Yes, beauteous is a word, and it perfectly describes the Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserve. Located near Kazakhstan’s southern capital Shymkent, the town of Zhabagly is the gateway to a huge area of wilderness that straddles the border with Uzbekistan. 2 other national parks protect this important area for biodiversity: nearby Sayram-Ugam and, on the Uzbek side, the Chatkal biosphere reserve.
The territory of the nature reserve encompasses diverse environments, from steppe and upland meadows known as zhailaus, to juniper forests, glaciers and high-altitude mountains like the glorious Peak Sayram at +4200m.
Big animals you have a chance of encountering are marmots, ibex, lynx, wolves and bears. Snow leopards also roam the high mountains, but as usual, you are unlikely to spot them, just as the yeti who is supposed to live in the area.
What to do
Whether your aim is to go for a litte day hike or you want to go deep into the reserve for weeks at a time, the possibilities are almost boundless in Aksu-Zhabagly.
The impressive Aksu canyon lies around 25 km west from Zhabagly. Standing on the ridge, you peer 500m down at the wild Aksu river bringing white glacier water to green the steppes. The scenery is stunning, and the way up is beauteous as well.
In springtime, millions of flowering red tulips contrast with the deep green grass on the high plateau. Horses run wild here in summer. Their owner leaves them alone, and they elect the strongest horse to be their leader.
Other destinations you might want to inform about on your arrival in town are the cascading Kshi Kaindy waterfalls, the Ulken Kaindy gorge and the peak of Kaskabulak, where petroglyphs of wild animals and horsemen have been etched into the rockface, thousands of years before the invention of the pencil.
A cave holding some stalactites and stalagmites lies beyond the nature reserve. It’s dark and lonely there, take a guide if you are interested. If you have seen a cave before, you are unlikely to be impressed though. However, you can use the cave as the jumping-off point for a worthwhile walk that connects artificial lakes and runs through orchards and fields.
Horse riding and village life
Every trail that can be hiked is good for horse riding as well, and the Ecotourism Center and the different guesthouses can easily set up things for you. If you are simply looking to get a taste for Kazakh village life, this is perhaps one of the easiest places to do it if you don’t have your own transport.
Things I did in Zhabagly on my last visit: had a kymis-tasting evening, ate heaps of meat, sat on the floor and joined our hosts in a couple of rounds of chai and played football with the village men. If you are a good-looking guy like myself, expect loads of broad golden smiles from scarfed ladies surrounded by kids and cows begging for attention.
50 km from the town of Zhabagly lies the Mashat canyon. A pleasant enough place to hang out and go for a picknick, it is also promoted as a place for rock climbing. Its steep walls definitely have potential, but as far as we know, there is no one providing services, so it is pioneers only, for now.
Even if you are not a birdnerd, birdwatching is something you will inevitably end up doing in Aksu-Zhabagly. Many colourful species inhabit the gardens of the village people in the village – enough to get anyone excited. In the open grassland, bee-eaters, warblers, tits and blue rollers rollick, while the higher reaches are ruled by eagles and vultures, like the magnificent bearded lammergeier.
If you are a dedicated twitcher, visit the Karatau mountains for a chance to spot the rare paradise flycatcher. You also will not want to miss the Shakpak birdringing station. Located in a pass between the Tien Shan and the Karatau mountains, thousands of birds pass through here daily in migration periods.
Tulips are from Kazakhstan
The Tien Shan mountains harbour many secrets, and they are the likely birthplace, not only of the apple, but also of the tulip. Walking around in Aksu-Zhabagly in April or May, it is difficult not to believe it, as the fields are awash with wild tulips. Greig’s tulip and Kaufmann’s tulip are 2 wild species that grow in abundance in Aksu-Zhabagly. They were instrumental in the establishment of the cultivated tulips that became the symbol of Holland in the Middle Ages.
The Tien Shan are filled with incredible displays of flowers never seen before by visitors living outside of Central Asia. It can be really quite magnificent at times.
Want to check out other nature reserves in Kazakhstan?
Have you been to Aksu-Zhabagly before? What did you think?