Asia | China | North West | Altai – Siberian Scenery and Fermented Horse Milk
The city of Altai was a bit boring actually. Looking just like Leshan and Dunhuang and a million other small Chinese cities, it had wide boulevards and gleaming new buildings covered in white bathroom tiles. After consulting with a travel agent, we felt further disappointed in the travel options.
Northern Xinjiang, mostly Chinese military settlement towns, didnt have so much culture compared to southern Xinjiang, but instead offered pristine alpine scenery, especially by Lake Hanas on the border of China and Kazakstan. However, because the roads were still under construction, we would either have to go with a large tour group or have our own taxi. We rejected the first option immediately, and the latter choice was too expensive now that I was in the last two weeks of the trip with most of my savings exhausted. So we said forget it. Wed go to Lake Tahoe to load up on alpine scenery after returning to Berkeley.
The highlight of Altai was its friendly locals. Be it a restaurant owner, or hotel staff, or just a passerby, everyone tried to make visitors feel at home. A girl we met on the bus found us at the hotel, and offered to take us on a bike ride to the surrounding countryside. All she wanted was for us to tell the people back home because in her words, tourism is one of the only thin hopes for Altais economic future.
We biked for an hour uphill, and arrived huffing and puffing by some steep rocky cliffs, turned golden in the evening sun. A clear stream raced through white-barked birch woods at the base of cliff. The smoke rising out of the chimney in a few mud houses upstream and cows grazing on a meadow downstream composed a serene and bright picture reminiscent of Siberia. The girl told me that the river was the only water from China to run through Siberia and eventually enter the Arctic Ocean, a pretty remarkable feat for such a small stream. The water brought a refreshingly chilly numbness to my mouth, and I struggled before finally finding a spot to stand still on a rock.
Because Xinjiang used Beijing time, dusk did not fall until 10pm. We went to the snack stalls filling up the central square, and sampled strong liquor made from fermented horse milk, a staple in Mongolia. I cringed at the sourness on the first sip, but after a couple heaping spoons of sugar it actually became an acquired taste. It was unusual, but had a pleasant creamy after taste. The alcohol wasnt as strong as it smelled either. I downed the bowl. Then I was told that the local Kazaks, known for their high alcohol tolerance, would only drink fermented horse milk besides vodka. Within ten minutes, I started smiling like an idiot and warmth flowed through my limbs. I was drunk.