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Untold wilderness

Travelling through South-East Kazakhstan - part 1 of 2.

Story by Marcin Konkel June 11th, 2017


It all starts with an evening flight. The sun slowly sets on the horizon and, after a half an hour, it gets pitch black. There is something in this sheer darkness though. When you dim the lights and look through the round plane window you can see millions of stars. They, when compared with the vastness of the terrain below, make you feel a bit odd. It's a mixture of a sense of freedom combined with a dip of anxiety. Literally, there is nothing as the eye can see. No buildings, no life present. There are valleys, hills, rivers, mountains. Wilderness. Untouched, unchartered.

"Welcome to Kazakhstan" says a young female voice of one of Aeroflot stewardess previously speaking the same sentence in Russian and Kazakh. We're flying from Moscow and have entered the territory of the country not so long ago. The flight takes 5 hours and the time changes +3 hours which means that another spectacle is bound to be seen. The sunrise starts after another hour or two. The lights are dimmed on the whole plane and most people are sleeping while I cannot gaze enough on what I'm experiencing. On my right the plenitude of stars on the night sky and to the left the sunrise. During the whole flight one could see the firmament going through a multitude of colours, shades and then back again but in reverse sequence.

4 a.m. Our Airbus has landed. The sun is still in it's golden hour. Three travellers have touched Kazakh soil in Almaty - former capital of Kazakhstan and most certainly the capital of beautiful nature and terrible smog. As for the latter, it seems that being surrounded by picturesque snowy peaks has it's disadvantages as well.



We only know to some extent to what we enrolled. A glimpse on the map, few books / web sources and a couple of conversations. Not too much to tell what's really out there. Some of us have tried off-road on a more civilised soil but never in these circumstances and in such a vast country. We knew this might not be easy. That we might get stranded somewhere and not see any car passing by for hours or even days - that complimented with no cell coverage makes you deliberate in your own mind. That's why we've bought quite a bit of food, drinking water and dry snacks to be covered in such a case. Not thinking much more we rented a 4x4 SUV car, refuelled it and set out for the road straight ahead.

Prior to setting out we learned from a local friend that we should not rely on what Google Maps show and multiply the times given by 3 or 4 due to poor quality of roads (some similar to famous Icelandic F-roads) or.. there not being any roads at all. What we learned in practice was that they were, at times, as steep as 45-55% surrounded or consisting mostly of rock formations randomly spread.

The above assumptions and findings we were to test when travelling to Charyn Canyon which one of us described as being more impressive and wild then Colorado Canyon in USA.


Take 1 - Morning surprise

There must be something special in a place that greets you with a small tool booth in a middle of nowhere. There must be something interesting there when you're warned with a large banner in Kazakh, Russian and (kind of) English about the descent that is only prohibited with permits and only with a 4x4 WD SUV car or on foot.

We came when it was already dark and arrived at the booth which we found only by following tracks left by other cars. There was no sign of light whatsoever. We noticed that inside were two men. I could tell that when one of them came to the small booth window with a flashlight. We woke him up that's for sure. He seemed tired but greeted me with a firm handshake and a "здравствуйте" (en. "hello"). I responded the same and continued in Russian:

- Three people, how much for all?

- 2100 tenge

- Thanks

There was not much talking going on at this hour. It was past midnight. I signed three journal-like books with some notes in Kazakh, received my change and a "good luck". The light has vanished and the gate next to the booth has opened. Again, we started driving in pitch black.

The entrance to the canyon shows itself after few minutes. There's a warning sigh and a 45% slope filled with rocks and cracks which surprises every driver as you can only see it when you've already decided to enter. Inside we could only see what the car lights could encompass. Nothing more, nothing less. Inside the canyon there were lot's of twists and turns and few rocky gates that gave us only few centimetres of slack between the car and the huge rocks surrounding it. Having spend another 30-40 minutes driving we arrived to the destination that out maps marked as the canyon but... there was nothing there. As I guessed, it showed the middle of the road meaning that we were in the perfect centre of the canyon road accessible by car. There was not much around to ponder about thus we continued.

After few minutes a sign and a sound of a river or a waterfall stopped us. It looked like a camping field. We've read that there might be something like this around. In the meantime we saw two flashlights that were coming at us. These were local man - one of average height and one rather shorter. Both were dressed in military clothes. We started a conversation. After few sentences exchanged we learned that they were from this oasis-like place and heard us from afar. We could pitch a tent, rent a bungalow or a yurt. They were a bit surprised because we were the only guests on their camping.

