Gondola to the Heavenly MountainsFrom Beijing, we flew four hours to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The city would wait. The Heavenly Mountains were calling.

Known in Chinese as “Tian Shan,” the mountain range stretches 1,500 km across central Asia. From Urumqi, it took an hour by bus to reach the mountains – or at least the admission office.

Then we had to line up to take a gondola to where you could actually see something.

I usually don’t have a problem with heights, especially if it’s a short ride up. A few minutes in a foreign metal bucket hanging on a wire with an unknown mechanical record is not a problem. Yup, no worries. Dum dee dum dee dum…

101 Delicious and strangeTwenty minutes later, the only things that kept me sane during the ascent were:

  1. the advertisement in our gondola car for some kind of seasoning. “Delicious and Strange” it promised in English.
  2. classical music piped from speakers attached to each support pole as we passed. Somehow it was very calming. Delicious and strange indeed.

The temporary acrophobia was worth it. The gorgeous Tian Shan stood before us, snow caps glinting in the sun, and Heavenly Lake (Tian Chi) ahead.

Tian Shan or the Heavenly Mountains

Tian Shan Snow LotusTian Shan is the setting for many Chinese legends, the home of gods and goddesses and dragons. The dried plants on the right were in a fruit seller’s basket. They’re supposed to be snow lotus, said to be found only in the Heavenly Mountains.

When an emperor was poisoned or a warrior stabbed, snow lotus was the inevitable cure. Some poor sap would give a toss of his ponytail, grab his sword and saddle up in search of the antidote. Cue valiant trek through snowy mountains and maybe a sword fight or two. Top it off with Zhang Ziyi bathing in some moonlit pool and you’ve got a hit. But I digress.

Tian Shan vendorAll along the walkways, vendors tried to catch our attention. Lots of skewer sellers. With raw slabs of mutton hanging at their stands.

The Uyghur people who make up almost half of Xinjiang’s population are Muslim. The Kazakhs are another Turkic group with a nomadic history who have also settled here. Their Islamic beliefs mean pork is extremely rare in Xinjiang. We would soon get used to mutton at every meal.

Nomads also had a hand in making nang bread a staple in Xinjiang. It’s just like Indian naan bread but tougher and chewier.

The big round hunk of nang was perfect nomad food because it contains little water and can keep for up to a month for all those long dusty journeys. I wouldn’t know. I ate mine in about 40 minutes then got on a golf cart for the trip down the mountain.

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