Lake of Heaven

North-west, Xinjiang, China

William Mackesy’s account of this walk


We lie against a rock, paying silent homage to a view we have been anticipating for years. In front of us Tian Chi, the Heavenly Lake, fabled for its beauty and remoteness, basks in the late April sun. Behind it, the grand peaks of the high Tianshan mountains, still weighed with snow, preside over dark pine forests and anaemic grassy hillsides only recently freed from winter's freeze.

Angry voices suddenly break our trance. A dirty-faced, ragged woman is hurling shrill insults in Mandarin, the world's best cursing language, at the group of men who run the hutted camp we have recently checked into. Guttural taunts, clearly the worst they can muster, bring her gibbering like a harpey through the fence from her wretched cave-hut. She strides up to the apparent ringleader, a rough looking man with frizzy permed hair whom we soon call Vinney, and trades insults, as near eyeball to eyeball as a height difference of a foot will allow. She kicks him hard in the shins; howling, he picks up an empty beer bottle and breaks it over her head. A stunned silence, shards of glass tinkling on the ground but no blood. She is led away, cursing incoherently. We avert our gaze discreetly.

After this introduction, we treat the camp and its proprietors with caution. It has a long wooden hut with a passing resemblance to a cricket pavilion, which is locked for some reason, with a kitchen hut next door, its inside like a Breughel attempt at a Hieronymous hell, presided over by a smiling dirty-handed cookie in a filthy once-white hat. We sleep in a thin A-shaped hut shared with an ominously whiffy deep freeze. There is a raised platform where we wrap ourselves in dubious eiderdowns; it is at well over 6,000 feet, a long way north and bitter at night.

The communal loo is unapproachable, excrement on the ground outside; we, like bears, have to shit in the woods.

Supper is unadorned fried rice, all extras rejected (cookie confused and dejected), washed down with watery Urumqi beer and my carefully concealed Laphroaig, consumed shivering in jerseys and fleeces as the light fades over the lake. As serious cold sets in, we retire to our isosceles triangle and cower under the rugs.

The next morning, the lake sparkles in a bright sun, the sky an unadulterated cobalt, a welcome change from the recent dusty vistas of the Taklamakan desert. After a perfunctory breakfast, we set off round to the right of the lake, past shacks of tat, testimonial to the lake's growing popularity, and onto an old herders’ track which winds through the forests above the lakeside cliffs, vistas of the waters appearing through the pines. We descend to a glorious meadow above a rocky beach. The vestiges of last year's nomads' huts and enclosures nestle below scattered pines, clear of the reach of burbling streams’ possible snowmelt torrent.

After a couple of hours, we reach the lake end, hopping across a small side-stream which splashes through a small meadow following no obvious course, then toil across a quarter of a mile of tumbled boulders which constitute the bed of the river which must, at the wrong time, boil down the great valley which winds ahead of us toward the snowfields.

We join a grassy track which winds between a steep hillside and a fir wood to a group of dilapidated huts, some form of research station, with a pretty young woman on a doorstep carefully combing her hair in the sun, and a pair of fine if motley classical Chinese cranes stalking solemnly about the courtyard. We exchange pleasantries, then quit this pleasingly eccentric setup and start up our chosen valley. The track meanders beside a stream, through sunny glades and the cool shade of a natural fir forest. Patches of startlingly white snow still lie under the steep mountainsides. It is ravishing. We eat our lunch at the top of a sunny clearing, the crags of the far hillside looming above the firs, invisible birds in lusty early year song.

The trees become thinner, and we clamber through a snow drift over the stream into a perfect alpine meadow, bright yellow flowers already carpeting the vivid grass. Crags tower among the snowfields high ahead. Pines dot the hillside to our right; animal tracks lead up to a bare ridge on the other side.

We almost skip up through the grass. Round a corner, the slope becomes steeper, boulders breaking the smooth, cropped grass surface. A somehow surprising wooden cabin of newly cut logs, almost a pastiche of a Wild West homestead, nestle near a stand of pines to our left. It looks as if work has stopped in mid hammer-blow. Behind it, a pair of ponies, manes and tails in the long Mongolian style, regards us suspiciously, then set off for the hillside. We rest against a large, subtly angled rock, enjoying the majestic peaks immanating over the valley’s high end and the shadows on the far hillside behind us, then fall asleep in the sun. When we wake, the ponies are also recumbent, although they haul themselves up and amble off upon our resurrection.

Our return walk is a delightfully easy downhill stroll. The girl is still on her doorstep, although her hair is now sleekly decorating her back. The big river is harder to cross with the afternoon's glacier melt; the side-stream has grown and now tumbles, totally unconstrained, over the meadow. We see no-one the whole way down the lakeside.

Finally back in camp, we sit resting our feet, a glass of the now alarmingly reduced Laphroiaig at hand, enjoying the early evening sun on the high peaks beyond the lakehead. Vinney intrudes on the view, already flushed and, as far as our poor Mandarin and his thick accent would reveal, already slurring. He eyes my treasured whisky and asks for a drink. Ever hospitable, and still traumatised by his antics the day before, I pour him a glass. He swigs, splutters, and makes his disgust loudly and gutturally clear. Fortunately the cook, sophisticated internationalist, is at hand and assures Vinney that this is a famous and legitimate foreign brew although, wonderful man, he refuses some himself. Vinney retires mollified. I hesitate at his unfinished glass, then swig it down.

Some while later, after we have gorged ourselves on more fried rice, we witness the cookie, goaded too far by Vinney and no doubt by now himself overwatered, go for him with that favourite of the Chinese brawl, a meat chopper, which he swipes as he chases Vinney around the camp. Ali observes that their problem is that there is no matriarchal figure to keep them off the bottle and, when necessary, slap them around.

We retire to our already freezing triangle and cower behind a carefully locked door.

The next morning our taxi driver arrives from Urumgi, three hours away, on the dot of 9am. We are clearly paying far too much.

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