Tamgaly Rock Carvings

We are lost.

We must be lost – we have been driving for almost 3 hours and haven’t seen a sign for Tamgaly for about 45 minutes. I forgot to mention, our driver has never been there, and has no GPS.

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Thank you, Google maps

But how can we be lost? There is only one road to Tamgaly, and we are on it. It’s a road that stretches forever, beyond the horizon, slicing through mile after mile of pale yellow fields, where once in a while wild horses kick up storms of dust, and other than that, there is almost nothingness.

Up ahead, a large tree drapes some shade across the road, and as we approach, a figure that was laying down there, waiting for who knows how many hours, stands up, dusts himself off, and sticks out his thumb. This is a common way to get around in Kazakhstan, and almost everyone is willing to take you somewhere, for a small fee.

We pull over and the young man perks up. Finally! he must be thinking. But he will be disappointed. We are not stopping to give him a ride – our car is full, and we just want directions.

Our driver asks how to get to Tamgaly. The man peeks in the backseat at us, the tourists, probably wondering why in hell foreigners would want to drive out into the middle of nowhere on a hot summer day to look at some old rocks. After a brief exchange, we take off. Apparently it will only take another 30 minutes. The young man lays back down in the road to wait.

And finally, there! We see it, up ahead. A small fenced compound, with two large white yurts, one car, a horse with a saddle, two port-a-potties, and a sign – TAMGALY.

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There is only one person at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, an old copper coloured Kazakh man who is missing his two front teeth. We pay the meagre entrance fee, and just then a big 4×4 pulls up. An old English gentleman, a young Chinese photographer and a translator join our tour group, and we set off for a walk in the Tamgaly Gorge. Our driver and his friend, who came along for the journey, decide instead to wait in the shade and drink vodka. To each his own.

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The Tamgaly Petroglyphs are a stunning collection of more than 5,000 rock carvings dating from the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C. To make them accessible to the public, they are separated into seven main groups, spread out around the valley, and each one is different. A rough footpath has been created to allow people to get close to the rocks, but some are so high up you can’t reach them. Thousands more are said to be in this area, but have not yet been excavated.

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The first group of carvings we see are quite simple, but beautiful, depicting almost child-like shapes of animals, such as horses, elk or deer, even camels, and people. As we walk and climb, they become more intricate, showing hunters, dancers, tools and weapons.

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We climb from one to the next, looking closely at what people chiseled into the stone thousands of years ago, and are delighted over and over again by how they are at the same time simple and amazingly expressive. My daughter surprises me by wanting to go higher and higher to see more, and she was excited every time she found one.

The ones that I like the best are the group of bizarre, far out ‘sun head’ gods, which, according to the booklet, have also been found elsewhere in Kazakhstan, and are referred to in the local language as ‘the images of the disguised‘. To me, they look like aliens, come down to earth.

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I just love the ones of people dancing!

Some of the petroglyphs are a bit damaged, with bits and pieces missing, and it can be hard to make out what you are looking at. But stand there and look closely, and you’ll get it.

All in all the tour took about an hour and a half, perhaps closer to two hours. The guide didn’t speak any English but was friendly and helpful, showing you which way to go, and pointing out the most interesting petroglyphs. The route is rough and climbing is involved so wear good shoes. There are no facilities other than a few benches, and little to no shade, so stock up on hats and sun block.

 

It is hard to believe that this incredible historical site is just sitting there, unprotected, and completely vulnerable to anyone who may want to come along and do some serious damage. Some of the groups of carvings actually did have grafitti, and some smart ass drew a horse on one of the rocks! The translator with our group said that during past excavations, many carvings were removed and stolen. There is literally nothing protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site, other than the old man with no front teeth.

It was a long day, but truly unforgettable. In my opinion this was also more interesting than the Charyn Canyon, which is a pretty view, but not much else. This makes you feel like you are walking in the footsteps of ancient civilisations. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Indiana Jones movies when I was growing up. Either way, I loved it, and it stands out as the highlight of the entire trip. The remoteness of the location just adds to the feeling that you have stepped back in time. There is nothing around, as far as the eye can see. That is something that you can never, ever get in a crowded place of Hong Kong, so I really enjoyed the sensation of finally being far away from civilisation.

When we returned to Almaty, we were exhausted and starving, so went immediately to a restaurant nearby. And much to our shock and delight, what did we find painted on the walls of the bathroom??

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Life imitates art, isn’t that what they say?

 

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Charyn Canyon – the Valley of Castles

I hate long drives, unless I’m the one doing the driving. There is just something so tedious about sitting in the back seat for hours on end. Especially with a 4-year-old in tow for 200 kilometres! ARE WE THERE YET?

Unfortunately, as a first time tourist in Kazakhstan, I was not willing or brave enough to rent a car and test my wits against the insane local drivers or have to bribe the ever present car chasing cops.

So, we hired a driver for the day, a very responsible driver (thank goodness) who had a very powerful 4×4, because to get to the Charyn Canyon, you simply cannot rock up in your little Hyundai Accent rental. The highway leading out of the city is fine, and the ride is very scenic. But after passing through a deep, winding valley, you then turn off the main road and drive on a really, really rough and bumpy dirt path for a good half hour or so.

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But finally, FINALLY, you arrive, and are rewarded with the most incredible scenery. I’ve never seen a canyon before, so it really blew me away. And we only saw a small section of it!

