URUMQI AND THE TIAN SHAN AND ALTAY REGIONS OF XINJIANG

URUMQI

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Urumqi (2,800 kilometers, 30 hours by fast train, west of Beijing) is the capital and largest city, with about 3.5 million people. Sprawling out of a northern spur of Tian Shen Mountain and sided by brown and green mountains to the west and irrigated fields and desert to the east, it is a boom town, enriched by oil and coal money, whose population has increased 17-fold since 1950 and gone through profound changes in the last few decades.

Ürümqi is the second-largest city in China's northwestern interior as well as the largest in Central Asia in terms of population. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Ürümqi is the most remote city from any sea in the world. Urumqi had China worst air pollution the first quarter of 2016 according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It suffered from air pollution on more than half the days from January to March.

The word "Urumqi" is Mongol for "beautiful pasterland." Few grasslands are visible but irrigation that harnesses waters from the Tian Shen mountains has made a lot of the land around the city agriculturally productive. Urumqi has a Han Chinese section and a Uighur section. In the Uighur section there is a large Carrefour megastor next to a mosque. There is lots of construction. Urumqi has prospered perhaps better than any other place by Beijing’s effort to develop the West. Transportation links, power plants and infrastructure have been built ,

Tourist Office: Urumqi Tourism Bureau, 32 Guangming Rd, 830002 Urumqi, Xinjiang China, tel. (0)-991-283-2212, fax: (0)- 991-281-9357 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps of Urumqi: chinamaps.org ; Getting There: Urumqi is accessible by air and bus and lies at the end on the main east-west train line from Beijing, It is connected to Kashgar and other Xinjiang cities to southwest by a new train that began operating in the early 2000s.

Development of Urumqi

In 1990, Urumqi was an Uyghur city of a million people, with wide streets, shops with dead rare animals, kebab restaurants, street performances with musicians playing drums and Arabian pipes and child acrobats performing on a beds of nails, and lonely Han Chinese officials and soldiers, By 2000, it had become a city of 1.6 million people, 70 percent of whom were Han Chinese, with glass-and steel office buildings, four-star hotels, shopping malls, pool halls, Jeeps, Audis, Mercedes Benzes, Holiday Inn, Rock'n' Roll Cafe, and discos.

"Every employee I saw in my Western-style hotel was a Han," wrote Thomas Allen in National Geographic in 1996. "All the police officers I saw were Han. Even unskilled laborers were Han, lured from other provinces to work on the dozens of high rises, sprouting in Urumqi."

By the mid 2000s Urumqi had become home to 4 million people and looked like any other Chinese city. It was dominated by pale apartment buildings and a People’s Square in the center of town and had a downtown with KFCs, new 50-story buildings, and nightclubs such as “One Way,” with a door man in a plaid kilt and white knee-high boots.

Thirteen different ethnic groups, including Kazaks, Tatars, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Mongols, and several hundred thousand Uyghurs, live in and around Urumqi but they have all but lost their influence as the Chinese government makes a major oil and trade center.. Urumqi is so important to the western Chinese economy that it has been declared a port even though it is further from the sea than any other major town or city in the world (around 2,000 kilometers from the Arctic Ocean, Yellow Sea and Indian Ocean).

Urumqi has become a major trading center for Central and South Asia. It is closer to New Delhi than Beijing (1,900 kilometers versus 3,300 kilometers) and is linked to Alma Ata in Kazakstan by bus with serious discussion about opening up a train link between the two cities. Afghan and Pakistani traders in skull caps and shalwar kameez come to buy boxes of consumer good and clothes, packed in plastic-wrapped bundles, which they haul back home on buses trucks and planes. Deals for machinery and electronics and other goods are worked out in Mandarin, Uyghur and English.

Sights and Food in Urumqi

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Tombs outside Urumqi
Urumqi offers a wide variety of snacks and beverages. Sichuan and Cantonese dishes are widely available, along with various ethnic specialties. Local residents have a preference for meat, especially mutton. Their roast whole lamb is delicious, crisp on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth tender within. Tasty and nutritious Pilaf – made of mutton, carrots, onions, and rice – is the dish local residents offer their honored guests.. Other traditional delights include baked flat bread, pulled noodles, fried dough twists, and milky tea. A variety of dairy products and fermented mare’s milk are available.

Kebabs are enjoyed throughout China, but there’s nothing like the real thing in its place of origin Roasted meats and kebabs are popular local delicacies in Xinjiang. There are a great variety of roast meats and kebabs made from things like chopped entrails, whole lamb, and meat baked in a tonnir.

Muslim residents of Urumqi take part in the Corban and Rozah festivals, when they gather at mosques and public places to hold grand ceremonies. Other ethnic groups have their own festivals, such as the Mongolian Nadam, and the Xibe West Migration Day.

