After a three-day week in school – an occurrence that we could definitely get used to – the first weekend of May was upon us. Now that the snow has melted and temperatures are more than bearable, we want to get outside and explore Astana and its surrounding areas as much as possible before the inevitable and harsh winter forces us into retreat once again.
As mentioned previously, Kazakhstan is a rather large country which possesses an often desolate landscape known as the steppe. Whilst other cities such as Almaty have beautiful mountains and other appealing day trips within striking distance, Astana, the capital, sits in the middle of this barren wasteland. Consequently, there isn’t too much we can see without using a plane, as we had to do last weekend to get to Aktau.
There are a couple of options available to us. We went to the ‘Switzerland of Kazakhstan’, Borovoe, in September, and Malinovka is also close enough to see in a day trip. There is one other location of interest, and this is where we spent our Sunday.
Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated roughly 120km south-west of Astana. It is a protected area of wetlands that are vital for millions of migratory birds every year. 50million, actually. Kazakhstan, and this area in particular, is seen as one of the priority areas for wetland conservation in central Asia.
The ‘Pearl of Central Kazakhstan’ is based in the heart of the steppe. After a visit to a museum and lunch we had the opportunity to walk around this most deserted of locations. As you can expect, there isn’t too much to see. Aside from the occasional mound that housed important people that had died a long time ago, the landscape was as flat as a pancake.
Lunch was an interesting event in itself. For the first time since I moved to Kazakhstan, I had proper beshbarmak. Almost. It was beef instead of horse, but essentially the dish was the same – meat and potatoes on top of lasagne pasta layers, all in a clear broth. The dish is not made for an individual – it is comfortably sufficient to feed ten people, and placed as the centrepiece of the table. Heavy, hearty food, but absolutely delicious.
Kazakh fun fact #1: Beshbarmak is often served at celebrations such as weddings.
Whilst we were eating our feast we were entertained by some local music; firstly on the dombra, before a large man started belting out some popular Kazakh folk songs. We were sat with many of our friends from school who were born in this wonderful country, and they told us many fascinating stories about their homeland.
Kazakh fun fact #2: Stealing of women is, whilst not common, a disturbingly frequent occurrence in Kazakhstan.
Yes, that’s right. Apparently if you like a girl, you can kidnap her and take her to a different town. If he has her under lock and key for long enough, she becomes his. Surely the woman can escape? They could, but the men allow lots of old women to lie on the floor in front of the door. A young girl is not allowed to step over an older woman out of respect, thus is stuck. It can be used for good, however – some poor men ‘steal’ their true love and take them away. As a result, they can elope together and live happily ever after.
One of the main attractions of Korgalzhyn at this time of year is the potential to see flamingos in the wild. There are many species of bird that move north through this region in early May, including eagles and hawks, but the reason for our attendance was to hopefully see some long-necked, vividly pink animals gracefully waltzing through the lakes of the nature reserve.
It was thus unfortunate that we were told in the museum that there were no flamingos within the grounds of this vast nature reserve, and that we would be disappointed if we spent our time looking for them. We would instead have to be content with the paintings of our elegant feathered friend.
Alas, they were wrong. We were trudging along the quiet, flat steppe towards one of Korgalzhyn’s bigger lakes containing a game of swans. Someone peered through their binoculars and spotted an animal that was not particularly white and swan-like. Its long, bendy neck was moving serenely in and out of the water. We had found the flamingos!
We later found that we were lucky – a group after us had not been able to locate the birds, and had gone home disappointed. We, on the other hand, went home more than satisfied with a day out in nature. Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve was a welcome break from the concrete jungle of the city, and is an easy enough and enjoyable day trip from Astana.
Love you all