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In the wild

Travelling through South-East Kazakhstan - part 2 of 2.

Story by Marcin Konkel June 22nd, 2017

Hundred percent

"It can't be done in this amount of time. There is no possibility to do it. It's just too much." was the answer of one of our newly met friends on our initial plan of travel to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Yes, we were to drive through Kyrgyzstan as well but, it so happened, thar we were on a tighter clock then we thought. You see, Almaty Region is such a vast space in terms of sights and things to do that a week won't do. If your talking the whole country I don't know if a month would do.

Take Baikonur Cosmodrome. Still operational and you can take part (for a couple of thousands of dollars or pounds) in a launch of a spaceship with cosmonauts that happens once or twice every year. You can fly there as a part of a tour or drive from Almaty (1400 km one way) after you have been screened around 40-50 days prior your trip.

That was West let's go North-East and take a look at the Altai Mountains. That's a journey of 1370 km one way. I've heard stories about their beauty, the nature, bears, white lakes and jaw-dropping sights from Kazakhs and Russians as they cross both countries. That's on a list for another time as well together with the Aral and Caspian Sea.

The point I'm trying to make is, that sometimes when you land, it so happens you get to know these things and need or want to act spontaneous and keep fingers crossed for serendipity to do it's job. In our case, we had several encounters with serendipity in over thousand kilometres we did in the region. If you want to taste the beauty and wilderness of the country there is no other known way to me. Be prepared though, for the unexpected, enchanting and inaccessible. This, mixed altogether, will be magic.

PS. If you missed part one on the wilderness of Kazakhstan you can catch up here.

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four cooks and no gas

We have to make some additional way to a city where, if we're lucky, we'll find some gas. We have some left for over a hundred kilometres but gas is precious in Kazakhstan and not that easy to get outside of large cities. We are travelling mainly through villages or towns at best. Very rarely, when we encounter a station, there is no gas there that would be suitable for us - meaning that there are not many gas stations with proper number of octanes that our car can handle. We need 95 but 92 will probably do as well. The offered gas is, in most cases, only either 82 or 85.

The city ends up as a village, of which name I cannot recall, that is tucked almost right under a mountain range. A straight road - the only one available and leading solely to it was in itself - picturesque. In far distance few single trees spread-out with some lone horses eating grass. A small platau enabled to see the vastness surrounding the small gathering of people and houses. We were welcomed by a quite an old arch made from thin still ending on top with a symbol of mountains. The long awaited station is on the left as we enter. It's... to speak gently, unoccupied and seems not to be used in years if not decades.

When we stop to take some shots and reroute, two children riding their scooters go pass us and into the road that we just came. As the road is long and straight and together with their small, manual scooters it creates a juxtaposition of some kind as if the journey was impossible. We also notice a small boy sitting on the side of an empty road. Without anyone in sight on a road that he has chosen it seems as he has a lot on his mind to think about.

We are travelling with two hitchhikers that we gave a lift from the Charyn Canyon which we visited in part one of the story. They were going the same direction and we had some free seats in the car what happened next was quite obvious.

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Having re-routed we found Kegen, a proper city this time, which is almost on the initial road we planned to get to Саты (en. Saty) - a remote village surrounded by mountains. It is our starting point to lake Kaindy that we plan on visiting.

After a 30 min to an hour drive we're on site. There are several gas stations but only one that meets our needs.

-"To the full" - I say in Russian to a station worker who seems to do the fuelling up around here.

In reply I get only a faint smile but the job is done. As I mentioned we came here with two hitchhiker girls that we picked up on our prior journey and are travelling together to Saty. They go refresh themselves but come back rather abruptly getting to know that the loo here is a tiny barrack with a hole in the ground that you cannot enter in any other way than to hold your breath. That's how things work in the whole city including bars and restaurants.

-"I saw a pretty nice local place down the road. Let's eat something, we're all starving here!" - one of us says.

-"I'm aboard!" - another voice in the car compliments.

