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Tian Shan

Trekking in the Northern Tian Shan Mountains


Back in Almaty – work again! But this time I didn’t come alone but was accompanied by my wife Anna, who I met travelling and we are still travelling well together. Anna, all keen to explore the secrets of Kazakhstan, arranged a three day hike through the Northern Tian Shan Mountains. We were picked up at the hotel on Friday morning, punctual at 7am, to be driven into a small valley just East of Medeo. At around 1800m the ride ended and the hike started. We went straight up to the Butakovsky Pass at almost 2900m. Not a walk in the park exactly, but a beautiful hike rewarded by a spectacular view over snow capped peaks over 5000m:

View from Butakovsky Pass over some peaks towering over 5000m. Slightly boring,  thinks our guide Alexander, who failed on his expeditions to Everest and Lhotse, but stood on the summit of Makalu. Alexander, it has been a pleasure to hike with a man who climbed an 8000 without oxygen!
View from Butakovsky Pass over some peaks towering above 5000m. Slightly boring, thinks our guide Alexander, who made attempts on Everest and Lhotse and stood on the summit of Makalu. Alexander, it has been a pleasure to hike with a man who climbed an 8000 without oxygen!

The walk down Butakovsky valley through fields of wild raspberries was another highlight until we reached the Talgar river, a rather wild mountain creek. We found a beautiful campsite right at the river – the instant noodles from the gas stove were a highly deserved dinner after a long (after all, we are desk bound city dwellers) hike.

Nothing nicer than a camp fire after a day of hiking. Good company and a bottle of whisky helps, too.
Nothing nicer than a camp fire after a day of hiking. Good company and a bottle of whisky helps, too.

The next day Anna and Alexander set off to another exciting hike, while I had to watch the campsite to shoo off wolves, bears, snow leopards and mind my sore knee. It seems that rolling back and forth in an office chair is rather insufficient preparation for a hike like that. I shall roll faster in the future to be better prepared. Anyway, Anna and Alex had a wonderful hike with great views and some interesting little observations on the way: looking at a glacier our guide couldn’t quite remember whether this particular glacier had merely a number or an actual name – quite a different approach to the alps where every semi-persistent snowfield has a well known name. Here in the Tian Shan a glacier gets interesting when it stretches over 10 km. Some impressions from the hike:

Edelweiss not restricted to the Alps, but also found in the Tian Shan Mountains.
Edelweiss not restricted to the Alps, but also found in the Tian Shan Mountains.
Constitution peak seen from Sunny Field in the Talgar Valley.
Constitution peak seen from the Talgar Valley.
A name less little glacier seen from the Talgar Valley.
A nameless little glacier seen from the Talgar Valley.

On our third and final day we hiked up to the Small Talgar Pass at 2800m and continued to the Big Talgar Pass at 3180m. That is also the top of the Shymbulak ski resort and accessible by cable car, so there were quite a few people from the city enjoying the beautiful weather and nice views from there. It has been a wonderful hike with a great guide – thanks Alexander and the guys from Tour Asia Travel Agency – it was not cheap, but very well organised and worth the bucks. And the promise to work with professional guides was certainly kept with Alex, who had climbed Makalu at 8,463 meters (27,765 feet).

Almaty – Day 6 – Up the Mountains


Weekend! Saturday morning, well sort of morning – we didn’t show signs of activity until lunchtime, eventually time to see more than the few blocks of Almaty that we’ve seen until now. We were picked up by a local colleague, who took us to the Shymbulak (a.k.a. Chymbulak) Ski Resort. Unfortunately we’re in the middle of April, so no more skiing, but I was very curious to see the lift equipment and maybe the slopes. Even more unfortunate it started to rain on the way up, so we couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted and therefore didn’t see as much a we would have liked.

Shybulak cable car station on the bottom of the resort.
Shymbulak cable car station on the bottom of the resort.

Nevertheless, the cable car station looks modern and well maintained – I so regretted that I wasn’t here two weekends earlier, when you could still ski at least at the top of the resort. Nevertheless, we could drive up further from here by car and thus had the chance to see the famous ice rink of  Almaty or rather Medeo, where a lot of world records in speed skating have been broken.

