Aksu-Zhabagly National Park

Published: January 31st 2012
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The Aksu-Zhabagly national park is the oldest in the country, I stayed with the nicest couple, Elmira and Lammert, at their home turned hotel, called Wild Natures, with the wife, Elmira's elderly parents, and their two adorable 3 and 5 year old daughters. They had a lovely big garden complete with a big dog & various cats. It was right at the end of the tourist season, so the only other guy there was Panos from California (originally Greek), who'd worked in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan twenty years before, and spoke fluent Russian. Lammert, who was from Holland, spoke a whopping seven languages, and was a lovely guy with puppy dog eyes and this great chuckle that sounded almost exactly like Doctor Hibbert from the Simpsons.

"We arrive at our hut at about 5 o'clock after our first day of trekking. Walking along the paths trodden down through the steppe, watching snow capped mountains appear while hundreds of little crickets, previously completely invisible jumped out of the way of my footsteps. Occasionally I'd turn a corner and all of a sudden i'd hear the roar of a freezing waterfall flowing down the hillside from the mountains.
Our four horses- one ridden by Gabeet, the rest tied in turn behind, trod on before us, making sneaky attempt to eat any particularly tasty looking plants they came across. Once whilst riding my (somewhat stumbling) horse, I'm sure I saw him stare out across the mountains, seemingly also marvelling at the beauty of the reserve, as I was, wondering what secret hidden eyes were watching us from those peaks- Ibex? Bears? The elusive snow leopard? My horse & I also had a constant battle of comfort- he didn't like walking in the middle of the paths with the hard rocks, I didn't like the sides where my legs would get grated by the thistles & thorn bushes, so there was a constant push & pull (I'll be honest, he usually won) to find a middle ground.
Elmira, the lovely smiling & adventurous co-runner of Wild Natures, decided to join us on our trek. She had an obvious passion for nature, and was constantly delighted, as I was, by every living thing we came across. She pointed out plants & their history & uses, insects, lizards, birds (she loved birds), tracks and droppings of every animal in the reserve.

After we got to the cabin, I sat down to make up my bed & read the last ten pages of my book ('In Search of Kazakhstan' - Christopher Robbins, a great introduction to the country) when Panos came into my room to tell me they'd spotted a bear on the mountain. I ran outside to see, but unfortunately I was too late, the bear had gone behind the rocky outcrop already, he must have known we were watching him...
We sat outside sharing binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of more far-away wildlife, frequently going inside for another layer as the sun made it's way behind the peaks. Within an hour I had gone from shorts and t-shirt, to five layers of shirts, thermals & jumpers, three layers on my legs (plus one more on my feet) & warm wooly hat, and gloves.
Eventually we were rewarded with a sighting of two ibex (a bit like a goat) standing far out on a rock near the top of the snowy peak, you could just about make out the outline, with big curly horns, against the white background.
At six o'clock dinner was served- steaming hot noodley soup, followed by macaroni, made fatty,
Hut in the HillsHut in the HillsHut in the Hills

Kitchen & dining room where we stayed for two nights in the mountains. Sorry about crappy photos but just so it gives you an idea...
greasy & tasty by the delicious chunks of lamb it was boiled with. Then came more chai, with jokes & stories. Of the four of us, Panos & I spoke English, while Panos & our two Kazakh experts all spoke Russian, which means much of the time they spoke together & Panos translated when he could. I'm sure it must have been pretty exhausting at times for him to constantly be relaying conversation, and I wished I could take part more in the banter, but it was wonderful, & so much better than if I was alone without Panos, rather than speaking in broken English trying to convey basic feelings of cold, hunger & excitement, we sat around the table telling soviet style jokes while drinking cup after cup of chai or coffee (with biscuits for dunking), and learning about each others backgrounds, education & families.
Elmira & Gabeet argued the merits and problems of life in the pre and post USSR years: Gabeet preferred Soviet times, Elmira modern. However, Gabeet has only seen life under communist rule, & the slow progression afterwards... during communist time, the village had better facilities, a cinema, good education etc. Slowly it's being built up again after the soviet union collapsed, but it takes time. Elmira on the other hand has traveled a little more further afield- visiting Lammerts family in Holland and elsewhere in Europe, & knows what the future can be.
They also talked about how Kazakhstan is different to life in the west. When Elmira visited Lammert's family in their small village, she found the people & attitudes very insulated & selfish compared to people in the village in Kazakhstan, she missed a proper community, and the duty, love and respect she felt should be shown to parents and other family members.