"Well, that was not the wilderness we planned but let's try" - I thought to myself. Still we did not know where we were thus we might make the best of it. It was 2:00 a.m. and we went for a bungalow for the night. It was a simple construction made of wood and bamboo with three beds. That's it. The toilet was a hole in the ground somewhere around enclosed in a wooden structure and was stinking as hell. The water was taken from the river and pumped to a sink-like station. This was getting more and more interesting. Having set the clocks to 5:00 a.m. in order to catch the 5:30 sunrise from a hill (there must be one around) we went asleep.

I really like the surprise of arriving somewhere in the middle of the night and waking up seeing how the place really looks like. It gives me a bit of thrills. The morning that was no exception and would be a one to remember.


In the canyon there are not many trails. Well... there are none that are marked. You choose the path that you see was used earlier and that's how you find your way not being certain where it will take you. There are not many rules in and around the canyon. There is also only one settlement - the camping site. The rest is uninhabited by people and goes for around 100 km. Every now and then, when walking through, you'll notice small holes in the ground or on the hills. Sometimes there is a whole "city" of holes. I tend to wonder what lives there as we've heard that there are some scorpions and snakes around - especially under the rocks. Perhaps this was their hideout? Sometimes you were just bound to go next to them.


flat battery

In the evening the light paints the rocks in a special way - the formations turn red as if on a Mars. Literally. It does not get any better. If you can't afford a SpaceX mission go to Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan to see how the planet surface might look like. If the sky is not much clouded you'll know what I mean.

During the evening we found out what was living in the holes in the ground. These were big, white, rats. The biggest I've seen. We did not see any scorpions or snakes - probably the rodents have taken care of them.

This was our last night. In the early morning we packed our tents (we decided to pitch them for the second night) and... found out that our car battery is dead. Probably, we moved the car around too much and charged too many things through the lighter port. Still, that should not be a big deal for it. We went for one of the two men that greeted us in the very beginning. One of them, the shorter man with not so many teeth but still smiling widely came, looked and said:

- Не работает (en. "not working"), 1600 tenge

- Xорошо (en. "ok") - we responded not knowing exactly what was to happen.

After 5 minutes he came with a fresh battery, placed it in the car and told us to turn on the engine. It worked and the car started. Afterwards, he removed his battery and inserted ours while the car was still running. We paid him the money with a tip. He smiled and wished us "good luck". Yeah, we might need it. By observing how our friend made things work we managed to notice that our battery was smaller than the space designated for it. It seems our car rental company cut some corners. This led us to believe that we might find ourselves in a tough situation while travelling to other destinations - especially the ones without any soul in sight in a 50-100 km radius and cell coverage...


take 2 - bribes

- "We need to refuel just in case."

- "Damn. The turn is just around the corner! We would need to make additional 100 km to Shelek. There is no other way."

- "Tough luck. We need to make haste then."

We're sitting and deliberating at a diner at Kokpek - a village consisting of a dozen of houses of which half holds a shop of some kind. Most of them look run down. One that presents itself as the best in town has mostly some snacks and a huge wall filled with variations of strong alcohols. There is also a well next to it and looks like the only source of water - maybe that's the key to success in business in Kokpek? The sun is setting. We're served with palau, besbarmak and sorpa offered in kese - all national dishes of Kazakhstan. We've been driving for hours now and there are several more to reach the destination. We'll be going down the road in pitch black again. Well, the sky is rather clear thus maybe with some luck the moon will give us more light.

We see as the cars come and go through the village - those high end ones as well as those run down. One can notice, at first glance, that it's a typical place treated by drivers as a transit town. With an average monthly salary of 300 EUR in Kazakhstan I was wondering how it's possible for the people to afford those fancy SUVs. Our friend in Alamaty provided me with an answer while being very frank he used only one word: "bribes".


We jump in the car and drive quickly to Shelek to refuel and back to the right road which, contrary to what we experienced earlier, is of pretty good condition. Today we need to get to Bartogay lake and the next day arrive in Almaty through Turgen where an unnamed road consisting of rocks, landslides in a not-so-drivable condition is leading. It's impossible to drive thru it without a 4x4 WD SUV, a motocross bike or on foot. That's around 130 kilometers of breathtaking nature we were informed. We're soon going to validate this assumption.