Transportation in Urumqi

Urumqi Metro opened in 2018, withe the unveiling of the northern section of Line 1. The southern section of Line 1 opened in 2019. Line 1 runs between Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport and Santunbei in downtown Ürümqi. It has a total length of 27.6 km (17.2 miles) and 21 stations. It is completely underground. The planned system calls for of seven lines totaling 211 kilometers (131 miles) in length. Line 2 is under construction. The line will have 16 stations and run Yan'an Road to Huashan Street and serve Ürümqi railway station. The section from Nanmen to Huashan Street is scheduled to open in 2022. Ürümqi Subway Map: Urban Rail urbanrail.net

Ürümqi BRT Bus Rapid Rransit) opened in 2011. It is bus-only closed road system with stations and ticketing system similar to light rail. The lines are: BRT1: 14.9 kilometers (9.3 mi) in length, 21 stations; BRT2: 14.1 kilometers (8.8 mi) in length, 17 stations; BRT3: 13.2 kilometers (8.2 mi) in length, 17 stations; BRT5: 9.6 kilometers (6.0 mi) in length, 11 stations.

Urumqi is accessible by air and bus and lies at the end on the main east-west train line from Beijing, It is connected to Kashgar and other Xinjiang cities to southwest by a new train that began operating in the early 2000s. Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport It is a hub for China Southern Airlines. It is the largest airport in Xinjiang. In addition to flights to most major cities in China, it has flights to and from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Ürümqi is Xinjiang's main rail hub. There are two main railway stations: 1) the older Urumqi South Railway Station (formerly the Urumqi Railway Station) and Urumqi Railway Station, which opened in 2016. The Lanzhou-Xinjiang High Speed Railway stops at both stations.

Trains in Xinjiang

Lanzhou - Xinjiang High Speed Train cover the 1,776 kilometers (958 mile) distance between the two cities in 11 hours Four pairs of fast trains run between Lanzhou and Urumqi each way, each day. A second class seat ticket costs CNY551. The service began in 2014. Trains reach speed of 200 km/h (124 mph). Stops include Lanzhou West Station, Xining, Zhangye West, Jiayuguan South, Kumul (Hami), Turpan North, Urumqi. [Source: Travel China Guide]

Two trains operate between Beijing and Urumqi each way, each day. The trip takes 30.5 to 40 hours. For a long distance trip like this, passengers are highly recommended to get a hard sleeper or soft sleeper so they get enough sleep. Two fast trains and seven normal ones operate between the Beijing and Lanzhou each way each day. The fast ones take 8.5 to 9.5 hours and the slower ones take 16 to 28.5 hours. Traveling by air is the quickest way to get there and not that much more expensive.

There are seven of normal trains a day, each way, between Urumqi and Kashgar. The 1,475 kilometer (917 mile) trip takes 17.5 to 25 hours. The hard sleeper ticket is around CNY349.5 per person and the soft sleeper bed is about CNY521.5 per person.

Urumqi is served by several conventional rail lines. Ürümqi is the western terminus of the Lanzhou–Xinjiang (Lanxin) and Ürümqi–Dzungaria (Wuzhun) Railway, and the eastern terminus of the Northern Xinjiang (Beijiang) and the Second Ürümqi–Jinghe railway. The Beijiang and the Lanxin Lines form part of the Trans-Eurasian Continental Railway, which runs from Rotterdam through the Alataw Pass on the Kazakhstan border to Ürümqi and on to Lanzhou and Lianyungang.

Sights in Urumqi

Sights in Urumqi include: 1) Hong Shan (Red Mountain), the symbol of Ürümqi, in Hongshan Park; 2) People's Park (south of Hongshan Park); 3) People's Square; 4) Nanhu Square; 5) Ürümqi City Museum (South Nanhu Road 123); 6) Ürümqi Tatar Mosque (Jiefang Road.), a sumptuously decorated mosque (permission must have been obtained prior to visiting it).

Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar (Erdaoqiao Market south of Tian Shan District) is China's largest bazaar. Somewhat touristy it has Islamic style architecture. Inside, a variety of Uyghur crafts and decorations and stuff from other ethnic minorities are sold. In the streets around the main building food and everyday items purchased by locals is sold. It is a good place to sample street food and snacks, and browse art exhibitions and shops. It is also an exhibition center for local tourism products. Getting There: Bus No.10 or 16 to Erdaoqiao.

Xinjiang Silk Road Museum (next to the Grand Bazaar at No. 160 Shengli Road) is located on the fourth and fifth floors of a large European-style building which houses a shopping complex. Most of the exhibits have English names as well and some of the guides speak some English. Russian markets are filled with goods from Russia and Central Asia . In Stalinist times there was a strong Russian presence here. Today the Russian mafia is strong.

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum(No.581 Xibei Road,) was completely rebuilt in the early 2000s. It is divided into four different sections devoted to the region's various ethnic groups, culture and history. Among it highlight are 4,000-year-old mummies and an exhibition hall of ethnic customs displays, pictures, artifacts, dioramas, costumes and tools that introduce visitors to ethnic groups found in the area such as the Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Daur and Mongols. Most important exhibits have signs in both Chinese and English.

