It always takes some time to get out of Almaty, and a bit more on the morning of the 1st of September, when proud overdressed parents are obstructing traffic, framing their kids for that all-important photo-op. But in the end, we do get out. Our aim is the banks of the Ili river, to search out markers of a time when Buddhist thought held sway, and epic B-films were funded by the Kazakh government to boost patriotism.
The outskirts of Almaty seem to drag on forever, and the landscape only becomes glorious once past the beaches and casinos of Kapchagai. We cross the bridge over Ili next to the dam that forms the artificial Kapchagai Lake, and take a turn left towards the village of Bakanas, the site of the world’s most northerly rice fields.
Suddenly all human activity deserts the land. Only flat steppe remains, endless, peerless. Some parts are burned, apocalyptic wasteland now. In other parts, the grass has turned blonde like a Norwegian in August, a supernatural yellowish white sparkling in the midday sun. Oh yeah, it’s still hot here, much hotter than in the city. But we’re not sweating; the heat is dry as paper.
Not for long, we take another left, back towards the riverbank on a dirt track. A gate marks the spot, and 2 gazebos have been built for pick-nickers. Some of the benches are missing, raided for barbecue fires, but after we chase out some cows looking for shade, we have a nice lunch. It’s supremely silent here. Just us, the wind, the river, and the cows munching on plastic left over from weekenders.
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.
Don’t forget your swimsuit! I forgot mine, but I went for a refreshing little dip in the nude anyway, with just a lone fisherman on the opposite side of the river as a silent witness. The water was soft and warm.
Swimming is a good way to reach the attraction on the other side of the river, a small walled city 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. Having seen it, I can 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.”
Left without swimsuits, we drove back to Kapchagai to the turn-off towards the village of Kazakhstan, the favoured place for Almaty’s fishermen. A number of dirt tracks lead to the river. The first ones are 4WD-only, further on there are more gentle paths where you can turn back towards the set.
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 of this funny miniature city. Other films have been filmed here, such as the Russian (Kazakh-directed) 2006 event film Day Watch. We were surprised to see it was under restoration again now, 10 years later, for a new film, although we could not tease out more details from the Uzbek workforce. 2 Orthodox priests had also come for a visit with their flock. They also didn’t know more about the new movie, but were happy to chat with us, and offered up tea and cheese on a biscuit.
For a round-up of updated practical info on visiting, see our travel guide to Ili river.