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Wild China: Yining (Gulja; )

Yining, 692km (429 miles) west of ?rumqi, has always been a tenuous possession of the Chinese empire, surrounded by the richest farmland in central Asia, and closer to Moscow than Beijing. During the Qing dynasty, it was the farthest point of banishment. Surrounded by high peaks and blessed with a mild climate, Yining is now a Han city with a smattering of Kazaks and Uighurs; it boasts hearty cuisine and access to the fascinating Qapqal Xibo Autonomous County (Chab u Cha'er Xian).

The colonization of Xinjiang began with the fierce ancestors of the current residents of Qapqal, 25km (16 miles) west of Yining. In 1764, 1,000 Xibo soldiers (followed "secretly" by 4,000 family members) were dispatched from Manchuria by the Qianlong emperor, with the promise that they would be allowed to return after 50 years. After putting the natives to the sword and hunting the region's animals to near extinction, the Xibo accepted the fact that there was no prospect of a return home, settled down, and took to farming.

While the Manchu language died out in northeast China, this outpost maintained their written and spoken language, and traditions such as the hanging family tree (jiapu). Most houses have one, with coins to represent the family coming into money, clubs and arrows the birth of a boy, and ribbons and boots the birth of a girl. Catch a bus from outside the Yining bus station to Cha Xian (30 min.; ¥5) and take a three-wheeler (¥5) onward to Jingyuan Si (admission ¥10). An exhibition of Xibo history inside this Lamaist temple is fascinating, but alas, the guide speaks fluent Russian and awaits her first Russian visitor. Wander among the fields of sunflowers and wheat, dotted with light blue courtyard houses with earthen roofs.

Getting There -- The airport is connected to town by taxi (¥20) and shuttle bus (¥3). CAAC (tel. 0999/804-4328) is in the foyer of the Yilite Dajiudian, Shengli Jie 98. Yining has daily flights connecting with ?rumqi. The bus terminal on Jiefang Lu in the northwest of town (tel. 0999/802-3413) has hourly connections with ?rumqi (12 hr.). Tickets for the daily bus to Almaty at 8am (10 hr.; ¥150) are purchased at the hotel reception immediately inside the bus terminal. There are abundant taxis, which charge ¥5 for 2km (1 1/4 miles), then ¥1.30 per kilometer thereafter; add ¥.20 from midnight to 5am. Buses charge ¥1, dropped in a box when you board. A tandem bike may be rented at Diaoke Shiguang, Jiefang Lu 64 (tel. 0999/838-2369), which also serves excellent coffee and traditional Tajik ice cream.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Yili Binguan, Yingbin Lu 8 (tel. 0999/802-3799; fax 0999/802-4964) is Yining's oldest hotel, set in the extensive (30,000-sq.-m/322,917-sq.-ft.) grounds of the former Soviet consulate, which are particularly charming in autumn. Midsize twins for ¥150 to ¥488 in buildings 2 and 3 to the west of the complex are the best choice. Yining's swankiest three-star hotel, the Yilite Dajiudian, Shengli Jie 98 (tel. 0999/803-5600; fax 0999/802-1819), is situated on the northeast corner of the Peoples' Square, the scene of anti-government riots in 1997. While this 12-story glass-and-tile monolith is out of place in sleepy Yining, standard rooms at ¥298 are spotless and bright and suites are well-priced at ¥500. Discounts of 35% are available.

For dining, in the evenings, food nightmarkets set up around town -- the one next to Renmin Square is easy to find. More formal options include the Guoyuan Canting (Yili He Minzu Wenhua Cun Xiang Nei 500 Mi Chu; tel. 0999/832-3580) which charges less than ¥100 for a meal set in an apple orchard on the north bank of the Yili River. (Turn left down the final road before the Yili Bridge south of town and continue for 455m/1,500 ft. The entrance is on the right). Enjoy steamed dumplings (you tazi), a local version of samsa with three fingerprints in each bun (yibazhua), whole chicken with vegetables and noodles (dapan ji), and the filling nang bao rou, a huge plate of lamb and vegetable stew on a wheat pancake. Sip honeyed rye beer called kvass (gewasi), and make friends with the local Uighurs. Try the most renowned Kazakh dish, naren, at Naren Canting, Xinhua Xi Lu 7 (tel. 0999/803-2434). Naren is roasted horse meat (taken from the waist) served on a pile of thick noodles with a side serving of nan and an appetizing salad of tomato, cucumber, and Spanish onion; it costs less than ¥40. The genial owner, Talgat, will cajole you to try horse's milk or yogurt, but these sour concoctions are an acquired taste. The regular yogurt (suannai) is creamy and delicious.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.