After three hours of bumping along on horseback, trotting through monumental pine forests and cutting across windswept grasslands, the scenery that greeted us when we finally reached the Black Lake was worth the sore buttocks.
The lake's water is bluish-dark and opaque (hence the name). It is nestled in a valley and surrounded by mountains of flower-filled slopes and summits patched with snow. Herds of semi-wild horses graze among the grass.
The Altay Mountains stretch from central Asia, through Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and then into Siberia and finally the northernmost tip of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
These rugged peaks are notable for their forests dominated by birch, fir, and poplar; grasslands peppered with flowers; and Eurasian birds, including thrushes, warblers, woodpeckers and owls. The bleak glacier of Friendship Peak, the highest mountain in the region, reaches an altitude of 4,374 m. Nomadic Mongol and Kazak herders encamped in yurts live along the range, as well as Tuwas, an ethnic group of just 1,500 people living in log houses in three villages.
Now all of this variety and splendor has been enshrined in the newly-designated Kanas National Park, the world's largest national park at 10,030 sq km. That's a vast area, much of it inaccessible and remote. More than a third of the park has been set aside as wilderness. Tourism will only be allowed in the 500-sq-km "buffer zone", centered around Kanas Lake. The lake's shore is close to the Tuwa villages.
A plan for tourism and environmental management of the park has been under consideration for several years. The government has spent 3 billion yuan ($438 million) on these efforts over the past five years. The same amount has been budgeted for the next five.
"We are already seeing positive results," says Chen Hongjiang, director of Altay Tourism Administration. "Swans have now returned to Kanas Lake and other ponds in the buffer zone, and other rare animals have also returned to the buffer zone." In particular, he names brown bears, snow leopards, snow owls, red deer and pheasants. But he adds: "Overall, key species are still decreasing due to general habitat degradation."
One mammoth task has already been completed: The old hotels built near Kanas Lake's shore were dismantled and rebuilt 18 km south in Jiadengyu three years ago at a cost $1 billion. The aim is for tourists to stay in Jiadengyu, where the environmental impact can be contained more easily.
Jiadengyu is as far as visitors can go in their private vehicles and tour buses. From Jiadengyu, visitors have to board the buses that run on clean fuel inside the park: These buses shuttle along the road that connects Kanas Lake, the Fish Viewing Pavilion (offering great views from the 2,200-m peak above the lake), and Hai Baba, the smallest Tuwa village. Tourists can hop on and off along the route to explore.
Another option is to lodge in guesthouses appended to Tuwa homes in one of the three Tuwa villages. Only Tuwa inhabitants are allowed to have lodgings or restaurants in the park. Accommodations in the Tuwa villages are still rugged. (The government is currently aiding them to upgrade their rooms.) But that's a small trade-off for the ambience and proximity to some of the best landscapes in the park.
Get up early, and go walking along the 5-km boardwalk that skirts the shore of Kanas Lake and you'll be rewarded with a lovely view of dawn light - the azure permeates the glassy calm of the lake, and the white light seeps along the horizon.
In the afternoon, strike out to the grassland called Dongxi Nieke, just 5 km away, where Nasturtium flowers scent the air and color the ground bright orange. Or find a Tuwa horseman and head up the mountains to the Black Lake.
We did each of those forays, and then eventually went to Hemu - which is almost 50 km away from Kanas Lake along a roundabout road. The village is set along the fast-flowing Hemu River, on a plain hemmed by mountains densely forested with poplar trees. The houses are all set in enclosures of log fences, and constructed of unpolished logs (the seams between logs are filled with mud and moss).
Hemu is a peaceful place, the kind of spot where you can sit idly and contentedly in a chair and soak up the atmosphere: herders on horseback ambling through the dusty streets, cows sauntering about, kites wheeling in the air, and men sitting outdoors engaged in friendly banter.
"Before this place opened for tourism in 1998, the Tuwa were completely isolated," says Zhang Yongshu, an official with the Kanas administration in Hemu. "No one had a TV set in 1998, but now virtually everyone has a TV. So these people are changing fast - they have already learned a lot about tourism services."
Now many Tuwas are giving up the herding life and getting into tourism. Many families have built appendages or extensions to their houses as guesthouse rooms; others take tourists horse-riding in the surrounding mountains. Ambitious adventurers can go all the way to Kanas Lake or Jiadengyu.
The Tuwas are inquisitive and talkative, and they chided us for shying away from the searing sun. "We only get hot sun a few months every year so we make the best of it," says Yi Yangxue, owner of the guesthouse where we were staying. "Our skin is dark now, but we become white in the winter."
Their most distinctive feature is a unique language. Yet the language never developed a written form and now that the outside world has caught up with them, and tourists are flooding to Kanas, the Tuwa language might slowly die out. "Only Mongol, Kazak, and Mandarin are taught at school," explains Yi. "So we only speak Tuwa at home, but children increasingly speak a mixture of Mandarin and Tuwa."
Tourists are still relatively sparse in Hemu. Yet the village has readied new beds in anticipation of greater numbers.
"We will soon start working on a plan for Hemu," says Zhang, the government official. "Roads will be paved and overhead wiring removed and run underground. We want the exteriors of all buildings to stay as they are now, rustic and vernacular, but the interiors should be comfortable with modern hotel rooms."
Additionally, he says: "In the future cars will not be allowed to drive into the village - people will have to park outside, and then walk into the village."
As for the larger management plan recently approved by the central government, the idea is to cap the annual number of tourists in Kanas National Park at 1 million - 657,000 tourists visited in 2007.
Another plan is to reduce the number of grazing animals that belong to the nomadic Kazak and Mongol herders who migrate to the high pastures in the summers.
"Nature will get much better in Kanas," promises Chen Hongjiang, the Altay tourism chief.