Visiting Kazakhstan: Soaring Mountains to Endless Steppes

Part three of a series by Andreea Lotak of Conservation Atlas. See parts one and two

Kazakhstan has not yet entered the radar of many travelers, but it’s a country that packs a lot of surprises for those who venture there. Its huge surface makes it the 9th largest country in the world, but with only 17 million residents there are vast expanses with minimal human presence, and every trip on land becomes a journey. The Kazakhs of the past used to crisscross these giant open spaces with their herds of horses, creating temporary yurt settlements and celebrating a nomadic culture rooted in storytelling and songs inspired by the unbounded steppe.

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Throughout the Soviet Union era almost 60% of the kazakh steppe was converted to agriculture, which led to the deterioration of the soil that has now turned into a semi-desert. Even like this, Kazakhstan is still home to one of the world’s largest and relatively intact temperate steppe regions, an area roughly the size of France. Through an international coalition and the efforts of a local organization, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK), some 12 million acres were protected. We got to visit maybe 0.001% of that during our week-long trip on bumpy roads and unmarked tracks – a trip which remains one of our most exciting to date. And to get a better understanding of just how extraordinary this country is, we were also headed south to the border with Kyrgyzstan, where the 21 hours spent in a bus across a flat landscape ended at the foothills of some of the tallest mountains in the world: the Ile Alatau of the Tian Shan mountain system.

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Before venturing into the open steppe, we took a trip to the southern border of the country outside the old capital, Almaty. Less than an hour from the busy city lies the Big Almaty Lake in the Ile-Alatau National Park. At over 8,000 ft altitude, its stunning color and the surrounding mountains have captured the attention of adventure travelers.

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Summer at 10,000 ft can bring morning snowfalls and freezing temperatures. We continued our trip above the Big Almaty Lake after negotiating our way through a military barrier. The soldier spoke no English and we spoke no Russian, so amid smiles and drawings we think we understood that it was alright to camp and return the next morning. The national park is a militarized zone because of the nearby border, but we didn’t get the sense that it would be a problem.

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Between the mountains and the steppes we stopped to visit Kazakhstan’s “Grand Canyon”: the Charyn Canyon National Nature Park. At a much smaller scale than its US counterpart, Charyn is still a sight to behold. The park’s biodiversity includes a very rare species of ash tree: the Sogdian Ash (Fraxinus sogdiana).

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From Astana, the country’s capital since 1997, we spent almost the entire day on the road to get to the more intact steppe. The ACBK have started to organize trips to the sites where they work, including the huge Altyn Dala and Irghiz-Torgay reserves where the saiga antelope gather. This was one of the campsite areas where we pulled over for the night, together with our driver Sayat and the organization’s tourism coordinator and guide, Saltanat.

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Mountains easily capture us, but it’s said that you need a special soul to love the prairie. These vast spaces of grasslands and steppe regions around the world have been built upon and turned into agriculture or grazing lands. It’s where highways, roads and railroads have been constructed. They seem empty, but when you tune in they’re actually buzzing with life. Surprisingly, they also teem with color and wildflowers. We would move from dry areas to wetlands to meadows within minutes of driving, in a mosaic that made us fall in love with this misunderstood landscape.

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So what’s a saiga, after all? These amazing animals have been around since before the Ice Age. They look more like a character from Star Wars, but they have been surviving for thousands of years unchanged right here, on Earth. In the past they used to cover areas all the way from Alaska to Europe’s Carpathian Mountains to the steppes of Eurasia. Today, Kazakhstan still has the largest population of this critically endangered species, while smaller groups are still surviving in Russia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan.

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The saiga gather in large numbers in May, when the calving season begins. That’s also the best time to visit the steppe with ACBK because you have the best chances of seeing these animals up close. Since we were there in the summer, the herds were already on the move and most of the times we’d only spot them from afar. In 2015 these saiga populations were in big trouble due to an epidemic that killed 90% of them. The disease is connected to a warming climate, but in these past years they have made a comeback. The ACBK is also working hard to protect the saiga from the threat of poaching.

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Due to the nature of the area’s soil, the strong sun and the hot summers, evaporation is common in the steppe and many bodies of water turn to surreal landscapes of salt lakes which, when covered by a shallow layer of water, reflect the sky.

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Even in what seemed an empty landscape we would always find life in the most surprising of ways: ground squirrels popping their heads up, an eagle gliding just above the grass, colorful dragonflies landing on flowers, a saiga running in the distance at 50 mph, or the movement of the grasses in the wind. Everywhere we turned there was reason to snap a picture.

Conservation Atlas is a 501(c)(3), US-based nonprofit started in 2017 by Andreea & Justin Lotak. Conservation Atlas aims to raise awareness of global conservation causes by appealing to intrepid travelers. Through leading online resources and annual international festivals, CA inspires people to visit unique places and support the mission of grassroots organizations. Through 2018, The Lotaks are touring 14 countries to document successful conservation projects, meet the people who are making these positive changes, and photograph beautiful landscapes and biodiversity. 

Andreea is wearing the Print Lean Capri Leggings and the Ember Tank, and Justin is wearing the Cuba Libre Long Sleeve Shirt and the Rover Shorts.