And you thought there was no Blog 13!
Friday 19 September
It was an early morning departure for today’s adventure, the start of a 4 day trip around the National Parks to the east of Almaty almost to the border with China. The weather – some cloud and light and not too cold – just perfect for a long drive. Our vehicle, a six seater Land Cruiser, complete with roof rack and water proof bags on top. It was a neat fit inside, with limited luggage space and minimal leg room for those in the back seat.
Our driver Sergey soon had us leaving the peak hour traffic behind as we headed north from Almaty. The Kazak government is committed to infrastructure building and this is evident with all the road works, dams and power lines. It would seem they like to replace the roads in long stretches at a time. They still use train to transport freight and it is not unusual to see very long freight trains especially coming from China. We also came across ‘Las Vegas’ of Kazakhstan quite in the middle of nowhere. Apparently the local in Almaty has decreed there are to be no casinos in the Almaty city.
We turned off the main highway and headed to the Altyn Emel National Park, (approx 5200ha and 200 km long, running between a mountain range to the north and a reservoir to the south}. We also noticed several military installations along the way. (border security) We spotted a small group of wild horses and also some gazelles. The gazelles appeared in the distance on the southern side of the road and then proceeded to sprint right across the road in front of us. According to Greg the gravel roads are good, at this stage he was not sitting in the back seat and being bounced up and down and sideways. Another feature of note was the lines of small earth mounds that appeared. On closer observation they were they were the contents of a fairly deep channel about 1 metre wide and deep – the Kazak version of fences in National Park.
There were the official entrances to parts of the park, and if there were no response to the beeping of the horn it was simply a matter of driving around the small fenced area and out the other side.
We spent some time in one of the gorges viewing the petroglyphs (pictures etched in the rocks), mainly camels, deer and goats. There were also remains of buildings from the bronze age & some more recent finds. Then more bouncing up and down, we arrived at some burial mounds.
These were from the iron age, and set out in a precise manner. National park authority has built an example of inside the burial mound, wooden log construction (no nails) and reed roof. Apparently the real burial mounds have been plundered for their treasures long ago, so that all that remains is a large hole in the top.
Picnic at nature (provided by tour leader) was indoors because of the wind. Excellent food.
At this point, seating arrangements changed & a much smoother ride to the Singing Dunes ensued. Alas no singing today as the earlier rain had left the sand too damp. This turned out to be a blessing, so instead of one step forward followed by a step back, we could actually manage 2 steps forward to one step back. It was of the order of 150 metre high, but took quite some time to climb. The wind was fairly howling, and particularly unnerving as it affected your balance the closer you got to the top. No need for a facial here, plenty of microdermabrasion from the fine sand. The view was spectacular and well worth the climb. Once at the top the only way down was to toboggan. Good fun and lots of laughter. The only downside was having to empty 1/2 kg sand from each shoe and shake out the socks.
We eventually arrived at our accommodation for the next 2 night at the Altyn Emel Hotel – the only accommodation in town for tourists. A very spacious room with a spectacular view of the sunset.
Note: After dinner at the restaurant next door to the hotel, we had planned to have an early night. We discovered there was a wedding to be held the next day. Three of the hotel guests (2 dressed in police uniform) were socialising in the open area between our room and the bathroom. We spent some time trying to converse with them and had to find Dina our interpreter only to discover that we had been invited to celebrate / toast this important event. Only two vodkas later did we escape. Bruce conveniently was downstairs and missed the action and Greg declined an additional drink graciously.
Saturday 20 September
A relaxed start to today. Left the village at about 10 am and headed east towards the Chinese border. The road was sealed for a small distance and then we were back to our “good” gravel road. It was flat nothingness either side of the road with a mountain range to our left. We turned off the main road and headed for the Katutau Mountains (which translates as severe mountains in Kazak).
Definite red tinge to the mountains and as we entered further in it vaguely reminiscent of the Flinders Ranges. (Sedimentary rock with some volcanic extrusions). We spent considerable time climbing to the highest points and trying to capture the scenery with our cameras with limited success. We spotted a herd of fast moving goats in the distance, too fast to get a picture.
From here we headed to the Aktau Mountains, so called as “ak” in Kazak means white topped. We followed a small canyon / water course into the mountains, and proceeded to explore. Mountain tops to climb, and slide down. In parts it looked like sand but really sandstone. There appeared mud dried in bubbles, crusty on top and soft as we broke through the crust. Very difficult to describe all the features, best to look at the photos.
We staved off hunger pains with a banana at 3pm and eventually arrived at the lunch place at 4pm. Very idyllic setting with lake and large trees. Supposedly a 700 year old willow tree, the buttress approximately 1 metre in diameter. (I could be corrected on this). Obviously, it had succumbed to aging and needed some support. Supersized lunch of roast chicken pieces and rice, the usual tomato and cucumber, bread, biscuits and chai.
Arrived back in Altyn Emel about 5.30pm. Dinner was held in a small room in the hotel as the large dining room was being used for the wedding. As fortune would have it, it was too cold for them outside so their music was contained and had little impact on sleep. They partied long into the night.