Southern Pasture, aka Nanshan ("Southern Mountain") Grassland, is situated at the foot of Southern Mountain, which in turn forms part of the northern flank of Mount Karawuquntag, a spur of the Tianshan Mountain Range that borders the Tarim Basin on the north (the mountain range that borders the Tarim Basin on the south is of course the Kunlun Mountain Range).
Southern Pasture consists of many component parts, or features. From west to east, these are: Xi Baiyanggou (Xi Bai-Yang Gou, meaning "East White-Poplar [Populus alba] Gully"), Juhuatai (Juhai Tai, meaning literally "Chrysanthemum Fan", or a chrysanthemum-shaped alluvial fan in this case), Dong Baiyanggou ("West White-Poplar Gully"), Mount Zhaobi, Miao'er gou (Miao'er Gully), and Da'xi gou (Da'xi Gully). West White Poplar Gully is considered the flagship feature of Southern Pasture, since it is the most preferred section of Southern Pasture for horseback jaunts.
This idyllic grassland lies roughly 75 kilometers south of the center of Urumqi. West White Poplar Gully itself is a narrow gully verdant with dragon-spruce trees and interspersed with grassy meadows dotted with wildflowers in every imaginable color. In the distance can be seen the snow-capped peaks of Southern Mountain. A ride on horseback through a Southern Pasture landscape, with its wide-open skies above, is said to be a near-religious, epiphanic experience – one feels an urge to, if not praise one's creator, at least give thanks for the privilege of beholding such magnificient beauty.
Lying at an altitude of some 2250 meters, Southern Pasture is spread across low to medium-sized rolling hills dotted with copses, flowers, yurts and the large flocks of yak, sheep and horses tended by the indigenous but nomadic Kazakh herdsmen. A highlight of this magnificent scenery are two waterfalls – one only 2 meters wide but with a 40-meter sheer drop that produces enchanting mists that catch the sunlight and reflect the colors of the rainbow, and a second, much broader "waterfall" that tumbles and cascades down the side of the mountain.
The characteristic, circular, domed, carnival-like tent dwelling of the nomadic Turkic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe* is almost synonymous with Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde, yet the structure predates the Mongols, belonging to the ancient Scythian and Parthian peoples of Persian origin who inhabited what is generally referred to as the Caucasus, the geographical (as well as ethnic and political) bottleneck that lies between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east (east of the Caspian begins Central Asia). Ancient Scythia was made up of, from west to east, Sarmathia (the Sarmathians occupied the area immediately above the Black Sea), Chorasmia, Margiana, Soghdiana, Bactria and Indo-Scythia, home to the Saka tribes, and to the north and east, the many encroaching Turkic nomadic tribes. Moreover, from the north, Slavic tribes such as the Cossacks were encroaching on Scythia southward from the Ural Mountains. Parthia lay contiguous to and below Scythia, wedged in between Asia Minor (Anatolia) to the west and Indo-Scythia to the east.
The original circular, domed dwelling on which the yurt was modelled was cobbled together of sun-dried mud bricks, stones and timbers; they were anything but portable. This dwelling design, called shoshala – whose "dome", like the American Indian tipi, also a hide-covered dwelling not so dissimilar from the yurt, was designed as a flue, or chimney, in order to draw smoke from the makeshift hearth located in the center of the dwelling – was used especially by the 4th century BCE Saka tribes who lived in Indo-Scythia, the area sandwiched in between Parthia to the west and the Pamir Mountain Range to the East, which included the valleys situated between the Amu Darya River (aka Oxus River in ancient Greco-Roman texts) to the south and the Syr Darya River to the north.
Later, Kazakh nomads living in the Darya Rivers region developed a portable version of the shoshala called the kiz üi, which seems to be the best candidate for the forerunner of the dwelling that would later be made famous by the Mongols, the yurt. In Mongolian, the yurt is called ger, while in Farsi (or Dari, as it is officially called, a Persian language spoken in, among other places, Afghanistan), the yurt is called kherga, more commonly rendered in English as "jirga", as in loya jirga (literally, "big tent", meaning "great gathering" in a figurative sense). To learn more about the construction of the yurt/ger, click here.
