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The mountain guide from Kazakhstan, Andrey Gundarev
Exploring Dzungarian Alatau
Exploring Dzungarian Alatau
Tyshkan-Tau and Muz-Tau ranges in Southern Dzungaria are located not far from the Chinese border. That was the place where our small expedition consisting of five Englishmen and me, their guide, went. What are the region’s remarkable features? Despite its close proximity to Zharkent (40 km), the site is an unexplored tourism area of Kazakhstan. One would think that the absence of infrastructure such as hotels, good roads and routes will scare picky foreign visitors. But in our case, everything turned out differently.
Our group was rather diverse: a clerk, a constable from Scotland Yard, an employee of a landscaping company from London, the manager of a recruitment company and a pensioner were the first representatives of the Foggy Albion to visit Southern Dzungaria. Those professional mountaineers of different age and occupation said that it was impossible to find any information about this region. There is no such data at all! Neither does the Britannica nor the Internet provide them! Only once in 2001 did the members of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s armed forces (most probably spies) somehow happened to appear in Northern Dzungaria. Most likely, foreigners have never been to the Southern Dzungaria.
If you want to see wild mountains, you’ll have to start from the brave border guards. The military men were confused by the idea of letting foreigners cross the border area. «What do they need there? Where is their permit? Don’t they have their own mountains in England?» Fortunately, our journey was arranged by a tourist company with vast experience of work, including experience in dealing with the governmental agencies. That is why we obtained permits without any problems. For your information: we obtained the permits at the Border Service Department of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan in Almaty.
You can get to Zharkent (located 320 km away from Almaty) from Sayakhat bus terminal by coach. Taking a taxi is certainly more comfortable and costs 2000 KZT per person. Since we had quite a lot of expedition gear, making use of a dual-purpose vehicle was more reasonable.
Upon arrival in Zharkent we went to the corresponding agencies to obtain permits, which were given after quite a lengthy initial briefing on «What to do in case you meet illegal aliens». In the end, we received the last instruction — if we happen to meet an illegal alien we must mark the place where we saw him either on the map or GPS.
Although there are many places of interest in Zharkent, we left sightseeing for later.
So our walking tour was started. In the evening we set up our base camp and started to ascend the first mountain peaks. Suddenly we saw lights. Illegal aliens? But that turned out to be the chief of the frontier post together with his helpers who were performing a border raid. They came to us personally on horses in order to learn how things were going. We drank tea and talked together.
Each morning we climbed another peak. In such a way we explored the regio, since the Englishmen had set a goal to climb as many peaks as possible. We named one of the peaks as Free Turkestan in order to express sympathy for those who suffered in Xinjiang. Another was given a simple name Ak-Tau (White Mountain). We left customary messages on those peaks indicating who, when and what route we had taken. We were pleased to see that there was no garbage — plastic bags, plastic bottles or broken glass. However there still were traces of human presence such as a piece of a metal pipe, old paths, several derelict houses and… a tractor. Once we met either shepherd or hunters who were glad to tell us about the paths and fords.
There were not many wild animals. We saw only several marmots and a couple of lizards. We saw also several new goat skulls… But there were flocks of grazing cattle in each ravine. We were very impressed by the herds of horses that appeared out of the blue. Firstly you hear the patter of hooves, then you see creatures running out of the fog resembling the mythic winged horses — tulpars.
Everything comes to an end sooner or later. So did our food. We ran out of food before a whole week of explorations. We decided to go to Zharkent to find food. Three of the youngest travelers left the camp, crossed several rivers and came to Tyshkan ravine where there were lots of tourists. We had forgotten that it was weekend. Tourists in Dzungaria were not very different from those in Almaty for example — they left the same heaps of garbage. Fortunately, the idea of crossing cold stormy rivers does not inspire typical local tourists, which is why there is no garbage in the upper part of the ravine. When they saw people with backpacks they immediately wanted to take photos and to share something with them — either food or alcoholic and cold drinks.
At the border point we saw two bored soldiers controlling the tourist flow, that is, the tourists we had seen.
In order to get to Zharkent from there you need to walk 4 kilometers along a county road to Sarybel village and then catch a taxi to the city. The taxi ride costs 200 KZT per person and the driver is ready to wait till you buy everything you need. The city welcomed us warmly. In every shop we were asked where we were from. People in the streets, at the sight of foreigners, started to bring back to memory their English studied in school. It seemed like all the salesmen and buyers in the local market knew our names in an hour.
Generally speaking this city is not very old as compared to other cities in Kazakhstan. Dzharkent was founded in 1882 at the south-western border of the Russian Empire and was a part of Semirechye Oblast. It was hardly possible to find a better place for it to be built: lively trade route to China laid in ancient times as a branch of the Silk Road, a fertile valley, life-giving water of the Ili River originating in the mountains and strongly continental climate which is quite mild. From 1942 through 1991 the name of the city was Panfilov because the famous Panfilov Division, which heroically protected Moscow against the German invaders, was formed there. The current name «Zharkent» was introduced in 1991.
