There is a saying in China that you do not know how large China is until you have been to Xinjiang. And there is a saying in Xinjiang that you do not know how beautiful the place is without going to Ili.
Ili Kazak region, in northwestern Xinjiang, is an important grain and oil producer as well as a center for husbandry in Xinjiang. It is about 60 kilometers east of the Kazakhstan border. It's also used to be an important town along the ancient Silk Road. Ili has many historic sites with a rich collection of relics. But another famous association of Yili is a song made famous by legendary musician Wang Luobin, who is called the Folk Song King of northwest. Kazak folk music seems to have found inspiration from their living-on-horseback lifestyle. Cheerful tones and bouncy "clop-alike" beat of Mayila, a typical kazak folk song became Mr. Wang's favorite and he made the girl, Mayila a household name in entire China.
Wang Luobing once acclaimed the Silk Road is not only opened by caravan but also accompanied by the folk music all along the way. Among these mountains and meadows that gave birth to Xinjiang folk music, Wang Luobin wondered for decades and found his own far-flung home, where the living and loving inspired the music that tells it just like it is.
So our journey in Xinjiang will be guided by this legendary musician Wang Luobin. In my determination to follow Mr. Wang's footstep and make this trip both scenic and musical, I mapped out my 1000 miles road trip in Yili only according to one musical compass—Mayila.
Besides music, kazak people always like poem and call it "the king of the language", to be in a place like this, it is not so difficult to write a idyll.
Xinjiang is associated with Silk Road and camel caravan so often that most of people pictured Xinjiang as a place of vast desert and Gobi, dotted with some oasis. Driving around Ili region will totally rectify that misconception.
Vast natural pasture here provides enough forage for livestock, and the lush forest offers endless quarry for experienced hunters. All the local Kazak people need to do is to move up or down the mountainous meadow according to the season in chasing after the warmth and forage.
Kazak hospitality lies in the blood. Once you step into a Kazak yurt, even uninvited, you are treated with warmth and courtesy as a respectable guest.
Because I am a guest from afar, I got the special treatment. I am firstly offered a cup of local diary drink, which is lightly fulminated by taste innocently alcohol-free. It is sweet and sour, but a pinch of sugar would not hurt.
If you are among those self-acclaimed hopeless in singing and dancing, drink a few bowls of it will help you catch up with the spirit of the locals.
Nomadic living means a constant change of locations in chase of warmth. Even in summer, it is cool and even chilly here at night, Kazak handcraft tends to serve the practical and aesthetic purposes at the same time.
In a place like this, people just want to be born with a pair of wings. Kazak people call their horse "the wings"
Kazak people are known for their open heart and straightforward character. Even between boys and girls, there is no subtle flirtation, more of, "if you like me, go and get me!"
This is a rare occasion where girls have to seize the moment and express their affections to a special someone in a rather loud, and even seemingly violent way. Called girl-chasing game, boys are actually the ones who are chased after and, yes, whipped. But they usually take the physical pain blissfully, --because the furiously she whips, the more she likes him.
Traveling in Xinjiang can be arduous at times, or to be fair, all road trip romance has to hit harsh reality sooner or later. The most practical benefit of traveling in Xinjiang is there is no charge for highway in entire Ili.
Like the importance of a four-wheeler in the city, life without a horse is inconceivable in Kazak's life, and the life on horse apparently starts early on.
People call them heavenly horse, or Tian-ma in Chinese. Partially because they are from here, the heavenly mountain. Partially also because they are just so gorgeous, heavenly-like. They are actually a crossbred of Russian and Mongolian stocks. Famous for their durability and perfectly- proportioned body!
We also saw some stone men standing in the middle of grassland. For a long time, the origin and purpose of these stone men remained a mystery. The most-acknowledged theory is, these stone men were carved as monument and placed in front of for outstanding ancient Turks' tomb. There were many more of them before 13th century, before Islam came to Ili region since then, these stone men were seen as the symbol of heathenism and most of them were destroyed .This theory put to rest many other bizarre theories, but still, these stone men remain an enigma.
The road gearing back towards the city of Yining felt slightly more boring than bucolic. Lush hills, picturesque villages and empty roads. The roads are now busy with motorcycle traffic. But if you have learned to think positive by now, you would find at least one positive thing; it is easier and safer to hitchhike here.
Hitchhiking is not only economic, but also can be good time for informative collection. I just heard from that guy that I can pick whatever fruits I see here, as much as I like. See? If you run out of water or even money, you will still survive here in Ili easily.
Uygur is the largest ethnical group in Yining city. Unlike Kazak, they prefer city living and are traditionally known for their good sense of business and delicate urban lifestyle. But just like Kazak, Ugurs are also known as people born with "rhythm in the blood"
In summer season, some real parties are held here every day including some wedding parties. Everyone is welcomed to join the joyful dance floor, and only the dancing movements can separate the guests from the tourists.
I have been traveled more than 1000 km but never been even outside of Ili. So you can imagine how big this region is and how difficult it is to find one girl named Mayila. But, I have met some many lovely girls who can sing, and dance and write poem... in a sense I have met many Mayilas...