Tianshan is one of the most beautiful mountain systems on Earth. With its high snowy peaks, the highest of which rises over 7000 m altitude, its vast grasslands, deep valleys, gorgeous coniferous forests, rivers, lakes and rock formations, it presents fantastic landscapes. And the best way to dive into these landscapes is by trekking when you can see in detail, feel, touch and smell all this beauty. But this land is a harsh area, and trekking on its mountain ranges require serious preparations. Let’s take a look at what do you need for such an adventure, and what gear do you have to prepare for trekking in Tianshan.
Basic facts about Tianshan
First, let’s take a look at the map of Tianshan. Better- the satellite map. You can see that this is a very large mountain area, prolonged from west to east, but at the same time, it is not a single long range with one watershed-summit. And you can notice that it is a part of a larger mountain region, called “The Roof of the World”, which includes also Pamir, Hindukush, Karakoram, Himalaya, the Great Tibetan Plateau, Kunlunshan and many other smaller ranges.
Tianshan’s highest peak is Jengish Chokusu (Pobeda)- 7439 m, located on the border between Kyrgyzstan and China. But its second-highest peak Han Tengri is more famous. It is the only peak on the Earth, which is under 7000 m by ground (6995 m), but over 7000 m by its glacial cap (7010 m), located at the point where China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan meet by a border.
Although these peaks are very high, most of the other ranges of Tianshan are lower than 5000 m altitude. Due to its geographical situation, there are several types of landscapes that you can see, touch and enjoy.
Some of the most beautiful grasslands on the Earth can be found in Tianshan. In summer you can see endless prairies with fresh green grass, full of flowers, with a lot of yurts and flocks of lambs, cows, and horses. These grasslands are mostly in the lower northern areas of Tianshan, mainly in its eastern parts, in Xinjiang, China. Among the most beautiful of them, I can mention Narati, Tangbula and Bayan Buluk grasslands on the notorious Duku Highway.
The coniferous forests of Tianshan are really stunning, and they are one of the notorious mountain’s landmark. These forests are located mainly on the northern Tianshan ranges, and mostly in the valleys, opened northward. But actually, they are often mixed with the grasslands, especially on the steeper slopes.
There are not too many lakes in Tianshan, but those of them which are in this mountain land are incredibly beautiful. The largest lake is Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan, located between two mountain ranges. This is the “giant blue eye” of Tianshan. Other stunning lakes are Song Kul and Chatyr Kol in Kyrgyzstan, also Sayram and Tianchi (Heavenly Lake) in Xinjiang, China.
Glaciers and snowy areas
Tianshan’s altitude is enough high to reach the snow vertical zone. Some of the glaciers descend to 3300-3500 m altitude, and there are some snow spots on 3200-3300 m which never melt. And the places over 4000 m are a typical alpine glacial area.
Dry eroded slopes and canyons
This is another landscape of Tianshan, which usually can be seen in its southern ranges and slopes near the deserts. These areas are dryer and windy, and there are many places with wind-shaped rocks (the so-called “yardang”). There are also red rock canyons, formed by water. The most beautiful of them is located on the famous Duku Highway, and it is called Tianshan Secret Canyon.
All these landscapes are often mixed and combined, and as a result, you can often enjoy really fantastic and breathtaking views everywhere in Tianshan. And for hikers (and not only), the temptation to penetrate inside these incredibly beautiful landscapes is really irresistible. No wonder that Tianshan is declared as one of the most beautiful mountain lands on the Earth by many travelers!
How to reach Tianshan
Although Tianshan is a splendid pearl, and many travelers would find it as beautiful as the best parts of the Rocky Mountains or the Alps, it is an off the beaten area, much less visited, and far from any famous tourist destinations. It is mainly due to its geographical situation- in the center of Asia, in the farthest areas from any sea coast, and in the wildest territories of three not so popular for tourists countries- China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (yes, China is popular, but only its eastern part- Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, Hong Kong, and still can’t compare in popularity with places like Bali, Iceland or Morocco).
From Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China
Reaching Tianshan is not so difficult. If you want to explore its Kyrgyz part, you can easily buy an air ticket to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan (which is visa-free or requires visa on arrival for most countries in the world), then just get a local van “marshrutka” to a starting point of trekking. It is really easy. For example Ala Archa Valley Trail is only on a 30-45 mins drive from the center of Bishkek. .
For the Kazakh part of Tianshan- go to Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. From there, the nearest mountain range rises directly south of the city.
And for the Chinese Tianshan, which is the largest part of this mountain land, the starting point is Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It has an international airport and you can fly there (or reach it by train from Beijing, or Kazakhstan), just with a normal tourist Chinese visa.
Inside the Tianshan mountain range
Trekking inside the Tianshan mountain range, however, is not always easy. The most difficult part to access is the border area around the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. It is highly restricted, especially for foreigners. Some places can be accessed privately, but only with a special permit. In other places, you can go only with a licensed travel company (by organized tour). And some places are completely forbidden.
Borders and border areas
You also can’t cross the borders, except through the official border crossings (and with exception of Torugart, the other two crossings at Horgos and Dzunggar (Dostyk-Druzhba) are beside the mountains, but not inside). Can’t trek on a border either (the exception is only the slopes of Jengish Chokusu and Han Tengri peaks). Besides, you need another permit to climb the high peaks (as it is in all the extreme high mountains in the world.
There are also some closures for the most used trekking routes in Tianshan (mainly in Xinjiang, China). The reason they say is due to an accident that happened recently. A couple of hikers fell in a river and died, so the authorities close the entire route for hiking (usually- temporary). Or they can allow hiking, but only for groups with guides who have the necessary certificate.
Finally- the weather. Tianshan’s climate is harsh. In winter it can be really severe, with temperatures dropping below -40 C, and strong freezing winds. In summer is better, and this is the hiking season- from May to October. But even then, a snowstorm may occur in the areas above 3000 m, or at least a hailstorm with thunders and flashes of lightning.
Tianshan trekking routes
There are many routes in Tianshan which are popular for hikers, in all the three Tianshan countries. In Kyrgyzstan, the most famous routes are on the stunning valleys south of Karakol- Djety Oguz, Karakol, and Altyn Arashan. Other popular routes are located south of Bishkek, in Ala Archa, and in the extreme south of Tianshan- Tash Rabat and Chatyr Kol Lake.
The Kazakhstan part of Tianshan is small, so there are not too many routes there, but the most popular ones are located south of Almaty.
And in China, Xinjiang, there are several popular routes, of which the most beautiful are Xiate Ancient Trail (located in a border area, difficult to access), Wusun Ancient Trail, Langta C+V and Bogda Trail.
Routes of the trails
Most of the routes follow this scheme: ascending on a valley, reaching and crossing a summit, then descending to a neighboring valley, then again reaching and crossing the next summit, finally descending on a third neighboring valley to the endpoint. Usually, the routes are not “walking on the edge” of the summits, because they are too rugged, so they only cross them.
Concerning the altitude, the trails are located mostly between 1600 and 4000 m. This means that there are areas, over 3000 m, where you may have some altitude sickness problems. But it is unlikely to be serious life-threatening- 3000-4000 m is not extremely high and you can get easily acclimatized.
Many of the popular trails are between 3 and 8 days long. The grade of difficulty can be high in some sections, mainly around the summit crossings. There are also sections with very steep ascending or descending. And there are some river crossings where you have to walk into the water to reach the other bank. In other words, the trails are not without some adventures, but that’s what adds more taste to the stunning scenery around you.
And of course, knowing all this, you need to prepare well for such trekking, not only for your safety but also to get most of it. So let’s take a look at the gear that you would need before you go.
Trekking gear for Tianshan
To go on a trekking on some of the trails of Tianshan is exciting and at the same time a challenging adventure. You can walk fast- 8-10 hours per day, and finish a route for 5-7 days. Or you can walk slower, in a more relaxing mode with more rests to enjoy the landscapes, passing the same route for 10-15 days.
