Kanas Lake, China 2008

In the summer of 2008, I flew to China to explore and trek Northern China. This was the same year of the China Olympics. However, I didn’t participate or attend the Olympics. Ironically, I watched the opening ceremony for the Olympics, while trekking the Kanas Lake locality.

Kanas Lake is located in Burqin County of Altai Region, about 800 km north of Urumqi, China. It is one of the most famous and beautiful scenic spots in the Xinjiang Province. Kanas Lake is a world geological park that is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

My trekking group flew into Urumqi and hired a “Black Car” to take us to Kanas Lake for 9 hours, (pictured below).

I’m standing on the Mountain, west of Kanas Lake. In the distance, you can see the Russian Border of the Altay Mountains.

In Mongolian, Kanas means gorgeous and mysterious. The Taiga forest is made up of Siberian larch, and Siberian spruce, (pictured above). In the distance, the highest peak is Gora Belukha, which rises along the border of Russia and Kazakhstan.

Kanas Lake, China in 2008

Kanas Lake is located in a valley in the Altai Mountains, near the very northern tip of Xinjiang and the province’s borders with Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Rugged and dramatically picturesque with a wealth of habitats, (coniferous and broadleaf forests, rich alpine pastures, barren ice plains, lakes and thousands of glaciers), the Altai Mountains run diagonally northwest to southeast where China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia meet. But it’s not just the biodiversity that is rick: “Altai” means “gold” in both Kazak and Mongolian languages because of the gold reserves in the mountains.

Geologic map of the Kanas Lake region, (public domain image).

The lake was formed around 200,000 years ago during the Quaternary period as a result of glacier movement. The crescent moon shaped lake has an estimated water storage capacity of 53.8 billion cubic meters, coupled with an average depth of around 120 meters. The Kanas region is located on the south slope of Youyi peak which is the main peak of Altay Mountain. This region is the largest center of glaciation in the Altay Mountains and it has recorded the complete sequence of the glacial geography since the mid-Pleistocene.

Geological Cross-Section of Kanas Lake. Note the two Normal Faults on either side of the lake.

The Altay Mountains underwent long-term tectonic movement, including complicated fold and faults in which huge granite blocks were intruded. Thus, geologic wonders formed of gigantic, intricately carved and unusually shaped rocks have been formed by long-term surface weathering and fluviation.

Looking east across Kanas Lake into the Altai Mountains and Highlands, (toward the Black Lake region).

Kanas Lake is famous for its changing colors from green to blue. Water from glaciers contains very small particles which are sinking very slowly. As a result, such water is a bit “milky” and has unusual colors. Color of Kanas Lake is changing from emerald green to deep blue, depending on the time of the day and weather conditions.

For several centuries there have been sightings of large lake creatures in the waters. First efforts in research of these legends were done by Yuan Guoying of Xinjiang University, who observed fish of enormous size in 1985. He and his students assessed that the fish could be 10 – 15 m long and weigh more than 4 tons, with total population in excess of 50 individuals.

Xiaobotue village southwest of Kanas Lake

There is a large population of ethnic Tuvans and Kazakhas in the Kanas valley and the Xiaobotue Village. While most of these people have maintained their traditional agricultural and namadic life styles, many work in the developing tourism industry and have established facilities for trekkers to stay, (pictured below). Our first night there, we stayed in the Xiaobotue Village and watched the Opening China Olympics with the community on a 30 cm screen television. Notice how the community lives in log cabins, but recently got electricity. However, the local people still use their Mongolian Horses and wagons for transportation. Tuva is a branch of the Mongolian ethnic group. Believers of Lamaism, they live in their traditional houses and practice their centuries-old traditiion. The accommodations in the village, were very primitive.

The log cabin we stayed in at Xiaobotue 2008

The next morning, I hired a Tuvan guide to take us into the Altai Mountains east of Xiabotue, near Black Lake. We then saddled up some Mongolian Horses and headed out.

The next morning at Xiaobotue, before we headed out for a 3 day horse trek into the Altai Highland towards the Black Lake Wilderness.

Our horse trek would take us into a region represents the most complete sequence of altitudinal vegetation zones in the Altai Mountains, from steppe, forest-steppe, mixed forest, subalpine vegetation to alpine vegetation.

I’m sitting on a Mongolian Horse that I rode for three days to the Mongolian Border.

Mongol horses are of a stocky build, with relatively short but strong legs and a large head. The mane and tail of the Mongol horse are very long. Their strands are often used for braiding ropes for the Tuvans.

Our Mongol Horses taking a break at one of our camping spots in the Altai Highlands.

Pictured above, the Mongol Horses have great stamina; although they have small bodies, they can gallop for 10 km without a break. My Tuvan Guide was able to do all kinds of tricks on the them, (from standing up and going under the belly at a gallop).

A Tuvan Cabin in the Altai Foothills of Black Lake Region in China

The Altai mountains have retained a remarkably stable climate changing little since the last ice age. In addition the mix of mammals has remained largely the same, with a few exceptions such as extinct mammoths, making it one of the few places on earth to retain an ice age fauna. The Altai Highland, (Black Lake Steppe Region) is of importance for preservation of the globally endangered mammals, such as “snow leopard and the Altai Argali. Siberian Ibex also live in these mountains.

Wild Bactrian Camels in the Altai Highlands

Pictured above, the “Wild Bactrian Camel (Camelus ferus)” is a critically endangered species of camel living in parts of northwestern China and southwestern Mongolia. It is closely related to the “Bactrian Camel (Camelus bactrianus). Both are large, double-humped even-toed “Ungulates” native to the steppes of Central Asia and here in the Altai Highlands. Until recently, wild Bactrian camels were thought to have descended from domesticated Bactrian camels that became feral after being released into the wild. However, genetic studies have established it as a separate species which diverged from the Bactrian camel about 1.1 million years ago.

A local Mongolian/Uygur family living in the Yurts on the Black Lake Steppe in the Altai Highlands.

Pictured above, A traditional “Yurt” or “Ger” is a portable, round tent covered with skins and used as a dwelling by nomadic groups in the steppes of Central Asia. The structure consists of an angled assembly or latticework of wood or bamboo for walls, a door frame, ribs (poles, rafters), and a wheel (crown, compression ring) possibly steam-bent. The roof structure is often self-supporting. The top of the wall of self-supporting yurts is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs.

Known throughout history as the “cradle of the nomads,” the mountains pasturelands were home to the ancient nomads of China. The Huns (Xiongnu), the Turks (Tujue), and Chengiskhan all lived here.

Black Lake in the Altai Mountain Highlands, near the China/Mongolian Border.

Pictured above, the Altai Highland Steppes, represents the northernmost region affected by the tectonic collision of India into Asia. Massive fault systems run through the area, including the Kurai Fault Zone and the recently identified Tashanta Fault Zone. These fault systems are typically thrusts or right lateral strike-slip faults, some of which are tectonically active. Rock types in these mountains were typically granites and metamorphic schists, and some are highly sheared near to fault zones.

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