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From Lake Schuche to Lake Borovoye

Some 18km2 in size, Lake Schuche is the deepest lake in the area. It sits immediately to the north of the town of Schuchinsk. Its western side abuts onto the forest-covered Kokshetau Mountains. The eastern banks are gentler, with birches and rounded rocks close to the lake shore. It is a popular resort area, with several hotels and sanatoria along its shores, but its attractions are rather more low key than those of the more picturesque Lake Borovoye.

Two main roads run from Schuchinsk to Lake Borovoye. The more interesting is the western option. From Schuchinsk, head northwards, passing the southern shores of Lake Schuche on your left. At 9km from the centre of town, take the left turn at the fork in the road. You are then confronted by a barrier, levying a fee for entry into the Burabay National Nature Park. The road passes through pine forest, Lake Schuche lying unseen off to the left. Some 6km on are a range of accommodation options clustered around the north-eastern corner of 1ake Schuche, including the Zeleniy Bor Sanatorium and Almaz and Samal hotels.

Some 5km further on, a lay-by on the right-hand side of the road lies at the foot of a flight of steps which leads up to a curious monument: a rain shelter in the form of a concrete mussel (the place is known by locals as the rakushka - 'mussel'). From this monument, walk further up along the ridge, alongside a line of boulders which serves as a natural wall. You soon reach a glade, around which the trees are covered with votive scraps of material. The view from here towards the line of the Kokshetau Mountains to the southwest is excellent; the crests of the hills are said to trace the shape of the face of a sleeping giant warrior. They do indeed seem to take the form of forehead, nose and mouth; at least, if you don't stare too hard.

Another 5km on, and the road passes through a large glade, known as Ablai Khan's Clearing. There is a car park on the right, and a couple of souvenir stalls in summer, where you can buy photographs of Lake Borovoye pasted onto bits of birch wood. The glade has been identified as a place in which Ablai Khan, a Kazakh leader of the 18th century, set up camp and marshalled his forces. To the left of the road is a tall, post-independence monument: a tiled spear reaching skyward, with an eagle at its apex. A roundel on the side of the monument depicts Ablai Khan riding a snow leopard. In the field surrounding the monument stand some modern stone balbals, like mute lieutenants of the long-departed leader. A path behind the monument leads up into the pine forest at the back of the glade. A few metres in you come across a broad, flat rock, oval in plan, on which three further rocks are perched. This ensemble is known as Ablai Khan's Throne. Local practice involves walking round this several times anticlockwise, before then finding a pine tree which appears to be agreeable, giving it a hug, and making a wish.

The largest of the hills behind the glade is the 947m Mount Kokshe, the highest peak of the Kokshetau Mountains, which also goes by the Russian name of Sinyukha. Both names hint at the bluish tint of the mountains when viewed from a distance. To the right of this are two hills which together look rather like a sleeping hedgehog, one resembling its podgy belly, the other its pointy nose. Ablai Khans Clearing is also known as the Yasnaya Polyana, or 'Bright Clearing', since it is said that the sun always shines here, even when the adjacent forest is shrouded in cloud.

The Goluboy Zaliv

At 1km beyond Ablai Khan's Clearing, you reach Lake Borovoye, little more than 10km2 in surface area, and the heart of the Burabay National Nature Park. The road runs around its most picturesque part, here at the northwest corner of the lake, an inlet known as the Goluboy Zaliv, or Blue Bay. The focus of this is a rocky offshore outcrop, whose form vaguely suggests that of a Sphinx, named Zhumbaktas. This faces towards a steep-sided hill of bare granite, known as Okzhetpes, lying along the western side of the bay. The juxtaposition of these two striking stone features with the blue waters of the lake makes for a highly photogenic ensemble, and it is one which illustrates many tourist materials related to Kazakhstan.

There are three places around the bay at which you can hire rowing boats in summer, either to take out yourself or with an oarsman who will give you a commentary on the legend surrounding Zhumbaktas, the 'mystery rock', as he rows you around it. The story runs roughly as follows. Ablai Khan returned here after his successful campaigning, with many treasures captured from his foes and these were divided up amongst his lieutenants. But they could not agree on who would take the most prized item of all, a beautiful young Dzhungar girl. The batyrs started to fight amongst themselves for the girl. She then decided on a competition which she knew was unwinnable, as a ruse to secure her passage home. She arranged for her handkerchief to be placed at the top of the hill now known as Okzhetpes, and said that she would submit herself to anyone who could shoot the handkerchief with an arrow fired from the base of the hill. All failed, and hence the hill took on the name Okzhetpes, which means, in Kazakh, 'unreachable by arrows'. But finding herself still barred from returning home to her true love, the girl jumped to her death into the lake. The Zhumbaktas stone then rose up out of it as a tribute to her bravery and fidelity.

The 'face' of the Sphinx-like Zhumbaktas rock is said to resemble from certain angles that of a beautiful young woman, with a short pointy nose. From other angles the face changes character, to resemble a hawk-nosed old crone. Zhumbaktas today is disappointingly covered in graffiti, the marks of celebration from the people who had the strength necessary to row or swim the several metres from the shore, or indeed to walk across in winter. The oldest visible defacement is dated 1905. The oarsmen of the Goluboy Zaliv share the apparent fascination of everyone in Borovoye with rocks that look like animals, or household items. There is an elephant on the top of Okzhetpes; a giant left shoe lying on one of the slabs of granite which makes up Zhumbaktas; and, seen from one angle, a flying saucer has landed on Zhumbaktas.

From the north side of the Goluboy Zaliv a path crosses an isthmus, a few hundred metres across at its narrowest point, to the adjacent Lake Bolshoye Chebachye. Covering 25km2, this is the largest of the lakes at the foot of the Kokshetau Mountains. It is populated by islands and near islands, the latter connected to the mainland by spits of land. From the slopes of the eastern end of the Kokshetau Mountains there are fine views to be had across the two lakes and the isthmus between them.