Chills and thrills during Xinjiang's harsh winters

WINTER SPLENDOUR: Local Kazak herdsmen participate in a traditional hunting competition for rabbits and foxes on horseback with eagles they have trained for years in Xinjiang. The region


    Mar 09, 2016

    Chills and thrills during Xinjiang's harsh winters


    A FEW years ago, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which draws hordes of tourists in summer and autumn, typically turned quiet when the long winter arrived.

    Now, more people are choosing to experience the region's grand scenery and diverse ethnic cultures during the coldest months of the year.

    The region is expected to attract 24 million tourists between November and April, a 62 per cent increase over the previous winter.

    About 900,000 tourists visited Xinjiang during the winter of 2006, according to Li Jidong, party chief of the regional tourism bureau.

    "For Xinjiang, heavy snowfall in winter is no longer a burden. It has been turned into a gold mine. We have combined winter sightseeing, winter sports and unique ethnic cultures to create multiple layers of experiences for tourists," he said.

    The region has also improved its transportation infrastructure to make travel easier.

    Roads to popular nature sites in Xinjiang, once sealed off by heavy snow in winter, have become accessible with better road conditions and the acquisition of world-class snow-clearing equipment.

    Take, for example, the Kanas Valley, which sits beside the Altay Mountains. One of the top natural attractions in China, the area is renowned for beautiful rivers fed by Kanas Lake.

    Before 2014, the mountain roads that led to this site could be used by tourists only between May and October.

    After the area's roads were widened and, therefore, could be quickly cleared of snow, visitors were able to take in the breathtaking winter during the cheaper off-season.

    Ski enthusiasts around China are also drawn to Xinjiang's snow, sunshine, ski resorts and hot springs. According to Li Wei, deputy director of the regional tourism bureau, Xinjiang started to promote winter tourism in 2000 and has since built 28 ski resorts.

    When it hosted the 13th National Winter Games in January, the region took the chance to showcase its top winter sports facilities and is poised to attract more visitors in the future.

    "We received 33,000 tourists last week, marking a 20 per cent growth over the same period last year,"said Huang He, marketing director of Silk Road International Ski Resort, a venue for the Winter Games.

    "Ski fans from all over the country chose to spend the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) in a new way."

    In 2015, the regional government invested 20 million yuan (S$4.2 million) in incentives for travel agencies to attract tourists to Xinjiang.

    The agencies received 50 yuan for every tourist they brought to Xinjiang from other parts of China. The incentive was only 15 yuan in 2014.

    Besides the stunning natural views and winter sports facilities, tourists can also enjoy Xinjiang's diverse ethnic cultural activities, some of which can be experienced only in winter, Li Jidong said.

    Xinjiang is home to people from 13 ethnic groups and each has a special way to enjoy the winter.

    People can stay with the Tuvans in their pointed houses in Kanas, for example, and try on skis made from pine trees and horse fur.

    They can also watch the Kazaks and their golden eagles catch rabbits in the snow in a hunting competition that is held only in the winter.