Hiking in the remote wilderness of DJUNGAR ALATAU


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July 24th 2016
Published: August 15th 2016
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Kora valley
Early morning rise at the Sky hostel in Almaty, our guides Temirlan and Vladimir were to pick us up to start our journey to the base camp of the trek. They said at 6:00am, they were knocking on our doors at 5:30am! We hurriedly picked our stuff and left some things in the hostel locker that we don't need for the trek, including some food packs since the guys already bought our food supply for the next 6 days in the wild, so we brought as an add on mainly snacks. The day before, the boys met us with maps and written itinerary explaining our planned trek, not set in stone Temirlan says, depends on the weather and situation but we will try to follow the plan as best as we can, Vladimir seems to be sizing us up checking out if we are fit and experienced to this kind of trek, he seemed satisfied after the talk. Anyway, we had a quick breakfast at a cafeteria place nearby the hostel and off we go, a 3 1/2 hour trip on a private van, passing to our right the gorgeous mountains which I believe is a branch of the Tian Shan.
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campsite Tronov glacier, cooking on snow
I was so tired so I passed out, a brief pee stop and before you know it we are at Taldykorgan, the capital of Almaty Oblast. Here we changed into a custom made all terrain vehicle, the road to Taubulak eco campsite is unpaved and rough, to put it mildly, 6 to 8 hours we were told.

After all paperworks were sorted out(a permit is needed for this trek as it is in the frontier with China). A quick lunch of delicious lagman at a small restaurant on the way and off we go, after about 2 hours of flat roads we now hit dirt and we started bumping up and down inside the truck, there is an opening at the roof where we can stand and enjoy the view, I opted to stay inside and suffer for 6 hours, despite the extreme bumpiness you get to enjoy from time to time the beautiful scenery of rolling hills, with horses and cows and occasional yurts. A brief stop at a view point revealed a gorgeous view of the Kora river gorge. From here we have to walk down to a point where the road gradient is not dangerously inclined,
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campsite near Yuzhnaya river
so the truck comes down as we wait for it down below, we did so because of safety concerns, if the truck rolls over and we are inside, we are done deal, and its good to stretch out a bit.

Seemingly endless agony came to an end, we briefly stopped at the gorgeous Burkhan Bulak falls, the spray is so intense everything got wet in an instant, they have had lots of rain so the falls is raging. Then we proceeded to the eco camp site and what a surprise. I was expecting a rough camp site but this is well developed with chalets and dorm style accomodations. Even the toilets are flushable and very clean! The staff are super friendly with a welcoming smile, they had us settle to our room, we are the only ones there but apparently a group of 8 Russian alpinists were a day ahead of us, but their itinerary is different so the chances of us meeting them up in the wild is slim. We are apparently the first group doing this trek this year, and perhaps the only one. Late lunch was served then we chilled and relaxed taking a well deserved
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Kaskabulak valley
nap. Then we started packing our things, portioning out the food supply amongst the 4 of us, I rebel at the fact that with all this food my pack is at 20kgs! I don't know if I can do this trek, but the guides assured me we don't have to walk fast, we take our time and enjoy the scenery. Dinner of delicious manti and heaps of tea, followed by a trip to the in house banya, albeit in a cottage a bit farther from our dorms.

The moon was shining, a beautiful walk towards the banya cottage, where we all undressed and enjoy the hot steam. We have to put wood ourselves on the stove, its a small shack divided into 3 rooms, the undressing hallway,the resting room where a cauldron of cold water sits on the side, then the banya itself, our weary bodies submit to the relaxing feeling of steam enveloping your body and you sweat it all out. Then there was this fir branches they use for self flogging, typical of a Russian banya I would think, a delicious pine smell permeates as you swath yourself with it, I gave it a go, Temirlan assisting
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Kaskabulak valley
me with the flogging, but it was just intensely hot for me after a couple of rounds I walked out of the room and drenched myself with the ice cold water. While in the banya we drank beer, courtesy of the campsite, a welcome drink. The guides did not partake which I was surprised, and they explained that they don't drink while they are working, which kinda impressed me with the work etiquette this 2 young guys have and I can see already it's going to be a safe trek. That night we all slept like a log, and grudgingly got up around 8am for breakfast of yummy porridge and then we gather our backpacks and we started to walk leaving the comforts of the eco campsite behind.

