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The Tien Shan Mountains & Deserts of Kazakhstan

Tour Code: KAZ03

A birdwatching holiday to the deserts, steppes and lakes of Kazakhstan, including four days in the spectacular Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve high in the Tien Shan Mountains.

16 days from £3595(inc flights) Land Only Price: £3145 SRS: £295

Bigger than Western Europe, Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, a land of steppe-deserts, high mountains and deep gorges populated by an amazingly diverse flora and fauna. During this holiday we have the opportunity to savour each of these habitats, encountering along the way rare plants such as wild tulips, montane birds including Himalayan Snowcock, and the sandgrouse, larks and bustards adapted to the rigours of desert life. This is a holiday full of contrasts, abundant natural history and breathtaking scenery.

  • Beautiful, varied landscape of mountains & deserts
  • Impressive Palearctic avifauna sprinkled with oriental specialities
  • Demoiselle Crane, Little Bustard, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater & Pallas’ Sandgrouse
  • Abundant flora of over 1,400 plants including many endemics & rarities
  • Traditional Kazakhstan hospitality
  • Led by expert naturalist guides
  • Possibility of rare mammals such as Goitered Gazelle


All included in the price.


Comfortable hotel of international standard in Almaty; simple guesthouses in Aksu Dzabagly and the Tien Shan Mountains. Fully serviced camping elsewhere.

Demoiselle Crane (Arpit Deomurari)

Demoiselle Crane (Arpit Deomurari)

Outline Itinerary Download

Day 1 Fly Almaty

Day 2 Overnight train to Aksu Dzabagly

Day 3/5 Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve, Tien Shan Mountains

Day 6 Overnight train to Almaty

Day 7/8 Charyn Red and Yellow Canyons

Day 9 Return Almaty

Day 10/12 Turanga Forest, Tamgaly and Taukum Desert

Day 13/15 Tien Shan Mountains

Day 16 Fly London

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.

Pallas's Sandgrouse (Alan Curry)Güldenstädt's Redstart (Phil Haywood)Azure Tit (Phil Haywood)White-winged Woodpecker (Phil Haywood)Sykes's Warbler (Alan Curry)Shikra (Phil Haywood)Long-tailed Shrike (Alan Curry)Lesser Kestrel (Alan Curry)Himalayan Rubythroat (Colin Bradshaw)Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Alan Curry)Eversmann's Stock Dove (Alan Curry)Eurasian Hoopoe (Alan Curry)Demoiselle Crane (Alan Curry)Dalmatian Pelican (Alan Curry)Chukar (Alan Curry)Caspian Gull (Alan Curry)Calandra Lark (Alan Curry)Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Alan Curry)Bimaculated Lark (Alan Curry)Collared Pratincole (Alan Curry)Desert Tented Camp (Reg Thorpe)Little Bustard (Alan Curry)Paddyfield Warbler (Alan Curry)Tien Shan (Reg Thorpe)White-winged Grosbeak (Phil Haywood)Tien Shan MountainsTien Shan Mountains
Overall this was a very enjoyable successful trip...just great.
Many thanks must also go to the staff (ground operator) who worked exceptionally hard to provide us with a superb trip and who were also exceedingly pleasant and helpful people. Tony Smith must also be the epitome of a great group leader. Superb birding ability and knowledge, coupled with excellent people skills. Life doesnt get much better than this!
West Yorshire
I cannot praise the leader, Peter Clement, highly enough. A superb leader.
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Sat 27th April 2019 - Sun 12th May 2019



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Flights: Flights are included in the tour costMore info

Regional Departures: Regional Departures are available. Call 01962 733051 for detailsMore info

Land only cost: £3145 More info

Room sharing options: More info

Visiting: Kazakhstan

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Overall this was a very enjoyable successful trip...just great.
C.R., Cumbria