Kazakhstan – Window to the Galaxy


Could it be that we felt Almaty was so cozy because of our host? We stayed at a Korean guesthouse, where the owner resembled your grandfather? Maybe…
He was very kind to us and somehow through the Korean grapevine has heard about us since we left Korea…and knew that one day we will show up on his doorstep. He took us in, helped with things to see around Almaty and Kazakhstan and OMG the lady in charge of his guest house cooks like the most amazing Korean food. Every single dish we tried was unbelievable….i think i’m just hungry right now, so my memory could be a bit exaggerated.

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The only problem in Almaty itself was finding a clean water source. All the taps we tried gave different shades of yellowish water…some of them so bad that we had to flush our water lines.

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But there is always a solution, a few days earlier when we were exploring Alatau and Altyn Arashan we saw a huge line of people filling up water at a spring. Well, we could do the same…just have to pay the park entrance fee.  Here are the GPS coordinates, if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods (43.113374, 76.913855)

At first everyone was upset that we had to fill up 120 liters, while they all waited around. But their interest soon won over and the questions started flying: “where are you coming from?…where are you going?…etc”, happy to take their minds of waiting I told them the whole story…starting from day one.

Interestingly enough that when i first proposed the idea of using spring water to fill up our tanks somewhere around Vladivostok, Hyein scorned at the idea, saying it might be dirty. Hm…i grew up all my life drinking this kind of water, but i let it go. When faced with the possibility of washing her face and brushing her teeth with water color of apple sauce, well lets say Hyein is not a stubborn person.

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Where is this? Did you guys take a detour and end up in Gobi again? Nah…these are the singing dunes in Altyn Emel National Park ( GPS 43.869483, 78.566544) just a day drive away from the capital. When i told my dear friend Assel, who is originally from Kazakhstan, that I’m dreaming of visiting Mongolia, she protested and told me that everything you will see in Mongolia you can find in Kazakhstan…there is no need to kill yourself or your car to go see Mongolia.

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We are not the rise-at-the-crack-of-dawn kind of people, so by the time we made it to the sand dunes around 11 am…it was brutally hot. So hot that even the desert dwellers were looking for any piece of shade they could find.

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I really did want to go up that dune, it was over close to 100f (40C) and maaaan i was just not in the mood for it. When else are we going to be here? Most likely never, so I had to go and see these “magical singing” dunes for myself and for you guys. They dont sing in the wind, to extract any sort of sound besides your own cursing at your own stupid decision to sleep in, you have to climb up to the top of the dune, get on your butt and slide down. At some point, when you go fast enough you feel a deep rumble coming somewhere from underneath you. It feels like passing a really good lump of backed up pressure in your intestines, but the absence of smell makes it even more pleasant.

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Some logistical details: to enter the park you first need to visit the park office and obtain a permit (GPS 44.155917, 78.752517). You have to have a guide with you when you go to the park, but if you complain that you dont have space then they just charge you for the guide and let you go by yourself.

Within the park boundary are a couple of villages where you can fill up on clean drinking water and some groceries. Besides a few other tourist cars, you will not see many vehicles there. A more traditional form of transport is preferred in this part of the world.

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This is a bit staged, the road is bone dry but pretty badly messed up. We didn’t have any trouble getting through, but  the opportunity to get some epic “shit road” pictures could not be missed.

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We heard that if you do happen to be in this type of mud during rain…then under no circumstances should you go in. Its not just slippery, it actually will just suck you in.

On another note, why do we tend to photograph the “hard” and the “epic” roads…why do we never just be honest and say that we love a good road…i dont know many overlanders who are out for years at a time and still prefer these types of roads. Our cars become our homes, our friends, our only escapes…if something happens to them we are in deep doo-doo out here. But the promise of something outstanding drives us, the cautious overlander, further down the black hole.

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In the whole park there are 4 main things to see, we already mentioned the “singing” sand dune, then there are the “Red lava sculptures”, Aktau mountain and 700-year-old tree.

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Using your common sense and most importantly the cones in your retina, you can see that these are the “red lava sculptures” (GPS 43.996828, 79.050279).

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The rocks…lets be honest, not much of sculpture here, are okay. Once again i have to remind you that it was brutally hot, so please filter my feelings about this place accordingly. If not for the heat if would be fun to walk around climbing up and down the comet shaped rock. If you hallucinate, which is not that hard to achieve with dehydration in this blistering heat, then you can imagine yourself as a lonely scientist stuck of some distant red planet, with nothing but potatoes to eat.