If you choose the fast option, you would need better physical preparation. But the good point is that you don’t need to take too much food with you, and your luggage would be lighter. And if you choose the slow option, you would walk slow and rest more but would need more food, for a longer time. Yes, you can join a group with horses, so you don’t need to carry your luggage by yourself (of course, this option would be more expensive). But if you bear everything, it would be heavy.
Anyway, let’s start with clothing.
Most of Tianshan is relatively cold. Even in summer, it could be quite chilling at night and early morning. So, you need clothes for colder weather, like jackets and coats. Yes, you can put them off at noon, but you definitely would need them after sunset.
Waterproof jackets and coats
Tianshan is not only a cold place, but it can be rainy too. So you would need a jacket or a coat with waterproof features. It would be good also to buy a jacket with a hood, which along with a hat would protect your head from rain and freezing wind. So, let’s see some good waterproof jackets and coats:
For more information about hiking jackets, see more about temperature ratings of insulated jackets.
Again, it would be good to wear waterproof pants. For colder and snowy weather you would need pants with wadding. So, here are some good examples of pants for trekking in Tianshan.
Yes, usually in summer the weather also can be nicely warm, so you can walk wearing just short pants and t-shirt, but the long pants and jacket still have to be in your backpack for the nights and bad weather.
Only a waterproof jacket and pants are not enough in a rainstorm or long moderate rain. You need better water protection. You want to protect first yourself, then your luggage and your electronic devices. And a good raincoat would keep you dry for a long time until you enter your cozy tent. Let’s take a look at some raincoats, proper for rainy weather in Tianshan.
It is one of the most important things that you have to consider when you go trekking in Tianshan. The terrain is not so different than in any other high mountains on the Earth, and it can be quite difficult in some places. Yes, sometimes you will walk on a nice smooth path on the grass. But most of the time it would be not so comfortable. You will have to pass places with stones, steep ascending and descending sections, wet and muddy meadows, sometimes snow (wet and melting in summer) and even crossing brooks.
So you need proper boots which can face all these kinds of environment. The boots have to be enough strong and comfortable. At the same time, they should not be easily sliding. And very important- they also must have good waterproof features. Let’s see some good examples.
You will spend most (or all) of your nights during your Tianshan trekking in your tent. Yes, sometimes you can be invited by local nomads to sleep in their yurt, but don’t rely on that, you will not meet nomads everywhere. So you have to bring your camping gear- a tent, a sleeping bag, and a mat.
Your tent must fit the local conditions. If you go trekking in summer, it would not become too freezing at night, but you can still expect temperature dropping to 0 C or even slightly below. So the best option would be a 4-season tent. But even a 3-season tent would be enough if you have a good sleeping bag and a good mat.
Needless to say, your tent must have good waterproof features too. Most brands produce double-layered tents, and it should protect you even if it rains the whole night. Windproof and good ventilation is an advantage too, but not mandatory. Let’s see some good tents, proper for Tianshan.
Your sleeping bag has to fit the condition in Tianshan. But again, if you go there in summer, you don’t need a very warm and thick sleeping bag, just a normal one with temperature range down to -10C would be enough, especially if you go with a 4-season tent and a good mat. Let’s see some sleeping bags in wide price-quality range.
For more information see The Best Sleeping Bags for mountain hiking in 2020.
A good mat is important to protect you warm on the cold ground. If it is enough thick and soft, it can not only provide good insulation but also give you a comfortable sleep. Let’s see some mats below.
For such trekking, lasting at least several days, you need a big backpack, where you can put all your necessary things- food, clothes, and all other accessories and devices. A good backpack is with volume 70 L. Let’s see some backpacks proper for such an adventure.
See more about the mountain trekking backpacks in our best backpacks review!
Rain cover for backpack
You don’t want the water from long rain to enter inside your backpack. So this is a necessary accessory for your trekking in Tianshan. It is small, light and easy to bring. Let’s see some examples.
