Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Recreation in the Alatau Mountains

Big Almaty Lake, in the mountains to the south of me.
"We are just now learning how to rest," My friend and colleague said to me, talking about Kazakhs in general.  Her comment elicited a picture in my mind of a self-help group for Kazakhs, where they all sat around in comfy chairs learning how to use a television remote control. 
What she meant was that under the Soviet Union's government that ruled Kazakhstan before their peaceful independence in 1991, the recreation industry was virtually nonexistent.  All industry was owned by the government, and while recreation is not necessarily forbidden under communism, the industry doesn't exactly boom. 

A berry-picking girl on a picnic.
Since Kazakhstan's independence and simultaneous conversion to capitalism, tourism and recreation has blossomed as an industry, and Kazakhs are very receptive.  Gorky park, Almaty's biggest park complete with paddle boat rides on a small lake, carnival rides, an aquapark, and a zoo, is packed every weekend. 

But a large chunk of the Almaty population takes after my own heart and likes to get out of the city on weekends.  Two buses run from Almaty to different parts of the Alatau Mountains, the local ridge line in the Tien Shan Mountains that are south of the city.  These buses are packed on weekends, as are the trails.  Often small groups of people will be headed out overnight.  While the mountains are some of the most gorgeous I have ever seen, it is obvious that locals are relatively new to getting out and enjoying them.  The leave-no-trace ethic that I so whole-heartedly believe in and follow is non-existent here.  Not only is there trash thrown everywhere across the trail and human feces and toilet paper found behind trees, but the sensitive desert crust and alpine zones are driven over with cars, and chopping down a tree for a family shashlik BBQ is routine practice. 

Charyn Canyon, in the steppe to the
northeast of Almaty.
Picnics are huge here.  Families carrying with plastic bags full of food, blankets to sit on, and fire-starter head out into the hills for a picnic. 

I took a bus out to Charyn canyon a couple weeks ago.  Kazakh bus rides are quite an experience.  I had a cold to begin with, but riding for four-and-a-half hours over bumpy dirt roads in the back of a full, 1970's German bus with broken seats that poked into your back and no air circulation didn't help my mood.  Still, the canyon was worth seeing.  It looked like it belonged in Utah.  When my friend from Germany and I exited the bus, we walked the opposite direction from everyone else.  While Kazakh vacationers headed down into the canyon armed with plastic bags full of shashlik (Kazakh shish kabob), plof (a rice dish), and other picnic foods, my friend and I walked along the top of the canyon.  Looking down over the ridge I expected to see water, and was surprised to only find a road.  Where was the water that had obviously carved these crazy-looking paths through the desert?

I found it about 5 kilometers later, flowing down another canyon.  When we finally decided to join the other tourists by the water, we realized how fast it was flowing.  Glacial run-off is cold, and there is a story floating around my school of a woman who fell into the Charyn River (right where I was) and was never found.  As much as I wanted to jump in, I kept my distance. 
One of the most amazing-looking trees
I've ever seen.  It looks like something
out of a fairytale!

The river was an oasis.  From the top of the canyon, as far as the eye could see was beige desert.  But down by the water the land was green and lush.  Charyn canyon is northeast of the city.  The following weekend I hiked up to Big Almaty Lake, in the mountains south of the city.  Although the two places aren't all that far about (a couple hundred kilometers or so), the landscapes couldn't look more different.  The snow-capped mountains provided a sharp color contrast to the bright turquoise water typical of glacial lakes, and the dark blue of the sky (which is a nice change from the smog-infested sky from the city).  The desert landscape provided little contrast.

 I feel fortunate to have moved to a city with so much nature around me.  I was nervous when I accepted this job that getting out of town would be a challenge.  I'm lucky that this is not the case!

1 comment:

  1. So amazing, Tifin. What a big year for both of us...so many adventures. I had a similar bus experience in Belize trying to get to a remote Black Howler Monkey Sancuary. It was a horrible ride, but the monkeys were amazing!

    Check out my blog for a recap of Noah James' birth. Just go back a couple of posts. I can't wait for you to meet him when you come home :)