The Tarim mummies are the centerpiece of the museum. Hundreds of mummies hundreds and thousands of years old have been discovered in Xinjiang. They span a period of time from 1800 BC to as recently as the Ching dynasty (1644-1912). Most of the mummies have been found in a vast area in the Taklamakan desert known as the Tarim Basin. The Tarim mummies are among the greatest recent archaeological finds in China, perhaps the world. Their skin is parched and blackened from the wear and tear of thousands of years, but their bodies are strikingly intact. The arid conditions in the desert and the salty sand found in this region have kept the mummies in amazingly good condition. Unlike the embalmed mummies of ancient Egypt, they were preserved naturally by the elements. And what is most surprising about them is many of them look more European than Chinese. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2010; Edward Wong, New York Times, November 18, 2008]]

The mummies are displayed in glass cases in Urumqi and another museum in Turpan. Their 3000-year-old clothing is in surprisingly good condition. In 2010, two mummies traveled to the United States as part of an exhibit titled "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China" at Santa Ana's Bowers Museum. The most famous mummy is the Loulan Beauty. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Almost invariably when visitors approach the middle-aged woman enshrined in a climatized exhibit case they pause and do a double take. What gets the most attention is her nose: high-bridged, slightly hooked, the sort of nose that reminds you of Meryl Streep. Then a little gasp. "Weiguoren!" (A foreigner!), one young woman exclaimed to her friends. They were touring the museum on a Chinese public holiday. Nearly 4,000 years after her death, the so-called Beauty of Loulan still has the ability to amaze."

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum is the only provincial-level museum in Xinjiang and also Xinjiang’s largest institution of cultural relic and specimen protection, scientific research, publicity, and education. Covering an area of 17,288 square meters, with two floors above ground and one below, the museum has a rich western regional style and local features. Getting There: Bus No.7 or 51.

Loulan Beauty

Loulan Beauty (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum) is the most famous mummy unearthed in the Taklamakan desert. Discovered near Loulan in 1979 and nicknamed the "Loulan Beauty," she has long reddish blonde hair was five feet tall and was buried wearing a goatskin wrap, woolen cape, leather shoes and a hat trimmed with goose feathers. Carbon-dating indicates that her body is 3,800 years old but similar tests of the wood of the coffin of mummy found nearby remotely suggest that she could be 6,000 years old. She is also known as the Xiaohe Princess.

The Loulan Beauty was unearthed in 1980 by Chinese archaeologists who were working with a television crew on a film about the Silk Road near Lop Nur, a dried salt lake 120 miles from Urumqi that has been used by the Chinese for nuclear testing. Thanks to the extreme dryness and the preservative properties of salt, the corpse was remarkably intact---her eyelashes, the fine hair on her skin, even the lines on her skin were visible. She was buried face up about 3 feet under, wrapped in a simple woolen cloth and dressed in a goatskin, a felt hat and leather shoes. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2010]

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “What was most remarkable about the corpse was that she appeared to be Caucasian, with her telltale large nose, narrow jaw and reddish-brown hair. The discovery turned on its head assumptions that Caucasians didn't frequent these parts until at least a thousand years later, when trading between Europe and Asia began along the Silk Road. Since Uyghurs themselves often resemble Europeans rather than Chinese, many were quick to adopt the Beauty of Loulan as one of their own." "If you went to see the mummy in the museum, a Uyghur would come up to you and whisper proudly, 'She's our ancestor,'" said Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "It became a political hot potato." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2010]

Despite her fine features, lived a hardscrabble life. Her shoes and clothing had repeatedly been mended. Her hair was infested with lice. She had ingested a considerable amount of sand, dust and charcoal, and lung failure most likely caused her to die in her early 40s. "You can see that even back then, pollution was a problem," said Wang. [Ibid]

Near Urumqi

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Yurts outside Urumqi
Worth visiting outside of is an enormous Muslim graveyard with thousands of compact rectangular tombs, all neatly arranged. Encroaching on this site are hundreds of walled Chinese burial mounds that take up a lot more space and are scattered much more haphazardly. Shuimogou Hot Springs is located five kilometers northeast of Ürümqi. The monument at the Geographical Center of Asia is in Yongfeng Township, Ürümqi County

Ili is 167,000-square-mile region of steppe and mountain in Xinjiang bordering Kazakstan. It is dominated by Kazak herdsmen, driving herds of sheep, goats and yaks. Sayram Lake (90 miles west of Tuoli) in the Tien Shen is filled with Kazak herders in the summer.

Karamay (300 kilometers northwest of Urumqi) is located in northwestern Xinjiang at the edge of Junggar Basin. Most of the land in Karamay is desert, with Tian Shan Mountains to the south. Karamay is a Uyghur word meaning "black oil." It gained this name for the Black Oil Mountain near the city. In 1955, China’s first oil well began to work in Karamay, opening the city to a construction boom. The most famous attractions around the city include Black Oil Mountain, Jiulong Pond, Baiyanghe Gorge and Ghost Town; Admission: Black Oil Mountain: 10 yuan; Jiulong Pond: 10 yuan; Baiyanghe Gorge: 20 yuan; Ghost Town: 20 yuan; Getting There: Take a plane or bus from Urumqi to Karamay.

Tian Shan Mountains

The Tian Shan (southwest of Urumqi) is a formidable mountain range in Central Asia and one of the great mountain ranges of the world. Extending for 3000 kilometers in a northeast-southwest direction along the border between China and Central Asia from the Altai area — where Mongolia, Russia and China all come together — to the Pamir Range in the Tajikstan and southwest China. The highest point is 24,406-foot-high Pobeda Peak in Kyrgyzstan. The most impressive mountain — and highest point of Kazakhstan — is Khan-Tengri peak (6995 meters) in on the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border.