DAY 1:

We followed a dirt road track for awhile , a gorgeous day, sun is shining, flowers abound, half an hour to the walk, we encounter our 1st stream crossing, off with the shoes then trudged on carefully to the other side. we brought neoprene socks and it helped because its a bit slippery and water is cold. Then we continued to walk until we reached the metal cable
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Campsite, near Kaskabulak gorge
by the river side. The river Kora is raging, apparently long ago there was a bridge but got washed away by spring melt. So Temirlan got us ready to cross, explaining in detail how. He went first monkey crawling to the other side of the cable, tied the ropes and came back. Vladimir went and secured the ropes from the other side as Temirlan secured the rope on to Till with boyscout knots as he was going next, we were supposed to be pulled by the rope to get across harnessed and carabinered to the metal cable, but did not work for Till he got stuck in the middle but eventually made it, its our first crossing so we are still working out the kinks. Then the backpacks went, one at a time, we all do this, coordinating as a team. Then my turn, I told Temirlan I will monkey crawl like he did as I don't want to get stuck in the middle, he was worried but I assured him I can do it. Monkey crawling was tiring but fun.

When we all crossed safely to the other side, we realized this is it now we are truly
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Kora Valley
on our own, away from civilization, we are in the wilderness. After high fiveing one another, we looked for a spot for lunch nearby a stream and rested for a bit. I thought it would just be snacking, but the boys cooked meals for lunch, each of us carried 4 gas balloons, am more than happy to get my first one used up. The lunch comprised of noodles and canned horse meat! I was apprehensive at first but it actually wasn't bad. Then more walking, past very tall flowering shrubs, wild onions and celery, and a variety of grasses. There are also the occasional pesky juniper forests, and its so hard to walk through them, you can't see what you are stepping on, or how far your feet will go down to . There are also rocks underneath the lush vegetation, I tripped a lot, and its not fun with a 20 kgs on your back. We started ascending slowly amidst a forest of huge rocks, and lush growth of flowering shrubs,the air is still and the mozzies are at their most active stage. We had been hiking for 8 hours when we stopped at the flattest area we can
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Kora valley
find amidst lush shrubbery. We are all tired and so set up camp while swatting the mozzies away near the raging Kaskabulak river at 2210m. The good thing about dinner is there is always chocolate for dessert, Temirlan and Vlad have a sweet tooth. Sleep was easy, though I was slanting down a bit, the ground I discovered was not so flat after all.



DAY 2:

After a hearthy breakfast we break camp and start ascending up towards the glaciers, our intent, to cross 2 passes, but that will be a day from now. The first snow line we encountered just 10 mins where we slept the night. After crossing the snow its a challenging hike up on lush slippery vegetation, there are no trails, we have to make them ourselves, I cannot see where I am stepping on, and the damn juniper bushes keeps getting me stuck. But the worst was the slippery vegetation, I could not seem to get good tracking, we are side hilling and I slipped down, a juniper bush ironically stopping me from going to the bottom of the hill and into the river. I rested a bit to wane off
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Taubulak, giant boulder
my frustration, I saw Temirlan above me encouraging me to keep going, I was a bit annoyed that I am down there and they were up there, only later will I find out the 3 of them also struggled to get a good footing. Somehow I made it up and around the hill catching up with the boys, crawling and hanging on to small bushes and dead roots, lifting myself up slowly. I gorged on the biltong we brought for snack soon as I settled where they were resting. Everyone is tired but we are still a long way up. We continued on and suddenly the valley opened up, and all sorts of flowers surrounds us, yellow and orange colors, it really was a spectacular sight and all the frustrations getting here disappeared. Then as we slowly walk uphill we spotted brown bears! A mother and 2 cubs, I thought they were marmots but split second as I pointed my camera to them I realized what they are, they are up on the hill on the other side of the river, they ran away quickly when Till screamed in excitement. We were all ecstatic in seeing them.