We're on the road heading through a great plateau with a thunderstorm shaping somewhere behind us.


going back?

- "Here will be perfect."

- "Guys, look at the sky! It's f*cking awesome!"

I have not seen that many stars in my entire life. The distant thunderstorm has faded away and the sky has cleared. We pitched our tents next to the lake that is based in a remote destination - at least several hours drive from a larger city. We can feel a warm and subtle breeze going through the vast and flat terrain around us. The temperature is around 20 C. The moon is full and we don't need our headlamps to walk around. One of us is working on starting a fire so we can heat the cheburyak's we've bought in one of the shops in Kokpek. These are doughnut like delicacies but filled with meat, potatoes or cabbage.

We're sitting next to the fire, surrounded by silence and sipping beer. There is nothing to be heard - only some cicadas here and there. No one in sight apart from one tent around 300 meters to our left. Ahead of us is the flat plate of the lake, clear without any waves, any movement. It's a perfect night. Our unknown friends have setup a camp fire as well. There is also no cell coverage which would disturb us from enjoying the views. I sit amazed and could lie there for hours just looking at the sky and hearing the nature's voice and a quaint sound of a campfire.

Bartogay lake is quite extraordinary. It is in pristine condition due to no pollution sources being in sight. It has been created artificially by human at the base of the Sogety Plateau sourcing the water from nearby Chilik river. Having been completed in 1983 it has been designated as a water reservoir. There are not many animals present here - some that are though are marmots.

Tomorrow we are to drive towards Turgen with no certainty that the road is actually drivable. We might need to go back and loose several hours if it ends up being dead end or something our SUV cannot handle.


traffic jam

During the night a strong wind has risen. Sleeping inside a tent one could feel as if the whole constructions was to be elevated in the air in a matter of seconds. The temperature dropped to 10 C. The two tents we pitched were dancing on the wind and all the imprecise work we've done during the phase of setting up has been brutally apparent.

The early morning wakes us up with a 27 C heatwave. The temperature has changed yet again. We finally see where we are and how the surrounding look like. The lake is aqua blue a colour seen in few places on earth. It's seems rather shallow. Our camping friends have already left. If we cannot start our engine we're screwed for today.

In order to get to Almaty through Turgen we need to pack quickly. Somebody has turned on the Beatle's album on the JBL speaker that accompanies us which makes packing much more fun. We continue with the music on the road. After an hour of driving we meet first people. It's a young couple with backpacks and red faces - they are probably after more than a days march. They have a long way to go and a similar distance behind them. Respect for having the guts to walk for so long in these conditions. We're greeting each other and continuing the drive. The dirt road is showing cracks, more and more rocks appear on it that have fallen from the surrounding hills.

Suddenly, after a turn, we encounter a traffic jam...


Well, to be honest, there was not much traffic going on. Yet, someone was brave enough (or was he?) to take with him a trailer and blocked the road trying to drive thru. It was a group of motor cross and quad drivers that were driving together with two SUVs. After a couple of maneuvers, they moved to the side and let us pass by up the hill. While going up we also met a group of locals on motorbikes dressed fully to avoid the strong sun on an almost barren earth. When we entered the hill, the view changed completely.


green, green grass

So much green! You can see the blue Bartogay lake tucked in between the mountains on the left in far back. The hills atop were populated with a type of flowers with white petals looking from afar as if someone sprinkled powdered sugar all over the place. At the time, we thought that we'll reach the end of the road (maps were not always working correctly) pretty soon and the town of Turgen is somewhere near. We we're so wrong as it was no more than half way...


After one of the hills the views changed again. It was a mixture of what we've seen earlier starting from the lake itself.


horse whisperer

We've met this boy when we were going down the hill. At that time he was occupying a hill on his donkey accompanied by a wild horse which he was taming. He certainly enjoyed the attention we gave him. Later, we saw an elder man sitting on a hill and enjoying the view who supposedly was the boy's father.