The most famous place of interest in the city is a mosque dating back to 1892. It was built by the Chinese architect Hon Pik, which is why the mosque resembles a Buddhist temple. The construction started in 1887. At the gable above the entry there is an inscription in Uigur that was made by calligraphers using versatile ornate lettering, due to which it looks very light. The inscription says the following: «Do not overdry the shoes you wear and do not forget the days gone by». The author of the saying is the merchant of the top guild Vali Akhun Yuldashev, who sponsored the construction. He spent 300 thousand gold rubles on the construction, which was a huge amount at that time! The temple was built from Tien Shan spruce and without a single nail, as the locals say. The building combines the Central Asian architectural style and the Chinese traditions in a fancy manner. There are only three mosques of such kind in the world: one is placed in Kuldzha, the second — in Shanghai and the third here, in Zharkent. Nowadays, a local history museum is arranged in the mosque (admission charge — 100 KZT. Permit to take photos outside the building costs the same, and taking photos inside is prohibited. Video filming is prohibited both inside and outside). It is very beautiful inside: a large hall with two rows of pillars and paintings on the walls — plants and birds in the Chinese painting style. The dome is high and covered in darkness. Just under the roof (which is very very dark) there live bats. We heard their peeping, which didn’t diminish our excitement about the interior design, quite the contrary it was very charming. We visited the mosque on Saturday, which is the museum’s shortest working day; it was open only until 16:00. As we went outside we heard the doors being closed with a gritting sound. It was time for us to go back to the camp with the products.
On the way back the driver asked us to wait a little while for his relatives who were also going to Sarybel. At the village we were invited to drink tea according to the traditions of the eastern hospitality. There was a real samovar and homemade flat cakes and apricot jam. The hosts’ children brought to us a dead crow as a souvenir; they used it to scare away alive birds at the vegetable garden. We refused the present politely.
So the expedition continued. However, when we mentioned the details of our trip (highlighting the local residents’ hospitality and amicability), the course of the expedition was changed at once. Since we had completed our mountain climbing program, we decided to just walk in the surroundings. As for the British, that was the most interesting part of the journey. They came inside yurtas, tasted kurt (dried cheese) and koumiss (mare's milk) for the first time, and spoke to the locals using the international sign language! In other words, the Englishmen felt the national colour of the Kazakh land only in the last days of the journey.
Of course, on the way back to Almaty we tried to visit remarkable sites in Zharkent. In the year when the construction of the mosque was completed, another monument of architecture — an Orthodox Church — was built, which is well preserved up till now. The church represents a log building decorated abundantly with carvings. In the end, we visited a derelict pre-revolutionary jail built in the late XIX century by a Kossak garrison. As we approached the entry of the jail, we saw its door made from 7-8 cm thick boards, which were buried into the ground, with a small window. A single look at the door was enough to understand that that was the entry to a jail. Behind the door we saw a gloomy picture: a blackened wooden two storey building with one storey branching off wings, black window apertures without glass. Upon close inspection, we realized that the gloomy place was inhabited. Children were playing hide-and-seek in the torture chambers and a woman was washing clothes in a basin.
It turned out that the current owner of the jail had allowed a family to live there so that they could keep the order in the territory. We found out that in Soviet times in the jail there was the hostel of the teacher’s college. After that the building was deserted. Later, a hotel was supposed to be opened there, but I guess no one wished to spend a night or two in a jail and the idea was rejected. Thus, the building turned into a playground for children and a site visited by tourists like us on rare occasions.
Unfortunately we failed to visit one place which I have heard a lot about, but have never been to: Auliye-Agash — a huge elm of 6.5 m in circumference. It is more than 700 years old and its trunk can be encompassed by at least eight or nine men joining their hands. According to the legend, that was the place where the merchant Baibolsyn, who escorted caravans in the desert, stopped for a night and pierced his crook into the ground. In the morning he found a seedling instead of the crook. The roots of that tree sprouted and a grove appeared on that place. Near the ancient elm there is a place where the roots of seven elms are interwoven. There is a spring among their trunks. It is said that apart from its impressive appearance Auliye-Agash has curative properties. People seeking for cure come there not only from Kazakhstan, but also from neighboring China. It is also said that the energy of this tree is so powerful that when people tried to take photos next to it, the photographic equipment failed, the film got spoiled and the camera shutters didn’t work. However we couldn’t check it.
When the care came to take us, the next tourists gave us two bottles of genuine Chinese beer (there has not been such beer in Almaty for 10 years already, since its sale was prohibited). In Almaty we were met by other people, other prices and other history. The oldest participant in our expedition, Mr John Temple, who is a legendary English mountaineer, said with disappointment: «So, Asia has been left behind. Here everything is just like in my country!»
As for me, each trip I take is a kind of discovery. I discover for myself the Dzungarian Alatau (both Northern and Southern) and its residents again and again. In my mind I thought: «Maybe it is better if there is no infrastructure and everything remains as it is? At least in these wonderful places of our homeland such as Dzungaria.»