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Altun Mountains Nature Reserve, Xinjiang Province (9 days)

A 4WD expedition into the high-altitude wilderness of the Altun Mountains Nature Reserve, one of China’s largest protected areas; visits to Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves and several other obscure Silk Road stops.

This trip is not currently scheduled

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Grasslands, sand dunes, and snowy peaks
Grasslands, sand dunes, and snowy peaks in the Altun Mountains National Reserve.

Trip overview

Day 1—Fly to Korla via Urumqi; visit Tiemenguan ‘Iron Gate Pass’. Overnight in Korla.
Day 2—Drive from Korla to Charkhlik, following the highway through the Taklamakan Desert. Explore the old town at Charkhlik. Overnight in Charkhlik.
Day 3—Drive from Charkhlik into the Altun Mountains Nature Reserve. Overnight in tents.
Day 4—Drive to Aqqikkol Lake, hiking and exploring the nearby area. Overnight in tents.
Day 5—Hiking and walking in foothills of mountains, drive to Whale Lake. Overnight in tents.
Day 6—Drive out of Altun Mountains Nature Reserve to Huatugou. Overnight in Huatugou.
Day 7—Drive to Dunhuang via Aksai.
Day 8—Visit Mogao Grottoes. Option for hiking around Crescent Lake in the afternoon. Overnight in Dunhuang.
Day 9—Fly to Beijing.

High altitudes

We take the issue of altitude sickness seriously. If anyone has serious problems with the altitude, one of the BJH guides will take them back to the nearest town straight away. If anyone has problems after that, they’ll be transferred back and met by the guide. Any extra costs incurred for transport/medical assistance are to be paid by participants.

On the way to the nature reserve we'll cross a 5,000m pass in the jeeps. While in the reserve we'll be camping at 3,800m, but can retreat to lower altitudes if necessary. We'll have oxygen with us.

Highlights

Snow-capped mountains in the Altun Mountains Nature Reserve

Snow-capped mountains in the Altun Mountains Nature Reserve.

Altun Mountains National Nature Reserve

One of the largest of China’s National Nature Reserves, the 43,000 km2 Altun Mountain Nature Reserve is a broad basin that contains several large lakes, and is surrounded by a ring of mountains with many peaks higher than 4,000m.

Protected by the mountains, its lack of roads, and distance from any sort of large town (plus the rather hefty fee for entrance permits) the reserve is a safe home for a wildlife population estimated at 15 million, with species including Tibetan antelopes and gazelles, bison, snow leopards, brown bears, wild camels and yaks, and golden eagles.

The reserve is located in the far south of Xinjiang Province, very close to the border of Xinjiang and Qinghai Province, and just a bit north of Tibet’s northeast corner.

Click here to see a map of the location of the reserve

Sights in the reserve

Rabbit

Click to see a graphic that shows some of the wildlife present in the reserve.

Wild animals: Altun Mountain National Reserve is known for having a high density of wild animals compared to other places in China, with rare species present. The inaccessibility of the area – it's surrounded by tall mountains, there are no roads within the reserve nor much water to be found – protects the wildlife here. For example, in other reserves in China, the wild yak population is becoming mixed with other domesticated yaks. Here, there's no chance of that happening.

In the reserve, there are large populations of Argali mountain sheep, bison, black-necked cranes, brown bears, golden eagles, lynx, snow leopards, snowcocks, the Tibetan wild ass, Tibetan antelope and gazelles, wild camels, wild geese, and wild yaks.

Click here to see a picture that shows some of the wildlife in the reserve

Mountains are one of the main sights in the reserve. At the western and eastern ends of the Altun Range many of the mountain peaks are between 4,000–5,000m above sea level. In the west are several unclimbed 6,000m tall peaks.

Whale Lake, in the southern part of the reserve, is named for its shape. Strangely, part of the lake is salt water, and the other part is fresh water. Whale Lake is a good spot for photography: beyond the lake is a line of hills, and in the far distance is a line of snow mountains. There's often wildlife to be seen in the area around the lake.

After exploring the Altun Mountain National Reserve we'll drive on to Dunhuang in Gansu Province, passing through part of Qinghai Province on the way.

Dunhuang

Dunhuang was a key stop on the northern Silk Road, allowing travellers to stock up on food and water before heading on through the desert. It’s said that a fort was built in Dunhuang around 100 B.C., and the area holds plenty of historically interesting sights, in particular, the Mogao Grottoes.

Mogao Grottoes

The exterior of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang

The Mogao Grottoes are carved into this cliff face. Behind the structure seen in the photo is a huge Buddha statue.

