So this is it. The last day in Kazakhstan. It was such a shame that the tour had to end. Even after everything that we had seen it felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what Kazakhstan had to offer.
For our last day we had another early start. Charyn Canyon is around 175km from Almaty along, mostly, tarmac roads. Unfortunately, though the roads are tarmac, they are not in the best state of repair. More than once we hit a pot hole big enough to launch me from my seatbelt-less seat into the roof of our minibus. Luckily there were not a lot of brain cells to damage. And even less now! Thanks, in part, to the road quality, the drive is around four hours each way.
Oh, and as an aside, if you are looking to Google Charyn Canyon, some websites spell it Sharyn rather than Charyn. Just so you know.
On the plus side, the roads are about to get a whole lot better as alongside the current road to Charyn, they are laying a new highway that will stretch from China through to Europe to help make the transport of goods to, and from, China significantly easier; tourism too, probably. This new stretch is due to open in April 2016.
Anyway, enough about roads, what about the view. The incredible view. For most of the journey you have the northern stretches of the Tian Shan mountain range running parallel to the road, and it makes for a stunning companion. Completing the view are lush green fields, many full of poppies in bloom. If you didn’t know any better you could swear than Julie Andrews was about to bound over the nearest hill. I cannot attest to whether the hills were alive with the sound of music though.
Like most of the travelling we did, I quickly ditched the idea of reading my Kindle to pass the time. Instead I watched the incredible scenery pass by. No book I had downloaded could compare.
From the moment we reached the end of the 12km off-road canyon drive way, it was obvious that this was the most tourist-friendly location we had visited. We even saw other foreign tourists! Nuns! Who expects to find nuns at the bottom of a sun baked canyon just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border?
Anyway, it is much more developed than anywhere else we had been. There was a car park, an entrance gate, and even a toll booth. Not only that, there were sign posts in English. We felt spoilt. The level of development really showed what Kazakhstan could be capable of with a little effort and money. Unfortunately, this would probably remove some of the charm of the country.
Once we had parked up, we had an incredible view. The sky was blue, the canyon was incredible and there, in the distance, were snow-capped mountains. In 25+ degree heat there they were, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. Not only that, but they seemed to be working hard to hold back all the cloud that could have ruined our day.
The canyon with the snow capped mountains off in the distance
From top to bottom the walk took around an hour. It felt like walking into a Road Runner cartoon. There were even precariously sat rocks that looked like they were ready for Wile E. Coyote utilise in his ongoing war with the Road Runner.
Under the glorious sun it was a lovely way to finish the week, no one rushing us, just a nice, peaceful stroll through amazing surroundings.
As we closed in on the bottom we could hear a rushing river, and after a minutes more walking, low and behold, there it was. And along the banks was a small ‘outpost’. I can’t think of a better word for it now. It turned out, it is possible to stay here overnight. And to facilitate this were several huts and yurts, as well as a bar and lots of outdoor seating. It is the perfect accommodation for backpackers not wanting to make two four-hour drives in one day. It is a shame we were unable to test out the facilities for ourselves. Particularly as the bar prices were not too bad! There were even signposts advertising horse trekking; though we did not have the opportunity for this either.
Accomodation for those who wish to spend a night under the stars
As I took in the surroundings at the bottom of the canyon, I think I was more relaxed and content then I had been at any other point in the tour. The canyon was a lush green either side of the river, a little oasis in this sun baked canyon. It was the perfect place to rest and have lunch after the walk down.
Let me use photos to do the job of my inadequate words.
The Charyn River flowing through Charyn Canyon
The Charyn River coming round the bend
If only we could have stayed longer. But, alas, that was not to be. And so after a brief stop for lunch we turned round, and walked back up the canyon. By this point the temperature really had risen, offering a demonstration of what this visit may be like in the middle of summer when the thermometer can read in excess of 40 degrees. Take it from me, you probably wouldn’t want to be hiking down and back up then. It was rather uncomfortable. So try and time your visits for spring or autumn when the temperatures aren’t quite so high.
