Kazakhstan, lying at the heart of Central Asia on the Old Silk Road, is a massive country spanning 2,717,300 square kilometres from the Caspian Sea to western China; an area the size of the whole of western Europe! Yet, with a population of just 17 million mostly living in the cities, this is a land of vast open and unpeopled spaces. Great stone and sand deserts, and wide grassy steppes occupy the great majority of the country, interspersed with such great inland lakes as Lake Balkhash and the Aral Sea. In dramatic contrast, along its south-eastern borders stand the mighty Tien Shan Mountains, the 1,610-kilometre spine of Central Asia and northern extension of the Himalaya which waters flower-filled alpine meadows, lush forests of Tien Shan Spruce and lowland Turanga, and feeds the great lakes and inland deltas to the north.
We reach Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, on a scheduled flight from Heathrow. This city, built as a Russian military outpost in the latter part of the 19th century, and formerly known as Verny (meaning Faithful) and more recently Almaata, is today a pleasant and abundantly leafy modern capital with a fabulous backdrop, nestling as it does beneath the peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains. From our hotel we overlook city parkland, and the towering and fabulously ornate wooden cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church which stands before snowbound summits.
We begin the tour by taking an overnight train to Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve, the oldest reserve in Central Asia having been established in 1927. The reserve protects some of the finest habitats of the Tien Shan Mountains, and to best explore it we will base ourselves for three nights in a simple guesthouse from which we will take day walks and optional pony rides into the reserve. This part of the holiday will be particularly rewarding, for Aksu Dzabagly is a botanical paradise with over 1,400 species, many of which are rare or endemic to the western Tien Shan, and include a wide variety of primulas, tulips, saxifrages, alliums and Astragalus, plus such fine endemic trees as Betula talassica and Populus talassicus. A rich selection of birds includes a number of raptor species and nearby steppe lakes promise such attractions as Little Bustard, Demoiselle Crane and Collared Pratincole.
Returning to Almaty by train, we then begin our exploration of the area that lies between the spectacular red sandstone gorges of Charyn Red Canyon and the riverine Ash forest of Charyn Yellow Canyon. The Charyn Canyons are east of Almaty, close to China’s border, and between them span wide green steppes where stately Demoiselle Cranes and Goitered Gazelles may be seen, together with huge breeding colonies of Rosecoloured Starlings, a dashing Saker Falcon perhaps, or even the elusive Pallas’s Sandgrouse. En route eastwards from Almaty we will pass agricultural lands where telegraph wires are decorated with Bee-eaters, Rollers, Isabelline Wheatears, Lesser Grey Shrikes and Red-headed Buntings, and we will stop to explore the rocky gullies of the Tien Shan’s outlying hills hoping to find Long-legged Buzzards, Pied Wheatears, and White-capped and Grey-necked Buntings.
We next focus our attentions on the Turanga forest. Turanga is an endemic species of poplar tree — Populus diversifolia — found along the banks of Kazakhstan’s rivers and in the inland deltas. The broad swathes of green that this riverine forest creates through an otherwise desert landscape provide habitat for such special birds as White-winged Woodpecker, the declining Eversmann’s Stock Dove, and Azure and Turkestan Tits, whilst in the associated Saxaul bushes lives the attractive Saxaul Sparrow. Such forests are found along the Ili River and we visit several areas of Turanga forest in search of these specialised residents. We also spend time exploring remote steppes and deserts that are home to numerous larks and wheatears, Macqueen’s Bustard, Blackbellied and the much rarer Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and the delightful Desert Warbler. Amongst the wayside plants we may find Nanophyton erinaceum, Convolvulus fruticosus and the endemic Limonium michelsonii, plus Haloxylon aphyllum, Halimodendron hallodendron, Eremurus anisopterus and Berberis iliensis in the more sandy areas.
We complete our circuit of the deserts and steppes with a visit to Tamgaly, where some fine rock engravings dating from the early Bronze Age are to be found, together with abundant Bimaculated Larks, Eastern Rock Nuthatches and Desert Finches and a number of interesting plants, including Juno kuschakeviczii, Gagea iliense, Iris alberti, Euphorbia jaroslavii and Eremurus altaicus.
On completion of our exploration of the Tien Shan we must reluctantly return to Almaty for our flight home. However, one final ornithological highlight awaits with a visit to the mountains above Almaty, where the splendid montane birdlife includes Himalayan Snowcock, Ibisbill, Himalayan Rubythroat and many other exciting species inhabiting the flower-filled mountain valleys.