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OFF-ROAD TOUR: THE UNEXPLORED DZUNGARIA (9 DAYS)
Tour duration
9 DAYS
Tour route
The Dzungarian Alatau (Almaty Region, Kazakhstan)

Explore the mysterious mountain land of Dzungaria with hardly any chance of coming across other tourists. Impassable roads, alpine meadows on high plateaus, and ancient settlements are waiting for you.

Route: The Dzungarian Alatau (Almaty Region, Kazakhstan) 

Season: May to October

Recommended period: June and September 

TOUR SUMMARY

Day 1. Almaty—Taldykorgan—Taubulak

Departing from Almaty at 7:00. Arriving in Taldykorgan at 10:00. Visiting the Local History Museum of the Almaty Region. Lunch. Moving to the Taubulak Eco Camping Ground (132 km, of which 61 are in the mountains). The 6 hours' trip includes 2 to 3 stops (10 to 15 min) at unique sites of the Dzungarian Alatau. Arriving at the Taubulak Eco Camping at 5 p.m. Checking in and resting. Dinner, free time, and preparation for the start. Overnight at the Taubulak Eco Camping. 

The mountains of the Dzungarian Alatau form the natural border with the People's Republic of China and have a total length of 400 km. Here lies one of the most picturesque gorges in Semirechye, the 90 km long Korinskoye Gorge. The Kora River on its bottom is born high in the mountains, in the ancient glacial kingdom. In winter and early spring, its water is calm and clear. However, when the snow on the slopes begin to melt, the river becomes turbid and merciless. It carries enormous rocks effortlessly and breaks century-old tree trunks like matches. The road that winds along the river is only accessible to good off-roaders, so everybody who takes it will be impressed. All you can see around is woods. Spruce and fir trees intertwine with lace-like green birch foliage, and a motley carpet of flowers covers the meadows. As the road gets higher, nature becomes harsher: the cheerful birch groves give way to high plateaus with dozens of big and small waterfalls tumbling down the magnificent rocks. Since it has been a restricted access area as a border zone, rare species such as brown bears, red deer, and mountain goats have been preserved here, not to mention wolves, foxes, and hares, which travelers often see. Osman fish lives in clear mountain rivers that head from glaciers on peaks.

Day 2. Taubulak—Burkhan Bulak Gorge—Taubulak

Breakfast. Departing from the Taubulak Camp and ascending Burkhan Bulak Gorge, including the upper tier of the waterfall. 

Burkhan Bulak Falls, the biggest waterfall in Central Asia, lie at 2000 m above sea level. The total height of its three tiers is 112 meter. Tons of ice-cold water tumble down in roaring torrents, splashing a million drops. Sun shines in the clear stream against the backdrop of russet rocks covered in emerald green moss. To complete Nature's masterpiece, dozens of rainbows appear at once. When winter comes, the waterfall freezes, clad in ice. However, to get to know the true nature of Burkhan Bulak you should come in July, when water flow is at its highest. Masses of water tumble down, covering the cliffs.

Lunch (picnic) in Burkhan Bulak Gorge. Returning to the Taubulak camp for dinner and rest. Overnight at the Taubulak Eco Camping.

Day 3. Taubulak—Bayan Zhurek—Kalakay

Rise at 08:00. Breakfast, packing, and departure for the Bayan Zhurek archaeological site. 

The Bayan Zhurek Ridge stretches for about 20 km from west to east with an elevation of up to 2000 m above sea level. The Kaskarau mountain valley separates the Bayan Zhurek Ridge from the Dzungarian Alatau. Rocks and large stones on the southwest of it bear hundreds of rock drawings, the themes and style of which differ from similar discoveries in Semirechye. Most of them date back to the Bronze Age. Among them are images of bulls and other animals, cart scenes, solar signs, and cult-themed scenes. Some scholars date the oldest group of the drawings to the Eneolithic (late 3rd millennium B.C.E.). Petroglyphs dating back to the Early Iron Age are somewhat less numerous. Those are traditional animal style deer, boars, and other animals. Medieval drawings on the rocks of the Bayan Zhurek depict horsemen, horseback fighting, unmounted archers, and hunting scenes. 

A rock drawing tour. Lunch. After lunch, a short drive to the ancient Kalakay sanctuary. 