Lunch at
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Burkhan bulak falls
the top of the valley where a very cold stream runs down to . Cooked lunch, not horse this time, beef and of course chocolate for dessert. After the meal we all took a nap under the clear blue sky, power nap. When we continued we need to cross the river, At this time of the day, around 4pm the water is high and a bit strong current, due to snow melt, Till and I struggled to get across so Vlad and Temirlan took our backpacks and helped us tip toe from rock to rock avoiding getting swept by the current. Somehow we made it and we climbed up on the other side of the hill to find a nice campsite, next to the river below a forest of giant boulders. After setting camp we all cleaned ourselves in the cold river and had some tea from the wild mint we picked up along the way. And whilst having dinner we encountered teks, a type of wild goat, brown fur and curly horns, running down a snow covered slope in front of us, groups of 5 or 6 I think, we watched them disappear to the valley on the other
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dorm at Taubulak ecocampsite
side, what a fantastic day, 2 rarely seen wildlife in one day. Campsite is at 2,900m.

DAY 3:

Today is a big day, we will attempt to cross the 3,500m snow covered Kocketav pass. Once we got to the snow line, Temirlan had us put our harness, and gaiters on and connected us all on a rope via a carabiner with both him and Vlad on each end of the rope. This is done so if anyone falls or slips we can catch him and prevent an accident. This trek was thought out very well, am quite impressed, I have crossed so many snow covered passes here in Central Asia in the past with nothing but walking poles! Granted this is a longer crossing, the safety mechanism involved is well planned. Slow walk up to the pass, every so often we rest, I turned to counting my steps to get my mind off the redundancy of walking, the scenery is amazing, snow covered ranges surrounds us, pools of light blue snow melt dot the valley. You need sunglasses here or you will suffer from snow blindness, its so bright. As we head up and over the pass, some
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Taubulak eco campsite
dark clouds started to hover upon us, a sign that inclement weather might be on the way. I made my last step from the snow onto the giant rocks and we are at the top of the pass, then behind me I heard a scream, Till got his right foot slip on a hole on the edge of the rock, hyper extending his left leg, we all helped pry him off his heavy backpack, he wasn't a happy camper but at least just a minor injury. We rested amongst the rocks and took in the spectacular view of the Tektensai gorge below, but we are not done yet, we decided to cross the Tronov pass today seeing that bad weather might come we don't want to get stuck here. No lunch, just snack so in earnest we started clambering down massive boulders, and roping through the snow from island to island of rocks, slowly but with intent and eventually rewarded with a successful ascent to the Tronov pass roughly at 3,500 m. Vlad announced that there was a note left by the Russians who were ahead of us, the only other people here, on a canister inside the mound of
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Taubulak eco campsite, Vald and Temirlan our guides
rocks on top of the pass, enumerating where they went and where they are headed to, so Temirlan made the same for posterity's sake.