A UNESCO site since 1987, the Mogao Grottoes were dug out by Buddhist monks, starting around 366 AD. Initially, the caves were used as a place to meditate, but, over time, they began to fill up with scriptures and painted murals. Four-hundred and ninety-two caves still remain, containing statues and murals. We’ll visit around 10 of the caves to have a look at the frescoes and statues. The area is a little touristy, but well worth a look. Photography is forbidden inside the caves, but you can get a good look with your torch.

The Mogao Grottoes are one of the main highlights of our popular Journey from the West Silk Road trip, certainly a sight not to be missed.

Crescent Lake, Mingsha Sand Dunes

A view of Crescent Lake from the surrounding sand dunes high above.

A view of Crescent Lake. View another photo »

The other two main sites of interest in Dunhuang are located in the same area. Crescent Lake is a crescent-shaped lake of clear water that has somehow managed to avoid being filled in by the shifting sands of the desert. A temple is located next to it, as well as the Mingsha Sand Dunes. The dunes are known as the Echoing Sand Dunes because of the strange sounds made by wind – and feet! – over the sand. The dunes are around 250m in height, from top to bottom. After climbing up, it’s super-fun to run down!

We’ll do a bit of hiking in the dunes around Crescent Lake, not too far from our hotel.

Hiking out in to the dunes gives us some quiet time away from all the tourists – and camels! – at the popular Crescent Lake.

Other places we'll visit on the trip

Korla and Tiemenguan

The pass by Tiemenguan, Korla, Xinjiang

The characters on the stele at the entrance to the narrow Tiemenguan ‘Iron Gate Pass’ read “Ancient Silk Road”.

There has been a settlement at Korla since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when the town there was known as Weili and had a population of around 10,000 people. A river runs through Korla, and the river valley formed a natural passage between mountains and desert—no need for the Silk Road traders to cross the high mountain ranges nearby. One of the key fortifications in the area is the Tiemen (Iron Gate) Pass, a military checkpoint from the Tang Dynasty (618– 907).

The population has grown since the Han Dynasty, with a population of 470,000 recorded by the 2007 census. The majority of inhabitants are Han Chinese, and there's a substantial percentage of Uyhgurs, Mongolians, and Huis. Some of our jeep drivers come from Korla, and for some of them Mongolian is their first language.

Charkhlik

Also known as Ruoqiang, Charkhlik is the Uyghur name of the kingdom that was based in this area around 1 B.C. Charkhlik was part of a larger kingdom known as Shanshan, and it also served as the last stop before the tough Lop Nur desert crossing on the way to Dunhuang, on a southern line of the Silk Road.

Huatugou

There's not a whole lot to do in Huatugou, and we're aiming to use this time to rest up a little after the camping.

Other information

Costs / Why is this trip so expensive?

  • A costly permit is required to enter the nature reserve.
  • There is nowhere to resupply within the reserve, and we need to carry four days' worth of food and water with us.
  • There are no roads within the reserve, and 4WD vehicles are required to get about. We're hiring a team of drivers and cooks from Korla, the nearest large city – almost 750km from the reserve.

The high difficulty and costs of organising a trip into the reserve means that many are put off the undertaking. For us that's good news – in how many places in China can you find similar scenery without crowds of people?

Driving

Several of the days feature more than 400km of driving, and we'll be on roads for some 1,200km. That doesn't count the driving in the nature reserve, where there aren't any roads.

On the third day of the trip, we drive through mountains and cross a 5,000m pass on the way to the nature reserve.

Weather

In the nature reserve, we expect temperatures between 16° C (daytime high) and -5° C (night time low). Rain is possible, as is snow. Sunlight hours will be between 7am and 9pm.

The weather might be worse than forecast. It might also be better! We recommend you prepare well for bad weather.

Accommodation

Aside from the camping in the reserve, we’ll stay in the best hotels we can find – in Korla and Cherkhlik the hotels are the local equivalent of 4-star, and in Dunhuang it's definitely a 4-star level hotel we'll stay at. At Huatugou the hotel won't be quite as good, as it's a small town in the middle of nowhere. Still, they say it's a 3-star.

You’ll be sharing a room at the hotels with another hiker. If you'd like a hotel room to yourself, it can be arranged at an extra cost of 1,300 RMB for the whole five nights in hotels, if rooms are available—usually not a problem!

Further details about room shares and single supplement can be found in the documents we send you as part of the registration.

Flights and transport

We’ll flying to Korla via Urumqi, and back to Beijing from Dunhuang. For the rest of the trip, we’ll be in big and comfortable jeeps.

