Aksu-Zhabagly is Kazakhstan’s oldest national park. Located near Kazakhstan’s southern capital Shymkent, Aksu-Zhabagly is famous for its show of wild tulips in spring. It’s also a hot spot for birdwatchers and a few days in the reserve will definitely get you a sighting of a bear, a marmot or a wild mountain sheep.
Backpackers who don’t plan to camp and hike on trails outside of the national park will find Aksu-Zhabagly expensive. They are better off visiting the nearby Sayram-Ugam national park, which has similar natural attractions but lower prices. On the Uzbek side of the mountains, there is the Chatkal reserve.
What to do
Hiking and horse riding
Although the potential for long hikes or horse rides is present, it’s rarely done because you need a guide inside the park, which drives up the price.
Most hikes and horse rides will go for one or two days to some of the highlights of the park, like the 500m-deep Aksy Canyon, the Kishi Kaindy waterfalls and the peak of Kaskabulak, where petroglyphs of wild animals and horsemen have been etched into the rockface.
Birdwatching and botanizing
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. 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.
Walking around in Aksu-Zhabagly in April or May, 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, but tulips are just one type of wild flower here; you can find many more.
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.
How to visit
Within the national park, you will need to be accompanied by a ranger or a guide. The website of Wild Nature has a price list. You can organise trips via Svetlana or Ruslan, or via the park administration (which I believe, is also Svetlana).
There are a number of homestays and guesthouses in Zhabagly that are experienced in receiving foreign visitors. Svetlana and Ruslan mentioned above can host you, there is also Zhenia and Lyuda.
For backpackers: there are no dorm beds. Seeing how entering the national park is also expensive, backpackers are better off with the homestay network of the nearby Sayram-Ugam national park – much cheaper. Natural sights are much the same, the villages are quiet and traditional and the homestays can be booked online:
You can always camp as well. There is plenty of space, as long as you stay outside of the reserve.
A minibus straight from Shymkent leaves once a day, but not every day. More reliable is the bus to Tyulkubas (~500 tenge). From Tyulkubas you can take a shared taxi to Zhabagly village (~500 tenge). Expect the whole thing to take 2 hours.
You can also take the Shymkent – Almaty train and get off at Tyulkubas train station (2 hrs). The station is some way off from the village and there are no taxi drivers waiting for passengers, so it’s best if you arrange a ride in advance with your hosts.
More nature in Kazakhstan
We talk about some more great places to visit for nature lovers in Kazakhstan.