For those accustomed to reserving their attention span solely for the final destination on sight-seeing tours, it's best to know that half the fun is getting there when taking a trip to Kanas in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Kanas might be one of the few places where you can learn from personal experience the journey can be as important, if not more important, than the outcome.
All the way from the town of Burqin, the seat of the government of Burqin County, the northernmost territory of Xinjiang, which sits 150 kilometers south of Lake Kanas, we found ourselves in a drive-through gallery of Mother Nature's marvels.
Even whimsical weather, by and large an unwelcome variant for the average traveler, proved to be a bonus here.
The ground was wet, the air chilly and humid at dawn. Dim sunshine from behind thick clouds set us worrying about poor weather ruining our tightly-scheduled pilgrimage to what is said to be the epitome of Xinjiang's scenic beauty.
Almost immediately after our vehicle breezed past lush poplars and white birches embracing Burqin, we found ourselves sandwiched between a brownish plain stretching as far as the eye could see and dark cloud cover as large as the sky. Only a slim belt of pale grey was left on the distant horizon in front of us.
Now and then, dazzling lightning ran across the clear horizontal split of the sky, tearing apart the seamless darkness above.
Heavy raindrops began to fall when we were 80 kilometers or so from Burqin at the foot of the Chunghuer Mountain pass. As the drumbeats above us became more furious and the downpour started running in streams down the windshield, bean-sized hailstones struck the hood of the car.
The sky was brighter, with spots of blue, and the rain was milder on the other side of the 5-kilometre mountain pass. Yellow was taking over from green on the grassland of Halute (which means "birds' gathering ground" in Mongolian), one of Burqin County's major summer pastures.
Morning sunshine squeezed out from white and grey clouds and the light
curtain of rain added a warm glow to the vast pasture.
The yellow outside gradually gave way to deep red at an upland meadow. Felt-covered white tents of nomadic Kazaks dotted the gentle crimson slopes. Thin smoke rising from the tents transmitted a sense of tranquility in the warmth of the rising sun.
No sooner had we left the realm of red than several other Kazak tents emerged in a meandering valley that led us all the way northward to Lake Kanas.
In the thin morning mist, everything looked hazy - the fading green of the grass, the grazing sheep, the tents, the herdsmen on horseback, and the morning sun. Up on the pale green slopes, sunshine penetrated sparse concentrations of Xinjiang larches, leaving behind long dark shadows.
Vegetation appeared denser after we drove past Jiadengyu, the planned tourist camp 31 srouth of Lake Kanas, and followed closely along the Kanas River.
At the bottom of the valley, the green-hued water ran vigorously south, with waves breaking and foaming against dark boulders. Up from the banks on the slopes, bright yellow crowns of white birch lit up the dark green of larch and spruce. Higher above, capricious white clouds, indistinguishable from fog rising from among the thick woods, gathered and dispersed on top of the mountains.
A mild turn brought us to the front of Sleeping Dinosaur Bay. In the embrace of the handsome slopes, in the middle of a tranquil emerald pond, lay a fancy islet. Despite my inability to associate the islet's grotesque outline with what locals call a sleeping pterosaur, I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking view. Right before our eyes was the full spectrum of autumn's magical touches, from dark green to bright yellow. At the northern tip of the tranquil pool, through yellowish green larches, there was white foam seething on a slim shoal.
Rain fell again at Moon Bay, 1 kilometer north of the Sleeping Dinosaur, where the river made another curve through lush larches and spruce. Seen from above at a proper angle, the chartreuse arch below was exactly in the shape of the waxing moon.
Three kilometers north was picturesque Fairy Bay, a broad shoal where crystalline ripples skirted around tiny isles. It is also called Pearl Bay, because on sunny days the thin ripples glisten as if the entire river was decorated with pearls.
After another 2 kilometers, through a small village of the local Tuwas, who identify themselves as a branch of the Mongolian ethnic group, we were told Lake Kanas was right behind the thick woods.
Rain subsided during our hasty boat ride on the lake.
Not too far in the distance, a smooth arch of colors emerged from the fog that had veiled most of the mountain slopes.
The rainbow faded in and out in a matter of minutes, as sunshine became brighter and warmer. The green and yellow on the slopes appeared fresh and vivid after the rain.
The lake had not shown its full charm until we scaled the well-paved steps and looked down from the Fish-Watching Pavilion.
About 2,030 meters above sea level, the pavilion is one of the few artificial structures around Lake Kanas. From 660 meters above, however, you are not supposed to see any ordinary fish in the alpine lake.
The name of the pavilion has something to do with one of Lake Kanas' many mysteries, whose name stands for "Beautiful and Mysterious" in Mongolian.
No guided tour of Lake Kanas is complete without the mention of the legendary "lake monster" whose head is as large as, if not larger than, a boat. Better informed locals may tell you the so-called "monster" is actually a hucho taimen, a kind of large salmon.
Despite the prevailing rumors and various reports of discoveries, there is no evidence of its existence whatsoever. Twenty-six-year-old Yang Cheng, who has been navigating the lake on cruise boats for the past five years, confessed he had not had the luck to see it.
As if to corroborate the expert anticipation, however, in the tiny little Kanas Museum not far from the lake, there is a 1.6-metre hucho taimen specimen on display.
Environment-conscious local authorities have decided to demolish most existing buildings near the lake and move tourist service facilities to Jiadengyu, 30 kilometers away. The pavilion will stay because it is the only convenient position for a bird's-eye-view of the lake.
If a mammoth hucho taimen does show itself someday, it should be visible from the pavilion.
But more likely than not, the tiny dots you see ploughing the pale green lake surface are actually pleasure boats.
There are 210 glaciers and 319 lakes in the Kanas Natural Reserve. Lake Kanas is the largest, 24 kilometers in length and 1.8 kilometers in average width, and the only one open to tourists. Even on Kanas, pleasure boats turn around before reaching the third of the lake's six bends for environmental concerns.
At the bottom of the steep hanging valley carved out by ancient glaciers in the Altai Mountains, Lake Kanas resembles a giant piece of emerald gleaming under the sun.
Rainclouds in the north blur the view of the snow-covered Friendship Peak, on the borders of China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
In the south, the glimmering Kanas River zigzags away from the lake through the lush woods.
On the east and west banks, spruce, larches and white birches show off the rich palette of autumn.
From above, clouds threw shadows across the slopes and the lake. Bright rays of sunshine through the clouds left eye-catching bright spots on the shadows blanketing slopes in the east.
Sunshine did not stay long. The sky was soon dominated by dark rainclouds brought by chilly winds. The rain pitter-pattered deep into the night.
All the higher mountains were capped with snow the next morning. Strolling on the newly paved path through the larches by the lake side, I wondered whether it was fog or cloud hanging slightly above the calm lake at the waist of the mountain ahead. The waves that shook our boat the day before were gone. From a fairly long distance, I heard the murmuring of Kanas River.
At the mouth of the lake, in the permeating dawn mist, a dozen wild ducks were frolicking in the river. In the calm of the early morning, free from the crowds, you can even hear water drip from the leaves onto the moss-covered ground littered with fallen leaves and dead tree trunks. Every now and then, there were birds chirped in the woods.
Across the yellow crowns of white birches standing in front of the clouds, the snow on the nearby mountaintops was taking on a golden touch from the sun that was still beyond the skyline.
Kanas would not be the same when the sun rose. I was sure.
(China Daily November 1, 2003)