Activities & Accomodations
The local Kazakh herdsmen usually spend the summer at Southern Pasture tending their animal flocks, by which they are easily identified, as well as by their characteristic yurts. Besides the many hiking possibilities at Southern Pasture, the visitor can also rent a horse for a spirited gallop across the grassland, or, if in groups, visitors can rent horses with a guide for an extended tour through the trails in the forested slopes of the nearby hills.
The Nanshan Scenic Area Administration at Southern Slopes operates a "yurt hostel" and restaurant here, so visitors can conveniently spend the night here among fellow travellers. In addition, if one prefers it, one can spend the night as a guest in the yurt of a Kazakh family, in which case the visitor will be guided on horseback to the Kazakh summer camp higher up the mountainside, since the Kazakh generally prefer to camp along the upper slopes of mountains, where the air is fresher and the insects are fewer. Moreover, this neat, traditional arrangement saves on precious pastureland, though today, more and more Kazakh herdsmen, perhaps as a result of the influx of tourists who expect to spot yurts and who wish to interact with the indigenous population, now also camp in the grassy valley below.
If you spend the night with a Kazakh family, you can expect to be served fragrant milk tea (made with mare's milk), bread and cheese, and of course, roast lamb. You can also find plenty of ginseng growing freely on the hillsides. Most who overnight with a Kazakh family report that the experience exceeded all expectations, which fits well with the reputation acquired by the Kazak people as being generous and hospitable. The yurt hostel's restaurant serves similar fare, à la carte of course.
If the Kazaks are in the mood for it, you will be entertained with "Kazakh rodeo". There are two main "Kazakh rodeo" events: a special horse-racing event called "girl's whip" where a male rider is pursued by a female rider outfitted with a whip which she is expected to make generous use of in order to inspire the male rider to get the most out of his mount (the slower he rides the more lashes he absorbs!); and sheep-roping. In the evening, the Kazakh herdsmen and their families often play music and perform traditional Kazakh dances, where the visitor is naturally welcome to participate.
Note that at large traditional Kazakh gatherings, which are more or less comparable to large traditional Mongolian gatherings, there is additionally horseback-wrestling, where the riders try to pull each other off their respective mounts, and kokpar, the traditional, 'every man for himself' contest where a rider tries to maintain "ownership" over the carcass of a lamb for as long as possible, while being pursued by rivals who try to snatch the carcass from him, resulting in the carcass gradually being ripped and torn until, in the end, there is nothing left of it but a patch of skin (this is roughly what happens on the African savannah when a pack of wild dogs succeed in taking down a baby antelope!). At Southern Pasture, you will witness a much more sanitized "Kazakh rodeo" consisting solely of "girl's whip" and sheep-roping.
* The Eurasian Steppe is broadly defined as the belt, or swath, of land and sea that stretches from the western perimeter of the steppes of Hungary in the west to, in the east, the eastern perimeter of Mongolia. This swath of land is very slighly arc-shaped, west to east, but in a convex (downward-pointing) direction. As the name suggests, it stretches from Europe to Asia – in this case, from the southern part of what was formerly called Eastern Europe across much if not most of Central Asia. Above the Eurasian Steppe lies, east to west, present-day Russia – which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Moscow, roughly – most of the Ukraine except for a narrow southern swath that belongs to the Eurasian Steppe, and Slovakia, which lies immediately above Hungary (to the west of present-day Russia, and stacked above Slovakia and the Ukraine, as it were, are: Belarus; the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia); Scandinavia; and the north-central and northern parts of the former Eastern Europe).
Below the Eurasian Steppe, east to west, lies the northern half of China, the northern tip of Pakistan, the northern 2/3 of Afghanistan, the southern tip of Turkmenistan, the northern half of Iran, and the northern parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
From the main gate of the bus station at People's Garden in Urumqi, there are regular buses departing to Southern Pasture (Baiyanggou) every day, and of course there are daily returning buses. Since the trip there and back requires a bit of time, and since the visitor will need at least 4-6 hours onsite to enjoy the grasslands, the bus to Southern Pasture departs early, usually at around 8:30 AM, or as soon as the bus is filled, if before this time. It is therefore best to be at the bus station by 8 AM at the latest.