[an unpublished field report for the China Exploration and Research Society]


Kanas Lake: a Remote Nature Reserve

October, 1993

by Pamela Logan

"Kanas Lake? No way! It's freezing up there now. Everyone has left for the winter. Nobody goes to Kanas Lake this time of year. Come back in July." This is what people told me, again and again, whenever I asked about visiting the Kanas Lake Nature Reserve. Yet I couldn't give up, such was the allure of this far-flung corner of Xinjiang Province, squeezed in China's northwest between the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakistan. The lake, which is long and thin and 38 square km in area, is ringed by the Altai mountains, is a little-visited backwater in the vast melting pot that is Central Asia. The more I learned about it, the more I was determined to go.

So, unmindful of everyone's advice, I proceeded to the road-head at Habahe, a sleepy Kazakh town lying on a plain beneath the Altai. Inquiries here brought mixed results: most said the road was impassable; but a few disagreed, including one fellow with an old, broken-down jeep for hire...

Two days and many repairs later, I was on my way.

Kanas Lake lies only 70 km from Habahe, and once the car had come to pick me up at my hotel, I thought only a few hours separated me from my goal. But I had forgotten some of the cardinal rules of back-roads China travel. First of all, if you hire a car, you'd better specify how many other passengers will be allowed on board. And second, you'd be wise to set the precise departure time. No sooner was I and my luggage stored safely on board, then we were off--not to Kanas Lake, but to various farming villages around Habahe, where we picked up no fewer than five full-sized adult passengers. They all squeezed into the back seat. Then there was the matter of petrol, a few last-minute mechanical checks, and the now over-loaded jeep set moving to the north, engine whining and springs sagging.

My fellow passengers were a jolly lot, laughing good-naturedly at the way they were jammed into the back seat, laughing gleefully at the prospect of a journey to Kanas Lake, and laughing mischieviously at the odd-looking foreigner in the front seat. Two Chinese girls were on a business trip: they had a sack of factory-made clothes in the trunk that they would try to sell to the Mongolians of Kanas. But they were anything but business-like as they tittered at anyone and anything throughout the journey--"I could die laughing!" said one, a plump girl with short, pixyish hair. It was her favorite phrase.

From Habahe the road runs north, quickly running to the end of the Dzunggar basin and climbing into sandy hills. In a short time we had left behind the grass and scrub of the northern Xinjiang deserts and were ascending into the foothills of the Altai. Pine trees began sprouting from the north-facing slopes, and gradually we entered forest. The trees, like the pasture that had preceded them, were all tanned to autumn gold.

Lumbering down the road in the opposite direction were camel caravans belonging to Kazakhs, who were migrating south for the winter. Their animals were piled high with household goods--and in fact the house itself, for these Kazakhs had packed up their ger (round, felt-covered tent) and had lashed the pieces to their sturdy beasts. Kazakhs, like most of the races indigenous to Central Asia, are Muslim. Their strong Eurasian faces are framed by hair that ranges from deep black to golden blond--a startling sight in China and a hint of the ethnic variegation that changes faces in a continuous rainbow of gradually shifting features all the way from Hong Kong to Scandinavia.

It wasn't long, of course, before our jeep broke down, nor was anyone very surprised by this development. Having logged many thousands of hitch-hiking kilometers in the People's Republic, I knew enough not to worry, for Chinese jeeps are the simplest creatures in the automotive kingdom and easily repaired. The driver, a taciturn but competent young man, was carrying the requisite screwdriver, rusty pliers, and bits of twine, tape, and plastic. With these he could fix anything. So while we passengers romped among the groves of pine and little patches of waving grass, the jeep was repaired. Half and hour later we were going again.

Several repairs and many hours later, we slithered across our last muddy pasture to a guest house with a painted sign in front: Kanas Lake Hotel. It was locked and deserted. But no matter. Not to worry, said the driver; I have relatives here. Although he himself was Chinese, his wife was Mongolian, and her parents lives in one Kanas's many villages. We bumped over a log bridge, through a grove of pines, and into a neatly arrayed line of log cabins.