Once we had reached the top we had a few minutes in which to rest, before we hopped back in our minibus and started the four hour journey back to Almaty.
We made one, brief, stop on the way back at a fascinating roadside market full of people selling, seemingly, everything you could imagine. From fresh produce to toys to tools. It was all bustle and colour. Given the proximity to the busy road, though, I would not have vouched for the taste of the fresh fruit and veg on offer. I don’t imagine car exhaust fumes add to the flavour particularly well.
The market had a line in 'unofficial' toys – if only Batman really was an Avenger!
And that was that. At 3am the following morning I was up and prepping for my transfer to Almaty Airport for my flight home. A journey that was much easier than my journey to Kazakhstan I am pleased to say.
So there you have it. Kazakhstan. Wrapped up in ten blogs. Of course, as I have mentioned, I barely scratched the surface, so hopefully next year I will have the opportunity to return and see everything that I missed, and maybe even hop on a train or two!
See you then!
This blog will be slightly out of order, as our visit to the Caspian Sea was part of the Aktau city tour but, as it was my favourite bit, it can have its own section!
It was fantastic to finally dip my toes in the sea. And given the amount of walking we had done during the week, the fact the sea was rather cool was the perfect way to make them feel better.
We didn’t spend long here, unfortunately, so I cannot really expand on the experience particularly, but I will say that sitting with my feet dangling in the sea was probably the most relaxing experience of the entire week up to this point. With the blue skies and clear water, it would have been the perfect opportunity to get the deck chairs out, and let the sound of the waves lull me to sleep.
The beautiful Caspian Sea
A seagull fishing in the Caspian Sea
As for the rest of Aktau, it is ok.
The sea front is very nice, and has clearly had recent investment; with the promenade a very pleasant location for a walk, and an ideal spot for al fresco dining.
The town as a whole is quite the mish-mash of conflicting styles, with the old Soviet buildings looking decidedly shabby compared to their modern siblings. Aktau’s age (60 years young) plays a part in this, as there is no ‘historic centre’ as you get with many cities, making their oldest buildings the stereotypical Soviet tower blocks that were designed with practicality in mind, not aesthetics.
There was one particularly interesting feature, though, and that was the lighthouse. Due to its location getting a photo was troublesome, but rather than allowing it its own building, it had been sat atop a block of flats; which seemed a rather unique way of going about it.
A statue to the exiled poet Taras Schevchenko
Our only other major stop, beside the Caspian Sea, on our tour of Aktau was at the Historical Museum. Guiding visitors through the geological, biological, social and cultural history of the area, the museum does a great job of packing a lot of information into a pretty small space.
In particular, the museum has managed to squeeze more dioramas into its limited space than any other museum I can think of. They may not have been of the highest quality, but they certainly brought a smile to my face. This certainly made it stand out among the many museums that I visited over those eight days.
One of the many dioramas in Aktau Historical Museum
Alongside the many dioramas were models and recreations of the wildlife that either lives, or has lived, in this area. Some of them were clearly fake, others looked like they may have seen the inside of a taxidermist. With some, it was difficult to tell one way of the other. Particularly when they were as terrifying as this …
Its eyes follow you …
If you are in Aktau, I would certainly suggest visiting the museum. And not just because there are few others places within the city to visit.
Before I move on, I thought I would throw this in there. There was a lot of fuss made about the facilities provided in Sochi at last year’s Winter Olympics. Particularly over the provision of two toilets in one cubicle. Well, Sochi is not alone.
Oh yeah, they share one toilet roll …
So, that was that for the Aktau and the wider Mangystau region. Next up was a four hour flight back to Almaty, ready for dinner and sleep before our last day in Kazakhstan. My favourite day in Kazakhstan. Our week up to now had just flown by, making it all the more frustrating that I missed the first day!
So come back soon to read about Charyn Canyon, located between Almaty and the Chinese border. It will be worth it just for the photos. The place was incredible.