The Tian Shan are lovely mountains with some of Central Asia and China's most beautiful scenery: towering cliffs, massive glaciers, snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, sweet-smelling spruce forests, boulder-strewn gullies and deep gorges. The name "Tian Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese. The northern The Tian Shan mountains are is located in the southeastern part of Kazakhstan. The Western Tian Shan runs along the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border in the Almaty and Bishkek areas and extends all the way to Uzbekistan. region. The Central Tian Shan runs from central Kyrgyzstan to China. The Eastern Tian Shan is in western China. The entire range extends about 300 kilometers from north to south.

Of the five mountains that exceed altitudes of 7000 meters in ex-USSR territories, three are found in Kyrgyzstan. The Pobeda Peak (at 7439 meters) is the highest and most difficult to climb, due to unpredictable weather conditions. The second highest peak, Lenin (at 7134 meters), on the other hand, is the most accessible. Khan Tengri (at 7010 meters) is on the world climbers’ elite list. In the view of climbers from Russia and in the former Soviet Union every self-respecting mountaineer must climb this peak, at least once in their life.

The Tian Shan were first described by the 7th century Chinese explorer Xuan Zang who spent seven days crossing a snowbound pass, where half of the 14 people in his party froze to death. The first European to extensively explore the central Tian Shan was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov who traveled extensively in the region in 1856.

Geology and Ecology of the Tian Shan

The Tian Shan are characterized by sharp crests underlined by grey-turquoise glaciers and dazzling Alpine lakes. Alpine meadows join with forests and tundra. The Tian Shan are not as high as the Himalayas but they are almost as high. The peaks are between 4,000 and 7,000 meters high and are covered by snow and ice. Some mountains resemble peaks in the Alps. The Tian Shan contains the most northerly mountains above 7,000 meters, which means that there are huge glaciers and these glaciers extend to a lower elevation than on mountains further south.

Between the mountains are canyons and valleys filed with dense evergreen forests, meadows covered by are wild flowers and colorful birds, and lush summer pastures known in Kyrgyz as jailoo, where nomadic horsemen tend flocks of sheep, live in yurts, hunt with eagles, and drink fermented mare's milk. Jailoo is also spelled jaylo and is known as yaylak in Russian and ailoq or jawlaw in Kazakh.

The Tian Shan are part of the great mountain group that includes the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Kulun mountains. All of these young mountains have been produced by the collision of the Indian subcontinent into the Asian land mass, which began about 50 million years ago. The Tian Shan are rising at a rate of about 10 millimeters a year. By some reckonings the Tian Shan is a spur of the Pamirs. Both the Tian Shan and Pamirs are connected with the Karokorum, Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountains.

Ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopard roam in Tian Shan mountains. Other wild life found in the Tian Shan and the Lake Issyk-Kul area include wild boar, marmots, ibis, manul, Himalayan, snowcock, wild geese, pheasants, partridges and wild turkeys. Some guest houses serve ibex meat.

Tian Shan Mountains Near Urumqi

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Heavenly Lake
The Tian Shan are lovely mountains with some of China's most beautiful scenery: cliffs, snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, sweet-smelling spruce forests, boulder-strewn gullies and deep gorges. The name "Tian Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese.

Describing Nanshan, which is only 20 minutes from Urmuqi in the Tian Shan, Paul Theroux wrote: "What distinguishes these mountains from others in China are the spruce forests, tall, cool and blackish green. On some of the meadows there were goatherds and shepherds with their flocks, and Kazaks living in mud-smeared huts and log cabins. There were yurts, too, and near them men wearing fur hats with earflaps, and boots and riding breeches; and there were women in shawls and dresses and thick socks. They looked like Russian babushkas, and unlike the Chinese, these women were long nosed and potbellied. They tended vegetable gardens near their cabins, and they had donkeys and cranky dogs and snotty-nosed kids who, because of the cold, also had bright red cheeks." Web Site: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Heavenly Lake (outside Urumqi) is half way up Mt. Bogado in the Tian Shan Mountains. The mountainous alpine scenery found here is more reminiscent of Switzerland than western China.

Xinjiang Tianshan

The Xinjiang Tianshan was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. According to UNESCO: “Xinjiang Tianshan comprises four components — Tomur, Kalajun-Kuerdening, Bayinbukuke and Bogda — that total 606,833 hectares. They are part of the Tianshan mountain system of Central Asia, one of the largest mountain ranges in the world. Xinjiang Tianshan presents unique physical geographic features and scenically beautiful areas including spectacular snow and snowy mountains glacier-capped peaks, undisturbed forests and meadows, clear rivers and lakes and red bed canyons. These landscapes contrast with the vast adjacent desert landscapes, creating a striking visual contrast between hot and cold environments, dry and wet, desolate and luxuriant. The landforms and ecosystems of the site have been preserved since the Pliocene epoch and present an outstanding example of ongoing biological and ecological evolutionary processes. The site also extends into the Taklamakan Desert, one of the world’s largest and highest deserts, known for its large dune forms and great dust storms. Xinjiang Tianshan is moreover an important habitat for endemic and relic flora species, some rare and endangered. [Source: UNESCO]

“Xinjiang Tianshan is a serial property consisting of four components totaling 606,833 hectares, with buffer zones totaling 491,103 hectares located in the People’s Republic of China in the Xinjiang Tianshan, the eastern portion of the Tianshan mountain range. The four components are located along the 1,760 kilometers of the Xinjiang Tianshan, a temperate arid zone surrounded by Central Asian deserts. The property was nominated under criterion (vii) for its outstanding beauty and superlative natural features and criterion (ix) for capturing a range of biological and ecological processes.