It is a 97 m ring made of stones. In its center lies an enormous glacial rock that has been preserved since the fall of glaciers and, separately, a cross of big stones. The cross accurately signifies the cardinal directions: north to south and west to east. The sanctuary generally resembles the solar circle. A cross in a circle symbolized the Sun in all ancient civilizations. However, it is not just a solar symbol but a huge sundial and calendar. Since the mountains lie on the north and south and the valley is on the west and east, the circle enabled very accurate identification of sunrise and sunset, solstice, and equinox. Many different civilizations share the symbols, which makes them in fact universal. Ancient people believed any magical model to ensure equilibrium and proper order in the World (i.e. a correct model meant a correct real world) on the one hand and to be pliable on the other hand. Thus, it is both an observatory to study the sky and a sanctuary, through interaction with which we can change the situation in the world. The complex includes another big rock with Saxon drawings and sacrifice indentations on it. It clearly dates back to the Saxon period. There are a lot of Saxon burial mounts around the sanctuary that are not included in the complex. No discoveries have been made here that pertain to other eras. Human migration is as intense in the area as it was three thousand years ago. 

Putting up a camp near the sanctuary. An overnight stay in the tent camp.

Day 4. Kalakay—Maly Baskay Cordon

Breakfast and packing, then heading for Maly Baskan Cordon in the gorge of the same name. The first stop on our way is a very interesting object: ruins of ancient settlements that have not been properly studied by now. To date it is very difficult. It is the job of archaeologists. However, the well-preserved shapes of the structures suggest that they were home to people living far later than the Saxon period. There are a lot of burial sites of different types and periods in the nearby, some of which we will also see. You should be prepared to look for them because tourists hardly get there, so most of interesting places are overgrown with tall grass. 

Driving to the Aksu River. Lunch by the river. After lunch we drive in the Terekty Valley that is surrounded by mountains.  

The valley lies between the Zheldykargay Mountains, which name translates as Windy Pine, and the Airakkol Mountains. The road across the valley was laid back in Soviet time for conveyance between farms in the nearest mountain villages. Today locals use parts of the load to make hay for the winter. Shepherds drive cattle along it, and beekepers use it to gather honey. Some of the roads is almost abandoned but quite passable, with ancient, unexplored tombs and settlements along them. Tourists hardly ever com here, so locals appear to be very hospitable and eager to treat you to their specialties.

A stop at a farm. Then we drive to Maly Baskan Cordon for dinner, rest, and an overnight stay. 

Day 5. Maly Baskan Cordon—Auliye Tas—Topolevka—Lepsinsk.

Early rise and breakfast. Gathering and setting off for the Auliye Tas stone.  

Auliye Tas translates as sacred stone. The sanctuary is a stone that weighs many tons and looks like a heart from a certain angle. It is hidden from curious people in the hills, so you cannot see it from any road near it. Only those who know the place and have been there more than once can find it. The rock is particular in some ways. The main rock is splayed in two parts with a narrow passage between them. Locals say only those with pure thoughts can walk there. The stone has an indentation that looks like a womb with a baby in it, in front of which are clearly prints of hands, a forehead, and knees. There is a legend about a young woman who failed to become a mother for a long time. She would come to the sacred stone and ask it for help so often that she left the clear prints on the hard granite. Nobody knows what happened then, but the stone still attracts pilgrims. 

Driving to Topolevka village near Osinovy Cordon, which has the greatest number of Malus sieversii, trees in Kazakhstan. Scientists have proven Malus sieversii to be the parent of all cultivated apple tree species on Earth. The species was named after German scientists Johann Sievers, who first described the tree during his trip in Central Asia in the late 18th century. His findings were confirmed by Soviet botanist Nikolai Vavilov.  

A tour to wild apple tree groves and lunch at the cordon. After lunch we drive to Lepsinsk settlement along a picturesque mountain road. On arrival we have check in at the guest house, steam bath, dinner, and rest.  

Day 6. Lepsinsk—Lower Lake Zhasylkol

Breakfast at the guest house followed by a visit to the Local History Museum of Lepsinsk Village. 

