5 places to travel with nomads in China
Most of China’s dwindling nomadic groups -- the Tibetans, Mongols, Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs -- live on the vast grasslands in the north and northwest.
Yes, they use mobile phones, watch satellite TV and, for part of the year, live in concrete buildings, but that’s that's what makes hanging out with them a precious experience -- the pure nomadic lifestyle is disappearing quickly.
And here is where you can find it in China.
Kyrgyzs, Lake Karakul, Xinjiang
Who they are: The Kyrgyzs (柯尔克孜族) are Turkic people from Kyrgyzstan but some 140,000 live in China.
In summer they live in yurts by the stunning glacier lake Karakul (拉库勒湖) on the Karakoram Highway. They graze yak, horses and sheep. In the winter they live in brick houses also by the side of the lake across the grasslands.
What to expect: Accommodation is in the families' own yurts and you can take part in herding yak, making food and collecting yak dung fuel. These nomads can organize tours or treks of the countryside by camel, horse or motorbike.
Life has a yurt-like pace. As my host Abiti Kudush repeatedly said, “Karakul is a long way from Beijing.”
Expect plenty of chay (tea), a good fire, friendly conversation, bedding and three meals -- tea and bread for breakfast, homemade noodles for lunch and dinner.
How to travel with them: Book a yurt through a tour company in Kashgar or just show up -- local men will meet the bus with hand-written recommendations from other travelers. I paid RMB 20-30 for accommodation and three meals, other travelers have recently reported paying RMB 40-50.
Contacts: Abiti Kudush lives about a kilometer from the Lake Karakul bus stop in a small clump of yurts by the lake. He can be reached via +86 137 7903 0302.
Tour companies and hotels in Kashgar, in West Xinjiang, organize small groups and customized trips to Lake Karakul. China Southern and Hainan Air operate daily flights between Kashgar and Urumqi.
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Kazakhs, Tian Chi lake, Xinjiang
Who they are: Kazakhs (哈萨克族) are one of 47 ethnic groups in Xinjiang and account for approximately seven percent of the local population. Many live in yurts along the shores, hills and valleys of Tian Chi lake (天池), which is 110 kilometers east of Urumqi.
These Kazakhs are semi-nomadic, relying on animals, tourism and horse shows for their income.
What to expect: Days with Kazakhs can be spent reading, trekking, horse riding or relaxing around the yurt base. Kazakh families are easygoing and happy to oblige with plenty of fuel in the stove, noodles on the table and hot tea.
At night, sit back and enjoy the campfire, the stars and the comfort of the yurt.
How to travel with them: Some tours to Tian Chi (mostly from Urumqi) include a yurt stay, but no pre-booking is required. Dawanzi (大湾子) is a settlement of four to five yurts open to tourists by the southwest lake shore.
Look for Mr. Rachit, a Kazakh nomad who has hosted travelers for years. His family runs a visitor yurt. I paid RMB 50 for accommodation and meals, but more recent travelers put the price closer to RMB 100.
Rachit’s brother Mokhyat operates superb horse treks and may throw in free Kazakh horse-riding lessons en route.
Contacts: Mr. Rachit can be reached via +86 994 831 500 or +86 138 9964 1550.
Tour companies and hotels in Urumqi organize various trips to Tian Chi.
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Mongols, Zhaohe / Hailar / Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia
Who they are: Semi-nomadic Mongolians (蒙古族) occupy the grasslands in northern China around Hohhot (呼和浩特) and Hailar (海拉尔), although most live in the Republic of Mongolia.
Traditionally they raised horses, cows/yaks, sheep, goats and camels, but today many live in townships in the winter. However they still take to the grasslands in summer and keep up their traditional arts, cuisine and horse riding.
What to expect: Organized grassland tours from Hohhot and Hailar often include food, entertainment, traditional dress shows and singing, but travelers are crammed in one ger (Mongol for yurt) on enormous sites at night.
Hosts served mutton, yogurt, dried yak cheese (aaruul), fermented mare’s milk (in season) and possibly baijiu (distilled liquor).
How to travel with them: Take a bus from Hohhot to Zhaohe (昭和) on the Xilamuren Grassland where families will invite you to stay. Alternatively rent a taxi and ask the driver to make arrangements. Food and accommodation cost about RMB 60 per day.
The Hulunbuir grasslands near Hailar and Xilingol grasslands in Xilinhot (锡林浩特) are less visited and here tours (RMB 100-300) and independent travel is possible.
Contacts: Book tours through Tongda Hotel (+86 471 692 6676) and Anda Guesthouse (+86 471 691 8039) in Hohhot or use an online agent such as China International Travel Service.
Hohhot's Baita Airport links to many major cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing.
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Kham Tibetans, Tagong grassland, Sichuan
Who they are: The Kham (康区藏族) are a branch of Tibetans inhabiting the scenic high-altitude grasslands in eastern Tibet, southern Qinghai and western Sichuan.
The semi-nomadic group spends the day moving herds to new pastures on horseback and they dress the part with cowboy hats, swords or knives and braids.
From late spring until fall they live in black yak wool tents on the grasslands but go into town for festivals and casual employment.
What to expect: Travelers hang out with them in various ways, from horse riding and trekking to assisting with animal husbandry, milking, cheese-making or herding.
The nomads serve Tibetan food like yak yogurt and tsampa -- a hard bread made from roasted barley flour -- butter tea and water/beer. They serve copious amounts of butter tea, which is an acquired taste at first but may grow on you after a long day.
How to travel with them: Horse and trekking tours are available in Tagong (塔公) with nomad accommodation. Prices vary as many are custom designed.
Contacts: Sally’s Kham Restaurant and Bar (+86 139 9045 4752) in Tagong organizes tours. Definitelynomadic.com (+86 136 8449 3301) also runs various treks around the region as well as local art workshops.
The nearest traffic hub to Tagong is Kangding (康定). China Eastern flies between the Kangding and provincial capital Chengdu every day.
Tibetans, Langmusi, Amdo, northern Sichuan and southern Gansu
Who they are: Some 25 percent of Tibetans live in Amdo (安多), an area covering northern Sichuan and southern Gansu.
Along with the Kham and Lhasa people, they make up the three main sub-groups of Tibetans.
What to expect: Guide Losang from Plateau Photo Tours says, “Amdo remains the best region to see traditional nomadic life,” but many are being resettled in towns.
Langmusi (郎木寺) is a small village standing 3,800 meters above sea level on the Sichuan and Gansu border. Nomads come into town by horse or motorbike for provisions.
In the rugged valley outside town or on the nearby fertile grasslands, they serve travelers with yak meat, vegetables and yak yogurt with honey on an overnight stay.
How to travel with them: Losang says it’s possible to go solo into Amdo but as nomads live some distance from town he recommends a tour for the greatest ease. Many tours are customized so prices vary.
Contacts: Plateau Photo Tours organizes photography tours in Amdo. It can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Other recommended tour companies include Snow Lion Tours (+86 971 816 3350) and Jimpa Travel, which provides tours in English and French (+86 131 9575 9602).
One option to get to Langmusi is via Lanzhou (兰州), provincial capital of Gansu. Take a long-distance bus to Hezuo (合作) from Lanzhou South Bus Terminal, then switch to a second long-distance bus from Hezuo Bus Terminal to Langmusi town.