Change of drivers. It's Andrzej's turn. We hop on the car in search for some local cuisine and a bar that would seem crowded or at least "proper" as for local standards. We find the one we were all thinking about. Outside there is a adjacent booth with a man making shashliks (a dish very popular in Kazakhstan). It's a very crude barrack where simplicity and low cost were the key. It is to protect from wind, rain and be sufficient enough to make things work - serve shashliks that is. The man inside is very persistent that we buy his dishes from him. He does not ask if we want something instead he goes straight to how many portions we want. We prefer the cuisine inside. I suggest, though, that I can take a shot of him inside his small business for some tenge. He gladly complies.

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Inside the restaurant there are not many people. A mother with a daughter and two men. The place is simple with several tables provided with oilcloths and assisted by two benches each. There is also a small window where the cooks serve dishes. In the air we can smell some fried mutton. In one corner sits the owner. I can notice that as she is doing some accounting work in a regular sized school notebook. She notices us and provides with a the menu as we sit down. The menu has pictures of the dishes that are served and is placed in A4 size foil as for documents. Some of us know Russian but this does not help if you don't know what the local specialities might look and be named like. We've settled for a collection of various specialities to try as much as we can sharing meals.

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As we eat the owner comes and asks if she can take a photograph of us. Presumably, not many international travellers pass this point or stop by for a decent meal. We agree and exchange the courtesy. To our surprise, thanks to the owner, more people working in the kitchen appear and pose for us. That was such a pleasant courtesy that we were able to meet everyone and that they wanted to get to know us as well. I did not suppose that we would be met with such openness in a remote location. We started a small conversation on how tasty their dishes were, where do we come from and where we're going. Well, the dishes were actually were tasty but I would skip the mayonnaise and ketchup altogether that were put on most of the them.

- "Perhaps this is how people dine here." - I think to myself. We bid farewell with smiles on everyone's faces and adding this venue to our place of choosing for the next trip.

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An ambulance parked in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road sourcing some power from a nearby post.

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Marat and Kaisar

We stop for a moment. To the right a horseman is herding his cattle. Guys take pictures but I see something of interest around 500-700 meters ahead. I walk towards the picture to unveil more.

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I'm surrounded by hills and grasslands with a single dirt road going in the middle. In far distance, in between two hills, is the Tien Shan mountain range. Lot's of cows and sheep are scattered around. When I stop walking I can see a similar frame to my comrades but with two horseman. They seem a bit small but I don't think too much and take some shots. They notice me from afar, leave what they were attending and start coming towards me vigorously. From a distance I can notice that one is dressed in blue and the other is in a red jacket. The view is quite majestic. The flock is on the hills, mountains in the background and two riders coming towards me. They're quite close now and I can notice they are still quite young or, speaking quite frankly, they're small boys. We greet each other with a firm handshake and a "hallo" in Russian. I try to make conversation but were speak a bit different languages - they know a bit of Russian but mostly it's Kazakh. Unfortunately, I don't understand much of the latter. At the same time my friends notice me, hop on the car and come altogether to see what's going on. At this point it only gets more interesting.

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As they come, a Lada Niva drives-by. Lada is one of the most popular means of transportation - especially in the former Soviet Union States of which Kazakhstan was part of. It has a 4x4 wheel drive and can stand the challenges of local terrain. We've seen it couple of times already on and off-road.

The car stops and I notice two people inside. They smile and say:

- "As-salāmu ʿalaykum" - which means in Arabic "peace be upon you".

- "Alaikum as-salam"- I answer surprised but aware of the custom.

South Kazakhstan is more influenced by Islam then the rest of the country. As Wikipedia informs: "(...) many religious people use this statement and shake hands and it is the same for saying "goodbye"; more secular and non-religious people say Selam as an equivalent to "Hello" or "Hi"." We validated this true a couple of times already.

The door open and the two man get out of the car. They're Marat and Kaisar coming back from a local village where they work. It's based in a valley and we later learn that it has a postcard-like view.

- "давай знакомиться" (en. "let's get acquainted!") - says Kaisar in Russian.

We talk for a little while - about the circumstances that made us come here and why we've chosen this road. After the discussion Kaisar, wanting to impress the ladies, asks one of the boys to borrow his horse and invites one of our hitchhiker friends to jump on with him. Hesitating a bit, one of our friends seizes the opportunity and they go for a short ride. Kaisar seems to do pretty good with managing a horse. Marat was looking at the whole "show"smiling. I asked him if it's typical of Kaisar to impress the ladies in this fashion - his response was positive. We laughed.

