Past the Kapchagay reservoir about 100 km north of Almaty, on the banks of the Ili river, you can search out markers of a time when Buddhist thought held sway, and epic B-films were funded by the Kazakh government to boost patriotism.
On the right bank of the river a set of Buddhas carved in the rocks date back to the 18th century. On the left bank, almost directly opposite, stands an abandoned film set built for the epic “Nomad”.
The outskirts of Almaty drag on forever, and the landscape only becomes glorious once past the beaches and casinos of Kapchagay.
Turn left past the bridge over the Kapchagay reservoiir, and the Buddhas of Tamgaly Tas (not be mistaken with the petroglyphs of Tamgaly) are easily found. A trail leads up to them, and they are surrounded by prayer flags. The carvings are in a remarkable state considering their age, although vandals have done damage.
The largest composition carries 3 wonderfully carved Buddha figures sitting on lotus flowers. The Bodhisattva Nagarjuna is depicted on a boulder to the left. One more Buddha can be found a bit closer to the river.
Further on, signs in Tibetan, Dzunghar and Manchu and petroglyphs of animals can be found scratched into the walls. The figures were most likely drawn by 18th-century Dzhungars who had converted to Tibetan Buddhism 2 centuries before.
Swimming, kayaking and climbing
On a hot day, you can cool off in the river here.
Climbing happens on the challenging rock face just above the Buddhas. Bring your own gear or get in touch with the climbing community of Almaty.
Local tour companies can help you with the rent of kayaks – we cannot recommend anyone at the moment. The kayak tour will start 20 km before Tamgaly Tas and passes a military training ground and a wrecked Soviet barge. Besides the attractions, it’s a lovely way to take in the expansive scenery as you float down the river.
Nomad film set
On the other side of the river, a small walled city was built as a set for the 2005 movie Nomad. In the early 2000s, the Kazakh government pumped 40 million dollar into a rousing historical epic on the life of national hero Ablai Khan. We agree with one reviewer who said that “the gorgeous locations and epic fight scenes don’t compensate for laughable dialogues and a terrible story full of clichés.”
The fake city is an amusing sight. Cardboard “ceramic tiles” have fallen off walls that reveal a gaping hole behind them. You can play out your scenarios next to the fake catapults, laying siege to the fake brick walls on the turrets.
Other films have been filmed here, such as the Russian 2006 event film Day Watch.
An entrance fee of 200 tenge applies for Tamgaly Tas when the caretaker is around, which seems to be weekends only. The caretaker of the film set tends to always be there, he charges 300 tenge entry.
All tracks are possible with a 2WD, but a 4WD crossover is recommended. If you don’t have your own transport, hitchhiking will take patience as traffic is low once off the main road to Kapchagai. Be aware that, unless you manage to swim across the river, visiting both sites requires 50 km of backtracking over the bridge at Kapchagay.
We recommend to go during weekdays. In the weekends, the place is crowded with city people. Avoid July and August, when temperatures soar well above 40 degrees Celsius.
Tamgaly Tas works well as a stopover in a longer loop covering Almaty region’s highlights.