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If you are planning to do this trip on your own, don’t worry, it is easy enough. Our driver was just that – a driver. He was not a guide, he couldn’t give us ANY information about where to descend or come back up, or how long it would take, or which paths were steep or dangerous. Oh and he didn’t speak a word of English. So here’s my advice for a self guided tour:

After you enter the park and pay the entrance fee, you can park your car pretty much anywhere. There are lots of foot paths along the top, leading to look out points with a bird’s eye view of the canyon. There are also official descent paths, on your right, which are marked with signs in English. The recommended route is to descend down the first down-path sign that you see, walk through the canyon (about 3km), and then ascend again before you reach the Eco Park, where you can camp or rent a cabin for the night.

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Be aware that to climb down and climb back up again, it can be REALLY steep and the rocky path is loose and slippery! You need proper running shoes at a minimum, but hiking boots would be better. Carrying 18 kg children is also something best avoided.

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Many tour companies recommend doing the canyon in a 2-day or even 3-day trip, partly because of the 3-hour drive to get there, and partly because there are a lot of different parts of the canyon to see. The Valley of the Castles is the closest one and most frequently visited. I’m sure camping under the stars in the canyon is incredible, and if it wasn’t 32’C we might have considered overnighting. But personally, I was happy enough to do this as a day trip. After 2 hours of walking around, climbing back up, and almost hyperventilating, we were ready to get back. Seriously, the canyon was incredibly hot and there is NO SHADE except for a few rudimentary stone huts they have built. No wonder they do not recommend going in the summer. Be prepared!

Anyway, we had 400 km of driving, 6 hours in the car, and some mild sunstroke…. but the really fantastic scenery definitely made it worth the drive.

 

 

 

 

In the Land of the Wanderers – Trip to Kazakhstan

I had only been in Almaty for about 20 minutes, and already I had managed to embarrass myself.

We were all sitting in the backseat of a smoke-scented taxi with a busted windscreen, heading to our hotel, and chatting with the driver Andre, who could speak some pretty decent English, having spent a few years living in Belgium as a young man.

After chatting for a while, I asked him something that I had not been able to find out about online: “Do you know where we can sleep in a yurt?”

Andre frowns, and takes his eyes off the road for entirely too long to look at me very strangely.

“A yurta?” He makes the shape of the round house ubiquitous with the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan. “You want to sleep inside this?” He starts to laugh and shakes his head. “No no, this is crazy. Smell inside is very bad. Nobody will do this. Why you want to do this?”

Maybe it would be the equivalent of a tourist arriving in America and asking if there was some dodgy trailer park they could spend the night, rather than a nice clean hotel? I have no idea. Maybe once upon a time a yurt was still commonly used as a dwelling, but is disappearing in the country’s march to modernity. I had thought that it might be a nice experience to sleep in a yurt once in my life, if only for a night. Oh well!

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Jokes on him! I did manage to sneak into a yurt to snap some pictures. 

Never in a million years did I ever expect to have the chance to visit the ‘glorious nation’ of Kazakhstan. But when my husband’s job had to send him there for two weeks, I knew this could be once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

Not being familiar with Central Asia, I had to do some serious research to understand a bit about where I was going, and what there was to see. And the more I read, the more excited I became.

But first, you may be wondering, where the heck is Kazakhstan? (Don’t worry, I had to brush up on my geography too.)

It’s the largest land-locked nation in the world, bordering Russia, China, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. And, like its neighbours, it is an ex-Soviet Union country, with a very strong Russian influence. Russian is the number one language, followed by Kazakh. The people there are a really fascinating mix of ethnicities, some with blond hair and blue eyes, some with Korean and Mongolian and Chinese backgrounds, and the ethnic Kazakhs, a traditionally nomadic people who had tamed wild horses around 8000 B.C.. And that description just barely scrapes the surface of the incredible history and culture of this place.

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At a beautiful local restaurant, Rumi

A surprisingly easy six hour flight from Hong Kong took us to the old capital city, Almaty. It turned out to be quite a scenic place, with large tree-lined boulevards, large parks with fountains and monuments, and, of course, the ever present mountains that tower over you at all times.

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Fantastic view from the hotel

Some parts of the city seem modern, with trendy cafes, shopping malls, Starbucks cafes and Toni and Guy hair salons. But the old USSR influence is still very tangible. You can see it in the architecture, and feel it in the imposing walls, gates and fences that surround presidential palaces, with a seemingly never ending supply of policemen who take great joy in stopping people for bad driving, and trust me, everyone drives badly. I mean, I thought Trinis were bad, but Kazakhs really took it to a new level!

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While in the city, we did the typical sightseeing of popular spots, such as the Green Bazaar, a massive marketplace selling fresh produce, meat, spices, dried fruits, and lots and lots of honey. You can also stock up on some great counterfeit goods like fake Lego from China. Nearby was the Panfilov Park, and the famous Zenkov Cathedral, which unfortunately was getting a facelift and was covered in scaffolding. We did, however, get to see an orthodox baptism ceremony for a Russian family.

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All in all Almaty is an interesting place, and thanks to Uber incredibly easy and cheap to get around, with most things within a 15 minute car ride. But the real interesting stuff was what came next, when we drove 200 km out of the city, and into the middle of nowhere, to see the wild side of Kazakhstan.

Stay tuned for the next post!