Lake Tianchi, nestled high in the Bogda Mountains of the Tianshan Mountain Range of Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) – not to be confused with the Lake Tianchi of "lake monster" fame (think: Loch Ness, in Scotland) that sits in the caldera of volcanic Mount Baekdu, situated on the border between China and North Korea in Jilin Province and Ryanggang Province, respectively – lies 115 kilometers west of the city of Urumqui, the capital of Xinjiang. Tianchi means "Heaven" in Mandarin, though it is more commonly rendered as "Heavenly" when used as an adjective, such as in the case of Lake Tianchi, or Heavenly Lake as it is thus more commonly known in English.
Lake Tianchi is what is called an alpine, or glacier, lake, i.e., it was formed by the erosion caused by a glacier – or series of glaciers – during the early part of the so-called Quaternary Period (the most recent and ongoing of the two periods of the Cenozoic Era, the other period being the Tertiary Period), just as it is fed today by the spring-and-summer runoff from the surrounding snow-capped mountain peaks.
The origin of the name Tianchi – not surprisingly, this being China – is owing to a legend.
According to the legend, the Heavenly Empress would hold a gala at the lake whenever one of the lake's peach trees bore fruit, which, curiously enough, only happened once every 3000 years. The accompanying banquet was quite naturally a very grand event, where not only mortals participated, but also several members of the Heavenly Empress' entourage, making the lake and its immediate environs, at least for a time, nothing less than a mini version of heaven, hence the nickname of the lake.
Legend notwithstanding – or perhaps withstanding – the lake was supposedly officially named Tianchi in 1783 by the then Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty governor of Urumqi, Ming Liang. According to this account, Ming Liang is supposed to have discovered the lake while exploring Mount Bogda with a group of cavalry soldiers. The lake was landlocked in the sense that there was no river that passed through it, the only runoff being when the lake had accumulated enough water to spill over its natural banks. Ming Liang, it is claimed, seeing that the valley below was in need of life-giving irrigation water, had his men make a hole in the bank of the lake, such that water would constantly spill out from the lake and down to the valley below.
Proud of his feat, and noting that the lake looked like a heavenly mirror floating in the sky (Lake Tianchi sits at some 2000 meters above sea level), Ming Liang is said to have given the lake the name we know it by today. Ming Liang accordingly – according to later accounts of the event – had a stele erected on the site in order to commemorate the fortuitous discovery of the life-giving irrigation waters of Lake Tianchi. In the years that followed, several high-ranking local government officials are reputed to have built fine residences along the lake's shores. However, no trace exists either of Ming Liang's stele or of the lakeshore residences, which sort of places this account in the same rather dubious category as the heavenly legend itself... so take your pick!
The surroundings of Lake Tianchi, regardless of how the lake came to be named, are imposingly beautiful. Surrounded by the towering, snow-capped peaks of Mount Bogda in the distance, and surrounded more immediately by spruce, pine and cypress trees as well as by fields of wildflowers, Lake Tianchi offers some breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, especially during the fall, when the leaves are changing color and the deep blue skies, dotted with puffy, cottony clouds, seem as clear and crisp as the weather itself. Lake Tianchi, which is only a 4-hour drive from Urumqi, is also a welcome retreat from the summer heat of low-lying Urumqi (note that nearby Turpan, which lies in the Turpan Depression, gets so depressingly hot during the peak of summer that it has been nicknamed "Hell"!).
Lake Tianchi is roughly crescent-shaped, being some 3000 meters in length and roughly half of that in width. At its deepest point, the north-south oriented lake measures 105 meters in depth. Lake Tianchi holds an average of 160 million cubic meters of water. Trails snake through the surrounding terrain, from rocky outcroppings to forested patches to open, hilly, pastureland that, in season, is carpeted with wildflowers.
The mountain on which Lake Tianchi is situated, Mount Bogda (meaning "God", in Mongolian), is characterized by four climatic belts: a deciduous belt near the base of the mountain, a coniferous belt farther up the mountain, a sub-alpine to alpine belt above this, and finally, an ice-and-snow belt near the mountain's peaks.
Given the 4-hour drive required to arrive at Lake Tianchi by bus (or by rented car), it is highly recommended that you spend the night here so that you can better appreciate this truly heavenly lake. If you choose to overnight as a guest in a traditional Kazakh yurt (the local herdsmen here are of Kazakh ethnic origin), your stay at Lake Tianchi will be even more unforgettable. Apart from the hiking trails, there is a horseback trail that will take visitors up to the upper edges of the glacier plains that surround the lake, providing a truly spectacular view of Lake Tianchi below. For the interested, there are also fishing trips on the lake.
In the late afternoon, when the last of the tour buses have finally departed, a spirit of deep serenity descends over Lake Tianchi that returns the lake to the pristine character that must have enshrouded it before the first human being set eyes on this most majestic glacier lake. The shrieks and cries of birds and waterfowl during the early light of morning, as the lake's more permanent residents set about to find something with which to fill their bellies, reminds the visitor that Lake Tianchi is also home to a diverse assortment of wildlife.
The Lake Tianchi area is truly a pristine natural experience and a great place for city dwellers to reconnect with nature, even if only for a day.
Note that the city of Urumqi, which is also written as Urumchi, especially in older sources, is situated at the northern end of the southeast-northwest oriented corridor – generally referred to as the Urumchi Corridor in older texts – that connects the Tarim Basin to the south with the Junggar Basin to the north. Were Urumqi to lie in the Tarim Basin, then "west of Urumqi" would be the Pamir Mountain Range (or The Pamirs, as they are commonly called), not the Tianshan Mountain Range. An ancient Silk Road route that skirted northward around the Tianshan Mountains took advantage precisely of the Urumchi Corridor.
This route linked the Chinese cities of Turpan, Urumqi, Shihezi and Yining of present-day Xinjiang – though in ancient times, this part of China was referred to simply as the "Western Regions" by the Chinese themselves – with the ancient Silk Road cities of present-day Kazakstan, the eastern part of which, when the "Great Game" between Russia and Britain for Central Asian hegemony was at its height, was part of Russian Turkestan, though, before that, it was occupied by various, competing Turkic nomadic tribes (think: the Jürchens cum Mancus as well as the Mongols), and farther back still in time, the area formed part of the ancient Greco-Bactrian Kingdom of Soghdia, aka Sogdiana.
- Layered clothing is a must, even for a summer visit, since Lake Tianchi lies at a high altitude.
- In addition to the tour buses from Urumqi that proceed up to the lake, there are special cable cars that can be caught at the base of the mountain. These offer a more direct experience of being 'one with nature for the journey up the mountain.
- For the hardy, hiking up the mountain is a truly interactive alternative, but it takes some time, so one should either arrive early when choosing this option or plan to overnight at the lakeside, perhaps in a traditional Kazakh yurt.