This was the heart of the southern Altai, a band of rich alpine forest that gradually gives way to Mongolian steppe. The Kanas Lake Reserve is remarkable in China because it abounds in species typical of southern Siberia. Here, southbound arctic storms are halted by the slopes of the Altai; the moisture gathered on their slopes nourishes forests of firs, white birch, Korean pine, and Dragon spruce. Fauna, too are typical of southern Siberia: brown bear, red deer, fox, sable and ermine.

Kanas Lake is also home to more than a thousand Mongolians, whose stout log houses are clustered into several villages. They eat fish from the lake, keep herds cows and sheep, and trade animal products for wheat grown in the south. They are only semi-nomadic, taking tents, horses, and animals to the high pastures during summer, retreating to their log houses in spring and fall, and retiring to the south during winter. But Mongolians are, in their hearts, a nomadic race, and with the custom of living in widely scattered steppe encampments comes a tradition of no-holds-barred hospitality. So when we seven visitors burst in on the home of the driver's in-laws, they wasted no time on astonishment. Refreshments were quickly brought.

The Mongolians of Kanas drink milk tea, bowl after bowl of it, constantly throughout the day. Sometimes with a dollup of butter thrown in. The proper housewife always has a pile of bread, cheese, and candy, all done up in a big cloth that, when it is untied, acts as both platter and table-cloth. Hunks of cold beef or mutton finish off a filling Central Asian-style meal.

On the evening of my arrival I leaned that, two hours' walk away, a wedding celebration was in progress. Would I like to go and see? Of course!

The next day I was guided to the wedding village. It was about four in the afternoon when I arrived, on the second and last day of the festivities. A yurt, erected among the houses, was the focal point. "Go in, go in!" invited the people milling outside. So I stooped before the low entrance and poked my head through the door.

It was a scene of utter pandemonium. Bodies moved to and fro inside the small space: reeling, bouncing, staggering, like a mass of ball bearings inside a pinball machine. There was almost no furniture; the place was entirely taken up by people and noise. To my left I made out a group of old men sitting on the damp earth. They were leaning on each other, glasses in hand; swaying and shouting, they were the very picture of drunken merriment. To my right a group of old women, only slightly less disorderly, was clustered. No one was wearing any ceremonial clothes, and there was no sign of the newlywed couple.

Having been among Mongolians before, I understood immediately. The wedding itself was over. This was just a plain old-fashioned Mongolian party.

My entry made quite a sensation. Within seconds they stopped their chaotic perambulations to eagerly welcome me and my all-too-obvious camera. "Come here! Sit down! Take our picture! Have a drink! Stand over there! No, take ours!" A dozen voices clamored, and hands clutched at me from all directions.

Slowly, the crowd arranged itself into two or three jostling rows for a group photo. The instant I lifted camera to face, their happy looks rolled off; they froze in the classic Chinese-posing-for-a-photo posture: stiff backs and expressionless faces. Click. When the camera came down they were like a house of cards collapsing, instantly becoming a laughing, shouting rabble once more.

Later on I partook of the wedding feast: an overflowing heap of meat, bread, cheese, and candy. By nightfall the old folks had left (or been carried out of) the yurt, leaving it for the younger generation, who would dance all night. I was invited to join them. I went eagerly, expecting to see some traditional Mongolian dance.

As soon as I entered the yurt, I was again buffeted by bodies coming from every direction. Overhead, a single candle burned, and by its light I soon made out that the young people were moving in pairs, face to face, stepping around the tiny space of the yurt. In the rear, a boom-box emitted thumping noises and shrill Mandarin lyrics. It was a scene I had witnessed dozens of times, in cities all over China.

Oh well. I guess sooner or later disco must come, even to Kanas Lake.