During my overtime hours at work over the past year, I got into a routine of googling something like "most beautiful mountain town in Europe", the top results usually included the 2500-year-old Austrian village of Hallstatt. I kept this in the back of my head all year, and then while on a trip in the region recently, I decided to start in Munich from where I could quickly swing over to the area. This meant spending a night at Salzburg and then catching a train the next day with a connection at Attnang Purcheim, before ascending up into the mountains. 

Apon arrival I was dropped off on the opposite side of the Hallstatter See from Hallstatt, where a ferry comes to pick up everyone who comes in by train. The ferry ride across the lake offers an incredibly beautiful view of the town and the surrounding nature, but a real shock came after leaving the boat. I found myself surrounded by a whole circus of tourists, clamoring back and forth around trinket shops and swinging selfy sticks around carelessly to take pictures of themselves. As I walked into town I started recognizing mandarin conversations taking place all around me, leaving me with the feeling that I'd just landed at a typical Chinese tourist attraction.

While checking into my hotel, the receptionist there explained to me that for the past ten years or so Hallstatt has been one of the more popular tourist attractions in Europe for Asian travelers. The town has been set up accordingly, ready to process and profit from thousands of new visitors from Taiwan and China each day. On the positive side, I would be able to practice my mandarin here, but any dream I had of getting a taste of a traditional Austrian village had dissipated within a couple minutes of arriving here.

Boat ride into Hallstatt

Nanshan @ Urümqi

With lakes, mountains, caves, and forests, Urumqi is famous for being surrounded by natural beauty in all directions. Awaking with the determination to explore this, I shrugged off my beer hangover from the night before and managed to get to the bus station. Due to some gap in the departure schedule, the ticket I ended up with wasn't to where I'd asked, but the girl at the counter looked pretty confident that I would be satisfied. An hour and a half later I got off at the last stop, where it was difficult to understand what the proper route was, there were just a couple of shacks around and two roads diverging from a fork. I picked a road, and after walking along it rather unconfidently for a bit, I was approached by a random Kazak guy.

Wandering away from the bus stop

Leaf Brewery @ Ürümqi

Near the end of the highspeed rail line on the westernmost side of Xinjiang, I found the last stop on my trip at the city of Urumqi, which China argues is the geographic center of all of Asia. Apon arrival I noticed that the tonal complexities of mandarin have eroded here, allowing me to relax my tongue while speaking with the locals. This is most likely due to the fact that this is a multi-language city, there is a 3.5 million population of Uyghur minorities here who speek the Turkic language of the same name.

On the Uyghur side of town


The further west you go in China the more Muslim influence appears, in Turpan, you reach a tipping point where it starts to surround you. The city still appears to be structured in the same way that makes most Chinese cities similar, however, I would call this a "Muslim flavored" Chinese city. There are landmarks all around the city, including the flaming mountains and GaoCheng Ancient City, however for my stay, I decided to focus on what I was able to find in or near Turpan proper; Jiahe Ancient City(交河故城), The Karez Canal(米依木·阿吉坎儿井) and The Ermin Minaret(苏公塔).

My first half hour at Jiohe had me worried that I might have wasted my morning, the tourist entry gate, tram ride and museum gave me the impression that this attraction was a completely fake modern day representation of an ancient city. When we pulled up to the third tram stop I was relieved to find that there actually was a real ancient city here. It's not just a couple structures either, this is five square kilometer plateau filled with eroding ancient stone buildings and stone paths; walking the whole thing is a less mind-numbing then I worried it could be.


The main thing which interested me to visit Jiayuguan was an image I saw on google of an ancient guard tower on the edge of a fort surrounded by an arid, empty desert landscape, to even fly to this part of china was a spur of the moment decision and I didn't really know what I might find. The next morning after recovering from a flight and train ride I asked my hotel about visiting some of these ancient attractions and they were able to pair me with a driver for 180 rmb to take me to the three most popular ones on the west of town; The Overhanging Great Wall (Xuán Bì Cháng Xhéng), The Great Walls First Abutment(Cháng Chéng Dìyī Dūn), and The First Pass of the Great Wall (Jiāyù Guān).

After a car ride followed by a short golf cart ride, I was at the museum for the First Abutment. Inside there isn't too much to see except a couple old photos of the wall, and a group of belligerent tourists taking pictures of one another laying on the glass floor of a balcony looking over the Taolai River. This balcony would have a nice view, but with the commotion created by this glass floor, it is impossible to get a photo or even think for that matter; I did find an alternative viewing platform however inside the hallway leading to the mens bathroom. After I popped through the green plastic strips hanging from the door top, there was a wide and empty balcony from which the view was quite the same.

View from the bathroom

Kamenskoe Plato @ Almaty

Having spent enough time in downtown to feel like I'd be wasting time by exploring further there, today I ventured back into the hills. Without too much information to go on, I hopped onto bus 5 and held on till the last stop. The route went as though it was going toward Medeu until hanging a right onto a curvy one lane road; from this point it was a couple of minutes before rising out of the hotels and restaurants up into a snowy suburban community of poor Kazak hill dwellers.