Travels and Ravels: Kazakh Wilderness

The Altyn-Emel National Park

After the wedding (don’t worry photos of that are still to come), the few of us who stayed for the second week and didn’t have to work in Almaty went for a sojourn or two to some of the local (less than 150km away!) tourist attractions.

We made some cute friends at a service station.

So five foreigners, two locals and four languages squeezed into a minivan and drove for something like 13 hours across stunning and wild ranges of Southern Kazakhstan.

The best things on a long journey never change – sunroofs being one.

Three days in cramped minivan passed surprisingly quickly with a such diverse landscape to see, not to mention some of the most linguistically surreal conversations held by (allegedly) sane (allegedly) adults. The in-jokes will live on and on…(“stupido!”) especially for the poor driver…

Views from the minivan

Views from the minivan

Like any self-respecting blog post, this one mentions The Mongols. I can now say I have, according to the guide, stood where Genghis Khan and his army had breakfast after (one assumes) stopping for the night – the actual date being a bit vague.

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We stayed the two nights in a guest house where one of the park rangers lived with his family and got to see the running of their farm and the amazing views they have from their house.


A very grumpy guide climbed into our already packed van the next morning and directed us to the famous singing sand dunes, another day’s drive away.

We climbed the nearest 100 metre high dune, whereupon the concept of desert sand and strong winds explained why the guide declined to join us.  Apparently only a dozen or so singing sand dunes exist in the world, requiring something quite complicated with grain size and shape to create the harmonics of sand rubbing against sand.


Though these ones sort of groaned rather than sang (maybe it was under my holiday weight). Obviously (to those who know me) I was that idiot who rolled down the steep edge and nearly drowned in gorgeous warm sand.

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I didn’t realise until one of the Russian speakers in our group explained it to me – the reason the guide was over 50 and not looking all that happy sitting in a hot and packed minivan was because he was the head warden of the entire park and had stepped in at the last minute because no one else was available to take us.

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His knowledge and experience was invaluable, as he warned us for the third time that day not to step on cobras or scorpions (I appreciate he probably has seen some pretty stupid tourists in his time) and more  helpfully not to step into places where we couldn’t clearly see the ground was free of venomous and angry biting creatures. Following this advice would have basically meant not leaving the minivan, so we just went for it.

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We stopped at the foot of a range of mineral and fossil-rich Katutau hills, striped in amazing coloured strata. After a few minutes of walking (past, I was pleased to see, several “no entry” signs) the guide pointed us towards a huge outcrop of bluish rock, turned back and waited for us in the van; which I took to mean, “it’s not worth getting bitten this close to retirement”. So not only were we several hour’s drive from help if anyone had been bitten; the only person with any experience in saving lives from venomous bites was a long walk away across rocky desert. But we forgot the dangers as we took in the breathtaking mountain ranges that simply keep on unfolding before us at beyond every ridge we climbed.

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It was only on the way home, about an hour out of Almaty, that disaster struck. The petrol station we stopped at was out of fuel and the driver decided to push on with the last drops we had left. Running out of fuel in the middle of miles of fields on a single lane highway wasn’t actually the problem in the end – a total of five lorries stopped to help us and sell us fuel out of their tanks (I graciously turned down the opportunity to suck petrol through a hose).

It was the air pump that gave us the real trouble (by “us” I’m giving myself way too much credit here). Two hours of pumping and tweaking later the engine finally turned over again.

A reportedly 700 year old tree is providing the shade in this photo of a place called Kosbastau. It was so overgrown and collapsed under its own weight I had to  give up hope of getting a photo of it.


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