“The property has outstanding scenic values and many superlative natural features — from red bed canyons to high peaks and glaciers to beautiful wetlands, meadows and steppe. The visual impact of these features is magnified by the stark contrasts between the mountain areas and vast Central Asian deserts, and between the dry south slopes and the much wetter north slope. Xinjiang Tianshan is also an outstanding example of ongoing biological and ecological evolutionary process in a temperate arid zone. Altitudinal vegetation distributions, significant differences between north and south slopes, and diversity of flora, all illustrate the biological and ecological evolution of the Pamir-Tianshan Highlands. Xinjiang Tianshan has outstanding biodiversity and is important habitat for relic species, and numerous rare and endangered species, as well as endemic species. It provides an excellent example of the gradual replacement of the original warm and wet flora by modern xeric Mediterranean flora.

“The Xinjiang Tianshan is anchored in the west by the highest peak in the Tianshan, Tomur Peak at 7,443 meters, and in the east by Bogda Peak at 5,445 meters. The range lies between two Central Asian deserts, Junggar Desert in the north and the Tarim Desert in the south. The beauty of the Xinjiang Tianshan lies not only in its spectacular snow-capped mountains and glacier-capped peaks, beautiful forests and meadows, clear rivers and lakes and red bed canyons, but also in the combination and contrast between the mountain elements and the vast deserts. The stark difference of bare rocks on its south slope and luxuriant forest and meadow on the north creates a striking visual contrast of environments which are hot and cold, dry and wet, desolate and luxuriant — and of exceptional beauty.

“Xinjiang Tianshan is an outstanding example of ongoing biological and ecological evolutionary process in a temperate arid zone. The landforms and ecosystems have been preserved since the Pliocene epoch because of the Tianshan’s position between two deserts and its Central Asian arid continental climate, which is unique among the world's mountain ecosystems. Xinjiang Tianshan has all the typical mountain altitudinal zones of a temperate arid zone, reflecting the moisture and heat variations at different altitudes, gradients and slopes. The property is an outstanding example for the study of biological community succession in mountain ecosystems in an arid zone undergoing global climate change. Xinjiang Tianshan is also an outstanding representative of biological and ecological evolution in the Pamir-Tianshan Highlands. Altitudinal vegetation distributions, significant differences between north and south slopes, and diversity of flora, all illustrate the biological and ecological evolution of the Pamir-Tianshan Highlands. The property is also an important habitat for relic species, and numerous rare and endangered species, as well as endemic species. It is representative of the process whereby the original warm and wet flora has gradually been replaced by modern xeric Mediterranean flora.

Xinjiang Yardang

Xinjiang Yardang (200 kilometers southwest of Urumqi) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The nomination property presents the most majestic Yardang landscape cluster in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone, including thousands groups of orderly arranged bluff cluster shaped Yardang landform, ridge-shaped Yardang landform like a large fleet of ships in a vast sea, castle-shaped Yardang landform with various positions and colors combinations and isolated hill relics Yardang landform with strange positions, own excellent aesthetic value, interpreting the spectacular beauty of the desolate gobi desert. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The internationally accepted landform Yardang has origin in Uygur language, Xinjiang, China; it was Sven Hedin who made it a formal technical expression in the early 20th century; it means a weathing landform, mainly ridge-like, castle-like or hill-like in extremely arid region and some basins in arid region with a considerable scale, where the not totally solidified sediment of the Cretaceous period, the Jurassic period and the Tertiary period (especially from the late tertiary period) will be weathered by the wind and runoff.

China is one of the countries in the world with a large area of concentrated Yardangs, about 20,000 square kilometers. The most typical Yardangs are particularly concentrated in the basins in Xinjiang and Qaidam Basin in Qinhai Province. Xinjiang, located at the hinterland of Euroasian continent, and sparse rain and abundant wind make convenience for the development over 6,000 square kilometers of Yardang. Hami basin, Lop Nur and Junggar basin are where the Yardangs are mainly distributed in Xinjiang, and it is an outstanding example of Yardangs under the temperate continent climate and in the desert of the extremely arid region in central Asia. [Coordinates: N42 25-46 30 E85 30-92 45]

“The Hami Basin is the largest intermontane lowland fault basin in China where there are large areas of sandstone, mudstone and glutenite of the Cretaceous, Paleogene and Neogene periods. Under the effects of runoff and wind, a number of types of Yardang groups have developed in an area of 2,500 square kilometers, 120 kilometers long and 30-50 kilometers wide, which are mainly castle-shaped, ridge-shaped and hill-shaped, and light brown or khaki in color mixed with purple stripes, most of the top covered with 2-4 meters salt crust. The elevation of Hami Yardangs differs greatly, has various monomer positions and magnificent integral sight. The Yardangs in the Hami Basin provide typical examples of water-eroded gullies and wind-eroded trenches at the early developmental stage, bluff-shaped, castle-shaped, ridge-shaped, and peak cluster at the middle stage and hill relics at the late stage. It is where the largest scaled and best-preserved Yardang with the most types can be found in China.

