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Lake Burabay (Borovoye)

This landscape of lakes, hills, weathered granite outcrops, and pine and birch forests offers some of the most picturesque scenery in northern Kazakhstan, and attracts gushing tourist agency labels such as 'Kazakhstan's Switzerland' and 'the pearl of Kazakhstan'.

Borovoye, now renamed Burabay, lies over 200 kilometres to the northeast of Astana and almost 100 kilometres to the south of Kokshetau-which by Kazakh standards makes it very accessible. It's a name that is treasured by all Kazakhs, referring not only to the famous lake that lies in the middle of the mountains, but to the whole Burabay-Kokshetau National Park. Only 630 square kilometres in size, it is one of the country's smaller nature reserves.

Named, since 2000, the Burabay National Nature Park (, in Russian), the western boundary of this landscape is formed by the boomerang-shaped Kokshetau Mountains, which run roughly north to south. The 'Blue Mountains' do indeed take on that hue when viewed from afar across the surrounding steppe. Around the foothills of the Kokshetau Mountains lie several lakes, and most of the area's tourist infrastructure lies along the shores of two: Lake Schuche and Lake Borovoye. The Kokshetau Mountains are covered with forests, and the carpet of forest continues across the lower hills lying to their east.

Burabay is dominated by its clear, spring-fed lakes, and the deciduous ash and birch forests that surround them (the Russian name Borovoye signifies a landscape covered by Bor, or "little forest"). The park owes its clean, fresh air to these woodland trees-which in turn has granted it a reputation as a health resort, together with its mild climate and soothing scenery. Small guesthouses, hotels and holiday camps are scattered everywhere, but in spite of this there is plenty of pristine landscape still remaining, and even during the high season between June and September there are plenty of places to find peace and solitude.

The brightly revamped Visitor Centre & Nature Museum (Vizit-Tsentr & Tabigat Murazhayy; Kenesary; 10am-8pm Tue-Sun Jun-Aug, 9am-6pm Tue-Sun Sep-May), on the main road in the town, contains a diverse display of stuffed wildlife from Kazakhstan’s national parks, a 3-D model of the park and two ATMs. The otdel turizma (tourism department) here can give you a park map and may be able to answer questions in English. Next door and included in the admission price is an outdoor zoo with two Przewalski’s horses, several deer (including a pair of maral) and various raptors, bears, wolves and raccoons in small enclosures. A well-made walking path parallels the road for 9km from the lake’s southeast corner to the northwest corner via Burabay town.

September is considered the best month to visit Burabay: the birch trees are turning a fantastic golden-yellow, the swarms of mosquitoes have disappeared, the water in the lakes is still warm enough for swimming and there is space in the guesthouses. Moderate temperatures invite long walks and climbs up the bizarre-looking rock formations. One of these, in the shape of a camel lying down, gave the area its Kazakh name: Burabay, meaning "rich in camels".

There is, of course, a legend connected with the Burabay rock: once upon a time there lived a beautiful white camel that would change its shape whenever an enemy approached, fly onto the mountain and warn the people with loud bellows. In this way, it protected the local population from danger. One day, however, the camel was on its way to the waterside to drink when it met the hunter Kasym Khan, who considered the fine animal merely as game and shot an arrow at it. The wounded beast began to bellow and sank to its knee, while still trying to reach the watering place, but the merciless hunter kept shooting arrows at it and mortally wounded it. The camel never reached the waterside, died on the spot and turned into a stone hill, from that day forward known as burn, or camel. These days, hunting is strictly forbidden, and 223 different species of bird and 54 different species of mammal inhabit the national park.

The legend of the region's formation tells how God granted the Kazakhs this wonderful landscape after they had complained about the scanty steppes, which had been allotted to them during the world's creation. Roaming through the forests and climbing up to vantage Points to take in the view, it's easy to imagine the Kazakhs of old, believers in the spirits of nature, coming together on this holy spot and wondering how these formations had come into existence with their shapes of camels and fortresses, witches and sleeping knights. It is only natural that each peculiar rock formation should be given its own magical tale of origin, such as the following:

In an aul there once lived a batyr who knew no fear. When the Zhungars invaded the area one day, the batyr called upon his peers to march against the enemy with him but none heeded his call, since feuds between the various tribes prevented them from acting as one. Therefore, the young warrior took his horse, put on his helmet and battle gear and marched towards the battlefield on his own. He lost his eyesight in the fight, was severely injured but never once backed away. Inevitably, he could not hold out against the overwhelming enemy host on his own, and when finally his mighty body collapsed the batyr sank into an eternal sleep. There he lies to this very day, in the forest of Borovoye, his face towards the sky. From a great distance one can discern his profile while looking at the hill called Zheke Batyr-the Sleeping Knight.

The area already attracts large numbers of domestic tourists and visitors from those parts of Russia abutting the Kazakhslani border, but there are ambitious plans to develop tourism further given Borovoye's location as the natural weekend playground for the growing new capital of Astana. (There are few other obvious tourism options within reasonable distance of the capital.) Since April 2007, the district in which Borovoye is located has been one of only two in Kazakhstan in which gambling establishments have been permitted, as the authorities seek to focus Kazakhstan's casinos out of the cities and into new purpose-built resorts. Given that the distinctive landscape of this region covers a relatively small territory, it must be hoped that these development plans take account of Borovoyes fragile environment. Some new buildings already give rise to concerns on this score.

