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Katon Karagai National Park

The higher-altitude eastern part of Kazakhstan's segment of the Altai Mountains is remote even by Kazakhstani standards. The main route into the area is the road eastwards from Ust-Kamenogorsk to the small town of Katon Karagai. It is a scenic drive, passing in summer amongst fields yellow with sunflowers.

The designation of the Katon Karagai National Park in 2001, applauded by WWf International as a 'gift to the earth', a globally significant conservation action, gives some welcome additional protection to the area. It includes almost the entire territory between the borders with Russia and China, the villages of Soldatovo and Medvyedka and the northern slopes of the Sarymsaktiy and Tarbagatay.

Though Katon-Karagay National Park does not have the strictest protective status, it has improved the situation by imposing more severe penalties on poachers and hunters of the endangered species that inhabit this region. This measure became necessary because of the increasing impact of steadily growing tourism, and because of the increasing exploitation of natural resources by the local population during the 1990s. It's important to note that most of the families in this area's villages are extremely poor; many move out and head for the cities, and the villages begin to stagnate, while those who remain take what they need for their daily survival from the forest. When traders, mainly Chinese, began to come in increasing numbers illegally to buy maral antlers, brown bear bile, and the musk scent glands of certain rare species, the temptation to poach animals was strong, as a single animal could garner a poacher the equivalent of a month's income.

Inevitably the wildlife populations of threatened species declined, but as penalties became more severe, poaching has become less appealing. Other measures have also been employed to combat the problem; the most significant is the successful "farming" of domestic marals for the medicinal extract pantocrine that is found in abundance in their newly formed antlers.

The region's main town, also called Katon-Karagay is situated on the Narym Valley floor. Katon Karagai is the administrative centre of the remote eastern part of the Kazakhstan segment of the Altai Mountains. Small and neat, it has a tinv museum dedicated to the famous Kazakh novelist Oral Khan Bokeh, who was born here and lived in a tiny house that houses the museum, displaying paraphernalia from Bokeh's life, including gifts presented to him from admirers during his travels. There is talk of an airport being built in the valley near to Katon-Karagay; this would of course result in development and economic progress for the local population, but responsible tourism growth is a must. Local officials seem to understand this, and hope to develop tourism models that preserve the ecology and culture while allowing more visitors into the region, improving living standards for local people without causing irrevocable damage to their land.

Katon Karagai itself is a settlement of single storey timber cottages supplemented by a few decrepit-looking apartment blocks. It lies in a broad valley, watched over to the south by peaks which retain patches of snow even in summer. There is a charming bazaar of wooden stalls. A couple of the larger shops in the bazaar are ornate wooden constructions with pitched roofs, though the wares on offer tend to be Chinese tracksuits rather than local handicrafts. One good local item on sale in the bazaar is honey, sold in one litre plastic water bottles.

The airline Scat flies twice a week to Katon Karagai from Ust-Kamenogorsk, on an Antonov An-2 biplane.

Katon Karagai National Park