“The Junggar Basin is the second largest inland basin in China with a vast area of Jurassic and Cretaceous sandstone, mud stone and conglomerate, gray-greenish, brown-reddish, amaranth and khaki colored Yardangs have developed on a large scale in Urhe. The landform of this area is formed initially by water erosion and then by the wind force, developed castle-shaped and pagoda-shaped Yardangs, belong the middle stage of Yardang development. Strong winds blow through and across the Yardangs in Urhe throughout the year, making a sound like the wail of a ghost. Thus, Urhe is given the name of ghost city. Urhe is home to hill like Yardangs with the purple reddish, yellow and greyish green colored most popular.”

Xinjiang Yardang Shapes

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The nomination property is the most concentrated, the largest, the most types and the best preserved of its kind in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in temperate zone Various types of Yardang can be found in the nominated property, such as the cubic hills, teeth-like ridges, etc. at an early development stage, as well as ridge-like shapes, whale back shapes and castle shapes, etc. at the peak stage, and isolated hill relics, pagoda forest shapes, cone-like shapes, etc. at the late stage. The complete process of Yardang landform form and develop is represented. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“Xinjiang Yardang includes the four most representative shapes: castles, ridges, bluffs and isolated hill relics, and the landform features and diversity are incomparable. Urhe ghost city Jurassic and Cretaceous strata developed most typical castle-shaped and pagoda-shaped colorful Yardangs initially by water erosion and then by wind action. Hami Yardangs landform belong the early stage of development and developed vertical joint, formed typical bluff cluster shaped Yardang landform, also is the most concentrated, the largest, the most types and the best preserved typical area of its kind in China.

1) The bluff-shaped Yardangs are arranged in an orderly way. Dozens of meters high horizontal strata densely and interlaced distributed and developed vertical joint, formed thousands of columnar and coniform orderly arranged majestic bluff forest landscape cluster by runoff and collapse action. 2) The ridge-shaped Yardangs are imposing. More than a dozen kilometers ridges and grooves alternately arranged, hundred groups of ridge-shaped Yardang landform stretched several tens of kilometers, giving the impression of a large fleet of ships in a vast sea. 3) The castle-shaped Yardangs have various positions and colors. The strata with alternatively distributed sandstone and mud stone formed various types of wind-erosion castle such as cubic hill shape, round hill shape, temple shape by runoff and wind action, with red, yellow, grey and green colors, made them became majestic colorful Yardang landscape cluster. 4) Isolated hill relics Yardangs have strange shapes. The most typical ones are tower shape, column shape, beacon tower shape and mushroom shape, and the animal shapes such as eagle, horse, monkey and turtle are vivid as well as the figure shapes such as warrior, peri, old man and child.”

Geology of the Xinjiang Yardang

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The nomination property is an outstanding example of the environmental changes as well as the geologic and geomorphic processes in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone Yardangs are mainly composed of continental sandstone and mud stone formed in the meso Cenozoic and the Quaternary. The sandstone results in castle-like Yardang and the mud stone forms ridge-like Yardang. The major exogenic forces are weathering, wind erosion, runoff, collapse, etc. In particular, weathering and runoff are active in the early stages, wind erosion is active in the middle stage and collapse occurs in the late stage. The nominated property presents the complete process of Yardang formation from surface weathering at the beginning, the massive landforms at maturity to disappearance at the end. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The property presents Yardangs representing the geologic processes of various geographical units, in different stratigraphic sequences, in different development periods, of different types and under various exogenic forces. It is an outstanding example of the on-going geologic and geomorphic process of Yardang construction and destruction, and is the ideal type of Yardang in the world from which the name of the phenomenon has been taken. Furthermore, the stratigraphic sequences constituting Yardang landform recorded the ancient natural geological section under climate change, is an important carrier of studying the Tibetan Plateau uplift and central Eurasia drying processes.

“The nomination property has various types of Yardangs, the complete process from the surface weathering, embryonic states, full development to disappearance is represented on Jurassic, Cretaceous, Palaeogene, Neogene and Quaternary strata. Furthermore, Xinjiang Yardang includes the four most representative shapes: castles, bluffs, ridges and isolated hill relics. Nomination property is an outstanding example of typical wind-erosion and wind and water complex erosion geomorphic processes in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone, reflecting the central Eurasia drying processes, is an important carrier of studying of the Tibetan Plateau uplift and central Eurasia drying processes.”

Altay Region

Altay Region (including part of East Kazakhstan) is a mountainous area in central Asia where Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together. Situated between the Gobi Desert and the Siberian Plain, it is regarded as the homeland of the of the Mongolians, Turks, Koreans, Hungarians and Parzyrks (famous well-preserved 4,000-year-old Parzyrk mummies have been found here). Ural-Altaic languages are named after the region. Ancient petroglyphs found in the area are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altay.