In Kazakhstan children learn the craft and work since they're (very) young. As informs: "(...) due to the lack of official inspections or enforcement from authorities, children remain a major part of the labor force within the tobacco and cotton industries and are often used as house servants.". To be honest, we did not see many of children working in hard conditions in the journeys we had through the country. That being said, most of those that we saw were on horses helping maintain the sheep, cow and horse herds. It seemed they enjoyed the work they were doing. Nevertheless, I am far from saying that there is no problem. Perhaps, I have not seen enough examples to make a statement or were not looking close enough. We probably did the least we could to help by giving them some cash.


simply enchanting

The road continued. At times, someone blocked it as it was too narrow to provide space for two cars (read more in part 2) and we needed to wait for the cars to make way. After continuing we met a group of children. In the absence of adults they opened for us a simple gate that was, probably, the end of a certain space - maybe a park? They were smiling, waving and as if not many people were crossing here or foreign visitors were rare. They suggested that they should be remunerated for the act of letting us through. They did not state the price though so we gave what we thought was a proper price with an additional tip and went on minding our own business.

We did not know that, after another kilometre or two, a very different world awaited us.


Gone fishing

There were cows, wild horses and a river dispersed into small brooks. It was the best postcard view I have seen. Simply enchanting. We had no other option than to stop and eat our lunch on the green grass next to the animals.


Accompanying us near the river was a group of four man. They were fishing and had an interesting technique for catching their pray - apart from a standard fishing rod they had sewn a net made of a curtain or a very large tablecloth. Two of them were waiting with it submerged in the water at the end of the stream while the third was walking from around 10-15 meters along the course of the river making sounds and, in general, a turmoil in the water to scare out whatever they wanted to catch. The fourth man, pictured below, was simply fishing.

In general, Kazakhstan is known for it's hunting and fishing opportunities. You can read about it on the official tourism website of Kazakhstan. The Alatau mountains region is probably most renown for these excursions.

We setup our space and eaten the Korean ramen we bought in Almaty which, most of the times, was our primary dish next to the cows. We were enjoying our meal, admiring the views and went ahead on the road to cross a nearby river. So far our SUV has never given up any terrain and owned the road like a pro. This time the river was really deep. Some motor cross riders even stopped to see if we'll make it. Our Mitsubishi Pajero had no problem with the challenge but, during the exercise, we lost our front licence place which has gone with the stream of the river. We did not notice it until one of the other SUV's driver mentioned that to us. Well, the car rental company won't be happy...


Having checked if nothing else was missing we continued driving through the Ile-Alatau National Park that we probably entered through the gate that the children opened for us. After seeing the Assy Observatory (below) from afar we were really close to Turgen and kept on going towards Almaty. This was not the end of the journey though...



Nowadays, it's fairly easy to travel somewhere, rent a car and go on a trip. It's fairly easy when you have the money and time on your hands. I think that more important is how you connect and interact with people - both your travel companions as well as locals. Do you treat them with dignity or feel better because you're wealthy any can afford much more then they do? Kazakhstan is fairly cheap for most Western pockets. It's also underdeveloped in many ways. Nevertheless, most of the people I met on during the above journeys and the ones that you will read about have made me think.

In most cases, I received kindness and trust - whether these we're elder people in Saty (more in the second part of the series) on the end of Kazakhstan, a friend in Almaty or Marat and Kaysar - two friends that we met on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere (more in the second part). I also learned, to a much smaller extent, to that some people also hold a less positive layer underneath. I won't dwell on that here but there is always a group whose life pushed them towards bad deeds. The bottom line is that, it's how we both treat ourselves with an open mind and respect that matters.

Another things is congruency. How you hold yourself towards what you really want from life not following other's expectations. You don't have to travel off-road or in the rawest possible way to experience a country. You just meet different people when you choose different ways of travel. That I learned countless times. Being congruent with yourself fosters making contact with locals because they respect who you are and that you are true to yourself. These thoughts I revisited in Kazakhstan as well.

The journey through this beautiful country, as you've seen it here and will see in subsequent parts, has concluded a milestone in my travels. I understood better the direction in which I want to go and the experiences I want to collect. I hope you enjoyed this part. There is much more to come in the coming weeks!

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This concludes the first part of a series of two dedicated to the wild side of Kazakhstan. There is more to come (also on streets of Kazakhstan). If you don't want to miss the next part subscribe to my stories below and I'll send you a link when it's out. No spam. No additional e-mails. Period. You will only receive a message once a new story is out on this blog.

EDIT: Read part two on Kazakhstan's wilderness here.

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