After a long, arduous winter, Kazakhstan is now basking in the warmth and brightness of spring. Buds are finally spurting from their branches. Flowers are blooming in the parks. Astana’s river, previously a frozen mass on which one could walk and talk, is now host to a raft of plastic pedalos.
However, the relatively new capital of Kazakhstan is very much lacking when it comes to natural scenery. The trees are planted by the hands of government workers. The tranquillity of the central park is interrupted by shabby sweet stalls and run-down rides. Even the river itself has been heavily dammed and manufactured to weave a certain route through Astana. Though the plans for this city are ambitious, they often result in taller, shinier and crazier buildings.
Looking beyond the concrete jungle of Astana, a different picture develops. Kazakhstan possesses an enormous amount of land, and within its borders are places of stunning beauty. The beauty of Borovoe is a few hours to the north, and that is where residents in the capital get their fresh air and forget about urban life. Even Almaty, where we went for this long weekend, has colourful trees lining each avenue, and you can always see the Tian Shan mountain range looming to the south of the country’s largest city. Shortly after landing we scaled one of these peaks to hike around Chimbulak, Kazakhstan’s premier ski resort. The fact that there was still snow to be found helps to indicate how high we were.
Yet there is more nature to be found. As you venture further away from cities and civilisation, you seemingly transport yourself back in time to the golden age of this country: when it was part of the Silk Road. Rolling green hills are interspersed with various flora and fauna. Streams meander gently along shining pebbles. It is easy to imagine a nomadic tribe wandering along the flat landscape, with animals and caravans in tow.
This all may seem serene, but Kazakhstan holds some spectacular scenery as well. One of its more extraordinary features is Charyn Canyon, a mighty gully approximately 200km drive east of Almaty.
Getting there from base involved flying to Almaty, before getting a more local form of transport east to the canyon. This adventure was all about perseverance. We had organised the trip through a company called EIRC, and were due to collect tickets when we landed on Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, Thursday was Victory Day – a national holiday – so the phones rang and rang.
Friday morning rolled around, warm sunshine having replaced the thunderous rain of the previous day. We decided to pay a visit to their offices to enquire about the trip we were booked on…to find this.
It seemed that the company had chosen this weekend to renovate their workplace. Without telling us. This bad news then initiated a mad scramble around Almaty, involving five taxis, phone calls to people in Astana, and the enquiry of renting a car to go to somewhere we didn’t know how to get to.
Two hours after leaving the flat we had rented, we could be found bartering with drivers near the bus station, with an elderly man called Roma eventually answering our prayers and setting off in his clapped-out car. A car which, by some miracle, survived the journey to and from Charyn. Each shudder over a pothole (you can see how deep they were below) had us expecting a puncture, and only the loud music from his stereo could drown out the mysterious squeaking noise emanating from the rear of the vehicle.
That was when we were actually travelling on road. After about 3 hours, during which time the landscape transformed immeasurably, our suffering carriage veered left onto a dusty gravel track. There was no sign post, or no indication that the canyon was close. There is no way we would have known to go this way if we had been driving ourselves, rendering any notion of renting our own car as irrelevant. Roma, who may have been regretting taking on the challenge at this juncture, bumped and bobbled the car along the winding path, often having to jerk her back into first gear and toss us around in the back seats.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dip in the relief of the land appeared in the distance. A significant dip. In front of us lay a canyon that has existed for over 300,000 years.
The ‘Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan’, as some have taken to calling it, has a series of rock formations balanced precariously over its precipice. The dusty, reddish colour seems to add to an atmosphere of a place belonging to a previous era, when nomads would have led their horses along this frontier in search of…well, anything really.
As well as peering over the edge, you can also walk through stroll within the gorge. Many of the walls that loom large to the sides are not as stable as they appear on first glance, and some of the isolated rocks are prone to crumbling at the slightest touch. It makes it all the more remarkable that this place has survived the effect of the winds blustering across the steppe, and how they in turn must have shaped this most breathtaking piece of Kazakh land.
If the Kazakh government want tourists to enter the country, they might want to improve the professionalism of the tour companies – not all tourists would persevere like we had to. They could also do no worse than to champion their natural beauty. You can build an innumerable number of wacky towers in the capital, but just as many people would be very content with experiencing the magnificent – and real – scenery that the countryside has to offer. The Tian Shan mountain range and Charyn Canyon would be great places to start.
Love you all,