View of the Almaty speed skating rink.
View of the Almaty speed skating rink.

The idea of an ice rink that high up is appealing, the place is probably the highest speed skating site in the world at almost 1700m above sea level. The architecture is distinctly pompous and you can almost smell the sweat of the speed skating proletarians, who, after spending virtually all their energy on extending the glory of the Soviet Union, still had enough power to break one or the other speed record in ice skating. But beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. From there we went further up to a dam just above the ice stadium, which has been built in the 1960’s to protect Almaty from potentially devastating mudflows.

Schematic of the dam project at Medeo above the ice skating rink.
Schematic of the dam project at Medeo above the ice skating rink.

The dam did a good job in July 15th in 1973 when 4.5 million cubic metres of mud were stopped here and did not flow down the gorge like in 1921 before. At this point the increasing rain forced us back into town, where fortunately the weather wasn’t quite as bad. More to follow.

Almaty – Day 2 Impressions


Again, a wonderful morning: bluebird day with snowcapped mountains shimmering in the sun – Innsbruck, Grenoble, Teheran, Almaty. I love these cities surrounded by mountains – on a sunny day there’s hardly a more beautiful views than majestic mountains. Almaty gives a booming impression: I have read that a lot of the old apple orchards have been taken over by the ever growing town – there are indeed a lot of cranes to be seen and none of the building projects gives a small impression. Big is beautiful.

almaty_buildingsite_20140408

You might have read about the plan to rename Kazakhstan and get rid of the unbeloved “stan” suffix (which apparently means “land”, so land of the Kazakhs, which somehow feels rather appropriate). So here’s a good story: certainly on Almaty’s roads you’ll see a lot of Toyota Landcruisers, particularly the Prado model is prevalent. In fact, it is so common, that some people reckoned Pradostan an appropriate new name for Kazakhstan.

A Toyota Landcruiser Prado on front of a electric bus on a street in Almaty
A Toyota Landcruiser Prado on front of a electric bus on a street in Almaty

I quite like the electrified buses on Almaty’s road. Pollution seems to be quite a problem in the area, so it seems a good idea to use electric buses. Assuming the electricity isn’t produced in a horrific coal-fire powerstation.
5aside_almaty_20140408Football (real traditional football, not this American sport designed to sprinkle as many television adds into a sports TV transmission as possible) joins the world. A lot of people play football here, quite a few of them in company teams fighting for victory and honour in corporate leagues. We were lucky enough to be able to see a match between two teams of a bank: enthusiastic and skilful players in a five-a-side match with a very pernickety referee. I suppose it’s not a bad idea to prevent injuries in an indoor football match, but this guy booked players where I couldn’t spot a foul. But that’s just me.

One thing that puzzles me is the normality of Almaty: before I got here it was the great unknown, but I probably expected some sort of exotic mix of Russia and China, with dudes holding golden eagles on their arms roaming the streets,  joined by the occasional horde of wild horseback riders. U, well, I don’t know what I expected. But what I didn’t expect is a modern city (which only relates to the small part of town that I have seen so far) surrounded by beautiful mountains, inhabited by very pleasant, unassuming people who drive their cars in a very civilised way: automobiles will stop at pedestrian crossings, drivers have understood the concept of lanes and if somebody wants to turn right at the next junction they tend to move into the rightmost lane a fair bit before the junction. I don’t know how you feel about that, but traffic behaviour tends to be a good indicator for the degree of factual civilisation of people. Take North America or most parts of Western Europe: fairly relaxed driving, lanes and traffic lights are respected, cars are means to get from A to B and not lethal weapons in the hands of reckless/inconsiderate idiots. Sit in a car in India, even if driven by somebody who can successfully pretend to be an intelligent person in most conversational situations, and you are exposed to a degree of crazyness which makes it extremely hard to believe that whoever steers this car has understood the most elementary rules of human interaction. Kazakhstan plays in the North American/European league here. I like it.

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