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Unlike Matt Damon, i have a lady friend with me, so i will not be as bored as he was. In accordance with our strict scientific research guidelines, i will guess that the rock were formed as lava came to in contact with some rapidly cooling agent (aka dihydrogen monoxide) and the gas bubbles trapped inside formed the cavities and caves we see now. We didnt feel like walking over to the neighboring outcrops and moved on to the next place. Now that i’m looking at this photo, wouldn’t be cool if these structures were vertically hanging from a ceiling…just think about all the climbing opportunities!

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Back in the safety of the air-conditioned car, we drove to Aktau Mountain (GPS 44.006806, 79.240868). The road gets a little bit more difficult with parts of it washed off by rain and seasonal rivers.

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This place is a bit more interesting as far as rock go….a bunch of color hills, that looked like coffee cake.

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In the park you are not allowed to camp outside of designated spots…this little wooden shack being one of them.

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We walked around for a bit looking at different rock formations. Besides their unusual colors there is not much to see.  It takes almost two hours from the park entrance to get to Aktau and to be honest i dont think that i would ever go again or recommend it to anyone else. Its just not that impressive to spend most of your day on.

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But the 700-year-old willow tree is quite a sight. Its not the tallest, nor the biggest tree in the world…but it is very impressive. It sprawls all around you, like a magical tree that spawns all life in Avatar. The local legends says that when passing through this valley Genghis Khan himself took a leak on a this tree (GPS 43.922868, 78.790488). Maybe that why it is so enduring, just like his own family tree?

Whenever people see our water tank and shower setup, everyone instantly assumes that we can take showers every day. I wish that was true, but then we would be looking for water every single day. A quick shower for the both of us would use up around 30 liters (almost a quarter of our supply). Only when we know that we can easily refill we part take in this cleaning ritual.

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In the middle of the Kazakh desert, in the warm dusk air you dont even need a water heater. And there is nothing better than taking a shower after a long day of off-roading and realizing that you have everything you need for happiness.

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We could have camped at any of the four spots and the willow tree looked like an amazing place to take a leak at mid-night, but within minutes of stepping outside we were eaten alive by the mosquitoes. Didn’t even need to discuss this point…we are going back to the park office to sleep in their garden, we slept there beautifully the night before, im sure they will let us in again.

Hyein actually mentioned a really good point to describe Altyn Emel – “don’t expect much and you will not be disappointed.” It takes a whole day to see all the 4 main points and most of the time is just spent driving around…if you have an extra day to kill in Kazakhstan then you can go here…otherwise just see the dunes and the tree, skip the other places.

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In the morning we set off, the plan is to go towards Kyrgyzstan and enter through the Northwest border, on the way we can quickly hit up the Sharyn Canyon and move on.

Underwhelmed by yesterday’s expedition into the desert, I took Hyein’s sage advice to the heart and was thoroughly “not expecting anything”.

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Thank you sooooo much Altyn Emel…you have properly prepared me for the beauty of Sharyn Canyon. You set my expectations so low, that i was blown away by this place.

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To get to the canyon you follow a little sign in Cyrillic (no english) for “Чарын”, down a dirt road for 10 kilometers. You stop at a little building and hand over some money for a ticket. At this point you are quite confused what you are paying for and where you are going. Just flat desert beyond the building…nothing to see, not even an inkling of what you are about to experience.

The park ranger ask you only one questions: “Are you driving down?”

Me: “Yeah…why not?”

Ranger: “Yeah, okay you should be able to make it”

Me, thinking to myself whaaat?

The road to the bottom of the canyon exists…but the initial descent is steep, full of large rock and dust.

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Getting down was not the hardest part, put it in low range and first gear and gently roll down. Going up is what i was nervous about.

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After the initial drop the road levels out and gently continues to the river for a few kilometers. You drive at the bottom of the canyon with vertical walls surrounding you everywhere. The structures coming out of the ground reminded me of the Grand Canyon and America’s Southwest.

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The guards did also mention a place where you have to drive between two rocks and that it will be a tight squeeze. Its called the “kissing rocks” or “lover rocks”, whatever they are called Hyein had to get out and gently guide me through. As usual with these cases, the driver thinks that his vehicle is actually larger than what it actually is and will never fit through. Hyein masterfully dealt with the guidance and my billion anxious remarks about how it will not fit.

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Further down the canyon you some more of the beautiful castle-like structures. We drove all the way till the end to find a little camp, restaurant and a beautiful river gorge. Once again after a few mosquito bites we quickly got back into the car and drove away.