Then we started to head down, we found the old tracks the Russians used to climb up to the pass so we followed it down, trudging down a snowy slope is hard work even if you can slide down, the snow is deep and with heavy pack you sink, Temirlan warned us we have to steadily go down and not rest for a long time, pointing to an avalanched part to our right which probably was from days ago. We managed to go down to Tronov glacier, now to find a place to camp is not an easy task, we settled on a rocky outcrop, we have no choice, we are all tired and hungry after 10 hours of hiking and this is the best option at the moment. I set up my tent on top of uneven rocks, while Vlad took his time collecting flat stones and lining them up to use as their tent foundation so they can sleep on flat surface, honestly I can't be asked. Till put up his tent on
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Hike starts
the snow. It's getting cold now and started to drizzle as we prepare dinner, but it stopped and the sun came out. After dinner I was concerned about the tin cans we used for our meals, it's precariously close to my tent, what about the bears!?? Temirlan laughed at me, mentioning that whether we put it away now or tomorrow does not matter, the bears will still smell them if they are around. Thinking the rocky terrain we are on might put them off, I headed to bed, the guys laughed at me as they can hear me turn every time, after all I am on top of uneven rocks. Good thing my sleeping matt is cushy. Halfway through the night it started to rain and hail steadily and then harder and the winds came, I got worried when it started to howl and my tent roof is trying its best not to lie horizontal with the ground, luckily I did not peg my tent but secured them with rocks, at least the poles will not get stressed so much and snap, I hope. Temirlan came out and checked on me and Till to see if we are alright. I
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roping up for the metal cable river crossing
fell asleep then woke up to a howling wind storm, I stood up confused, I started packing all I have into my backpack, leaving my matt and sleeping back out and waiting for my tent to blow away, if that happens it would be easier to run to my mate's tents, I figured. But my fear was what if all our tents gets blown and we all soak in the cold rain and die of hypothermia. Which of course did not happen as the winds settled, but I did not sleep well. Temirlan later told me jokingly they also thought of running to our tents if their tents got blown away. We all survived of course, the boys won't make us put up tents on the glacier if it's not safe, and we are on a mound, so higher than the snow line technically. All around us though throughout the night we can hear rocks falling down like thunder, the force of nature, it's scary spectacular and we get to see and hear them from a safe distance.

DAY 4:

We have to wait out for the rain to abate around 9am and the boys were cooking breakfast
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lunch time, with horse tin meat
in their tents, we had our fill then broke camp making sure we take all our trash with us, which we have bags for it and portioned out between us. We try and leave no footprints behind. So now we walked down the glacier, the sun is up by now, how quickly weather changes up here, we made it safely to the tongue of the glacier, all the while roped and attached to each other, Temirlan showing us the crevices and warning to not step on the fresh snow. The glacier has receded he says, it used to be all the way down the end of the gorge, and so now we are walking on soil and rocks where the glacier used to extend to. The rain came back and we were all dredged in no time, the stream crossings even on boots got tricky and I slipped on the slippy rocks and bruised both my shins . We sheltered between 2 huge rocks, using a tent fly to keep us dry and we all huddled in together, shivering. When we realized the rain is not stopping soon we decided to keep going down the valley, raining as it may,
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Kaskabulak valley, pesky juniper bushes
the scenery is spectacular, wild flowers everywhere, sadly we cannot stop to enjoy them, Now we are trying to find a way to cross the river Kora but its raging partly due to the rain from last night, so we kept walking all the way to nearby tributary, the Yuzhnaya river where Temirlan is sure we will be able to cross amongst islands of rocks. But we were exhausted, and walking through wet boulders was not fun so we decided to pitch tent on a nook where wild flowers abound, next to the river. I must say am appreciative of Vlad keeping an eye on me this day, my knees were buckling from exhaustion, and was lagging way behind after I fell, was a long day for us 10 hours of hiking. The boys begin to cook dinner while we set up our tents, the sun finally came out and winds gusting, we put out all our wet clothes to dry, sun or wind does not matter. Our water source is a bit muddy, as the rains caused the river to get cloudy but we managed, we just let the water sit out awhile, thanks to our 10 L foldable
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Kaskabulak valley
water bucket.

