We decided to hike from Hemu to Heihu (the Black Lake). You certainly have the option of taking a horse (as there are many on-call at Hemu). However, this section is particularly breathtaking, and perhaps worth enjoying at a slower pace.
For us, the hike took almost 8 hours. That said, we are very slow hikers who take pictures, look at bugs, and were carrying packs that were a bit too heavy (too much food, clothes, and water). I think a person in good shape with a light pack could easily do it in 6 hours if they hustled.
But hustling isn’t really the point out here. You’re in a very remote area, where Kazakhstan is only a stone’s throw away. You’ll pass streams, cows, camels (yes, camels!), gorges, and any number of other seemingly magical natural spots.
This portion of the trip was probably our favorite, as the landscape kept changing as we ascended in altitude. Eventually, as we drew closer to Heihu, the trees began to thin out and we were essentially trekking across high altitude grasslands.
At about 5pm we made our way to Heihu. The lake itself is quite small, and is completed surrounded by towering mountains. It is quite windy and cold by the lake, so make sure you have warm clothes and a heavy duty sleeping bag.
The feeling up here is really special. It feels so remote, almost like you’re on another planet. After nearly 8 hours of hiking you’ll also be utterly exhausted, which gives you that fabulous sense of accomplishment.
We stayed in a yurt by the lake. There are a handful of yurts, so just stay in any one that has room. There’s no way to reserve ahead of time (as far as we know), but, given the difficulty in accessing this area, it doesn’t seem likely that there will ever be no vacancy.
The family we stayed with had two daughters, one of which was adopted, a fact they somewhat awkwardly told us within a couple minutes of arriving. We spoke primarily with the oldest daughter, as no one else could really speak Mandarin. Their yurts were quite spacious and have strong stoves burning in the center. Around the edges of the yurt were various cured meats, dried vegetables, massive wheels of cheese, and giant barrels of biscuits. Milk tea was immediately offered to us.
The family was very kind, and we actually ended up giving them our tent in lieu of payment, since we didn’t end up needing it. We had our own yurt, as the family of four slept in the adjacent tent. With winds screaming outside, the night was both thrilling and chilling.
The only bad thing I can say about our stay was that the next morning our hosts arranged guides to Kanas Lake. They quoted us RMB 600 for the two of us, and we paid them directly. Later, our guides told us that they only got RMB 200, meaning the family pocketed RMB 400. When you’re traveling in places like this you only have yourself to blame for getting cheated. So be smarter than we were. Admittedly, when you’re out here, they could’ve said RMB 1,000 and we’d have no choice, as we’d otherwise be stranded. So I guess the lesson is to always act like you have less than you do.