By Dennis Gray, Alpine Club
Keketuohai or Koktokay lies in the southern Altai Range of China’s Xinjiang Province, close to the border with Mongolia and 600km north-northeast of Urumqi. For three years I have attempted to travel to the area on the recommendation of non-climbing friends in China. In autumn I was finally successful and discovered a wealth of granite towers and walls that have yet to be visited by rockclimbers. I was told that there are 108 granite peaks here, and I estimate rock faces to reach a height of ca 300m, though I only saw part of the area. These walls are situated along the gorge of the Iyrtish River, and some reach the valley floor. Of all the valleys I have seen during world travels, Keketuohai compares closest to Yosemite, and locals assured me that no one has ever climbed there. Spring and autumn would be the best seasons: summer is just too hot, and in winter the temperatures regularly fall to -40°C and lower; it is one of the coldest places in China. While there is certainly no El Cap or Half Dome, the volume of rock is possibly greater than Yosemite, and there are also many good boulders in the valley bottom.
There are daily flights from Beijing to Urumqi and two scheduled flights a week from Moscow. From Urumqi an express bus, going toward Altai, will drop you off at Fuyun, where it is possible to catch a mini-bus from the Tourist Hotel for the remaining 70km to Keketuohai. Foreigners cannot hire vehicles in Xinjiang.
So why has no one climbed there? Keketuohai is a National Geological Site; visitors are taken part way into the valley on a battery-driven “golf buggy” along a newly constructed road.
The area is populated by Kazakhs, who are building the park infrastructure and visitor access. They are unlikely to allow rock climbing, unless sanctioned by higher authority in Beijing or Urumqi. This may be possible, as Chinese authorities are always interested in creating opportunities that will provide jobs and foreign currency. The Chinese Mountaineering Association is probably not aware of Keketuohai’s climbing potential.
Currently, the situation in Xinjiang is fraught: no internet access and not possible to phone from abroad. Traveling is dangerous, due to ethnic tension between the Uighers and Han Chinese. There were large riots in July and many subsequent ethnic incidents. Al Qaeda has now declared a jihad on the Han Chinese. However, the local population, Kazakhs, have so far not involved themselves with this problem. Visiting Keketuohai would certainly necessitate one of the party having a basic grasp of Mandarin.
It may be that UIAA representatives could talk with CMA delegates about the possibilities of allowing rock climbing, or it might be that a group of climbers could arrive on spec, make friends with the Kazakhs, and hope that permission to climb was granted. But it’s a long way to travel if the answer is no.