Taklamakan Desert skirting Xinjiang, Kazakhstan Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. A source of pride in Xinjiang for the majestic peaks, supplying much needed water to the oasis's (oasii?) of Turpan and Urumqi and a particularly beautiful area named Tian Chi.

A slightly hectic morning of packing, multiple taxis, sketchy bus operators and scrambling for supplies found us on a large tourist bus to Tian Chi. We rumbled along for a few hours passing from the dry, arid Urumuqi into increasingly forested and green hills. Finally in the distance a line of snow-capped peaks and a road winding through a valley filled with seasonal yurts and small groves of fruit trees.

Proclaimed a Guojiaji Fengjing Mingshengqu along with roughly 40 other areas in 1982, Tianshan Tianchi National Park has become increasingly popular. A backdrop for numerous movies and, unfortunately, now home to two sizable hotels, a tourist welcome center, 4 massive parking lots, a fleet of over-sized golf carts for the increasingly lazy tourists, a sunken tour boat and a pavilion barge. The park operators shook us down for a 90 kuai entrance fee - quite a haul with the tourist-sized buses of 60 or 70 people flowing through the gates.

Milling about in the parking lot were groups of Chinese tourists - obviously quite out of their element in the great outdoors - some wearing Kevlar hiking boots, North Face jackets and brandishing aluminum walking sticks while others tried to maintain their city composure with high-heels and handbags. The only two passengers on the bus with bags bigger than a purse, Scott and I received quite a few looks for our over-sized hiking packs, shorts and eagerness to skip the chair-lift up the side of the mountain.

That's right. A chairlift.

My heart sank as soon as I saw it - looking at the growing morning line of nature-enthusiasts in their finest flashy warm-up pants jostling for a place in the chairlift line. Opting for immediate relief from the crowds and hoping to maintain a shred of dignity we took an impressively conservative, clean and well-maintained set of stone steps leading up the mountain. Conservative by Chinese standards as there were only a few of the concrete trashcans done up as old tree stumps. Taking into account the mob scene below, we encountered surprisingly few people on the way up - so few in fact that we were again downcast when some seriously overweight "hikers" spryly greeted us at the top. Momentarily forgetting the chairlift we wondered how the two of us - sweating and mouth-breathing - could be confronted by unwrinkled, nylon-covered behemoths such as these after a 45 minute climb.

Every few minutes a new herd of slightly timid but eager adventurers was disgorged from the chairlift - enjoying the beautiful view without the hassle of a climb. Exactly as they had planned.

And the view was just that - beautiful - living up to an old name, Yaochi, an emerald green lake tucked in between the peaks at the base of Bogda Peak. The Mongolians revered the peak - naming it Bogda, the Mongolian word for God - for its mystical snow-capped appearance.

Dodging the expeditions of tourists cat-calling across the water and brave enough to venture away from the little city carved out around the chairlift, we picked a promising route on the west side of the lake, starting out with a narrow set of rough-hewn steps covered with the debris of rock slides. A good sign. Almost an hour later we stood overlooking the lake, feeling much more at peace and slightly more gratified at finally accomplishing something.

We camped for the night on the far side of the lake, next to a family of Mongolians who had just returned for the summer tourist season. Nestled into a small valley at the end of the lake they were in the process of setting up a few yurts for campers eager to experience authentic nomadic yurtage. After we politely refused their offers for horse-treks the next day, they seemed happy enough to have us around - stopping by a few times as we staked the tent and strung out the rain-fly - if not slightly bemused by our actions. One of the young women wandered up to our smoky camp fire with a child on her hip and watched us as we slowly feed wet tinder onto the crackling flames. By the lake a few small horses grazed, picking their way from one rocky outcropping to the next.

The next morning we set out and up a peak behind the camp, climbing first through steep grazed pastures and then through damp pine forests, the ground crawling and air buzzing in the warm sunlight with insects of all kinds. Small horse tracks led us part way and finally gave way to rough grassy terrain. Above the lake we could see for miles - the snowy peaks close and jade-colored lake below. Small wisps of smoke struggled up out of the valleys from groups of yurts.

Every few minutes though, the silence was broken.

A mechanical sound, grating and clanking - filtered up the side of the mountain.

At the far end of the lake a construction site crawled with heavy machinery. From our vantage small insects trudged along belching puffs of black smoke. A massive pile of gravel was being slowly leveled and pushed into the lake, tiny dump trucks dumping tiny piles of brown out next to the crystal lake and bulldozers smearing the color in small swaths.

Tian Chi is its own worst enemy. The beauty had brought National park status and along with it crowds. Just last year, in 2006 it was designated as a "restoration" area and slated for a nearly $100 million capital investment. The tourism infrastructure was seen as inadequate and is headed for a nearly 4 fold increase in area - sweeping over adjacent mountains and covering the lake in picnic areas, hotels and lake-side chalets.

This could be a good thing - but it could also mean the death of the place as it stands now. In all likelihood, and that coming as an educated guess after seeing other Chinese parks and tourist attractions, I see this as $100 million worth of fake tree-stump trash cans and gaudy concrete mushroom stools. Parking lots and chairlifts and massive hotels.

I hope I'm wrong.

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