We leave Almaty in the early morning at 7.00 am and continue the way to the east along the Zailiysky Alatau ridge. The ridge and its highest peak Talgar (4975 meters above sea level) are clearly visible from the car window. A flat steppe is from the north to the horizon and in 50 kilometers you can see the sand of the semi-desert approaching to the road.
In half an hour we arrive to Kapshagay (the so-called Kazakh Las Vegas) with several dozen pompous palaces on the central street of this small industrial town. It's one of two cities in Kazakhstan, where casinos are allowed.
Outside the city you can see the Kapshagay reservoir, which was built in the 80's and is 180 km long and 22 km wide, quite suitable for swimming. In the center of the town there is a military unit, where the legendary "Kapchagay battalion" was created under the leadership of the Kara-major.
After about 60 km we drive up to the ridge of the Malaysary steppe mountains. The road starts climbing along the serpentine to a small pass of Arkharly (from Kazakh "Arkharic"). Such ridges were rather densely populated by Arkhars mountain sheep 70 years ago. There are roadside cafes before climbing to the pass, but I like more a combination of price and quality in several cafe of Saryozek city.
We cross the Altyn-Emel pass (from Kazakh "golden saddle") just after lunch, and drive up to the Altyn-Emel Natural Park. The road to the park office from Almaty takes about 4 hours. We pay on arrival for a visit to the Natural Park and accommodation at the hotel. They provide us an attendant from the park. This is an obligatory condition, so we have to keep some space and take aboard a local ranger. In the office we spend about 40 minutes for the paperwork, and then we move to the Singing Dune.
About one hour to drive on a dirt road in the middle of the Kazakhstan Savannah surrounded by a ring of Dzhungar and Tyan-Shan mountains. The road is tolerable, but in some places like a washboard. Along the way, we pass two Jaeger’s cordon, where we show the permissive document for the transit. The road has several forks, as the Jaegers say, not everywhere you can ride, some directions are supplied with thorns from poachers. Exactly on the way to the Singing Dune you can often see kulans and Przewalski's horses.
Already at the entrance a yellow ridge of a huge dune becomes visible. On both sides as guardians, there are two stone volcanic origin mountains - the Large and Small Kalkans. Finally, we are near the Sand Dune, going up along the sharp sandy ridge. Legs are stuck in fine yellow sand; to go barefoot is not always possible, sand is too hot. From time to time the wind comes and cruelly lashes with sands on the open parts of the body. Photographic equipment is better to hide in trunks, to be available only in moments of calm. After 40 minutes we rise to the very top of the sandy peak. Above it is visible the wriggling ribbon of the Ili River, about 10 km from the Singing Dune, which in the lane. From Mongolian it means "flickering". Beyond the Ili River the horizon prop up the Zailiysky Alatau ridge from the south. The Dzungarian Alatau mountain system rises from the north-east. Part of the way we slide down on our buttocks. So the shifted sand is buzzing, partially justifying the name of the Singing Dune. We return to the car with pockets full of sand. On the way back we stop by the spring named after Chokan Valikhanov. Here you can relax a bit from the heat in the shade of a turango grove and wash up with slightly salty spring water. Turanga, a fairly rare species of poplar, grows in the semi-deserts of South America and Central Asia. The tree is notable for the fact that during the vegetative period it is capable of evaporating up to 30,000 liters of water.
In the same way we return to the hotel. After a day full of impressions, we will have a well-deserved rest, a shower and a delicious dinner.
Breakfast. It is advisable to plan the departure in the early morning, if you want to see gazelles. At this time they ply from the mountains to the watering place to the Ili River and back. We drive through several villages, where you can replenish the supply of drinking water. After 70 km we get to the heart of the park multi-colored Aktau mountains, and before that, according to plan, there is one more point of visiting, stone formations in the Katutau mountains. The road runs between the steppe ridge and the Ili River. After a while the short grass is replaced by haloxylon (saxaul). It is a semi-desert plant with very strong wood and roots extending under the ground to 30 meters.
We turn off from the main dirt road to the mountain canyon and after 20 minutes drive up to the most spectacular part of the Katutau mountains. One day the volcano erupted lava on sand dunes, like Singing Sand Dune. Afterwards, the weathering forces have sharpened the stone shell and exposed the porous dark-red sandstone of bizarre rounded shapes, consisting of numerous cavities and bends. We continue to move to the east, so multi-colored mountain ranges begin to appear to our left, a little later an incredibly white massif of the chalk mountains of Aktau shows up on the horizon. When we get closer, we find a desert mountains of red, orange, yellow, brown and over dozen of color spectrum, next to the white massif. After a short break for coffee and rest, we will continue our journey on foot deep into the gorges of these multi-colored mountains. We stock with water, cover ourselves with sunscreen, and begin climbing the corridors-gorges of stone and gypsum. There are another species behind every curve of the gorge. As we move forward, the colors and textures of the mountains around us constantly change. Columns, towers, castles, grottoes. Like if the art director's imagination for a movie about other planets was applied.
The rocks of the surrounding mountains are also heterogeneous: at one moment the whole labyrinths of soft sedimentary clay and limestone, then twenty-meter-high walls of basalt and granite. Wide stone gorges and corridors are with a shoulder width.
A completely different picture, if you climb one of the crest pathways. The breaks of the gorges and corridors are visible from above, along which we walked when we were down; variegated towers and columns, striped hemispheres of peaks.
From above, we see how the multicolored bends of the desert mountains pass into an endless valley, which as far as your eye can see, stretches to the south and ends on the horizon with a wall of the Northern Tien Shan. On the other side there are Dzungar mountains peaks covered with snow.
On the ridges of desert mountains crystals of gypsum sparkle in the sun, stitching the slopes single chains, then gathering in mosaics of meter panels.
There is still a surprise right before the descent. After another bend of the crest a place with the rocks of red and white soil opens.
The impression from the beauty of colorful Aktau mountains you can, and even I'm sure that must be increased, if to wait for the sunset. So an explosion of colors, like a brain explosion, are ensured. Of course, you need for this to spend the night at the foot of desert mountains in tents under the starry desert sky. But as they say, beauty requires sacrifice.
The deserted channels of Aktau mountains are safe in dry weather, but in the spring rainy season they could become mudflowing. Water gathers in valleys located above and rushes through the mountains. In bad weather, it is worth remembering this and avoiding going down into the riverbeds, let alone setting up tents.
Travel time - 3 hours
Walk - 2-5 hours
Total tour time - about 10 hours
Asphalt - 0 km
Dirt road - 170 km
Overnight at the hotel or in tent
Breakfast. We return to Almaty or continue our journey through the Altyn-Emel Park with a view of visiting the Besshatyr burial grounds. For this we return the same road about 140 km to the Shengeldy village, where we turn off the road and through the village we go first in the direction of the reservoir and then turn east and drive along it. We arrive at post number one to take aboard the Jaeger, and for about forty minutes to move along the dirt road between the steppe mountains of Zhelgashir and the Ili River.
The burial ground of Besshatyr stretches from north to south for 2 km, from east to west for 1 km, and consists of 31 mounds.
Guidebooks also indicate petroglyphs in one of the mountain canyons nearby, but it's still an hour of driving (there-back) on a bad road and sharp rocks, which in my opinion is not worth it. A dozen of fairly common petroglyphs of goats, sheep. The same road we return to main road and go back to Almaty.