The Xiate Ancient Trail, one of the most treacherous sections of the historic Northern Silk Road, is famous for its flower-filled prairies, snow-capped mountains and glacier-fed rivers, as Alexis Hooi discovered on horseback.
Lush prairies, pine-covered valleys and sky-scraping snow-capped mountains form an untapped wilderness to make the Xiate Ancient Trail a jewel of Xinjiang. [Teng Xue / for China Daily]
Riders give their horses free rein as they take in the beauty of the prairies around Sailimu Lake. [Wang Chongzhi / for China Daily]
Sailimu Lake, covering over 400 sq km and located more than 2,000 m above sea level, is the largest and highest alpine lake in Xinjiang. [Wang Chongzhi / for China Daily]
Beijinger Lan Lan takes a lunch break with local trail dog "The Boss" deep within the Xiate Ancient Trail. [Weng Bu / for China Daily]
Ethnic saddleries are popular items of local stores in Yining, where horse culture is deeply embedded. [Alexis Hooi / China Daily]
Wild flowers bloom in the grasslands. [Wang Chongzhi / for China Daily]
Being one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world, China is the perfect playground for the nature lover.
But as I discovered last summer, the joys of exploring its great outdoors are increased a hundredfold if you do it on horseback. So when I heard about the China Equestrian Association's newest riding trip this year, I signed up immediately.
As an added bonus, our group of 15 Chinese and Singaporean travelers had a mission of sorts - to retrace the legendary Xiate Ancient Trail in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, one of the most dangerous sections of the Northern Silk Road that is also famous for its breathtaking scenery.
The Xiate Ancient Trail is in Zhaosu county of Xinjiang's Ili Kazak autonomous prefecture. East of the border with Kazakhstan, Zhaosu conjures up images of endless grasslands against a horizon of snow-capped mountains.
The county is also known for being the home of the Ili horse. Crossed with about five foreign breeds and stock from the beginning of the 20th century, Ili horses rank among the top three breeds in the country and are prized for their speed and stamina.
We had our first taste of these stellar steeds at the starting point of our five-day mission at Sailimu Lake. Sailimu itself is located in the Bortala Mongolian autonomous prefecture adjacent to Ili Kazak. Covering an area of more than 400 square kilometers and 2,000 meters above sea level, it is Xinjiang's largest and highest alpine lake.
After a late-afternoon ride on the pastures accompanied by local herdsmen and their flocks, we feasted on succulent roasted mutton, fresh local vegetables, tart pomegranate wine and the fiery Ili baijiu in a traditional yurt by the side of the lake deep into the summer night.
The Xiate Ancient Trail, with its precipitous cliffs and deep valleys offered the perfect terrain for bandits targeting merchant caravans and was one of the most treacherous sections of the Silk Road that skirted the north of the Taklimakan Desert.
Xuanzang, the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) monk who made his way to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures and featured in the epic Journey to the West, is said to have made his way through here.
Before the advent of modern highways, the 120-km-long Xiate Trail was the major pass linking the region's north and west. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the trail was also important for transporting troops and military supplies. The route was so important the imperial court assigned 70 households to carve steps into the rock and ice to maintain its accessibility. The Trail soon became known as a "stairway to heaven".
Now, the Xiate Ancient Trail is famous for its flower-filled prairies, raging rivers and pine-covered valleys that give way to snow-capped mountains and it has gracefully acquired a new label - a "road to paradise".
Local members of the Kazak, Mongolian, Xibe and Hui ethnic groups attest to the trail's intoxicating beauty with tales handed down through generations. European explorers made their way back home from China through Xiate, they say, while careless or unlucky amateurs would occasionally lose their footing on the icy mountain slopes and plunge to their deaths.
Local horse trader and guide Ma Zhengxiang says the area is still relatively unknown to foreign travelers.
"Not many foreigners know about this place and it's not so open yet. Of course, that might change very soon," Ma says.
But judging from the growing number of Chinese blogs extolling Xiate's alluring beauty, the trail already has a firm place in the minds of Chinese wannabe explorers, whether on foot or horseback.
Many travelers to Xiate will first have to spend a few days on the road, passing through Yining city, also known as Ghulja, as well as small towns dotting the fringe of Zhaosu's mountain ranges. The rest stops give visitors the chance to savor the sweetly addictive kawas, a fizzy beverage made from honey and grain, and other local delicacies infused with Central Asian tastes.
Horse culture is deeply embedded in these parts so travelers will also be able to pick up ethnic saddlery and other local souvenirs.
In the days that followed, we slowly began to shed the shackles of city comforts and our spirits soared with the wide expanse of the grasslands.
We ventured deep toward the Xiate Ancient Trail on the last day, our horses breaking free amid the fields of wild lavender and orchids.
They also took us through pine forests, where the whistling of marmots mixed with birdsong to herald our arrival in their pristine territory.
The scene soon gave way to raging gray rivers and slopes of shale and stone. But true to their pedigree, our horses made short work of these obstacles.
At 3 pm in the afternoon, on a mountain ridge nearly 3,000 m high, we suddenly heard pockets of ice on the surrounding mountain slopes breaking away into the deep valley below.
We stood before a frozen, river-like mass winding down the highest peak in the area.
It was the glacier that fed the main river along the Xiate Trail - and finding it meant that we did not have to go any further.