As every hiker knows, it is another good accessory. Hiking poles can help you a lot against tiring. They can also protect you from stumbling and falling in some difficult terrain. However, many hikers don’t use them, hoping to find just a wooden rod in the forest. Yes, it can work, but although the coniferous forests of Tianshan are gorgeous and one of the region’s landmarks, they don’t cover too much area and most of the trails are actually on grasslands or stony places. So the chance to find a wood rod is not too big. And if you decide to buy poles, here are some examples.
It is another very important accessory, which everyone on trekking would need at night. In general, there are two types of headlamps- with changeable batteries, and with charging system. And for long trekkings as those in Tianshan, I personally would use a headlamp with changeable batteries, so I wouldn’t need to worry whether I have enough electricity. Anyway, let’s see some examples here.
I have always preferred to bring with me only snacks, sandwiches, chocolates, sweets and some fruits in my hikes before because I felt cooking too complicated and time-wasting. But on week-long trekking in Tianshan, such kind of food is not proper. It not only would take a lot of space in your backpack but also because it is dry and you would be often thirsty, you would feel very difficult to eat.
So you would need water-containing meals like noodles, mashed potatoes or something else with water. Hot water. Which means boiled by cooking tools. And for cooking you need a gas bottle, so your set would contain a gas igniting system. Then the set would include a pot, bowls or plates and other tools.
Another problem is that most of the waters in Tianshan are not safe for direct drinking. Some bacteria can make you sick. And also marmots are living in the mountain, which may bring deadly diseases. Yes, many water sources are enough clean and safe, but you don’t know which are they. And you would need to drink a lot of water during your trekking, so it is another reason to bring a cooking set- for water boiling. So let’s see some good cooking sets below.
After you boil your water, the best place to store it is a water bladder. It is much more convenient than bringing plastic bottles with you. It can stay in your backpack and you just use the hose-pipe at any time without putting your backpack down. Let’s see some good water bladders.
You would definitely need it for your mobile phone. In general, during long trekking in the mountain you would not use your phone all the day, but mainly to see the map with GPS and sometimes to send and receive some messages (if you go trekking in the Chinese part of Tianshan, don’t forget to install your VPN!). But still 7 days or more are too long and you would need to charge it. Let’s take a look at some portable chargers.
First, it is advisable to go on trekking in a group of at least 2-3 people. It is much safer than solo trekking. In this case, a walkie-talkie would be very useful, since probably most of the trail would be out of mobile signal range. There are walkie-talkie devices at various prices, with various functions, but a simple and cheap one would be enough:
Along with all of this, if you want to have a good experience and really enjoy the trekking, you have to be well prepared. If you regularly go jogging and hiking, then you would not have a problem. But if not, you have to start training in advance.
The best way for training is by jogging (5 to 10 km), at least 2-3 times per week. Add to this some hiking. If there are some hills nearby, try to make 400-500 m ascending- again 2 times per week. If there are no hill nearby, just use the stairs of your building.
While hiking, you can bear your backpack. In the beginning, let it be light and more empty. And when you feel it too easy, start gradually adding more weight inside, until it reaches at least 15% of your own weight.
For the high altitude
Have in mind that the trails in Tianshan pass areas above 3000 m altitude. It is almost impossible to prepare for high altitude in advance, but just you will acclimatize when you arrive there. Anyway, it would be not too difficult, if you are well acclimatized (which is easy), you would not have problems with altitude sickness.
However, when you walk upward, you would become tired more quickly than at lower altitude, gasping more often. Again, this is another reason for good training in advance. If you don’t feel tired in a lowland while running and hiking, you would feel much less tired at a high altitude.
Get used with your boots
Don’t forget also to buy your boots earlier and wear them at least a month before the trekking. Your feet will get used to them and you would not be unpleasantly surprised by foot problems in the wild mountain. Actually, the best you can do is wear your new boots while you go hiking for training.
Then, enjoy the nice part of your preparation- the trip planning, tickets, visas, itineraries, transport, etc., until the day of your departure. And when the day comes, attack Tianshan and dive into its fantastic landscapes!
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.