Tianchi Lake in Tianshan Tianchi National Park is a scenic highlight about 1.5 to 2 hours out of Urumqi. It is a small lake in high mountains. The northwestern area is highly developed and even has a mall. But the eastern and southern areas have a trail and beautiful hiking. If you like nature and ethnic culture, it is a place to go, and you can find economical accommodations and meals in the Kazakh yurts. Some of the yurts are beautiful inside with lots of brightly colored and decorated rugs, quilts and wall hangings. They sort of remind me of camping in American Indian wigwams that were probably made similarly. Because of the ready and fairly inexpensive ethnic accommodations in a high-mountain national park, the Tianchi Lake is a great place to camp.
The lake itself is about 3 kilometers long and averages about 600 or 700 meters wide (2 miles by less than half a mile). It is surrounded by many rugged and forested valleys that lead down to the lake from closely surrounding peaks that reach about 2,400 meters (7,800 feet). The surface of the lake itself is at an altitude of about 2,000 meters or about 6,600 feet, and it is about 100 meters at the deepest point. There is a hiking trail that goes around it. The yurt accommodations are on the northwest side near the road and the entrance.
To really enjoy the place, it is best to stay overnight so as to have the time to hike around and to be there when the crowds are gone and the speed boats and tour boats are retired. The tour buses often arrive around noon and leave by three or 4 pm to take groups to restaurants or back to Urumqi. Staying in an authentic Kazakh yurt is a cultural experience. Once the tour buses and crowds leave in the late afternoon, the lake and the valley becomes quiet. People can go for strolls on the mountain paths, and they can hike or ride a horse up to the glacier plains where the scenery is simply stunning. If the sky is clear, you can enjoy the stunning celestial display and maybe campfires or meals with your Kazakh hosts.
Kazakh people were nomadic, tribal shepherds and ranchers of cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. Now a lot of the 1.5 million Kazakhs who live in Xinjiang work in the cities or in agriculture. They are a mixed ethnic group with both Asian and Caucasian features. But in the mountains and the mountain valleys around Urumqi, many have combined their horsemanship and ranching with tourism. So there is plenty of meat to eat and trained horses to ride. They put up their yurts in a traditional way, and then they leave when the tourist season is over, and their horses graze in the area.
These Kazakhs are generally uneducated and earn money as shepherds and ranchers and by hosting tourists in yurts. They have a high-protein, dairy-rich diet and are known for serving big portions of boiled or broiled meat with their hard salty bread that is called nan, their hard sour cheese called irimshiq, noodles and milk tea. An economical alternative to hotels and restaurants in Urumqi are the Kazakh yurts and their ethnic meals. A yurt may seem primitive. It is. When it is cold at night, you may have to burn wood or coal in a stove to stay warm.
The South Pastures are about 2 hours south of Urumqi at a lower altitude than the Tianchi Lake area. It is in the Kelawucheng Mountain range. The scenery is reminiscent of Colorado high-country grassland and evergreen forests. There Kazaks continue to herd sheep, cattle and horses like their ancestors in a landscape of snow-covered peaks and emerald-green grasslands. The Kazakhs will guide you on tours on their horses, and you can have exotic meals and stay in their yurts inexpensively. A highlight in the South Pasture area is a glacier in the higher elevations of Nan Shan that is called Number One Glacier that you can travel to see by automobile. There are many streams and a waterfall on Nan Shan Mountain.