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High horses

Updated: 2011-08-19 10:37

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily European Weekly)

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High horses
The Xiate Ancient Trail in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region was once part of the famous Silk Road and now popular for horse riding. Du Wei / for China Daily 

It's time to take the reins and discover some of the best horse-riding spots in the country

China is one of the most geographically diverse countries and is the perfect playground for the nature lover. But the joys of exploring its great outdoors are increased a hundredfold if you do it on horseback. The China Equestrian Association hosts many events but here are five locations that will get you started.

1. Xiate Ancient Trail

This horse-riding trail in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region was once part of the famous northern Silk Road and is famous for its breathtaking scenery.

The county is also known for being the home of the Ili horse. Crossed with about five foreign breeds and stock from the beginning of the 20th century, Ili horses rank among the top three breeds in the country and are prized for their speed and stamina.

The starting point of a five-day ride is Sailimu Lake. Sailimu itself is located in the Bortala Mongolian autonomous prefecture adjacent to Ili Kazak.

Covering an area of more than 400 square kilometers and 2,000 meters above sea level, it is Xinjiang's largest and highest alpine lake.

After a late-afternoon ride on the pastures accompanied by local herdsmen and their flocks, riders can feast on succulent roast mutton, fresh local vegetables, tart pomegranate wine and the fiery Ili baijiu in a traditional yurt by the side of the lake deep into the summer night. Xuanzang, the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) monk who made his way to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures and featured in the epic Journey to the West, is said to have made his way through here.

Before the advent of modern highways, the 120-km Xiate Trail was the major pass linking the region's north and west. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the trail was also important for transporting troops and military supplies.

The route was so important the imperial court assigned 70 households to carve steps into the rock and ice to maintain its accessibility.

The trail soon became known as a "stairway to heaven".

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