Almaty is surrounded by amazing nature and an excess of national parks on every side. We didn’t manage to explore as much as we should, but what we did was captivating in very different ways. To give you an idea of how different the scenery in one small area of Kazakhstan can be, I’ve written about two trips outside Almaty that we did in our time there, one to the east and one to the west.
To the East:
Despite thinking about it almost every day we’re in Kazakhstan, we don’t end up going camping until the second to last day we’re there. Midday on a grey Saturday, Jie, Assem, a friend living in Almaty who studied in the U.S. on a Bolasahak scholarship, and I set off bound for Turgen, a series of waterfalls 70km east –all wanting to use the weekend as an excuse to get out of the city. The drive can easily be done in a couple hours, and once in the area you can spend days hiking up into the alpine grasslands and impressively accessible peaks that are there. But with rain on the horizon the day we go, ominous landslide warning texts, and a gas station attendant telling us not to go, we end up turning off at Issyuk and going to Issyuk lake instead.
The choice turns out to be spectacular. It takes us ten minutes to break through the outskirts of town and start uphill. We follow the river over a bridge and past people showering in the fountain of a massive leaking water system. From there we climb. The ride is quick but breathtaking, pulling you up into a sudden gorge with views of the plains to the back and almost unlimited mountaintops to the front. We skirt around a collection of abandoned soviet structures and finally drop down in front of the glacial blue waters nestled under low-lying peaks.
A lot of people seem to have had the same idea as us, and the lake (maybe a reservoir?) is full, although not too full, with Sunday picnic-goers. We find our way to the path of big loose stones and patches of deep sand that wraps the to south shore and bump along to find a campsite. It’s starting to rain as we pull into a site by the river, so we get out the tents fast and decide to cook before everyone is too hungry. We have pasta, bought fresh tomatoes, and Assem has brought a bottle of Georgian white wine. Naturally, we have a camping feast. As the gas stove roars away, I scuttle into the woods to gather what dead branches I can find. Dinner is served off rocks we’ve arranged in a circle, and the night winds away to Russian R&B on a fire that manages to burn much longer than we all expected.
The morning greets us with a full sun and wild blue skies of the lower Tian Shan. It may be August, but here it feels like fall – the water is cold to swim in and leaves in the forest are already half yellow. the weather on the road changes so much, I’m never really sure what season it is.
To the West:
On a Sunday morning we decide to go on a day trip with Anzhelica, a jazz guitarist from and living in Almaty. We want to leave early so that we have time to make it farther out of the city, but as Saturday night comes around, we find ourselves out a lot later than planned. At 4 we’re still with Alibi and Eric at Chukota, a local club with an extremely refreshing design. The two floors play different music –one more electronic, the other floor more rock or a live band— but both decently well lit. You’re not hiding in the dark, nor does it emit all the vibes that darkness entails. Instead it ends up more feeling like a beach club, a beach club somehow thrown into a park (literally like a trees, benches, fountains park) in the middle of downtown Almaty.
Nevertheless, as an 8 am wake up rolls around, I, half asleep, tell Anzhelica we have to postpone until 10. When we finally end up meeting, Anzhelica has a place in mind. She tells us she wants to bring us to a “very powerful place. A place where you can recharge” Neither of us are really sure what that means, but that definitely sounds good. We hop on the bikes and drive west, first through the traffic of Almaty’s suburbs, but then into the golden hills that seem to undulate eternally. Not the steppe, but not the mountains, this part of Kazakhstan feels like it was dried out like a carpet and crumpled back together, forcing wave upon wave of golden grass to crash into one another.
After 60 or so km we turn off the main highway, a nice paved road on the way to Bishkek, and start down a dirt path through the village. We stop for a drink and an ice cream and watch the local kids careen past on bicycles, fully relishing in the freedom of a summer Sunday morning.
Up the road is our destination. We almost pass it at first and cut back to a house where we’re greeted by an older Kazak lady in babushka style Russian dress and a younger guy in a cowboy hat named Arman. He tells us, through Anzhelica, that the older woman, who is very sensitive to forces in nature, discovered this place. According to her, on this ridge is one of the few zones where energy comes down direct form space into the earth —a place we soon walk up to marked with a half-cut black stone. The site gets visits all year round from people of different races and nationalities, even Russian scientists we’re told, all looking to heal and revitalize themselves. Arman walks us up the path to show us how it’s done.
The site has multiple energy points, some caves, some walls, some vistas –all of them stone, and each of which we’re told to stay at for ten or fifteen minutes. Slow from the night before, we make our way around the circuit, ending up in a small cave with a low overhang that you have to almost lay under. Each part of this place is said to have it’s own use. One to flush out the negatives in your life, one to wish for new positives, and one to heal the issues in between. If anything, just the space to think about this process, to finally have a set time to reflect on a trip that hasn’t been reflected on enough, is something monumentally worthwhile. I’m not sure if it’s my body naturally waking up or the conscious focus I’ve put into thinking about feeling better, but by the time we walk down the hill I’m actually feeling extremely good.
Refreshed and refocused we decide we want to swim. From the edge of the hill there seems to be a small river running through the
south side of town, so we get on the bikes and follow the road towards it. The river itself is disappointing but the hills aren’t, so we decided to keep riding. Crest after crest of grass rises
and falls through never-ending shallow valleys. As enchanted as we are excited , we dart off the real road and into the grass itself. The bikes glide across the steppe. The 125 is giddy to
finally be in the terrain it was made for and the 250 floats confident with a new off-road back tire.
We spot more water and dive down toward it, but the cloudy blue pools seem to have some guardians. As we cut through a farm,two dogs come flying after us. Lunging at insane speeds, they overtake me (I guess they don’t like white meat) and thrust themselves after Jie, who cuts hard up a ridge to his right. Our rescue comes in the form of two Kazakh teens who ride over on their Chinese-made bikes and whistle the dogs back to the farm. We ask if they can take us to the water.
At the lakeside we set up a picnic on the tarp of the tent and go swimming, the water strangely stagnant but perfectly refreshing. The kazak boys splash in through the shallows and take turns yelling to each other as they dive under. I float on my back until I can’t see where the brown of the shore blends to the blue of the sky.
As the sun sets we head back to Almaty. The gold once again becomes green; the silence of the steppe gives way to the chatter of the city. We pass through here once again on our way out of the country. A final gilded goodbye to a country that has always felt as warm as these hills.