Because of the long Labor Day weekend, there was the opportunity to take part in a two day trip to Altyn Emel National Park, located about 150km northeast of Almaty. The name of the park means “Golden Saddle” and was named by Genghis Khan when he and his army came through the area around the year 1219. He gave it this name due to the hues of yellow from the dry grass of this vast plain.
The national park is one of the largest in Kazakhstan and encompasses about 1800 square miles. It is bordered by the Dzhungar Alatau mountains along the northern rim and by the Ile River and Lake Kapchagai in the south. You can see the natural borders in the satellite image above as well as get a sense of how vast the park is. Because of all the area to cover, we really just hit the major attractions as our guide explained you could spend up to 4 or 5 days here if you really wanted to see everything.
This was my first real excursion outside of the greater Almaty area, and it was a great opportunity to see some of the countryside. There were few large towns on our route, most were small villages. The trip up was not lacking for interesting stops, though. Lots of local produce stands along the road to the park. We bought several items here for meals during our trip.
We also ran across this father and son duo looking like they just stepped out of a time warp. When our guide stopped and asked why they were wearing traditional Kazakh dress (think heavy wool robes on a very hot day), the father replied, “to make you happy and smile!” Well, he was smiling but his son didn’t seem so thrilled about it.
We eventually made our way to the park entrance. For such a large park, the formal entrance is rather modest. The interesting thing about this national park is that you must obtain a permit prior to your visit. The permit price is not cheap, at around $40 a day per person. This includes a park ranger as a guide riding in your car (!) as you are not allowed to roam through the park unescorted. It was explained that this was to help prevent poaching, as there are only 8 rangers for the whole park!
Riding through the park and looking out at the expansive landscape of dry brush and grass reminded me somewhat of the American Southwest. You could seemingly see forever into the vast open space. Our first stop after many, many kilometers was the Besshatyr kurgans. There are 31 of these Iron Age burial mounds in the area belonging to the Scythian culture. You can see them from a distance but don’t realize how big they are until you are standing beside them. Archeologists believe the size of the mound was related to the status of the person buried inside. The largest one is over 40ft high and 300 feet wide. We climbed to the top to get a better view of some of the other surrounding mounds. Once on top, you can see the huge crater in the center, which is the result of age and tomb raiders from long ago. Archeologists have found several skeletons of some unlucky tomb raiders dating from different time periods over the past millennia.
After this, we continued onward and stopped at one of the ranger stations for a pre-arranged lunch break. The ranger station was situated next to a natural spring and lagoon and provided a cool and relaxing respite from the hours in the mini-bus. The rangers and their families actually live at the stations and were very hospitable.
Next on the itinerary were the Singing Sand Dunes. These dunes sit between two opposing mountain ridges and the winds blow back and forth between them creating the dunes. Scientists have determined that the dunes have only shifted 2 meters in the past 150 years! The two dunes stretch over 2 kilometers and reach a height of over 360 feet. The “singing” results from the wind passing over the sides of the dune and causing a low resonance vibration. While some parts of the sand were too wet from recent rains to make much noise, we did hear a few short bursts of howling as we slid down the sides after hiking to the top.
Speaking of hiking to the top, it didn’t seem too bad from the bottom looking up. Never having climbed a dune before, I was unprepared for the amount of work it takes to trudge through sand up a steep incline! While I could deal with the hike, what I wasn’t prepared for was how narrow the ridge of the dune was as we ascended higher and higher. I have to admit I had a brief moment where I froze about 3/4 of the way up after looking down on either side of me. It took more than a few words of encouragement to coax me all the way to the top. It was quite the adrenaline rush, especially walking back down the steep sides. As much as I enjoyed it, I was very glad to be back on the ground at the end!
After that very exhilarating experience, we headed to one of the park’s lodges to settle in for the evening. We lingered over a lovely dinner and talked about the day’s experiences. Since I have so many pictures, I’m saving the second day of the trip for a separate post since this one is getting a bit long. I’ll try to complete it sometime this week, I promise!
Day 2 coming up shortly…