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I've taken Marat's address and promised to send them some of the photographs I've taken. Kaisar came back with our passenger. We said our goodbyes to all our new friends and went ahead as the cloudy day was slowly coming to a close.

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The end of kazakhstan

There was still quite a long way ahead of us. Each turn, of which we could not see the end of, we thought this will be it. We were wrong. Due to the road condition we couldn't drive faster. The picturesque sights, so beautiful, seemed to be never-ending. We needed to call it a day as, at a certain point, were quite tired. At that very moment, while driving on a longer turn, we noticed yet another valley. It was a sight I've only seen on postcards from Switzerland or Austria. A very narrow valley was going as if, almost, straight from the mountain peaks. In the valley a narrow path to a remote cottage house. An awe-inspiring sight. Right below the hills there were herds of cows and horses divided from us by a small river, two lone trees and a road. Hundreds of animals were occupying the hillside. If again, somebody says to me that there is nothing to be seen in Kazakhstan I will feel obliged to correct his viewpoint. Reluctantly, after what we've seen, we continue en route to our final destination.

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After an hour or two driving we finally arrive at Саты (en. Saty). It was the last inhabited place in this region based right under Tien-Shan mountains. It seemed as if Kazakhstan somehow ended here and there is nothing more to discover. That would be a mistake, of course, to think that. Saty ended up being a great place to stay if you plan to visit the beautiful Kolsai and Kaindy lakes. You can also spend the night in a tent next to the former or the latter. Yet, the option we were to receive was just perfect for the night. Let me explain.

We were going through the village and stopped next to a group of four or five elder women chatting. They were dressed in aprons and were probably in between errands. We asked:

- Здравствуйте, извините, вы знаете, где есть гостиница здес? (en. "do you know if there is any place to stay here?")

- Счас (en."wait") - the answer was short and straightforward. We saw few of the women getting their cell phones from within their aprons and make some calls. Not more than 30 seconds have passed when one of them answered.

- Я вам покажу (en. "I will show you") - said an elder lady and jumped on the back seat of the car to show us the venue. She led us to the last house in the village with a tremendous view on the nearby plateau encompassed by hills. We were also welcomed by a curious group of local children playing on a digger machine that was switched off.

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It seemed that the house that we were to stay in was a guesthouse run by a friend of the woman. It was part of a small farm. The gate was of a simple wooden construction. To the left we noticed a large Kamaz (ru. КАМАЗ) truck and on the right - the guesthouse. In between, there was a small shed and a toiled outside. Behind the house there was one cow living in a tiny pen.

Our new host, an elder woman, had a knee problem and was walking a bit awkwardly but still being able to perform all household duties (chopping wood included). Another trait was that she did not smile a lot. Well, she did not smile at all. Even though we tried hard at times she did not respond to us being cheerful. Taking this aside, she was very helpful and hospitable. We did not have to worry about a thing and were treated with the utmost care.

When we entered the guesthouse we saw three rooms - one with around 7 beds and two other with 3 and 4 beds respectively. In between the rooms there was a hallway with a simple long table covered with an oilcloth where all meals were served. Taking into consideration the number of beds we reckoned that this is bound to be a place that's visited quite often in high season.

As the season was about to start, at this time, we were the only ones there. In Kazakhstan the school year ends in May and begins in September - for all kinds of students. We were visiting on the verge of May and July.

The place did not have a shower nor did it have an in-house toilet. What it had, though, was a traditional banya (ru."баня") where, during a session inside, you could also wash yourself. It was a small wooden structure that consisted of two tiny rooms - the first one for undressing and the second one with an stove in the corner providing heat and humidity thanks to the water boiling on top of it (placed in a large iron dish). We asked for it to be setup right after breakfast the next day so we can start the day off properly. It would be my second time I used a traditional banya - the first one being on Olkhon Island on Baikal lake during the Trans-Siberian train journey.

As I've written earlier the house was the last one in the village. It opened a large plateau surrounded by hills with a view on a high peak in the not-so-distant Tien-Shan mountains. From our room we had a perfect view on it. This plateau also has a small "bump" in the middle from where one could observe as the life went buy. There were herds of cows and horses that were maintained by several horseman. When the night has come the whole place changed into a huge astronomical observatory.