Frequent flyers: Please let us know if you would like to use your frequent flyer miles or if you are a frequent flyer member. If you would like to organise your own flights, we can provide further details.

Food

While in the cities and towns, we’ll take our meals at restaurants, and we’ll bring basic food to cook while on the road and camping.

Some of the drives are rather long, and cross a lot of empty territory. Prepare some snacks for the drives; we’ll supplement them with nuts and biscuits and water.

Please let us know if you have any special dietary requirements or food allergies.

Things to bring

  • Passport
  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Thermal underwear and other warm clothing (it could get cold!)
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Thick socks
  • Hiking boots
  • A day pack to take on outings, suitcases or bigger bags can be left at the hotel
  • Camera and charger, batteries
  • Suncream
  • Torch or headlamp
  • Mobile phone, charger
  • Binoculars, if you have them
  • High altitude medicine and aspirin, just in case
  • Any personal medicine or things that may be required but not available in small towns (chocolate, for example!)

It would also be nice to bring a small gift for the driver of your jeep – they’re very friendly fellows, and would appreciate the kind gesture!

Xinjiang has an unofficial time difference of two hours from Beijing. All times listed are Beijing time, but we’ll be trying to time the meals for Xinjiang time.

Payment and permits

Note: a special permit is required to enter the Altun Mountains Nature Reserve. Confirm your booking by making a deposit of 10,000 RMB before the permit application deadline of June 8; pay earlier to qualify for the early-bird discount.

Along with your deposit, we'll need a scan of the photo page of your passport, as well as a scan of the visa page.

If the permit doesn't come through for you, we'll refund your deposit.

Full itinerary

  1. Day 1
    07:30 – Meet up at Beijing Capital Airport
    08:40 – Flight to Urumqi
    12:40 – Arrive in Urumqi
    15:30 – Onward flight from Urumqi to Korla
    16:15 – Arrive in Korla
    16:50 – Check in at hotel, head out to explore Tiemenguan
    19:30 – Back to the hotel for dinner

  2. Day 2
    09:00 – Breakfast at Hotel
    09:30 – Load jeeps, drive to Charkhlik
    11:30 – Begin the drive through Taklamakan Desert highway
    12:30 – Picnic lunch
    15:30 – Check in to hotel at Charkhlik
    16:30 – Visit Charkhlik Old City
    19:30 – Dinner

  3. Day 3
    09:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:30 – Load jeeps, drive to Altun Mountains Nature Reserve
    11:30 – Short hike to a scenic spot in the foothills
    13:30 – Lunch
    15:00 – Set up camp at Duck Springs in the nature reserve
    18:00 – Dinner, campfire

  4. Day 4
    08:30 – Breakfast and break camp
    09:00 – Drive to Aqqikkol Lake
    10:30 – Hiking
    13:30 – Lunch
    14:30 – Drive to Aqqikkol volcano area
    18:30 – Hiking to 3,700m high point
    19:30 – Dinner and camp

  5. Day 5
    08:30 – Breakfast
    09:00 – Drive towards snow mountains
    12:30 – Hiking
    14:00 – Lunch
    15:00 – Hiking
    17:30 – Arrive at Whale Lake, set up camp
    19:30 – Dinner

  6. Day 6
    08:30 – Breakfast
    09:00 – Drive from Altun Mountain Nature Reserve to Huatugou
    12:00 – Lunch
    15:30 – Check in at hotel
    17:30 – Rest, free time for a walkabout
    19:00 – Dinner

  7. Day 7
    09:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:30 – Load jeeps, drive to Dunhuang
    11:00 – Stop to stretch the legs
    13:00 – Lunch
    14:00 – Stop to stretch the legs
    14:30 – Drive on
    20:00 – Estimated dinner time in Dunhuang

    We're aiming to get alll the way to Dunhuang, but it might be fairly late by the time we get there - it's a long drive. If things go slower than expected, we'll overnight in Aksai.

  8. Day 8
    09:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:30 – Drive to Dunhuang
    11:00 – Visit Mogao Grottoes
    13:30 – Check in at hotel in Dunhuang
    15:00 – Hiking around Crescent Lake
    18:00 – Dinner

  9. Day 9
    09:30 – Breakfast at hotel
    10:00 – Check out
    12:30 – Lunch in Dunhuang
    14:00 – Arrive at the Dunhuang airport
    15:30 – Fly to Beijing
    19:30 – Arrive at Beijing Capital International Airport
    All times are approximate, and depend on our speed of movement.