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Sibinsk Lakes

Sixty kilometres south of Oskemen, not far from the village of Bozanbay, lie five large lakes hidden in the folds of the picturesque Kalba granite mountain range, arranged like outstretched fingers. Even the approach makes quite an impression on the traveller, the countryside possessing a stern beauty. You pass through steppe hills, along the small Sibin River with its meadow forests of aspen and birch, and through dacha settlements and Kazakh villages before reaching the crystal clear Sibinsk Lakes (Sibinskiye Ozyora), shimmering like jewels enclosed by the mountains of mattress granite, as it is known, the layers of which do look like piles of mattresses-or rather, to make an even more striking comparison, like semolina pudding, overboiled several times, and rapidly stiffened. These mountains, with their solid, easily scaled bare rock, invite you to climb them and reach a good vantage point, from where you'll have a breathtaking view over the lakes. There is no visible inflow of water-they get their water from underground springs. The lakes are ideal for swimming, and the flat southern shores are ideal for camping. However, take care while climbing the rocky slopes, which quickly get slippery if it starts to rain, turning the descent into a nightmare. Unfortunately, in recent years the lakeside has been partially built with holiday homes and access from the level side is thereby made more difficult.

Make time for an excursion to the ruins of the Ablyinkit Buddhist monastery, which was built in the 17th Century at the behest of the Zhungar Khan Ablay. This monastery in the Sibin Valley was once famous for its library, comprising many precious Tibetan paper scrolls. Today, however, the structure has fallen victim to the ravages of time, to the extent that it can now hardly be recognized as such. Travelling on from the lakes, you can continue on to the Bukhtarminsk Reservoir and eventually Zaysan Lake, a harsh but extraordinarily beautiful stretch of landscape.

An alternative is a return to Oskemen from Targyn, keeping to the north past Mount Sorokina Sopka, which can be recognized by its pyramid shape. The site of the winter camp Ak Baur not far from the mountain is steeped in archaeological history and eerie legend. This is a place where extraterrestrial creatures are supposed to have landed many centuries ago. In fact drawings can be found in a small cave at the foot of Karzhimbay Mountain that have no equivalent to other rock drawings of this time. Even the unpractised eye can believe it is seeing flying saucers. Archaeologists and ethnographers began studying the area in the 1960s; there are petroglyphs of hunting scenes, horses and maral deer, and a natural amphitheatre where a series of flat-sided granite rocks were placed in an exact East-West alignment, with man-made cracks in the rocks aligned with the mountain peaks and the Polar Star. The conclusion is that in the distant past this was an important astronomical complex, where shamans ingeniously and accurately divined the equinoxes and solstices marking the seasonal changes (Vernal Equinox 22 March, Summer Solstice 21 June, Autumnal Equinox 23 September, Winter Solstice 21 December)