A Fun and Beneficial Way to Preserve Kazakhstan’s Stunning Beauty
For two hours Volodya, our guide had been racing over the rocky track, in front of us. His long thin nose constantly sniffing the air, his pale blue eyes shining out of his burnt face. Eyes that had spent years peering at the nature around until it became part of him. And this intimacy was soon to generate our first discovery, a Grieg tulip, flamboyantly sprouting out of the wild flower bunches bursting on the edge of the track. I recognized it at first sight, from the pictures hung on the walls, back at the rangers’ hut. It is the ancestor of the Dutch tulips and still grows wild here in South Kazakhstan. In season one can see up to sixty-four flowers grow in one square meter. In the Middle Ages the Greig and Kaufman tulips were brought from Central Asia to Turkey, then to Holland where they were bred to thousands of types of flowers.
We resumed our pursuit on the steep track, climbing amongst archa bushes – a treelike juniper that gives the air curative properties – over a dark ridge then descending into a craggy gorge. Suddenly Volodya froze, bent down and ran his hand through a thick tuft of grass. By the time we caught up with him, he had turned back, the huge grin on his face. In his hand, a small brown snake was swerving slowly.
– "You can’t touch this one, it is one of the most poisonous", he said as we reached out. Then to our disappointed faces, added:
– "But I’ll find another one, a harmless one and show you how to hold it so you won’t harm it…"
Our two-day hike in Aksu Zhabagly national park included an overnight bivouac in a cozy cave, fresh bear tracks (and excrement!), learning how to hold a snake without harming it and being generally amazed by the untouched wilderness around us. We felt Volodya did more than just act as a local guide, he opened our eyes to a new world, only an overnight train journey from Almaty.
Tucked into our sleeping bags inside the cave we listened to his voice in the dark tell us about the Tian-Shan bear – a relative of the brown bear similar to the grizzly bear in colour and appearance they are mostly vegetarian though sometimes dig out marmots. In spring the she bear comes out with her cubs. They are adventurous babies and put their noses everywhere and make their mum quite nervous:
– "You have to be careful not to come too close then. They are peaceful bears and rarely attack humans but the mother can become aggressive if she thinks her cubs are in danger."
The dying ambers of our campfire made Volodya’s face look sharper and his eyes shine even more than in daylight. His smile softened.
– "Once we found a baby snow leopard that his mother had left behind to go hunting. There are only 7 or 8 specimens in the park so we measured it and took notes. The next morning his mother had come back and taken the cub away to the mountains…"
We returned stiff but invigorated, to a comfortable homestay in the village of Zhabagly, about 1.5 km from the national park and 1,200 meters high. The village has 2,000 inhabitants, a school, hospital, and constant supply of gas and running water. It is reached through an asphalt road, and has telephone and Internet access.
There we enjoyed a warm shower and traditional Kazakh hospitality. Sitting at the low table on colourful handmade rugs, we gorged on freshly baked bread, homemade cheese, cream and jams. Galina, our friendly hostess, kept bringing salads and grilled meats – mostly village produce. We also tasted homemade kumys – the traditional Kazakh drink made from fermented mare’s milk.
The next day we rode some of the small but robust home breed Kazakh horses and ventured along a more distant ridge. The little horses scrambled up the foothills of the majestic Tian-Shan range rising its snowcapped peaks to 4,200 meters (13,860 ft). We were happy to let the horses do the work and be free to take in the wide-open spaces around us. Tall wild grass shivered in the light breeze. It carried the scent of thousands of wild flowers dotting the prairie. We were miles away from the thought of catching our train back to Almaty…
The national park of Aksu-Zhabagly was founded in 1926 and is the longest established in Central Asia. 'Aksu' in Kazakh means white water because of the milky colour of the local river due to washing away the limy rocks. 'Zhabaga' means 2-year-old horse in Kazakh. That’s how a local dzhigit (a young man) that lived 200 years ago called his valiant horse. Dzhigit left his family and his young horse Zhabagly to go and help an allied tribe against an enemy attack. When he returned, the following spring, he found robbers who had sacked his camp and killed his family. Kneeling by the blackened ruins of his former life, his head dropped on his chest. At that point a happy cry resounded in the gorge and Zhabagly, his cherished horse ran down to him. The little horse had not only managed to escape the robbers but also to survive the winter alone in the wilderness. The river and surrounding area were named after him.
Aksu-Zhabagly is one of seven locations around Kazakhstan promoted by the Almaty-based Ecotourism Information and Resource Centre (EIRC) to encourage the development of community-based ecotourism in Kazakhstan. Community-based ecotourism aims to promote small-scale tourism that respects the environment and provides livelihoods for existing rural communities. By visiting Aksu-Zhabagly and using a local guide, going on a horse ride or staying at one of the well-equipped home stays in the village, visitors actively help to preserve the nature, wildlife and local community. At present there are 3 home stays in the village that can host up to 22 visitors all-year-round. Cost of full-board accommodation is between KZT 3,500 to KZT 4,000 ($26-30) per day. The homestays can also organise concerts of local dombra music and performances by traditional Kazakh singers and dancers, excursions to the stalactite cave and to cultural heritage sites like Ahmet Yassaui's Mausoleum in Turkestan. A similar initiative is being developed in the stunning Ugam range nearby, where it is possible to hike and horseride guided by local villagers and overnight in village home stays.
"Ecotourism is a responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following principles:
· Minimize impact
· Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
· Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
· Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
· Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
· Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climate
· Support international human rights and labor agreements
The International Ecotourism Society
Ecotourism Destinations South Kazakhstan
- Guided hike in national park
- Overnight stay possible at a village home stays or a small private hotel
- Horse-ride through wide-open prairie
- Excursions to stalactite cave or Turkestan Mausoleum
- Dombra concerts and performances by traditional Kazakh musicians, singers and dancers.
- Wonderful landscapes
- Sairam-Ugam National Park
- Traditional villages (auls)
- Community-based tourism
- Overnight stay possible at a village home stay
- Guided hike/hill walking with local villager
- Horse-ride on foothills of scenic Ugam range
The EIRC opened in April 2005 as a part of the Kazakhstan Ecotourism Initiative, funded by ExxonMobil Kazakhstan, Inc. and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and operated by the Eurasia Foundation. The EIRC provides marketing and training support to seven community-based tourist destinations in rural areas throughout Kazakhstan. The EIRC works with local NGOs at each destination, directly involving the local population in developing quality tourist services in an environmentally sustainable way. The EIRC is a grant project implemented by the Kazakhstan Tourism Association (KTA), a national NGO founded in May 1999 now representing more than 100 tourism companies and hotels as well as community-based tourism providers. The primary goal of KTA is to create conditions for the growth and improved quality of tourism in Kazakhstan. Technical support is provided by VSO, an international development organization that works through volunteers.
For more information visit www.ecotourism.kz or contact the EIRC at:
Republic of Kazakhstan, 050091, Almaty, 71 Zheltoksan Str.
Phone: +7 (3272) 798146 & 780289
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