Wild China Yining Gulja

YTning, 692km (429 miles) west of Urumqi, has always been a tenuous possession of the Chinese empire, surrounded by the richest farmland in central Asia, and closer to Moscow than Beijing. During the QTng dynasty, it was the furthest point of banishment. Surrounded by high peaks and blessed with a mild climate, YTning is now a Han city with a smattering of Kazaks and Uighurs; it boasts hearty cuisine and access to the fascinating Qapqal XTbo Autonomous County (Cha Xian).

The colonization of Xinjiang began with the fierce ancestors of the current residents of Qapqal, 25km (16 miles) west of YTning. In 1764, a thousand XTbo soldiers (followed "secretly" by 4,000 family members) were dispatched from Manchuria by the Qianlong emperor, with the promise that they would be allowed to return after 50 years. After putting the natives to the sword and hunting the region's animals to near extinction, the XTbo accepted the fact that there was no prospect of a return home, settled down, and took to farming.

While the Manchu language died out in northeast China, this outpost maintained their written and spoken language, and traditions such as the hanging family tree (jiapu). Most houses have one, with coins to represent the family coming into money, clubs and arrows the birth of a boy, and ribbons and boots the birth of a girl. Catch a bus from outside the YTning bus station to Cha Xian (30 min.; ¥5/65tf) and take a three-wheeler (¥5/65tf) onwards to Jingyudn Si (admission ¥10/$1.25). An exhibition of XTbo history inside this lamaist temple is fascinating, but alas, the guide speaks fluent Russian and awaits her first Russian visitor. Wander among the fields of sunflowers and wheat, dotted with light blue courtyard houses with earthen roofs. GETTING THERE The airport is connected to town by taxi (¥10/$1.25). CAAC (& 0999/822-1505) is in the foyer of the Youdian BTnguSn, Jiefang Lu 162. Flights connect with Urumqi, XT'an, and Wuhan. The bus terminal on Jiefang Lu in the northwest of town has connections with Urumqi (12 hr.) and Kashgar (52 hr.) via the wild Mongolian minority town of Bayan Bulak. Tickets for Almaty (12 hr.; ¥260/$32; Mon, Wed, Thurs, Sat) are purchased at the hotel reception immediately inside the bus terminal. There are abundant taxis, which charge ¥5 (65tf) for 2km (11/4 mile), then ¥1.30 (20£) per kilometer thereafter; add ¥.20 (5£) from midnight to 5am. Buses charge ¥1 (15tf), dropped in a box when you board. A tandem bike may be rented at Diaoke Sh'guang (Jiefang Lu 64; & 0999/838-2369), which also serves excellent coffee and traditional Tajik ice cream.

WHERE TO STAY & DINE YTl' BTnguSn (YingbTn Lu 8; & 0999/802-3799; fax 0999/802-4964) is YTning's oldest hotel, set in the extensive (30,000 sq. m/32,700 sq. yd.) grounds of the former Soviet Consulate, which are particularly charming in autumn. Midsize twins for ¥160 to ¥488 ($20-$61) in buildings 2 and 3 to the west of the complex are the best choice. YTning's swankiest three-star hotel, the YTlite Dajiudian (Shengli Jie 98; & 0999/803-5600; fax 0999/802-1819), is situated on the northeast corner of the Peoples' Square, the scene of anti-government riots in 1997. While this 12-story glass-and-tile monolith is out of place in sleepy YTning, standard rooms at ¥298 ($36) are spotless and bright. Discounts of 30% are available.

For dining, Gudyuan Canting (YTli He Minzu Wenhua Cun Xiang Nei 500 Mi Chu; & 0999/832-3580) charges less than ¥100 ($12) for a meal set in an apple orchard on the north bank of the YTli River. (Turn left down the final road before the YTli Bridge south of town and continue for 455m/500 yd. The entrance is on the right.) Enjoy steamed dumplings (you tazi), a local version of samsa with three fingerprints in each bun (yibazhua), whole chicken with vegetables and noodles (dapan ji), and the filling nang bao rou, a huge plate of lamb and vegetable stew on a wheat pancake. Sup honeyed rye beer called kvass (gewasi), and make friends with the local Uighurs. Another well-regarded Uighur restaurant is Honghua Canting (& 0999/802-8499), a 5-minute walk west from the main post office. Try the most renowned Kazakh dish, naren, at Naren Canting (XTnhua XT Lu 7; & 0999/8032434). Naren is roasted horse meat (taken from the waist) served on a pile of thick noodles with a side serving of naan and an appetizing salad of tomato, cucumber, and Spanish onion; it costs less than ¥40 ($5). The genial owner, Talgat, will cajole you to try horse's milk or yogurt, but these sour concoctions are an acquired taste. The regular yogurt (niunai) is creamy and delicious.

FURTHER AFIELD The tiny Mongolian hamlet of Bayan Bulak (Bayin Buluke) surrounded by breathtaking grasslands, is reached by a spectacular journey through pine forests, waterfalls, and wildflowers. Most visitors come here for a glimpse of the vast Swan Lake (Tian'e Hu). Admission is ¥12 ($1.50). The lake is the breeding ground for elegant black swans. If you hope to see the birds, set out early. Leave your car at the gate; it's a short horse ride or 10-minute walk to the top of the hill. Binoculars and rain gear are essential—the weather can be abysmal. Transport (at present, a 4WD is essential, but a paved road to the viewing platform is nearly completed) can be arranged at either hotel (see below). Pay no more than ¥200 ($25) for a half-day trip. GETTING THERE Bayan Bulak is a closed area, meaning that law-abiding travelers should arrange a 7-day travel permit for ¥50 ($6) through either CTS (& 0999/822-3868), located in the Youdian BTnguan; or CITS in Kuqa. The main road is Highway 217, which continues south to Kuqa through Kyrgyz territory before cresting the Talamat Pass and entering stunning alpine scenery around Dragon Lake (Da Long Chi), then descending through red desert crags. Unfortunately, unless you have your own transport, a ride out is not guaranteed. For Urumqi, catch a bus to Hejlng (270km/167 miles; 6 hr.; ¥40/$5) from 7am. Buses for Kuqa (245km/152 miles; 10 hr.), YTning (363km/225 miles; 9 hr.), and XTnyuan (165km/102 miles; 6 hr.) are usually full. Sometimes bribery is required.

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