Artefacts that have come down to us suggest that the area where Lepsinsk lies was inhabited back in the 12th century. To prove it, a burial mound stone known as Bal Bal, which dates back to the 12th or 10th century, was found in 1989. The oldest of locals report that there used to be three burial mounds with Turkic stone sculptures of granite in Lepsinsk. One used to lie near the porch of the Village Soviet's building. The second one is in a local's home. The third stone is believed to have been ploughed in near an Amur spring. In his 1390 campaign to central Moghulistan, Emir Timur made burial mounts on the Uygentas Pass not far from Lepsinsk. Those were to signify the borders of his empire. He put a sign of three rings onto his personal belongings. Such a sign was found near the foot of Kok Tobe near Lepsinsk in 1994. The modern history of Lepsinsk began in 1822. The abolition of khans' power caused the Kazakh clan known as Wusun to seek association with Russia. However, the first attempts were failed. It was not until 1846 that the agreement was signed under which Semirechye was included in Russia and Lepsinsk became a stanitsa. This is just a small part of the fascinating history of the small village. The oldest of local residents will tell you much more.  

After the museum tour, we move to the highest apiary of the Dzungarian Alatau, honey from which was sent to the last Russian tsar. Lunch at the apiary. Honey tasting. After lunch we move to Lower Lake Zhasylkol. We then put up a camp for dinner and rest. An overnight in a tent camp by the lake. 

Day 7. Lower Lake Zhasylkol—Lepsinsk

Rise and breakfast. After breakfast we take a walk to the head of the Agynykatty River.  

Lake Zhasylkol lies on the northern slope of the Dzungarian Alatau mountain ridge in the Agynykatty Valley at 1640 m above sea level. The lake's maximum length from the northern bank to the southern mouth of the Agynykatty River is 2070 meter with a maximum width of 751 meter in its norther part. A human being hardly entered the place until the 1980s, which is no wonder as it is the state border. Since the turbulent Agynykatty River enters the lake, which is also fed by numerous springs heading from the glaciers of the Dzungarian Alatau in summer, the water of Zhasylkol is turbid, a bright blue and green most of the time. It is home to beautiful red deer.  

Returning to the camp, packing, and lunch. Then descending to the apiary and driving to Lepsinsk. Check-in at the guest house. Steam bath, dinner, and rest.  

Day 8. Lepsinsk—Cherkassk Defense—Koylyk Hillfort—Sarkand

Breakfast at the guest house. Driving to Cherkassk village and visiting the memorial.     

The term Cherkassk Defense (1918–1919) refers to the combat operations of peasants from 12 Russian settlements in Lepsi Uyezd, Semirechye Province that took place behind the lines of White Guard troops in the context of desperate fighting between new settlers, of the one part, and Semirechye Cossacks, old residents, kulaks, and Kazakh bais, of the other part. In June 1918, peasants of Lepsi Uyezd formed defense detachments to protect their settlements against local White Cossacks, Alash Horde troops, and soldiers of the White Guard, who were pressing from the north. When troops of the White Guard had occupied the city of Sergiopolis, counterrevolutionary rebellions spread across the northern Semirechye. Peasant settlements suffered attacks of White Cossacks and Alash Horde troops.  

After the excursion, we have lunch (a picnic) in the open air. Then we drive to Koylyk Hillfort.   

Koylyk Hillfort was an important center of trade, crafts, and culture in the northeast Semirechye in the 13th to 14th century, where the headquarters of Karluk yabgus were situated. It is surrounded by a rampart, which is up to 4 m tall. It is a trapezoid in plan view. The northeastern wall is 1200 m long. The southwestern one stretches for 750 m and ends at the foot of the mountains. The city is famous for its bazaars. Apart from Muslims, it was home to a Christian community, which had a church. So reported Guillaume de Rubrouck, ambassador of King Louis IX of France to Mongol Möngke Khan, who had stayed in the city. Archaeological research at the hillfort took place in 1964. Unfortunately, the hillfort has been abandoned. However, it is worth a walk and a closer look—you might find a lot of interesting things.  

Moving to Sarkand.  

Shoqan Walikhanov was the first to mention Sarkand in his essays on exploring Semirechye. It was back in 1857. Sarkand was initially a stanitsa founded by Siberian Cossacks. The first large settlements appeared on the bank of the Sarkand River in 1858, when 22 families moved from Kopal and Lepsi Uyezds. The first school opened in 1872. Sarkand District was established in 1928. In included Cherkasskoye Volost and Lepsi Uyezd. Sarkand became an urban-type settlement in 1964 and a city in 1968. Today it is a small but pretty town. Locals are mostly engaged in agriculture producing excellent wine. They even have a small brewery and a cheese factory.  

Check in at the hotel. Dinner and rest. 

Day 9. Sarkand—Taldykorgan—Almaty

Breakfast. Departing from Sarkand at 9 a.m. Lunch in Taldykorgan on the way. Arriving in Almaty about 8 p.m. 

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