About 4 times the size of Hong Kong, Altyn Emel national park in Kazakhstan is a big place with a lot to see. It is home to a diverse range of unique landscapes, historical sights and flora. It is especially a good place to see a number of rare large hoofed mammals. Approximately 260 km north of Almaty, it is one of the most accessible places to experience a piece of the great under-discovered Kazakh wilds.
Aktau and Katutau hills: The Aktau hills are a series of hills of great natural beauty. Bands of white, red and orange run horizontally across the range with striking effect. The Aktau hills are also known as a unique paleontological deposit. 56 species of Early Miocene flora like pine, spruce, birch, alder, oak, walnut, chestnut, linden, frame, pistachio, ailanthus have been discovered here, as well as remains of ancient animals like crocodiles, turtles and giant rhinos with an estimated age of 25-30 million years.
The Katutau hills are less spectacular, but certainly just as interesting. Blueish gray and brown sediments are dissected by sharp canyons about 40km away from Basshi. It’s quiet and beautiful here, and it is a good place to see the elusive arkhars. Past the village of Araltobe is a place called Kosbastau. There’s a hot water spring with radon in it, and a very large tree that is purportedly more than 700 years old. It definitely looks old.
To see all the sights you need at least 8 hours, and a jeep-style car is preferred as the track is worse than others in the park.
Singing sand dune: The singing sand dune, popping up unexpectedly in the steppe, emits a low, vibrating rumble when the sand moves. It’s 80km or 2 hours drive from Basshi. It’s a beautiful place, regardless of the music, and you can stay the night camping in nearby Mynbulak where the ranger lives if you don’t want to stay in the guesthouse in Basshi.
Terekty petroglyphs and Besshatyr: The Iron Age sights of Altyn Emel need to be approached from the west rather than from Basshi, and you will need to get your permit from the park’s representative in Almaty in advance to be let in here.
Terekty is a petroglyph site. There are many stone carvings spread out over the area, most of them in the shape of ibex, arkhar and deer. Besshatyr is the site of about 30 kurgans, ritual burial mounds for important warriors and leaders from previous civilizations. The Kyzylauz canyon is another pretty place with good wildlife spotting possibilities.
Turanga forests: Turanga is an endangered species of poplar tree that is endemic to the steppes of Kazakhstan. The turanga forests provide oases of green in the semi-arid, treeless steppes, and are home to many species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds and insects. They can be found along the Ili river and around the different springs in the park.
Chokhan Valikhanov has a small museum dedicated to him on the road to Basshi in the village of Valikhanov, where he has his final resting place.
Flora and fauna
Not counting insects and fish, at least 260 different animals live in Altyn Emel. There are endangered amphibians like the Siberian toad and rare and endangered birds like black stork, and imperial eagle. Of 78 species of mammals, 11 are recorded in the Red Book of Kazakhstan: stone marten, polecat, otter, manul (wild cat), wild ass, gazelle, argali, Asian barbastelle bat, Bukhara deer, lynx and Tien Shan brown bear.
Kulan, goitered gazelle, przewalski horse and Bukhara deer are all very special, endangered animals that deserve your attention and Altyn Emel is one of the few places on earth where you can witness these animals in their natural habitat.
Take binoculars, as most sightings will be from a distance. If you are really keen on seeing the animals, question your tour guide in advance on what sightings are possible, how you can increase your chances of seeing wildlife, and what is rather unlikely to happen.
Flora of the national park includes 1500 species of plants, including 22 rare and endangered species. Tulips, saxaul, tomyris and wormwood are the typical plants of this region that every visitor will enjoy on a visit to the national park.
- 2 days in Altyn Emel National with visiting Aktau mountains: the budget option with local guides. Price varies according to accommodation type, from guesthouse to tent.
- Scheduled 2 day group tour to Altyn Emel with a local established tour company. Full comfort with professional English speaking guide.
Contact the office at 8 705 610 25 11 in Almaty on Bogenbai Batyr 132, corner with Panfilov street, office N305 for more information and to arrange travel plans.
Entrance: Altyn Emel is divided in an eastern and a western section, with a specially protected reserve in the centre through which visitors are not allowed to pass. The village that holds the park’s headquarters is called Basshi and is the gateway to the eastern attractions like the singing sand dune and the Aktau and Katutau hills. The western part of the national park is best approached directly from Almaty; you will need to make payments in advance since you won’t pass through the visitor’s office in Basshi.
Prices: Entrance is now 1027 tenge, both for foreigners and Kazakhs. As a foreigner, you will likely be assigned a guide when you are in the reserve: cost is 600 tenge per person.
Accommodation: There are 5 different guesthouses spread out over Altyn Emel national park. Prices are in the 2500 to 5000 tenge range. Rooms are basic. Breakfast is an extra 500 tenge and usually consists of 1 fried egg, a sliced tomato and cucumber, some egg and sausage, tea and bread. You can also camp for free inside the reserve. Contact the park office for more information and bookings.
How to get there: If you do not have your own transport, you can book an English or Russian-speaking driver with a local company. You hire a car with a driver who will get you to Altyn Emel & back and stay with you for 2 days. Price for 3 people for 2 days is 540 USD. (180 USD per person) Accommodation, entrance fees, food, camping gear is included into the price.
Currently it is a 4,5 to 7 hour drive from Almaty to Basshi, depending on traffic jams in the city.
For cyclists: If you come by bicycle, you do not need a guide. You just pay the entrance fee and nothing else. You can camp near the ranger station inside the park at no extra cost. However, you are only allowed to cycle to the Singing Dune and back. Be aware that is is a tough cycle. Really, really badly corrugated road.
Itinerary: A possible 2-3 day itinerary. Arrive in Basshi in the afternoon, and visit the singing sand dune. Overnight, and visit the Aktau and Katatau mountains. Return to Almaty, or sleep again in Basshi and return the following day, with a possible sidetrip to the petroglyphs and Besshatyr on the western side of the park.
Map of Altyn Emel
The blue line leads to the Aktau and Katutau hills and the 700-year-old tree. The red line leads to Terekty petroglyphs and Besshatyr. The green line goes to the singing sand dune.