Are you planning to visit Kanas Lake or Keketuohai Park in northern Xinjiang? If so, you’ll want to check out the photos, tips and advice from traveler Chris Milton, a Scot who has been living in China and teaching English for a number of years.
Kanas lake is simply stunning.
I found myself so many times just sitting, staring at this picturesque scene in awe.
I have hiked in Scotland, Canada, America, and Indonesia, but this place is special. The way the pine-covered mountains reflect off the turquoise lake is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
My name is Chris, and I come from a small city in the northeast of Scotland. I arrived in Urumqi in October 2014 on a bit of a whim; a friend who lived here recommended it to me because of my love for outdoor sports and photography.
Don’t Miss Out! If you’ll be traveling to Kanas Lake – or anywhere in Xinjiang – you’ll want a copy of the FarWestChina Xinjiang Travel Guide. It has over 400 pages of helpful tips and details, as well as access to an exclusive Facebook group where hundreds of Xinjiang travelers like Chris answer questions.
Traveling up to Xinjiang’s Altay
At the beginning of September, a friend and I took the overnight sleeper bus from Urumqi to Buerjin (布尔津). Being almost 6ft tall I wasn’t optimistic about sleeping on those tiny coach beds, but surprisingly I had a great night’s sleep and woke up to see the desert sunrise.
Editor’s Note: Although Chris took the bus, it is possible to take an overnight train from Urumqi to Buerjin. In fact, it is recommended since it’s a more comfortable and reliable mode of transportation in Xinjiang.
18 hours on a bus sounds horrendous, but it really wasn’t that bad….
We had just about enough time in Buerjin to have some fruit for breakfast before our next bus left. I was greeted by a golden-toothed fruit seller who turned out to be as deaf as a door post but we managed a quick conversation and it turned out I was the first Scottish person he had seen (this would become a theme on this trip).
The bus from Buerjin to Kanas took four hours, but we travelled through some breathtaking scenery (again, another theme of the trip). The road goes from grasslands to high mountainous passes that at times had me holding on tight to my armrest.
Visiting the Kanas Lake Nature Preserve
Eventually we arrived at the gates to Kanas National Park after travelling a total of 18 hours from Urumqi. That much time on a bus sounds horrendous, but surprisingly it wasn’t that bad.
When we got off the bus there were plenty of locals offering us places to stay in hotels both inside and outside the park. My friend managed to negotiate a hotel inside the Kanas park for 500RMB, so with our accommodation sorted and tickets bought, we were on our way.
Travel Tip: Check Trip.com for a variety of hotel options inside and outside the park!
I was incredibly excited. Ever since I thought about coming to Xinjiang I have imagined how wonderful it would be to photograph Kanas. That excitement faded slightly as the bus took us to the centre village without stopping to take in the beautiful scenery.
I was really shocked at how developed Kanas was….”
I was really shocked at how developed Kanas was: a large parking area with 30-odd buses, tourist information centre and many types of Chinese restaurants. These were, however, built very tastefully with timber.
When we got to our hotel they doubled the price, saying the rooms we wanted were all occupied. Obviously this made us very angry but as we stormed out they agreed to let us stay for the agreed price.
Travel Tip: This type of scam is prevalent across China. Hold your ground and fight back. More often than not, those who are trying to extort you will back down.
A quick shower and we were ready to explore. The lake was very busy with other tourists, so we decided to walk north to get away from the selfie sticks. This was definitely a great idea as I was able to then take photos in peace and quiet.
We walked for hours; with my curious nature I always want to see what is over the next hill or around the next corner.
The next morning we woke up early to go to the Kanas fish pavilion (a viewing deck near the lake). This costs an extra 120RMB per person, but I promise that you won’t be disappointed. I am running out of adjectives to describe the scene. It is a panoramic view of the lake and the river.
If photographers had a Mecca, then this would be it….”
If photographers had a Mecca, then this would be it. It was exquisite.
It was time to leave Kanas but we had no solid plan about where we would go next. The locals had put us off travelling to Hemu or Baihaba. Then a Kazakh local told us Buerjin had the best barbequed fish in the world. After I insulted him by telling him he was wrong and that Scottish fish was the best in the world, I felt I needed to try it.
The fish was tasty but definitely not the best in the world. The night market in Buerjin is a great place to eat, with lots of kebabs and noodle dishes.
Exploring Altay’s Keketuohai (Koktokay)
The next morning we headed to Keketuohai National Park, referred to locally as “Koktokay.”
This trip involved buses from Buerjin to Beitun, Beitun to Fuyun, then one final bus to Keketuohai village. In total it took around 7 hours. We wanted to stay in a yurt at Keketuohai but my friend was ill, so we opted for the only hotel that accepts foreign guests. This costs about 250RMB.
They call it the “Yosemite of China”….
The village is built at the end of a lake between some interesting rock formations. That evening we hiked up those rocks to catch the sunset over the mountains with the lake in the distance.
We weren’t disappointed. The views were excellent as the landscape was alive with color: orange from the sunset, green from the pine trees, brown from the rocks, and blue from the lake. This was an unexpected highlight of the trip.
We woke up and made our way to Keketuohai National Park. I hadn’t heard of it until friends in Urumqi recommended it to me.
They call it the Yosemite of China. On our approach the building was very impressive with a grass roof that gave an environmental look.
This time it was an oversized golf cart that would take us into the park. Be warned it is extremely cold in the mornings and the cart offers no protection from the elements. We got to the stop, and my first thought was this could actually be Yosemite. We were faced with a high rock tower that seems to rise from nowhere.
We hiked up to the viewing platform to get an amazing view of the valley, green pines on the side of the mountains and the blue river flowing past these giant rocks.
At Keketuohai, visitors have a choice either to stay on the golf cart or make their own way along the river. We chose to walk as I don’t want to be a spectator to nature; I want to feel it.
Walking along the river gave me opportunities to take many photos of what I regard as some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
At the end of the hike you come to the Mongolian border–well, so I was told. They are building a spa at the end of the trail, and I would imagine that in the future there will be some type of lodgings there in the future.
Now it was time to take the golf cart back to the beginning and get the bus back to Urumqi.
Are Kanas Lake & Keketuohai Worth Visiting?
To summarize the trip, I would say that a visit to Kanas and Keketuohai is a must for anyone living or travelling in Xinjiang.
If you can look past the long travelling distances and crowds then you will have an amazing trip that you will never forget.
Personally I enjoyed Keketuohai better due to the fewer people, the more varied scenery, and the cheaper cost. This trip gave me the chance to show my friends and family how beautiful Xinjiang is, and if you are willing to put in the effort you will be rewarded with great photos and memories.