Chongstai mountain village

It was a long ride. The road crossed three valleys, which implied getting over as many ridges. We crossed a river of milky glacier water coming down from a valley that I yearned to discover, but could only see through the eyes of imagination. We travelled across a hilly landscape with sparse farmhouses, yurts, cattle and horses. Finally, we arrived in sight of beautiful pine forests, of very tall cylindrical trees, and distant rocky mountains.

The village houses were made of trunks. No concrete was used save in the basement, the only innovative sign of modernity to replace what formerly was build with stones. Some houses had angular posts that the trunks forming the walls were slid down into. On the outside, mud plaster sealed the interstices. A high bridge crossed the stream. The toilets were just rudimentary outhouses scattered on the bank.

There was not much to do in Chongstai for the rest of the afternoon apart from give in to the sleepiness that had come over me. The distant rumble of thunder announced a transient downpour of rain that was followed by the appearance of sunshine. A bright rainbow formed in the sky.

Our landlady belonged to the only Uyghur family in an otherwise all-Kazak village. She ran the restaurant and entertainment venue, which was equipped with bafflers and three alcoves, probably designed to host the guests of honour in nuptial ceremonies. At night our friends joined us and we all put up in the same room.

Haotian and I set out in the morning to explore the countryside. The beautiful valley was scattered with Kazak farmhouses where often horses were reared. We bought some horse milk, and the lady said that if we kept shaking it for an hour, it would ferment and the gas would burst out when we opened the bottle. Its taste was funny at first: sour and slightly metallic, but I got to like it.

All the farm animals lived free in nature. The cows do not have swollen teats full of milk like stable-reared cattle. The mares only give a small quantity of milk, which explains its high price. But these are indeed ideal conditions for animal welfare and the genuineness of the product.

We walked as far as a secluded farm on a sloping field where two grandparents were looking after their little grandsons. The valley below forked into two branches, one leading up to the base of a mighty pyramidal mountain covered in snow. Again, I would have liked to continue my exploration, but it was wiser to start on the way back because the clouds were building up and there could be rain.

At night some people gathered in the restaurant for some weekend merrymaking and dancing to traditional music. There were also some tourists from Beijing. We joined in the dances and I was challenged by a boy who saw me as a worthy opponent for a break dance contest.

The next day we retraced our steps by the early bus, crossed the three valleys and got finally back to Takese. We immediately left for Yining, at the far end of Xinjiang. I had not realised before arriving there that I would be only 80 km from the international border and a staggering 700 km from Urumqi. It would take 11 hours to make it to the provincial capital the next day.

I was shocked at the distance that still lay between me and my train to Beijing. If by reserving a train ticket I had managed to partially cauterise the effect of uncertainty given by the fabulous distance to the capital (and my return flight), I still had a big unknown in an unexpectedly long journey to Urumqi.