China- Discovering the Kazakh Tribe and Yurts- Urumqi, China, Along Marco Polo’s Silk Road, in Northwestern China

(Photos by Sandy Zimmerman)

At first, I was excited to be invited on Marco Polo’s Silk Road tour. Then I though, “Why am I going to such a desolate desert area that is only visited by a small number of Europeans and fewer Americans?” Well, the hotels and restaurants were first class, the sights unbelievable, and I will never forget the trip.

After landing in Beijing, we spent a few days then flew to Urumqi (pronounced ROOM KEY), the capitol and most modern city of the Xinjiang region. Located in China’s far northwest frontier, Urumqi is influenced by its minorities. Visitors are startled at the striking similarity between Urumqi’s streets and those inside many Arabic countries. Urumqi’s Muslim women wear long dresses and veils to screen them from public view in the fashion of their religion. The men wear traditional skull caps (called ” dopas “) embroidered according to each region. The modern and ancient worlds merge as farmers vie with traffic to lead their sheep across city streets. Urumqi is a new city by Chinese standards (1763).

Just 62 miles southeast of Urumqi, the lovely alpine Tianchi Lake (Heavenly Lake) high in the cool Tianshan Mountains (Heavenly Mountains) at an altitude of 6,000 feet are a contrast to the desert scenery. One exciting stop is the Poplar Valley summer home of the colorful Kazakh herdsmen. From May to October, the Kazakh tribe bring their livestock (camels, horses, cattle, yaks, goats, and sheep) to the mountains to graze. These families settle in yurts along the shores of the Tianchi Lake and throughout the mountain region. The yurt is a round tent formed on a collapsible lattice of wooden frames and covered with stretched animal skins or felt. These skins form the yurt’s outer walls using only one layer in the summer and three in the winter. Inside, the yurt is decorated with colorful hand woven rugs and blankets arranged along the walls and across the floor. The wood burning stove in the center of the yurt doubles for the purpose of cooking and keeping the tent warm. The flap across a hole in the ceiling opens and closes by the touch of ropes to allow ventilation and light. In keeping with the Kazakh’s seasonal migrations, the yurt is easily dissembled, gathered together in a package, and carried on camel/oxen driven carts- along with their wives, children, and all the families possessions.

It was a thrill to watch the Kazakh people engage in their daily activities- racing horses, goat tussle, boy and girl chase on horseback, tending their flocks and herds, playing traditional folk games, dancing and posing for pictures. Not only can tourists observe the friendly Kazakhs, they are invited inside the yurts to experience their life style! We sat on cushions on the floor while the Kazakh children entertained with traditional songs and dances. The women brought samples of home baked disc-like cakes, cheese, milk tea, lamb kebabs, and other delicacies to their guests. The Kazakh men are a striking picture dressed in fox pelt hats, sash, cloak and boots. Instead of just looking at the outside of the yurts and homes, we can meet the people and see how they live! Members of the China International Travel Service (CITS) arrange invitations to a Kazakh yurt or wealthy Uigur family homes, provide information regarding horseback rides, nature hikes, and for the more adventurous tourists, a night in a yurt or camel rides! I rode a camel in Marrakesh, Morocco, and decided to try again here. Camels walk on each leg separately with a swimming motion. When I sat on the camel, he raised his right back leg first, then the left, finally repeating with his front legs.

The Holiday Inn Urumqi stands out in the desert or anywhere else it would be located. It is more luxurious than any of their others in the

U. S. The only foreign owned hotel in western China, the Holiday Inn Urumqi is like a welcome friend. Elegant, modern, beautiful- the Urumqi Inn meets the needs of today’s traveler. Adorned with a marble staircase and floor, the spacious lobby sets the stage for a pleasant stay. They offer: Snooker, a health club, spa, hot and cold Jacuzzi, sauna, aquatic exercise machine, steam bath, mahjong room, video room, Karaoke lounge, disco, meeting rooms, business center, shops, beauty salon, bar. Choose from three restaurants: Muslim cuisine in a distinctly Uygur setting, the elegant Cantonese and Sichuan room, or western and international dining. 383 rooms, 14 suites. In the center of the city, 20 KMS from the airport. Most Americans are surprised that the flavorful Chinese food that we love in the U. S. is not the same as we eat throughout mainland China.

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