After dinner we went outside (after putting on yet another hoodie, another layer of gloves, and a rather fetching balaclava to put on under my hat) and stood on the step, chatting some more while Gabeet went to fetch the horses that had wondered off before he returned to sit & smoke a cigarette next to where we stood. The sun was setting slowly behind the mountains, while an almost blindingly bright full moon appeared from the opposite direction. The cold clean air was still & quiet, the only noise the distant streams, and the loud chomping of the horses filling up on grass all around us. I thought what an odd bunch we looked- Gabeet in his military outfit, big black buckled boots & big blue furry soviet hat, the flaps tied above his head, smoking his cigarette, I have so much respect for him, with his wonderful sense of humour & immense knowledge about the reserve, he's such a likeable guy. Elmira, mullet hair cut covered by a beanie hat & just a simple fleece (she seemed the toughest of all of us, apparently she was used to the cold), always smiling contentedly. Panos, in all the latest North-Face gear, thick socks & sandles, his head torch wrapped around his beanie hat & hood, & me looking fairly ridiculous with my makeshift thermals, balaclava & bobble hat, & most un-hiker-fashionable All Stars & jeans.

Soon we all went inside to the relative warmth of the house, now, still fully clothed & with another pair of socks, I'm wrapped up in my sleeping bag(s). When I came in there were hundreds of flies buzzing about, now it's all dark & silent. I'm tired after todays walk, my left hand (the one that's not writing)
My RoomMy RoomMy Room

Imagine the sound of a million buzzing flies
is getting increasingly numb & sore with cold, & my right arm's actually starting to creak. This time last week I was drinking ale in a pub in battersea, not knowing what to expect from this big unexplored country, it's pretty cool so far. I'm tired. In Kazakhstan, instead of 'sleep like a log', they say 'I'll sleep like a chicken in a boot', that'll be me tonight."

The next day we did see a bear, several in fact, which was pretty awesome. I also had one of the most memorable nights ever the following evening, when Elmira & Gabeet tried to teach us the most confusing Kazakh card game with ridiculous rules, which was very funny with Panos shouting in frustration, Elmira cracking up & Gabeet shouting back at Panos for not understanding. In the end we played a game Panos knew, but there was just something so awesome about it- A Russian, a Kazakh, a Greek and a Brit sitting in a cabin half way up a mountain, around a table with all our coats, hats & layers, playing cards by candle light. We couldn't have had more different backgrounds, more different lives, and yet there we

One of my Yurt-mates
all were, laughing & joking playing cards together, it was such a fun night, one of the best I've ever had.
In was a really amazing couple of days, both with the wonderful company, and being surrounded by such beautiful views, as Gabeet often said, with his limited English "Nature is good".

We returned to the village in the evening the next day, where I headed back out to the fields for a night in a traditional Yurt (big hut made out of sheep skin & decorated with carpets inside, basically). This was made even better by my two awesome room mates. That morning someone had dropped off two kittens that couldn't have been more than a few weeks old, whoever left them must have known with two little girls in the house, they'd be well loved. Actually a little too well loved- Panos & I winced watching them throw the poor little things about like toys. Elmira was also pretty allergic to them, so the decision was made that they should come up to the Yurt with me & later go live on the farm close by. It was very cold in the yurt, so though at first they were keen to explore their new space, once I got the duvet out (and all the bugs off of it) they just curled up next to my stomach under the covers all cozy, and soon we were all sleeping soundly.

The following evening after a long day exploring the canyon- yet more breathtaking views of wild horses galloping along dirt roads, snow capped mountains, golden eagles, and trying to avoid tarantula traps, I left Aksu-Zhabagly, and got my night bus to Kyrgyzstan.

It wasn't the greatest journey. I have my own weird fail safe way of curling up backwards on plane/train/bus seats, which was totally foiled by the seats going almost all the way back, leaving about two inches of space between your chin & the seat in front, so you have to sleep flat on your back, with no room to move, which is both uncomfortable, if like me, you never sleep that way, and very claustrophobic.

This was made all the more irritating by the fact that the (large. Understatement.) woman in front of me apparently required two seats to stretch all the way out on, and insisted on putting both fully horizontal. This same, um, heffalump, also made the driver put on the DVD she'd brought along. The worst, most highly saturated, low budget Russian soap opera you can possibly imagine, as far as I could work out it involved a sweet but unlucky young Russian girl, her boyfriend who impregnated her pretty early on, a corrupt alcoholic doctor, and then a variety of really rich old men, who always had youngish bimbo girlfriends with MASSIVE shirt potatoes, who'd have a habit of getting themselves into situations which involved lounging seductively with a magazine in a skimpy dressing gown. Truly inspirational stuff. Oh, and the theme tune was shit. This played for five hours, at a speaker distorting volume, watched, it would seem, only by tubs McGee in front of me while everyone else tried to sleep. When I finally arrived at the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border at 5am, I was exhausted, and after trying to haggle with taxi drivers, after interrupting what seemed to be a particularly pressing poker game they were playing, pointing at Lonely Planet pages and indicating that I was not, in fact, a millionaire, I eventually was on my way to the capital, Bishkek, and my hotel. When I finally got to that cozy bed, with crisp white sheets, and cold, soft, pristine white pillows, it took all of about three seconds for me to pass out dead. No chicken has ever experienced such a comfy, sleep inducing boot.

The next day, the Dragoman truck pulled up, and I met my group for the next month for the first time.


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