As if we were the only people left on a now uninhabited planet we drove, through the hungry steppe, on a perfect road, over an endless evening.
The sun bounced off the asphalt onto low hills in the distance, forming colours that have no name yet. And in the midst of this great, scary wilderness, a settlement. Horses roaming in the distance. Sheep being herded home over the road.
That’s Kazakhs for you.
Urunkhaika, a small village on the eastern side of Lake Markakol in the Kazakh Altai, was our destination. Back in Ust-Kamenogorsk, everyone kept telling us how amazing this place was. Gorgeous. Dazzling. Centerfold knockout.
But when we asked for more details, it turned no one had actually been there. You know, 14-hour drive. Potholes you can bury someone in.
Lucky for us, the road is new since 2015. It only takes 7 hours now. We drove out of Ust-Kamenogorsk in the pouring rain one afternoon, to catch the ferry over Bukhtarma at Kaznakovka. We traveled that road a number of times that summer and I loved it everytime.
Near Ak Baur and the Monastery, the steppe reaches its atmospheric pinnacle. Further ahead, around Asubulak and Samarka, the sweet mix of lakes, hills, trees and stones are great for camping and horse riding. So good, locals made it their lifestyle since the last few millennia.
We were just in time to catch the ferry. Once we got off the boat, we raced through those moody badlands of the opening paragraph at incredible speed.
When we reached Terekty, it was getting late. As the night fell the road got worse, the cell phone connection dropped and it started raining again. It was a challenging ride over the Marble Pass, but we got our first glimpse of China in the twilight, and 2 hours later, in a pitch-black night, we made it to Urunkhaika. Some people were still out in the rain. Calls were made, we negotiated a place to stay and went to bed.
Waking up in paradise
The next morning, we woke up in paradise. Looking out over the sunny lake from our window, we saw black cranes carelessly fishing in a little mangrove. There was no sound, just tiny little waves lapping ashore. A tangible placidity. I could have gone back to bed and slept for days.
Instead we went swimming. Eagles in Altai are a common enough sight, but here it looked like a conference. We could actually hear their wings beat overhead while we were swimming. We met some other tourists here from Aktau, visiting relatives, but summer tourism is still small-scale here for now.
Winter is the big season in Urunkhaika. From October to May the lake freezes over and fishermen, mostly from Russia, come for the Holy Trinity of vodka, banya and all-day ice fishing. Apparently they don’t bite in the summer (the fish).
We get invited for dinner by our neighbour Mariya. Her piercing blue eyes reveal a distant heritage; when prompted, she tells us she is of Estonian descent. Refugees from war and forced labour, they found a good place to hide away.
Like most people in Urunkhaika, she lives in a log cabin straight out of a Russian fairy tale. While her husband is fixing a tractor, she whips up “some snacks”. She is a very active, very happy lady, and why wouldn’t she be? Her cows produce whipped cream straight from the udder, or so it seems. The smell of camomille seeps into every corner of the house. And she has a brand-new daughter-in-law who now does most of the heavy lifting.
She apologises for her food, but really, her portions are mountainous. Fried fish from the lake, pancakes and ravioli, fresh tomatoes and herbs from the garden. Delicious.
They don’t have much money, and winter time can be harsh, but that’s what keeps them healthy, right, and they don’t desire much more. It’s that Altai spirit that we cherish. However, she is worried about Islamic terrorism, but we ease her mind: it’s unlikely to spread to Urunkhaika.
As this article shows, I had a really good time in Urunkhaika. As a man of stolid makeup, whose temper has been compared to that of a door, a washing basin and a sack of potatoes, I don’t often get excited about a place.
But Urunkhaika makes me sing. The place needs visitors to stay alive, as young people move out and tourism can pay for nature protection, but it would not be able to handle many before that special vibe dies down.
Like elsewhere in the world, overfishing is still an issue, but the nature surrounding Markakol seems well-protected, unlike most other nature reserves in Central Asia. More than 200 bird species await you, and they are still discovering new flowers here. Botanists, birdwatchers and photo-safarians are so so welcome.
So if you come, take your time.
Don’t come if you are not ready for it. It is far away for one, and it is a place that can change a person. You might want to take up gardening once you come back. Might want to work a bit less. If you are already into gardening, you might want to marry an Estonian and stay forever.
Herd sheep and dedicate yourself to silence.
Erzhan, the park ranger, has the best guesthouse at the moment. For 2500 tenge, you get a bed in a big separate dorm, with your own kitchen and banya.
In summer, he can also organise horse riding, or a boat across the lake to the other settlements or wildlife observation points. The park administration is for now still getting their act together. Maral farms can also be visited, they are still further down the road.
From Markakol, it is a 4 hour drive to Zaysan and a 7 hour drive to Ust-Kamenogorsk. The Austrian Road goes to Katon Karagay. Although it is only 60 km, it is best to take the whole day for the ride: it is equal parts beautiful and challenging.