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TREES FROM AZURE WATER

Nothing beats having warmed up in the morning and drenched oneself with cold water. In some banyas there is also a tradition of lashing the body with young reeds. We did not have those provided this time. As Serge A. Zenkovsky in "Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles and Tales" mentions:

"I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

In the morning the daughter of the owner came with her two children to pay a visit. We were packing our SUV to be on our way to the lakes. One of the two children wanted to say his goodbyes, or so we thought when he waved to us as we were driving away.

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A heard of sheep followed by a river. A road so narrow that we cannot pass together with a car coming our way. someone's heading towards and cannot pass. A valley which ends up being a huge detour. A gate. Finally.

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The gate opens up to a national park of some kind. A woman sitting in a booth next to the gate checks what kind of a car do we have and if we have tents with us. We give all the answers and hit the road that is so narrow that we hope we won't meet any other car going towards us. Few minutes pass when we encounter a large puddle in the middle of the road. Ahead we see a regular car... drying.

- "This guy had high hopes but did not make it" - one of us says.

The water got inside and messed up the engine but the driver seems to not make a lot of fuss about it. Few men on horses helped him get out of this mess. We pass it smoothly and go up the road. The car's computer shows how fast were ascending surrounded by forrest. The indicator hits over 2000 metres above the sea level when a small meadow opens with a not so large lake and two swan-like birds in the middle. There is also a small parking where we leave our vehicle. The Kaindy lake, we're looking for, is 10 minutes walk down the hill.

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The view is a mix - both breathtaking and bizarre. The weather is rather cloudy which certainly does not add to the picture and makes it more mysterious. Yet, there is something to ponder about and contemplate. We setup our small camping cooker in a safe place and settle for a ramen that we've bought in a Korean shop in Almaty. We're alone down here but from time to time someone comes, takes few looks, more than a handful of selfies and goes back.

Kaindy lake is one of many in the local mountains but the only one with trees "growing" out of it. The name means "birch tree lake". Normally, there was a valley here with regular trees prior to 1911. After a huge landslide caused by an earthquake the water filled out the space. The trees in the lake are Picea schrenkiana and are native to Tien Shan mountains.

What is even more interesting is that there is also a forrest under the water. The parts of the trees visible are only part of the picture. Knowing that the lake is 30 meters deep in it's lowest point imagine what you could find there. Down below there is a multitude of trees looking as if they were "frozen" in time. If you are scuba diving this “walk through the forest” might be the most memorable "stroll" you could ever take. It would be done with a bit of anxiety that you can feel builds around this place.

As far as earthquakes are concerned the Almaty region is regularly experiencing them but, most of the times, in a rather subtle form. This includes the city of Almaty as well. We did not feel anything happening during the week we were visiting but they do happen at least few times a year. It is said that it was one of the reasons Kazakhs have moved their capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997. Astana is free from any earthquakes and you can read a bit more on the subject here.

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN

We part our ways with our hitchhiker friends who have chosen to take a stroll back to Saty where they're staying for another two nights. We move to another destination. Our plans included the beautiful Kolsai lakes but we did not manage to see them as our time was running out there was a long way ahead of us. Bartogai Lake is the ultimate goal for this week's journey and most certainly for today. We refuel and drive as the sun goes down. You can read more about the impressions we had on it in the first part.

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Epilogue

This concludes the wilderness and experiences we had in Kazakhstan. This short trip has shown to us how stereotypes can go wrong in terms of a country being judged by others. I did not have high expectations of the country as I sunk in a bit in opinions. I heard every now and then: "Kazakhstan? Why are you going there? There's literally nothing to be seen!". That did not stop me to continue and make up my own mind. I was positively surprised as you might have already guessed. That would be the end of story if I was only interested in the flora and fauna of the country. This was not to be only an off-road journey though. As I foster my skills in street photography I couldn't miss out on the opportunity to show you another side of the country. The next story (and the last one) will cover streets and bazaars of Kazakhstan. Stay tuned!

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Footnote: Nikon D750 + Tamron 24-70 f2.8 / May-June 2017
Kazakhstan, Almaty Province