Kazakhstan part 5 – Altyn Emel

In this series:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 2- Almaty

Part 3- Charyn

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 6- Homecoming

Altyn Emel was The Big One for us, by all the metrics of length, distance, excitement and expense. It was a bit tricky to arrange a head of time. Kazakhstan’s tourist industry is a little underdeveloped and mainly oriented towards Russian-speakers. The few options for online booking were decidedly high-end package affairs that we couldn’t afford, and which were aimed at large groups rather than a pair of travellers. Still we, decided to try our luck emailing a few of the English language options and were surprised to get an offer of a bespoke trip to Altyn Emel for two days, tent included. Because this hadn’t been offered anywhere online, and our correspondant’s English wasn’t so great, we couldn’t get many details about our deal before arrival, and a misunderstanding almost lost us the whole thing.

When they day came to set off, we were still kind of nervous. After the four wheel drive pulled in to pick us up, our guide seemed to find us amusingly ill-prepared, looking over our scant amount of supplies with an incredulous eye. Our driver was a jovial middle-aged Russian man with a wry sense of humour and a readiness to discuss the history and geography of Kazakhstan. We got along in conversation with some recourses to google translate on his smartphone. While we were talking, some of the mystery about our special deal was cleared up. Our guide was not Konstantin, professional explorer and adventure tourism guide (with whom we had arranged the excursion over email), but instead was Konstantin the engineer and nature photography enthusiast, who made the trip to Altyn Emel about once every couple of years, and who had agreed to take us along as a favour to his friend, who was busy with a larger and no doubt more profitable group of travellers.

Much like the journey to Charyn Canyon, it was a long, bumpy ride for hours down poorly-maintained roads, though the impressive scenery of the surrounding steppes and mountains made it easy on the yes for a time, at least. Cemeteries, abandoned bus stations and animal herds punctuated the roadside, and we had a glimpse of a military barracks and a slice of small-town Kazakh life when we stopped to buy some fuel and snacks. One of the weirder side-shows was a city that appeared to consist only of garish casinos and luxury automobiles right in the middle of a great desert, the Las Vegas of Central Asia. This island of consumerism and excess in an ocean of majestic barrenness is apparently very popular with Arab sheiks and Russian oligarchs, according to our guide.

Altyn Emel is one of the more impressive sites I’ve ever seen, but tourism there seems practically non-existent. We were the only people present getting passes from the park authorities and Konstantin got us sorted out with paperwork pretty quickly. Over two days in the national park, we barely saw another soul. At one point, a small caravan with some tiny people in the distance. Part of this is the massive size of the area, the favourite comparison for locals being that it’s ‘four times the size of Hong Kong’, but it definitely feels like we had found an underappreciated gem. Certainly, it’s an expansive, tranquil place, completely free from bustle. We got around on the four-wheel drive, occasionally stopping to rouse a park ranger (few and far between) from their cabin to let us through a barrier. The rangers were cheerful and easy-going, and slow to respond, giving the impression that they don’t get many visitors at all.

first impressions

first impressions




the facilities

Our first destination in Altyn Emel were the famous Singing Dunes. These were impressively tall sand dunes constantly shifting under pressure from a powerful wind. Their ‘song’ could be heard as a kind of low moan to anyone who paused to listen. A sombre song indeed. We agreed that we had to climb the dune. Bear in mind that Konstantin had never been here before, and I’ve only ever conquered sandcastles.


ok here we go


It turned out to be a hell of a lot harder than we imagined. Our feet sank deep into the dunes, which contained hidden weak points, all the while sand flew into our eyes, making it really difficult to see where we were going. There were quite a few moments when I thought I would just stagger blindly off the dune and into a steep fall to a nasty end. At one point a shoe and a pair of sunglasses was sucked into the sand. My hardly heroic ascent was punctuated by plenty of pauses and shouting to regain my purchase and get my bearings. At the top of the dunes the sand whipped at my back and shoulders like a stinging lash, and I enjoyed my victory for a few scant seconds before ducking down behind a ridge for shelter.


Aaaaagh my eyes!


view from the edge


footprints in the sand





Despite the struggle, it was an epic feeling to climb all the way up and over the Singing Dunes and back again. After a brief rest we set off to another area. Although apparently populated by ibex, wolves and bird-eating spiders, we saw relatively few animals in Altyn Emel (although their presence was evident here and there by the occasional sighting of remains, such as a cracked horned skull or some gnawed bones), and the only decent photo we could get of one was actually in a tiny farm along the way to our camping site.




base camp



view from the hut



welcome to Mars


The stark barrenness and desolation of this expansive landscape lent it some kind of awe-inspiring stillness. The three of us were here without any other humans for miles around, and the great cracked and furrowed hills suggested a wild, alien surface. Dried up rivers glittered with minerals and the old stones bore proud scars in many colours. I felt like I had stepped onto a virgin planet.

Konstantin was chatty in the evening as we drank beer and vodka and swapped travel stories. We pitched up our tents as the desert warmth fled for the night, checking under every stone for scorpions at Konstantin’s repeated insistence. The night sky was rich with bright stars in that way that only manifests when the onlooker is far, far away from artificial light pollution. Sadly a whole night of stargazing was not possible, not just because of the aforementioned scorpions (and potential wolves) but because the cold and wind quickly stepped up to intolerable levels. Too intolerable, in fact, for our rickety tent, which flapped relentlessly and collapsed four times before my girlfriend and I just gave up and woke up a snoring Konstantin so we could sleep in the car.

The next day was the most physically hardcore and visually rewarding. Fortunately we had enough coffee to perk us up again after our lack of sleep. Much less fortunately, by now our camera had run out of battery and we were unable to recharge it, which means that end of Altyn Emel pictures for this blog. We spent the second day hiking, climbing and sliding up and down the mountains and canyons of Altyn Emel. The layered plateaus and mix of hard stone and soft earth led to a few dicey moments. Often we’d be walking along a narrow ridge with a short drop or gentle slope to a flat-ish surface on one side, but a very steep, high fall onto nasty looking rocks revealed on the other side. Although one could generally walk, there were a couple of times I had to climb with my hands and feet, hoping for dear life that the earth wouldn’t give way underneath me. Our guide was enthusiastic to a fault, often surging ahead and out of sight to get some good photographs, leaving us to play catch-up. I’ll never forget the time he did double back to check on us, when I was climbing up to a ledge –

‘Hey, you’re climbing on the wrong part, that’s dangerous, the rock can fall!’

I start reversing my climb.

‘Nooo, don’t go backwards on there, now just try to finish it’.

Yay, adventure.

The occasional fright aside, the whole experience was really something to cherish in the memories, especially since we couldn’t take photographs home. Throughout the whole ordeal we saw not a single human soul (although we found some tracks from a previous expedition), and had fantastic views of a genuinely beautiful natural landscape. I would’ve gladly spent another cramped night in the four wheel drive for another day of exploring, but our budget only allowed for two days and in the evening we had to take our dusty, exhausted and immensely satisfied selves back to Almaty.




~ by theserpentscircle on June 22, 2016.

2 Responses to “Kazakhstan part 5 – Altyn Emel”

  1. great post

  2. […] Part 5-Altyn Emel […]

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