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Hiking in the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve

Our host family had prepared a lovely breakfast for us consisting of fried eggs, cheese, bread, pastry, apricot jam and tea. The seven of us staying with this family were sitting around a big table enjoying the food and this very special atmosphere of a rural Kazakh home.

At 9am we left for a day trip to the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve close by. It’s the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia and located in the western part of the Tien Shan Mountains. Special about this nature reserve is its flora and fauna. There are more than 1,000 vascular plants in the reserve and our local guide Svetlana seemed to know them all (also see her website). She’s very enthusiastic about nature why she and her husband moved to the small village of Zhabagly which is very close to the reserve. In addition to Svetlana we needed to hire a ranger to comply with the rules for entering the nature reserve. Actually with our group size of 12 people we were supposed to hire three rangers but there was only one available. The area here is very rural and it’s not popular among young Kazakhs to live here.

The drive was supposed to take one hour but actually it took us 2.5 hours to drive approx. 25 km. The reason was the bad condition of the road. It had rained last night and the road was all wet and slippery. Our destination was a ranger station in the nature reserve from which we were supposed to go on a hike around the Aksu Canyon. It’s one of the deepest canyons in Central Asia and therefore it offers spectacular views. Unfortunately the truck didn’t make it to the ranger station because of the muddy road and it was also going slightly uphill. We even got stuck but our driver Sam managed to dig the truck out and we all helped pushing it forward.

Because we didn’t want to risk getting completely stuck here, we decided to walk the last meters to the ranger station which took about 30 min. As soon as we arrived there it started to rain but we found shelter in the ranger station. While waiting we had our lunch which we had taken with us in form of a packed lunch. It consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a small cucumber, a piece of cake, some dried fruit and half a liter of water. The ranger station was quite cozy. It featured a couch, armchairs and even a painting on the wall. After 1.5 hours it stopped raining and we got ready to go.

We had the option of two different hikes. One option was to hike along the rim of the canyon and the other one going down to the bottom of the canyon and up again. Due to the bad weather condition the ranger suggested we just walk along the rim and we all followed his advice. Unfortunately neither the ranger nor Svetlana was able to guide us. Svetlana denied walking in front of us and showing us the way because she said otherwise people cannot come and ask her questions about the flowers. Actually this was all she seems to have an interest in and she was good for. Actually Isabella was the only one with an interest in the flowers and asking her a couple of questions. The ranger was also kind of useless. He didn’t even come on the hike but stayed in the ranger station. Svetlana said he doesn’t care if he has customers or not since he has a fixed salary independent from the number of people visiting the nature reserve. Actually there aren’t too many visitors since there isn’t much tourism in the area and the entrance fee to the nature reserve is too expensive for the local people. It’s a shame they cannot afford to see the beauty of their own country. Since Svetlana didn’t wanted to guide us, our leader Jason went back to get the ranger but he was also useless and didn’t even know the way.

After we hiked for about 1-2 hours Svetlana said we can take a shortcut back to the truck crossing the fields. She said we should see the truck after walking for 5 min or so. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case and I somehow got lost in high grass and muddy terrain. I walked for nearly two hours before it started to rain heavily. Luckily, I hit the road we were driving up to the ranger station but I still couldn’t see the truck thus didn’t know if to turn right or left. My gut feeling told me right, also because this was the way back to the village and not towards the ranger station. Now it started to rain cats and dogs, there was fog all around me so I couldn’t see more than 10 m. A thunderstorm was approaching and there was lightning around me which was pretty much scary. I just walked in my soaking wet clothes, shivering and hoping no lightning will hit me. After a while I could spot the truck and the others were already worried. They either could see the truck or walked with Svetlana and therefore had no difficulties to find the truck. Most of them were also soaking wet and had removed their clothes to not catch a cold. Paul, my fellow traveler from Canada, had wrapped himself into a sexy leopard print blanket. With his mustache he somehow looked like a Kazakh porn star. He also has given his mustache a name which is “Kazakhstache”. This name changes as we change the countries, so it used to be an “Uzbekistache” a couple of days ago and will next become a “Kyrgyzstache”.

When trying to drive back to Zhabagly, the truck was sliding on the muddy road and got stuck again. There seemed to be no way how we can bring it back on the road ourselves and therefore, Sam and Svetlana walked to the next village to get a tractor to pull us out. After a while they came back but without a tractor. Actually there was one but the driver wasn’t around. Since we didn’t know if we will need to spend the night here, we pitched up our tents and waited for help. After a while some kind of agriculture machine showed up and pulled us back on the road and through the muddy parts of it.

Back on the road again we drove to Zhabagly. We couldn’t afford to be stuck in the mountains since the Kazakhstan visa of some travelers in our group will expire tomorrow and we need to bring them over the border. Svetlana was so kind and invited us to sleep on the floor of two completely empty rooms in her house. We laid out our mattresses and sleeping bags, one next to the other, and had a nice dorm-style sleeping space. Since it was already 10pm nobody was keen on cooking dinner. Therefore, we just sat in Svetlana’s kitchen and had some cornflakes. Overlanding isn’t about comfort but about being in places and situations like this one and enjoying it. It’s all part of the adventure…

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