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Paragons of pleasure
Publication Date : 10-10-2013
Off the beaten track, take a break this fall to explore three hidden gems that the vast expanse of China has to offer
Summer along with its scorching heat and breathless days has given way to fall, which is probably the best season for travelling in China.
This is also perhaps the best time to visit Kanas Lake to have a chance meeting with the mysterious "water monster", navigate the less than 1-metre-wide alleys in Xitang, or watch the sun dip below the horizon from a boat rolling gently on Baiyangdian lake. Travelling is not only about giving a break to our body and mind from the dreariness of everyday life, but also about rejuvenating the soul.
1. Kanas, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region
Situated in Burqin county of Altai city in Xinjiang, Kanas is called the "Switzerland of the Orient" and the "heaven for photographers".
In "Kanas", which means beautiful, rich and mysterious in the Mongolian language, you'll see the tranquil Kanas Lake change colour as the day progresses and the seasons change thanks to the spectacular glaciers that embrace it from all sides.
Kanas is home to virgin forests surrounded by pristine grasslands. It is also home to the Tuva people - closely related to Mongolians - and many rare species of mammals and birds.
Kanas shares the border with Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, and its 44.78-square-kilometre lake is shaped like a bean pod.
The Kanas Lake, situated at an altitude of over 1,340 metres above the sea level, is famous for its natural beauty and discreet charm. But it is also known for the mysterious water monster, which many believe has killed horses drinking water from the lake or resting near its banks. rumour has it that the monster drags horses deep into the water.
There are several versions of what the monster looks like. Some say it is the last of the dinosaurs, while a few claim its head resembles that of a giant dog. Others ascribe the water monster myth to huge red fish called hucho taimen, which have big sharp teeth.
Many tourists have captured the water monster, albeit just part of it, on their still and video cameras. But none of the images is clear and convincing enough to prove the existence of the monster.
Myth or reality, the creature does not deter tourists from enjoying the heavenly beauty of the lake. In fact, the opposite is true. Tourists in droves visit the lake, with more brave hearts seeking to unravel the truth.
The Wolong Bay (or Crouching Dragon Bay) is another big attraction in the Kanas Lake area. The bay, on the Kanas River with its serpentine shoreline, resembles a Chinese dragon, hence the name.
Just one kilometre north of the Wolong Bay along the Kanas River is Moon Bay, which gets its name from its moon-like shape. It is like a pearl enhancing the mysterious beauty of the Kanas River. The Moon Bay's umbilical tie with the river prompts it to change its colour along with that of the river.
There are two small shoals on the right bank of the Moon Bay, which look like a pair of footprints. Since the bay is named after the moon, local people believe the two footprints belong to the fairy maiden Chang'e, who is said to live on the moon.
While in Kanas do not forget to visit the neighbouring Hemu, Baihaba and Kanas villages, where the Tuva people have preserved their lifestyle and traditions, including their houses which are built of wood, adding the Swiss ambiance to the place.
2. Xitang, Zhejiang province
Tom Cruise stayed in Xitang for a whole week in 2005 to shoot for Mission Impossible 3. Movie director J.J. Abrams chose Xitang as the setting for his film because he believed it represented real China.
The 1,000-year-old town has not changed much since the Hollywood star spent a week there eight years ago.
Xitang is part of Jiashan county in Zhejiang. It is divided into eight areas by nine river channels, which are connected by 27 bridges and hundreds of boats.
Xitang is different from other old Chinese towns because it has covered walkways along all the rivers. In Xitang, pedestrians don't have to worry about getting wet in the rain or suffering sunburn.
The first villages along the rivers were established during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). During the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, the villages grew bigger and thus created the right conditions for the setting up of large markets. And since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Xitang has been an important manufacturing and business centre.
In Xitang, there is hardly any space among houses because land has always been precious in this river-fed area. No wonder, Xitang boasts of some 120 winding alleys, the longest being more than 100 metres and the narrowest being less than 1 metre.
If you look up while navigating one of the narrow alleys in Xitang, you will see what has come to be known as a "one-inch sky".
Xitang residents are known for their traditional and quiet lifestyle and for the delicious fair they cook up in their kitchens, such as steamed pork wrapped in lotus leaf, duck wonton pot, spiced salt pumpkin and stinky tofu.
3. Baiyangdian, Hebei province
Baiyangdian in Baoding, Hebei province, is the largest fresh water lake on the North China plain. A typical northern wetland known for its rich flora and fauna, Baiyangdian's boundless reeds are bright green in summer. The lake sees lotus of various types blossom from August which starts withering with the onset of fall.
Baiyangdian, where the reeds turn golden in the fall, has inspired many artists to leave their ink paintings for posterity to admire and appreciate.
Sitting on a boat meandering through the reeds, with the sonorous voice of a boatman ringing the air, is the stuff of dreams. Geese and ducks swimming serenely nearby and fish jumping out of and into the water now and then add to the enigma of such a dream.
Seeing fishermen deftly work with their nets, some tourists cannot help trying their hand at fishing the traditional way.
But perhaps the greatest offering of Baiyangdian is the magnificent sunset that one can see from a boat. It's an experience that can be preserved for a lifetime in one's memory. The sun, as it dips below the horizon, seems to cleanse the soul and revive the spirit.
The area around the lake boasts of quite a number of old buildings, which have played host to some emperors who loved to spend their summer months by the Baiyangdian lake.
And as one would expect, the local cuisine, especially the delicacies, revolves around the offerings of the lake - fish, crabs, shrimps, ducks, salted duck eggs, lotus roots and lotus porridge.