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Looking through the photos I now realize that there was plenty of space and i didn’t need to shout “AM I OKAY?!” at Hyein at the top of my lungs. All is well that ends well…she didn’t even get too upset at my yelling.

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I think that there is no need to drive down the canyon, instead you can easily park on the rim and walk by foot. You will see all the same beautiful sights, will not worry about the car fitting through the “kissing rocks” and most importantly get some exercise for your atrophied legs.

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Ah, the moment that Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman hated about the canyon…the climb up. I’ve never heard so much beeping in the whole series, as much as in this episode.

In low-range, first gear we gently started climbing up. The car is really back-end heavy with full gas, water and drawers. That means every time we hit a rock in the front the whole car starts to jump a little bit. The front wheels lose grip, traction control kicks in and we move onto the next rock…rinse and repeat…no biggie. This usually works for most hills, but this hill is soooo long that our traction control started yelling at me for real and i had to stop until it calmed down. The shitty part is that this happened in the worst part of the climb, with huge holes and dust. After a couple of minutes the traction control system finally shut up and we moved on.

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Parked at the rim of the canyon, let Hodori calm down while we looked around and contemplated why the hell did we even drive down there. The view from the edge is just unbelievable, just like a mini-Grand Canyon … so like a Medium Canyon.

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I never know what to do with my hands in photos… i feel like putting them behind my back is not the right solution.

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As a parting gift Ruslan and Ira gave us a Russian Army food ration, its the equivalent of the American MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). It packs a full day ration for a soldier who is probably hiking and carrying 50 pounds of gear. There is breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, snack, jams, cookies and even a little stove to heat up the meals. At 4500 calories its enough to feed Hyein and I for a full day and a half.

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The wind was so strong that i couldn’t use the supplied stove and had to break out our trusty Coleman. Surprisingly the food was quite good, some things better than others but all above edible. We asked the rangers if we are allowed to camp on the rim, they said absolutely no problem. We parked on a level spot and realizing that we are completely by ourselves, opened all the doors, put on ATB’s latest album “Under the Stars” and turned the volume way up.

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There was a hint from our previous two nights at the park that we might be lucky enough to see some good stars. As we waited for the sun and then the moon to go down and the stars to come out in full colors, we noticed that we are in a perfect place…no people and no nearby towns to ruin the night.

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If you look at the horizon you would see some little spots of in the distance.

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But staring straight up into the sky you could see not only the stars, but the Milky Way shone so bright you could see the different colors of our galaxy.

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We stayed up for hours taking photos and looking for shooting stars. The warm wind, billions of stars, the milky way and some ATB made it truly a magical night without the need for mood-altering substances.

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Sidenote: photos were taken with Nikon D610, at 20 sec exposure, f2.0 (50mm lens) and f11 (zenitar fisheye), ISO3200.

Kazakhstan, you tricky bastard. At first i wanted to write about how underwhelming your natural beauty is, especially after Altyn Emel. But then you go and show me this place…Sharyn Canyon. I am speechless, which is a tricky thing for me. The evening we spent exploring the canyon and the night we spent under the stars is one of the best of my life. The night sky actually makes you breathless, as you stare at the stars you forget to take a breath only to suddenly remember after your vision starts to fade. The shooting stars draw out your last breath with exclamations of excitement until once again you find yourself gasping for air. The stunning visual beauty that drive oxygen deprivation in your brain creates a feeling of elation, happiness…like you are finally given the chance to see the universe. And you find yourself not a scared in front of its grandeur, but euphoric to be a part of it.

4 Comment

  1. qin hong anderson says: Reply

    the stars are amazing!

  2. Макс says: Reply

    yeah – I havent seen that distinctive Milky Way in SoCal or East Coast here, compared to childhood memories in Russia. Most probably due to light pollution or may be memory aberration (but your photos proof otherwise)

  3. Mike says: Reply

    Ivan,
    You and Hyein truly are an inspiration. I thought you were crazy before you left (this hasn’t changed) but looking through your pictures and descriptions, I can only marvel of what you are doing with incredible respect. You make such a journey look so easy!
    I’m really impressed with everything so far and your ability to not only engineer a one of a kind vehicle but plan such an elaborate journey with so many variables. Please stay safe, well and continue to enjoy the trip of a lifetime. By the way, your pictures of the galaxy are incredible.
    Keep up the good work! Your buddy back home,
    -Mike

    1. irazinkov@gmail.com says: Reply

      Thanks Mike, we also think that we are crazy…but have gotten used to this idea.

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