If you want to spend some time in Burabay during the summer, make sure you make your reservation well in advance, since all accommodation is usually fully booked weeks or months ahead of time. In comparison to other areas in Kazakhstan, Burabay is well developed; not only are there parking areas and campsites, but the walking trails have even been signposted.

The repository of several Kazakh legends and with recently much-improved facilities, the park is well worth a visit for anyone who’s in the north. President Nazarbaev has a summer holiday home beside little Lake Karasie.

The most popular destination, Lake Borovoye, can be circumnavigated at a leisurely pace in a single day. Circular in shape, it boasts many bizarrely shaped-and named-rocks, from Zhumbaktas ("Unresolved riddle", but also called the Sphynx) to its nearby counterpart Okzhetpes ("Unreachable for arrows"), as well as the Three Sisters and the Bastion. Lake Borovoye is the most popular for swimming, with a lovely pebble beach under age-old pine trees. To be alone try escaping to Lake Bolshoye Chebachye. The water is crystal-clear, and there are hidden bays that can only be reached from the rocks above. The view towards the east differs greatly from that of Lake Borovoye. From here, you are looking out over flat, unforested plain. A climb up the rocks between Lake Borovoye and Bolshoye Chebachye is rewarded by a wonderful view over the two lakes.

Climbing the highest peak in the area, Mount Kokshetau, is not an easy venture. It is very rocky and, relatively low as it is, the difference in altitude should not be taken lightly. But the view from the summit is breathtaking, and apart from the lakes already mentioned you can also look out over the Maloye Chebachye salt lake, the picturesque lake of Shchuchinsk and a multitude of smaller steppe lakes. The view also includes the Camel and the Sleeping Knight. Hikers in good condition can walk around the lakes of Bolshoe and Maloye Chebachye in a single day. It takes half a day to walk to the beautiful forest lake of Katarkol and its eponymous village.

Heading west from the town it’s a 4km walk to the picturesque Goluboy Zaliv (Blue Bay), a place with a specially mystical aura for Kazakhs. The most celebrated Burabay legend links Zhumbaktas, the Sphinxlike rock sticking out of the lake here, with Okzhetpes, the striking 380m-tall rock pile rising behind it. While Abylay Khan’s army was fighting the Zhungars back in the 18th century, a beautiful princess was captured and brought to Burabay, where many Kazakh warriors fancied her as a wife. The princess agreed to give her hand to the first warrior who could shoot an arrow to the top of Okzhetpes. All failed, hence the name Okzhetpes, which means ‘Unreachable by Arrows’. The distraught princess then drowned herself in the lake, thus creating Zhumbaktas (Mysterious Stone).

You can rent a rowing boat in front of the large Hotel Abilay Khan at Goluboy Zaliv to paddle out to Zhumbaktas. Continue 1.75km further round the lake and you reach Polyana Abylay Khana (Abylay Khan’s Clearing), where the warrior hero reputedly once assembled his forces during his Zhungar campaigns. A tall, eagle-topped monument, with good old Abastride a snow leopard, stands in the clearing; a large, flat-topped rock known as Abylay Khan’s Throne hides in the trees behind. A path from the back of the clearing leads up 947m Mt Kokshetau, the highest peak in the park (about 1,5 hours to the top).

A shorter and gentler climb, with good views of both Lake Burabay and the larger Lake Bolshoe Chebachie to its north, is Mt Bolektau. This takes about half an hour by the track heading up to the right just before the Km 4 post heading west from Burabay town. Possibile tours include horse riding to Kenesary’s Cave (Peshchera Kenesary) on the south side of Lake Burabay (three hours), hiking Mt Kokshetau (three hours) and climbing Okzhetpes. Gentle gradients make the area good for cycling: to rent a bike look for ‘Prokat Velosipedov’ signs along the main road in Burabay.

Getting There & Around -The gateway to the Borovoye resort area is the district capital, Schuchinsk, an uninspiring small town of 42,000 people close to the southern shores of Lake Schuche. Schuchinsk lies on both the main road and the railway route between Astana and Kokshetau, around 235km north of the Kazakhstani capital and 72km to the southeast of Kokshetau.

Schuchinsk railway station goes by the name of Borovoye Resort. It is a stop for the daily departures between Almaty and Petropavl, Kyzylorda and Petropavl, and Karaganda and Kostanai. There are also less frequent trains to Pavlodar, as well as Russian destinations including Moscow, Sverdlovsk and Omsk. More local electric train routes include a daily service running between Kokshetau and Erementau. There is also a useful service between Astana and Kokshetau, running four times a week (Saturday-Tuesday).

Minibuses (three hours) and shared taxis (two and half hours) to Burabay leave from outside Astana’s bus station when full. Daytime departures are plentiful in summer and at weekends. In Burabay the bus and taxi stop is just off the main street, Kenesary, towards the west end of town. To and from Kokshetau there are three buses or minibuses (two hours) per day. More plentiful transport (at least 22 buses) runs from both Astana and Kokshetau to Shchuchinsk, from where buses or minibuses (30 minutes) run every 40 minutes (7am to 7pm) to Burabay.