The Altay (also spelled Altai) region is one of the wildest and most interesting parts of northern Xinjiang. It is a varied region with forest, steppes, wild river, lakes, deserts, snow capped mountain and abundant wildlife. On windward sides of the mountains are some of the wettest places in central Eurasia, with glaciers, streams and numerous lakes. On the leeward side are some the driest areas. The most important rivers are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma. In lowland areas where the soils are accommodating there is some farmland. Otherwise most of the landscape comprised of steppes and meadows, some of which are used for grazing animals.

Natural vegetation in the region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altay snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.

Ha'nasi Nature Reserve (700 kilometers north of Urumqi) lies in the northern part of Burqin County in the Altay region of Xinjiang. Ha'nasi, a word of Mongolian origin, means "mysterious beauty". The Ha'nasi Nature Reserve lies in the northern part of Burqin County in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It contains snow mountains, valleys, forests, flowers, lakes, meadows and almost all varieties of natural beauty. The most popular route for hiking is from Dahong fishing island on Ha'nasi Lake to Hemu village. The route is quite long and will take you three days. Those who want to brave the trip should take camping gear and plenty of food and water Travel Information: Best time to visit: July, August and September; Admission: 100 yuan;

Altay Mountains

Altay Mountains stretch for 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across southwestern Mongolia from Siberia to the Gobi Desert. The mountains are of moderate height. There are several peaks over 4,500 meters. Those that are higher than 3,000 meters are snowcapped throughout the year. The region is rich in lakes and streams. The Ob, Irtysh and Yenisei all have their sources in the Altay mountains. The Altay people live mainly in the broad plateaus, steppes and valleys of the ranges, where water is plentiful. The Altay complex of mountain ranges embraces the water divide mountains for all of Asia: the South Altai, the Inner Altay and the east Altai. The highest peak, 4506-meter-high Mt. Belukha, is in Russia near the Kazakhstan border.

Altay is a part of a huge Altay-Sayan mountain system located between Lakes Baikal and Zaisan (East Kazakhstan region). The Ukok Plateau (southwest Altay Republic) is a bleak area near where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan all come together and is where many of the important Pazyrk tombs were discovered. The climate here is ideal for preserving the bodies in the tombs. Some of the mummified remains and artifacts are now in the Hermitage. It is difficult get to. Many of the archeologist who work rely on helicopters.

During the winter this 7500-foot-high region is hit by such nasty winds the "grass stands free of snow." Ufok means "the end of everything" and people that live in this region believe it is a step on the way to heaven. People are not allowed to shout out of fear that it might offend the spirit who they believe reside are closeby. [Source: Natalya Polosmak, National Geographic October 1994]

The climate is continental with extremes in temperatures between the summer and the winter. The mountains help to mitigate the extremes to some extent by causing a winter temperature inversion that produces an island of winter temperatures that are warmer than those in the Siberian taiga to the north and the Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to south and east. Even so temperatures drop as low as -48 degrees C in the winter. The mountains are a gathering point for precipitation in a region that otherwise is dry. The most rain falls in July and August, with another smaller period of rain in late autumn. The western Altay receives around 50 centimeters of precipitation a year. The eastern Altay receives less: around 40 centimeters a year

China Altay

China Altay was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Altay Mountains extend across China, Kazakstan, Mongolia and Russia in a NW-SE direction. The whole length is 1650 kilometers and the width is about 130-200 kilometers, with an elevation of 1000-3000 meters. The altitude of the highest Youyi Peak is 4,374 meters and it is located at the boundary of China, Russia and Mongolia. The China Altay is the south slope of the middle segment which extends about 500 kilometers and takes up one third of the total length of the Altay Mountains. Two great rivers originate in the China Altay. One of them is the Ergis River and it is the headstream of the international Erbi River which flows into the Arctic Ocean. The second one is the Ulungur River which is the second longest land-locked river of Xinjiang, and it is the main run-off of the second largest land-locked lake-Ulungur Lake of Xinjiang.[Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“Two nominated districts both represent the natural geographic character and ecosystem of the south slope of the Altay Mountains, but they can not be replaced by each other. Kanas National Nature Reserve is the largest center of glaciation and the most beautiful scenic region in the Altay Mountains. Two Rivers' Headwaters Nature Reserve is the typical shaped rock granite landforms of Altay mountains, and is also the headstream of Ergis River.

“China Altay possesses a diversity of landscape features, such as sublime glaciers and snow-covered peaks, colorful alpine meadows, grand granitic natural sculptures, dynamic atmospheric conditions, picturesque landscapes of rivers and lakes, and charming nomadic life and folk customs. These features combine to form unique aesthetic values that are second-to-none. The area is a remarkable exemplification for the aesthetic values of integrated natural and human mountainous landscape. These landscapes are of multiple types and are characterized by high qualities, great heterogeneity stunning vistas and rich folk cultures.

“The Altay Mountains are the key accumulation zone of glaciers in the world and the glaciers are extensive and suffer no human interference. Kanas region, one of the nominated sites, is where the south slope of Youyi peak is located. The glacial area in this region is larger than that within Russia or Mongolia. The glaciers in this region are the most prominent representatives of the Altay Mountain glaciers and are the key to research on the Quaternary glacial movements of the Altay Mountains. Both modern and well-preserved ancient glaciers remnants exist. The area can be regarded as an encyclopaedia and natural museum of mountainous glacial geography. The post-Quaternary glacial evolution has been completely recorded in the nominated sites and is invaluable information for understanding the impact that the global warming has on the mountainous ecological system. Thus, this region has high scientific value for research on glacial geography and climate change.”