Before starting, I would just like to point out that I was very tired on day six, and a little under the weather too. So my note-taking suffered, my memory vanished and, as such, this will probably be the shortest blog yet! Oh, and that sound you can hear, the smallest violin ever.
The day started in Aktau, Kazakhstan’s only seaport. It is a city that was formed in order to home those who mined uranium from the surrounding region. Don’t worry, though, you won’t come home radioactive if you visit. The city has grown significantly in the 60 years since its founding, with a population of around 180,000 now. Despite this large population, there appeared to be very little to recommend in Aktau as far as tourism is concerned; though there was a rock and roll/British themed pub, although I think its pool table must have something wrong with it because I cannot be that bad at pool can I? Its main selling point is as a base for exploring the wider Mangystau region.
We did not spend long in Aktau though during day six, and we were soon on our way to our first stop, the Karagiye Depression.
It is at this point that I will mention that finding out reliable facts about many of the destinations within Kazakhstan can be fiendishly difficult, due in part, I suppose, to the lack of global tourist interest in Kazakhstan over the years. For instance, we were ‘reliably’ informed by our tour guide that the Karagiye Depression was the fifth lowest point in the world. My internet searches have ‘reliably’ informed me that it is, variously, the sixth, seventh, or eighth. It is for this reason that I would forgo fact-finding when thinking about travelling in Kazakhstan in favour of ‘experience-finding’; you will drive yourself crazy searching otherwise. Besides, it is the experience that really matters.
And the experience in the Karagiye Depression … is ok. It didn’t particularly grab me. Others in my group felt different, so what do I know? What made it interesting, for me, were our attempts to drive down into the depression. In the run up to our visit there had apparently been quite a lot of rain, and this rain had washed away the track that we were to take once we had left the main tarmac road. Not only had it washed the topsoil away, though, but it had left large cracks in the ground where the water had obviously created temporary streams. This made the drive into the depression very challenging for the drivers. Before we knew they had only been roped into this job a few days previously we thought their driving skills were impressive. Now, with the knowledge that they were not professional drivers, their ability on the difficult terrain is incredible.
The most impressive part of the depression were a number of white rock formations. If I remember correctly, and I may not, the white of the formations came from salt deposits. As I have little else to say about this area, here are photos instead!
A rock formation in the Karagiye Depression
Wave-like rock formations in the Karagiye Depression
Stop two in the Mangystau region was Sherkala Mountain near a small town called Shetpe. What makes this mountain stand out is that it is entirely alone, rising out of a flat plateau. In this way it bears a similarity to Uluru in Australia. Oh, it also looks remarkably like a traditional Kazakh yurta.
Sherkala Mountain, looks like a yurt no?
It was here we were to have a traditional lunch; but first we had a chance to walk around a little. After a little exploration I found a little stairway that looked as though it could lead upwards to the top of the mountain. At the very least I hoped it would head inwards, to a cave of some sort. Unfortunately there had been a rock-fall and so the stairs had been crushed, and the entrance to the mountain completely blocked. So that was the end of that mini-adventure!
Once we had finished lunch we were very quickly told about ‘friendship bread’, which is traditionally made on a Friday and shared among friends and family. We were also offered the chance to try some, and it was very nice; but them freshly cooked bread is never anything less than fantastic.
One of the highlights of my day happened while we drove away from Sherkala Mountain, though, when I did my good deed for the day by rescuing a tortoise from certain doom as it very slowly crossed a road, dodging the first traffic we had seen in hours! He didn’t seem too grateful though, as he waved his legs around trying to claw me before I placed him gently to the side of the road.
Our last visit of the day was to what our guide called the ‘Valley of Castles’. So called due to some amazing rock formations in the 215 million year old mountains. As with the majority of our visits over the tour, we were the only people there, so the silence added to the wonder of the formations.
A castle like rock formation in the 'Valley of Castles'
And that was day six. To finish up, I thought I would share with you two facts we were told about the use of camels during the course of the day:
1. Bactrian camels (those with two humps) are used for food.
2. Dromedary camels (those with one hump) are used for milk.
So there you go.
See you back here soon for day seven.