Ili/Yining (伊寧)& Sayram Lake (賽里木湖)

There wasn’t too much to do in Ili/Yining (the town old name is Ili) as it just just a busy border town. This being Xinjiang and having a large minority presence in the province there were naturally a large police presence. Many of the signs in Ili was also written in Arabic due to the large Hui population. The morning after we had arrived we took the bus to Sayram Lake which is roughly 2.5h away.

The last 1h of the drive was incredibly scenic filled with bridges, mountains, and tunnels. We arrived at Sayram Lake and arranged a stay for ¥100 with a local Kazakh nomad family in their guest yurt.


Kazakh nomads occupy the grassland around Sayram Lake from May 1st to November each year. Since there is a highway built right between the lake and grassland the enterprising nomads have set up a side business of letting guests stay with them.

Sayram Lake:


Soon after we arrived we arranged a 1.5h horse ride. It was M first real horse ride and for some strange reason his horse was a lot smaller than mine. We explore the local scenery which was quite lush. Later on we took a walk around the grassland until we got cold. Sayram Lake gets cold, the elevation is quite high and it snows even in July. I didn’t have any warm clothes so we opted to hide under the large number of duvets.


Why is my horse so much bigger than Martin's?

We stayed in the guest yurt which was nicer than the real yurts that the family lived in next door. The nomad family themselves slept in another traditional yurt and a pre-fab one. It is a lot easier and faster to build a pre fab tent than a traditional tent.

For dinner we were asked if we wanted to eat by ourselves in our tent or with the family. Obviously we chose the latter one. It is a good thing we stayed with Kazakh nomads in China and not in Kazakhstan because they knew mandarin so we could communicate. Actually their mandarin was better than mine.

So for dinner we had oodles of their milk tea which is a bit of strong tea, very fatty milk, water and salt. Each meal we drank 4-5 bowls, the Kazakhs drank much more. They made lamb meat with rice and of course flat bread. Guests sit on the highest point of the table (away from the stove) and men share one big plate while the women shared another. The tents and stove are all heated with sheep poop which can be only properly made in the wintertime.

The meal was quite good:Kazakh diner: bread, mutton with rice, and lots and lots of Salty milk tea

The Kazakh nomads were all quite young, our host was actually a year younger than me! His sister cooked while his mother who only spoke Kazakh sewed. Apparently they go to school in the winter time when they bunker down in a Kazakh town nearby. It gets down to -30c. We talked about many things but they were very interested in iPhones and HK mafia since they like HK films. Every nomad has a nice smartphone that they charge using solar power.

At night we returned to bed. Since China only has one time zone and XinJiang is incredibly far from Beijing it got dark very late. Kazakh nomads and many other in this region use the unofficial XinJiang time instead which is 2h behind. So off we went to bed at 10pm Xinjiang time since the solar powered light bulb ran out of power. I was under so many layer of duvets I found it hard to breath. I was also sleeping right next to the dung powered heater so I was quite toasty.


The next day the clouds lifted and the scenery was incredible. It rained the night before and just up the hill it actually snowed. It was so pretty!

Our Yurt:



After breakfast of more flat bread and bowls of milk tea we left for Urumqi. (We had to decide how much to pay for food so we just gave the mum ¥80, I am sure food didn’t cost that much but the family we stayed with was great company).

I fulfilled my dream to sleep in a yurt, yeah!


Hong Kong. Travel. Climb. In that order.

3 thoughts on “Ili/Yining (伊寧)& Sayram Lake (賽里木湖)

  1. Hi Hi, Do you know what is the timing for the bus from Yining and what is the bus station name?
    I’m arriving at 2pm not sure if I can get to the lake and stay 1 night

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