Sore bums, bear poo and gale force winds
We went horse riding in Aksu-Zabagyly National Park in the south of Kazakhstan. And boy did we know about it. Of course we had to go Jon and Jude style, so instead of riding into the park, hiking to the petroglyphs the next day and then riding back, we did it all in one day.
We left early in the morning and Bob (no, not the designated driver but a Dutch guy we met in Zabagyly) joined us. It was his first horse ride ever. The horses were well-behaved and we walked out of the small village with eager anticipation, it was our first proper horse ride on the trip and we had been wanting to do some horse riding since Mongolia.
After some trotting and admiring the scenery we entered the mountains. The horses were great and allowed us to enjoy them almost effortlessly. But after 3-4 hours in the saddle we were feeling it already and we hadn’t even reached our lunch spot yet. We enjoyed morning tea near a ranger’s hut with some fruit trees around it and had to be careful not to sit in bear poo. We never saw any bears unfortunately, but they certainly enjoy the fruit and seem to be hanging out in this area a lot.
After reaching our lunch spot we had another short ride to the petroglyphs in the rain. It didn’t make them any less impressive though. There was a small gallery with an amazing view over the valleys, showing us the impressions of an artist who lived thousands of years ago. Simple, but elegant they just sit there slowly eroding away to the elements. Only being admired by people who take the effort to get there. Beautiful.
As thunder and lightning was now all around us, we high-tailed it back down the mountain and were soon riding again in sunshine where we enjoyed a fast gallop through one of the valleys, these horses love to go! Fantastic. By the time we dismounted back in the village we had been in the saddle for 10 hours and our bums were not impressed with this record.
We had already hiked down to the Aksu river in the Aksu canyon the day before with Bob and an Italian family, where we had a quick swim in the glacial waters before racing back up to the top. Our guide didn’t allow us to go for a hike along the river due to permit restrictions (read ‘her laziness’) and we had to catch up with Romeo in his Italian leather loafers and shirt and tie after our naughty dip.
On our way to Almaty we stopped at yet another Unesco World Heritage Site (we stopped counting as there are so many): the petroglyphs of Tamgaly. Unlike the lone 5 or 6 petroglyphs in the mountains of Aksu-Zabagyly NP, they have discovered around 3000 petroglyphs here, some burial mounds, graves and foundations of houses. All dating back to the Bronze age to the early Iron age. We had a lovely archeologist as our guide and he showed us not only all the petroglyphs, but also 2 of the local hallucinogenic plants the shamans would have used to help them into their trance and a local version of the black widow (spider) that eats the male after mating.
Our last stop in Kazakhstan was the Sharyn Canyon. We arrived quite late and asked if we could camp there (imagine a game of sherades and you get the picture of ‘asking’ as no English is spoken and our Russian is still non-existent). No problem. We drove in and were seriously impressed with the shapes and formations the wind had created from the red sandstone rocks. We found a perfect spot, perched right at the end of a flat ridge line above all those beautiful shapes and overlooking the canyon. After dinner we enjoyed the stars before going to bed, but we couldn’t sleep. By that time the wind had picked up, probably wanting to show us how she makes these funky shapes from rock.
We removed all the tent poles that prop up our entrance and windows, strapped the whole tent down to stop it from flapping itself to pieces and tried again to sleep. We couldn’t. Lara was rocking and rolling like she was on an angry ocean and the noise of the tent in the wind that felt like it was about to be blown off the car, made us move the car in the middle of the night. Back the way we came along the narrow ridge line, crawling to the safety of some low hills which blocked the wind a tiny, tiny bit. Enough for us to crawl (the opening of the tent was now very small and low as we had strapped her down) back into the Taj Mahal and try to catch a few more zzz’s before daybreak.
Needless to say we were a bit tired the next day. We explored the top of the ridge and then tried to find a way down into the canyon with Lara as we could see tyre tracks down there. We found the track down and the ranger miraculously appeared to negotiate a fee to open the gate, but then told us Lara wouldn’t fit as she is too high. We jumped out to start our walk down when a 4WD with 4 Kazakh guys arrived at the gate too and we hopped in the car with them. Hassan, Hassan, Azamat and Marada had driven from Almaty to Sharyn Canyon to test Hassan’s new car and have a picnic.
Their Prado only just fitted through the narrow gap created by some random rock fall across the path and we were happy we left Lara high and dry at the top of the canyon. The ranger had been right, she would not have fitted. It was a fun drive down and we loved the scenery all around us. At the end of the track was a little green oasis with a picnic table overlooking the fast flowing river.
The guys asked if we wanted to join them for lunch, but unfortunately we had to get to the border that day so we couldn’t. We hiked back out of the canyon to pick up Lara who was faithfully waiting for us where we had left her.