“The nominated heritage is a typical representative of the south slope of the Altay Mountains ecosystem, and the natural distribution zone of Siberia flora and fauna reach their southernmost limit in this region. The nominated area is the ecotone between the temperate desert and Siberia fauna and flora, and it is a region where flora and fauna have evolved distinctively.” [Coordinates: Kanas National Nature Reserve: N48 58 E87 18; Two Rivers' Headwaters Nature Reserve of Altay: N47 30 E89 50]

Geology of the China Altay

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Several glaciations occurred to the China Altay during the Quaternary and multiple glacial erosion features and accumulation landforms were created. Kanas region is located on the south slope of Youyi peak which is the main peak of Altay Mountain. This region is the largest center of glaciation in the Altay Mountains and it has recorded the complete sequence of the glacial geography since the mid-Pleistocene. Key features of the glacial geomorphology are as follows: The scale of modern glaciers is tremendous. There are 210 glaciers with a total area of 400 square kilometers in the Kanas region which accounts for nearly half of the total area of Youyi peak and is the largest among the whole Altay Mountains. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The types of glaciers are varied and typical, such as converging valley glaciers, dendritic valley glaciers, and ice caps. There are three prominent groups of cirques, one totally covered by plants, hollow cirques, and modern glaciers. Together, they reflect the stage and character of the glacial shrinkage and vegetation expansion. Nunataks and knife-edges, as well as huge glacial grooves, have widely developed, and the bedrocks of the glacial pavement and sheep-back rocks (roches moutonnee) outcrop frequently. The glacial lakes are distributed like lines of pearls. The relatively large ones are Kanas, White, Black and Double Lakes, They reflect the stage and extent of the glacial shrinkage. Glacial sediments are widely spread and include moraine hillocks and glacial boulders.

“The Altay Mountains underwent long-term tectonic movement, including complicated fold and faults in which huge granite blocks were intruded. Thus, geologic wonders formed of gigantic, intricately carved and unusually shaped rocks have been formed by long-term surface weathering and fluviation. At the Ergis headwaters, there are pyramidal crests, large domes and densely honeycombed cliffs. Together with the sparse taiga forest, thermal springs and river valley, the Altay granite landscape has been constructed to result in a vivid landscape.”

Biodiversity of the China Altay

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The nominated heritage possesses important biodiversity. The site is located in Udvardy Biogeographical Province-"Altay Highlands" and also represents the Altay-Sayan Montane Forests within the system of 200 global bioregions recognized by WWF. This region has been the main habitat for many endemic and endangered plants and animals. The nominated area contains over 1,400 vascular plants species, 193 moss species, 205 lichens species, and 150 macro-fungi species, including endangered plants of Orchis 1atifolia (CITES 2007), Epipogium aphyllum (CITES 2007)etc. and endemic plants of Paeonia sinjiangensis, Salix burqinenisis etc. The nominated area contains over 360 species of vertebrate, 1167 species of invertebrate, including endangered animals of Ursus arctos IUCN 2009 CITES 2007, Aquila chrysaetos IUCN 2009 CITES 2007 etc. and endemic animals of Rana altaica, Vipera ursini renardi etc. The major ecological formations in nominated area include Form. Pinus sibirica, Form. Picea obovata, Form. Abies sibirica, Form. Salix spp., Form. Betula pendula,and Form. Populus tremula. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The nominated area, China Altay, involves many kinds of natural wonders, including glaciers, snowfields, high mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, grasslands, wetlands, granite geomorphology and so on. The glaciers on Youyi peak in the Kanas region are grand and spectacular. Several ice tongues descend the peaks. They are majestic and can be regarded as wonders. There are impressive lakes such as Kanas, White, Double and Black lakes, as well as the winding Dragon, Moon and Fairy valleys along the Kanas river. The verdant forests along the banks are reflected in the rivers, forming an essential landscape element in Kanas. The taiga contrasts with the snow-capped mountains in the spring and in summer, it is reflected in the water, in shades of green. In the fall, yellow and red colors are interwoven as the leaves change their hue. In the winter mists, the branches reflect like silver jewelry in the icy water. In spring, the meadows turn green and the flowers add their colors. Herds and flocks, and clusters of yurts turn the alpine pastures into harmonious natural and human mosaic.

“Kanas Lake is famous for its changing colors. The morning mists, changing skies and evening shadows enrich the natural landscape. The huge granite boulders remind the viewers of fantastic sculptures and mythical figures. Together with the valleys, thermal springs, forests and grasslands, the nominated areas encompass the splendours of the granite geography of the whole Altay Mountains. The native Kazak and Mongolian Tuwa people migrate among the wetlands and the grasslands, living their special folk customs, such as Arken spiccato singing, horse racing, falconry, wrestling, archery, catching sheep and chasing girls. The historical remnants of the nomadic culture, including stone men, pictograms and ancient graves, have also been preserved.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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