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An Elevated Legacy in Tianshan

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The Tianshan Mountain range stretches 2,500 kilometers through the center of western China’s Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous Region (the main place for Silk Road tours), splitting the vast region accounting for a sixth of the country’s land into northern and southern halves. The mountain range served as an eternal landmark of the ancient Silk Road as well as a watershed between the oasis culture of southern Xinjiang and the grassland culture of northern Xinjiang.

As China’s only site recommended for World Natural Heritage status in 2012, Xinjiang Tianshan is expected to be added to the list at the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee, scheduled for June 16 to 27 in Cambodia. The nominated area includes Tomur National Nature Reserve, Kalajun-Ku’erdening Nature Reserve, Bayanbulak Grassland, and Bogda Peak, which offer prominent examples of geological landforms, ecosystem, and natural landscapes of the Tianshan Mountains.

◆Kingdom of Glaciers

The highest peak in the Tianshan Mountains, Tomur stands 7,435 meters high on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. It is complemented by 15 other surrounding peaks each stretching more than 6,000 meters above sea level, making the area the largest concentration of tall peaks in the Tianshan Mountains.

The area is the biggest glacial core of Tianshan, with a total of 829 glaciers, accounting for a fourth of all glaciers in the mountain range. Khan Tengri Glacier is the most spectacular. Its 60.8-kilometer length ranks it amongst the world’s eight largest valley glaciers.

The rich ice and snow resources in Tomur Peak area are vital to agricultural production around the oases west of Tianshan. The mountains consolidate 495 billion cubic meters of ice and snow, four times as much as Mount Qomolangma (Everest). Each thaw produces 4.8 billion cubic meters of water to nourish the oases amidst the desert.

◆Grasslands + Forests

With altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 2,800 meters, Kalajun Grassland stretches 200 square kilometers across Xinjiang’s Tekes County. It features plentiful rainfall, pleasant climate, and fertile land suitable for a variety of grasses. During an inspection tour to the area, experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations described the grassland as “one of the world’s best natural pastures.”

Adjacent to the grassland, Ku’erdening Valley extends 14 kilometers, with an average altitude of 1,500 meters at its bottom. Unlike most valleys radiating down from mountain slopes, Ku’erdening runs parallel to a snow-capped mountain.

The Ku’erdening nature reserve features the densest forests in the Tianshan Mountain area (top destination for top China tours). It is home to more than 1,000 species of high-elevation plants and 146 species of animals. Its untouched forests and vegetation provide a prominent example of forest ecosystems of Tianshan. Its dense spruce forests are rare globally. For this reason, the area became protected as Xinjiang Xueling Spruce Nature Reserve in 1984.

◆Swan Paradise

Bayanbulak Grassland, located northwest of Bayinguoleng Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture and Jingxian County, is hidden in a basin surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the center of the Tianshan Mountains. Known as China’s second largest alpine grassland, it covers 22,000 square kilometers at an altitude of 2,500 meters.

The flat grassland abounds in water and plant resources, making it one of the most important herding bases in Xinjiang. Beginning on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month, local ethnic Mongolians hold the Nadam Fair there. They celebrate the two-day festival with traditional sports such as wrestling, archery, and horse racing.

In the northeast of the grassland is a vast swamp covering more than 1,000 square kilometers. The swamp is now the only swan nature reserve in China, and the largest of its kind in Asia. Every summer, more than 7,000 swans migrate there to breed. An observatory in the east of the reserve is the best place to see the birds, especially in June when they lay eggs.

◆Sacred Mountain

Bogda Peak, at 5,445 meters, is far from the tallest peak of the Tianshan Mountains, yet it is definitely the most famous. Bogda means “deity” in Mongolian. People from every ethnic group of northwestern China consider Bogda a sacred peak. In ancient times, officials even stopped to pay homage to the peak when passing it.

Although many other peaks stretch taller, Bogda is one of the greatest challenges for climbers. Its west and south sides slope 70-80 degrees, with only the northeast a little less steep. The area also sees the most frequent avalanches in Tianshan, especially in summer. Every attempt to scale it, including climbs by teams from the UK and former Soviet Union, failed until a Japanese team finally succeeded on June 8, 1981.

Along the northern slope of Bogda Peak is Tianchi (Heavenly Lake, popular attraction included in popular China tour package), one of the most renowned lakes in Xinjiang. At an altitude of 1,910 meters, the lake’s five square kilometers of water surface are shaped like a crescent. Because the lake is fed by melting snow from nearby mountains, it remains chilly even in the middle of summer.

In Chinese mythology, Tianchi is the “Jade Lake” where the Goddess of Western Heaven held the Heavenly Peach Banquet. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to timeless fairy tales and legends inspired by the Tianshan Mountains.

For more via travel China guide.

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