We’re in Xiaobotuo, a village in the northernmost county in Xinjiang Province, near the three borders of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. This is also the home of the Tuvan people, a Turkic group that the Chinese lump together with Mongols (both are Buddhists), but then also single out as a sub-group — perhaps based on their mode of winter transportation. An example from the tourist literature begins, “The Tu Wa) in China have a population of 3,500. They are able to ski.”
They also live here in log cabins, which means we’ve gone upscale since last week’s Kazakh yurts. But thankfully for Owen, they still have plenty of livestock to point and shout at, and their homemade butter is just as plentiful (and just as stinky). Actually, Owen’s time out here has turned him into a homemade butter fiend–the mustier the better, and preferably consumed by the handful between bites of mutton fat. No wonder that his clothes and skin seemed to have taken on that peculiar odor a nomad.
Our first full day here started with a long walk/unhinged run for Owen on a boardwalk path constructed around the beautiful Kanas Lake. Here, in the southern reach of Eurasia’s taiga ecosystem, we were surrounded by a lush, mossy cedar and pine forest, dotted with Chinese tourists picking mushrooms and trampling said delicate moss. Fortunately, one or two kilometers down the trail was all that was needed to put us back in beautiful Siberian quasi-wilderness. We walked (Owen ran and shouted) until the trail suddenly dropped off along a steep bank, then turned around. Afterwards, we found lunch at the newly-built tourist base, in a big restaurant where official tour groups descended en masse from their government buses at noon. The cadres and their wives sat around us and took pictures of Owen, ordering three times more food than they would finish (the more public money you claim in your expense report, the more face you gain) and then smoking up a storm.
Our waitress, charmed by Owen’s hearty consumption of Hunanese cucumber salad (and probably because we didn’t try to demean her like the other patrons), gifted us a plate of watermelon, which gave us all the energy for an afternoon hike up to the park’s high point overlooking the lake. Well, okay, we took the bus there. But, as is often the case in China, even when you take the easy way up, you still have to work your ass off to get to the top. The bus dropped us all off at the base of 1,068 steps leading up to a pavilion that overlooked the lake and surrounding countryside. Fifteen very sweaty minutes of climbing later, we joined the panting crowd at the top for a moment before retreating. Chinese tourists all carry big digital SLR cameras, and they selfishly compete for the best close-up shot of the ‘foreign child’ with such ridiculous immaturity that at times I genuinely feel celebrities’ pain. So we jogged down the scenic steps–like mosquitos, the swarms can be mostly avoided as long as you don’t stop moving–and found our way back to our quiet Tuvan village.
And for Owen and I, that meant from our vantage point atop a fine Mongolian horse. While Nick ran ahead to rustle up some grub, we saddled up, rode confidently across the grassy hills (okay, with a local boy guiding the horse with a leash), and made a grand entrance just in time for dinner. We closed the day with butter on our faces and horse hair on our calves. And as we ambled out of the kitchen toward our cabin, a man with a zoom lens ducking down in the tall grass popped up, yelled, “Hello small foreigner!!!!” and snapped a series of pictures. Look for them in the next Chinese edition of National Geographic.
In the meantime, here’s what we snapped.