Having met many other travellers at the social Hostel Almaty Dom we heard that several of them had organised an overnight trip out to Altyn Emel National Park, and when told there were spare seats we decided to jump on board. The trip was organised through Shakir at the hostel and the next morning a Mitsubishi Delica arrives early Kazakh time, meaning like an hour late. Piling into the van it didn’t take long to realise we were one seat short. Pointing it out to the driver he attempts to create an 8th seat out of a box and a cushion. Considering how much driving we had to do we pointed out that nobody was willing to take that seat and they soon arranged to have us swapped into another more ‘suitable’ vehicle. Or so we thought.
Turning up to a Hyundai Viagra van (the driver obviously had a sense of humour and had messed around with the badge) we’re confronted with the same seating arrangement and the two drivers soon figured we weren’t up for being shoe horned into one vehicle, deciding rapidly that they would just take both. This totally worked to our advantage as we’re now three or four to a car and in comparative luxury. Leaving so late it’s a long drive out to the first stop on the itinerary, The Singing Sand Dune.
At 150m high hiking to the top gives an impressive view across the park but scaling up the unforgiving ridge line feels like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. Once your done taking in the vistas the only way down is on our bum, sliding down and trying to get enough speed to cause the sand to vibrate and thus produce the singing effect which gives the dune it’s name. It’s a crazy feeling as you can feel the dune vibrating beneath you and the hum can really become quite loud, especially if more people join in.
Making the dune sing
With a thirst to quench from hiking the dunes the search was on for some afternoon beers. Turns out this was not the easiest mission to accomplish after a weekend in a small village without much for the locals to do but drink. Scouting every shop in the village we manage to produce just two beers, whilst a venture to a promising karaoke bar gave us zero! It was here while scratching our head about a bar with no beer that one of the drivers spots a truck approaching in the distance. Ingeniously reaching for the CB radio he’s soon in conversation with the truck driver who points us right back to the village where it all began. With one last ditch effort our man drives us back to a roadside eatery situated about 15 minutes away just before the road weaves into the mountains back towards Almaty. Pointed in the direction of the kitchen out the back we don’t hold high hopes for a favourable result. A quick conversation in Russian ensues with Matt quickly deducing that there’s beer available. The question is…
‘How many do you want?’
Seeing a good 48 bottles the driver and Matt restrain themselves and opt for half of the bounty, paying up and happily bounding back to the car. That night we had to pay an extra USD$15 each for accommodation alone (KZT1,500 more and you could have dinner provided) that honestly wasn’t really worth it. Told that as we were a married couple we could have the only private room, we were surprised to turn up and find the Russians, who’d only hooked up two days previously at the hostel, had taken it. The youth of today hey! We spent the night improvising poker chips with strips of paper and drinking our hard won beers.
Day two we managed to get a free breakfast thrown in by just sitting at the dining table, which for the price we should have paid was a little lacklustre. Two eggs a piece of stale bread, tea, coffee and the obligatory sugary sweets was all that was served. Back out in the 4WD’s the painted hills of Aktau Canyon were the main destination of the day. The park is about four times the size of Hong Kong so we had quite a bit of ground to cover and the approach had us spying galloping gazelles which our guide informed us can reach speeds of 120km/h (more like 60km/h), dealing with a flat tyre and enjoying being out in the open free of the constrictions of the city.
Fossils of ancient crocodiles, turtles and giant rhinos have been found in the Aktau Hills, dating back to 25-30 million years. Visually stunning it was a shame the clouds over head had covered the sun, lessening the vibrant display of red, orange and white strips of rock. A short walk over a dry creek and up a gradual slope and you’re on top of one side with a panoramic view of the surrounds.
With the sky darkening and raindrops beginning to fall it was time to get back on the road before the rains caused flash floods that the area is renowned for, leaving us involuntarily camped out for the night. The dramatic landscape wasn’t the only drama of the day. Being the lead car on a narrow dirt track through tall grass we round a corner to find an oncoming vehicle travelling way too fast. Fortunately for us our driver veers off enough to narrowly avoid a head on as the other driver veers into the grass, taking down about 20 metres of foliage before he came to stop. It could have been a really nasty accident especially considering some in our car were not wearing seat belts.
Turns out the other driver is drunk, of course, so we tow him out and head back on our way, leaving him to pull grass out of his radiator and figure out how to repair his busted front bumper. On the way back to Almaty we see the corrupt side of the law for the first time. At a regular checkpoint a police officer searches the other car for any little thing in order to extract money for that night’s dinner/booze. While waiting our driver gives us the low down on how the corruption goes all the way to the top, where the guys on the street pay a percentage to their boss and so on up the food chain. Apparently they even have targets and they’ll go as far as fining you for driving a dirty car in the city (apparently illegal in Almaty?)! Turns out he hits the jackpot when nobody in the other car is wearing seatbelts and when he opens the back door of our van and sees us in the back all belted up he brings the other driver over to point out what good passengers we are. He fines the driver the equivalent of USD$30 which the passengers pitch in to help cover (except the dodgy Russians).
The fine details
We paid KZT21,500 (about USD$60) per person which included an English speaking guide/driver and accommodation. Food and beer were extra as was the park entrance fee of KZT2,150.
We tagged along with other travellers who’d organised the tour through Hostel Almaty Dom. The tour was booked through a third party which adds an extra cost. Here is the Instagram link and email address of our driver Samir who you could contact direct – kz_discovery, firstname.lastname@example.org He spoke reasonable English, was a good laugh and most importantly drove us around safely to find beer.
You can opt to pay extra to have meals provided though we didn’t as we knew we could have a healthier and much larger meal for less. You can prepare yourself hard boiled eggs before you leave, buy some bread, UHT milk, muesli and fresh fruits, all of which you will not get out in the park.
The only way to avoid the steep cost of USD$15 for a place to basically just put your head down is to bring a tent. One of the guys on our trip did and paid nothing to pitch it just outside the lodge where the rest of us slept. Smart bloke.