Tian Shan, 2012

Heavenly Lake in the Tian Shan Mountains. “天山天池” [tian shan tian chi] was our destination. Before leaving LA, my mom and I researched the weather to know what clothes to pack. Accuweather and Yahoo! forecasted that weather in Tian Shan shouldn’t fall below 50-degrees during the day, and that it might even be as warm as 75-degrees. But on the morning of our departure, the tour guides told us that it was pouring outside and a cool 50-degrees in Urumqi: meaning mountains that reach altitudes of 24,000ft would be significantly colder. Uh oh. I was only armed with a light jacket.

Prospects were grim. Skies were black and streets were flooded with water from the torrential rain. Urumqi is a desert city, so its sewage system isn’t built for such spontaneous thunderstorms. Our tour guide told us that the Uyghur literally have no idea what rain is like: he told us a story about an old Uyghur, who was sitting by his window one day when it suddenly started raining. Puzzled, he stuck his head outside his window, look upwards towards those living above him, and yelled, “who is that up there wasting all that water?!

I crossed my fingers for luck that the mountains would be clear. After all, they were 2-hours outside of Urumqi. Nope. The wind at Tian Shan was blowing something fierce; rain pelted our faces, and I was tearing from the cold. That was some serious wind chill. As Heavenly Lake was deep in the Tian Shan mountains and inaccessible to our tour buses, we had to transfer to a smaller vehicle. The transfer station was renting out heavy-duty army coats. But, tour guide Hansen told us that there were stores at the next station that sold thick capes for no more than it cost to rent the heavy-duty coats. Or so I thought.

We passed many Kazakh villages driving to the next station; most were simple huts or teepees. A small stream snaked alongside the road, and I caught glimpses of little mountain goats, wild sheep, and newborn cattle sauntering about in the rain. Nature’s awesome. The next station was at an elevation 2000ft higher than the last. Even colder. My face was numb and my nose was running like horses in a stampede.

The dining area provided no respite–cold marble floors, open windows. The sight of food was exciting because it meant warmth. Deep-fried eggplant, celery with this weird, smoked beancurd, and tofu stir-fried in chili oil. Some steamed buns and white rice. Unfortunately, the piping-hot food lasted only a few minutes before it became as cold as my hands. Beer was the only source of heat left. Because we didn’t rent the coats, we ended up buying two parkas for 400RMB after 20 minutes of haggling.

2 curves, 36 more to go.

Once everyone finished their meals and used the restrooms, our guides informed us that hey guys, it’s snowing up at Heavenly Lake! But don’t worry, the blizzard has calmed down to a flurry. Well that’s good. I mean, I was totally ready for a blizzard with my wafer-thin clothing, and worn Pumas with holes in them. Things got more exciting when the Tian Shan ranger told us that there was a total of 38 turns in the road before we would reach the footpath leading into Heavenly Lake.

Heavenly Lake was breathtaking. Nearly freezing to death and a fever the next day was almost worth it. Listening to the crunch of freshly-fallen snow under your feet and being trapped in a frozen, winter wonderland at the very end of May was nothing short of surreal. The trail to a waterfall had been blocked off because of all the ice. Instead we all went on a lake cruise, which suited me fine because my ears were ringing in pain from the cold. I still forced myself to stand outside by the railing so I could snap a few pictures. Taking more than a few seconds to get a shot froze my fingers. Literally could not move them.
The weather had chilled out by the time we disembarked. No more wind or rain or snow. Being outside was actually bearable. A warm 45-degrees, I’d guess. Most of us decided to walk back to our buses, a 15-minute walk away, just to enjoy the scenery. So much for it being almost summer. We were unlucky in the luckiest way possible. Hypothermia in exchange for a gorgeous, sugar-powdered landscape. The snow in the parking lot where our tour buses were parked had completely melted. All that remained of the tempestuous weather was blue skies and warming sunshine.

No one who arrived when we were leaving would believe that there was a blizzard that morning.
You know you’re somewhere in the middle of nowhere when you see more sheep on the highway than cars. Soon we were back to civilization: streets crowded with concrete buildings, traffic, and freeways. Gone were the sheep-herders, the crop fields outside the little huts situated around a large campfire, the greenery.

Dinner was served at a restaurant close by. Huzzah! Food in a desert as expansive and isolated from the rest of the world as Xinjiang means there isn’t much variety. Hansen broke down the daily meal plan of the average person in Xinjiang/Urumqi for us:

Breakfast: naan, tea, dried fruits or nuts.
Lunch: noodles with sauce.
Dinner: naan, tea, stir-fried vegetables.

And that’s what they eat 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Our dinner reflected that consistency. Eggplant, tofu, and celery made the exact same way as it was for lunch. Yet this was supposedly a “特色餐” [te se can], or “specialty” dinner that showcased dishes particular to the Urumqi region.

Lamb was a big thing. Some sweet corn tossed with toasted pine nuts. Very delicious. Some tofu, stir-fried with napa cabbage and vermicelli. Solid. Naan bread in the middle. This was different than the Indian naan I was familiar with; it was closer to sesame and scallion bread, pan-fried. Warm, fluffy, flaky. And my favorite dish of the night was “地皮鮮” [di pi xian]. It’s a vegetable indigenous only to Xinjiang, a cross between seaweed and woodear. Stir-fried with sesame oil, scrambled eggs, and bell peppers made it a winner!

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