DAY 5:

Beautiful day to start with, left camp around 9:30am and head up the Yuzhnaya valley to try and find a suitable place to cross the river. We found one but took awhile with safety harness, ropes and all, we slowly and one at a time hopped from island to island of rocks until we got to the other end, we high five each other after the task was done, the current was still strong, and we all crossed with our boots on and so we are all soaking wet, We try to squeeze out the water from our socks before we start to hike again only to realize after we put our boots back on that there is another small stream to cross! Then we walked for 2 hours amongst a sea of wild flowers, juniper bushes, craggy rocks, boggy swamps all the while being bugged by mozzies. We took lunch next to a stream. Everyone stripped off to dry all their clothes in the sun as Temirlan and Vlad gets lunch ready, we are sat in a sea of yellow flowers, bees humming around us and mozzies nip at every opportunity sans the
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Vlad our guide, Kaskabulak valley
wind. It was an amazing lunch with tin cans of tuna and sardines.

After a good rest we hiked again for 4 hours, same terrain, with flower fields as tall as us, I cannot see my friends in front of me, I just follow the trail they make from the lush vegetation. Finally we ended up near a snow measuring device from the old Soviet Union days, Temirlan went off to find the metal rope cables we are to cross to tomorrow along the river edge. Meanwhile Vlad, Till and I were feasted on by mozzies but we discovered a way to ward them off, we fashioned a swatting device from the tall wild celery stalks that abounds around us and it was a welcome relief, the mozzies left us alone. Temirlan comes back smiling, he found it and he also found a good site to camp for the night.We set up camp next to the river. Vlad started a fire so we can dry our boots and clothes. After dinner we lingered around watching as the full moon comes out illuminating our camp. My boots got drier near the fire. We made some tea from the wild mint
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Kaskabulak valley, tall flowers
that we found next to the camp. Such a beautiful night, Temirlan attempted to sleep under the stars but it got wet in the early dawn.



DAY 6:

Last day of hiking, cloudy start but the sun is peering from time to time, We walked to where the metal cable is and we crossed to the other side. This time easier because we know what to expect but still took an hour to cross as we have to swing our packs across as well. Another couple of hours walk once on the other side and then last cable crossing. Because of the rain this one was tricky as the ground was muddy so we have to be slow, big celebration awaits us at the Taubulak campsite. A couple hours of walk amongst wild flowers once again and we found the dirt road track leading us to the base camp, only, some areas are flooded by overflowing streams from the rain,so we have to go around the path. I cannot describe the sigh of relief once we arrived at the camp, I dumped my backpack in the dorm and hopped on the bed to chill. I downed
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Kaskabulak valley
my first beer in a week while relaxing in my bed, then lunch was called, sashylik, which we special ordered, what a feast. In the evening delicious manti before heading to the banya again to relax our tired muscles. Needless to say we had the best sleep in days on a comfy bed, and we are clean and smelling good once again. The base camp is empty only us, the Russians left the day before.



The next day after breakfast we head back to Taldykorgan via the all terrain vehicle once again, another bumpy ride but well worth it, this by far is the best wilderness hike I have done, so remote you feel isolated from the rest of the world, and the guides were as professional as they could ever be, took care of us from river crossings or going up the pass, they cooked for us and looked after our needs, for that a big thanks to Vlad and Timerlan , they made the trip a success.



FYI: this trip was booked with Almaty City Tours, If u are looking for a wild hiking adventures off the beaten path and have some
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Kaskabulak valley
time to spend in Kazakhstan, contact them for this tour and ask for Vlad and Temirlan to be your guides. You will not regret it.

http://www.eng.city-tour.kz/


Additional photos below
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tongue of Kaskabulak glacier
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tongue of Kaskabulak glacier
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tongue of Kaskabulak glacier
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on the way to Tronov glacier
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Kaskabulak valley
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Kaskabulak valley
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bears!! Kaskabulak valley
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Kaskabulak valley
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Kaskabulak valley
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Kaskabulak valley
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hiking to Kochetav pass
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crossing Kaskabulak river
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campsite next to Kaskabulak river
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camping next to Kaskabulak river
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camping next to Kaskabulak river
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camping next to Kaskabulak river
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start of hike to Tronov glacier, our guide Temirlan
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our guide Vlad
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hiking to Kochetav pass


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