Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve
Established in 1926, the Aksu Zhabagly National Nature Reserve is the oldest in central Asia and one of the easiest visited of Kazakhstan’s nature reserves. It protects part of the Talasky Alatau range of the western Tian Shan Mountains. The reserve, at the west end of the Talassky Alatau range (the most northwesterly spur of the Tian Shan), stretches from the edge of the steppe at about 1200m up to 4239m at Pik Sayram. It offers a range of environments from steppe to upland meadows, juniper forest and snow-capped mountaintops fringed by large glaciers.
The reserve gets its name from the two main rivers flowing through its territory. The River Aksu means 'white water', the colour derived from its passage through the limestone mountains. The River Zhabagly is named from the Kazakh word meaning 'one-year-old horse'. A legend surrounding this name tells of how the first settler of this picturesque valley, arriving here with his family, was forced to leave to join his tribesfolk in a war. In his absence, the family members he had left in the valley were kidnapped by bandits, his livestock slaughtered and his yurt razed to the ground.
When our hero returned from the war he found only scorched ground where his yurt had stood. In total despair, the horse he had left as a foal suddenly ran towards him, having miraculously survived both the bandits and the subsequent winter. Our hero saw the horses appearance as a sign that he should not give up, and persevered with the establishment of a settlement on the banks of the river he named in his horses honour.
The main access point is the village of Zhabagyly, 70km east of Shymkent as the crow flies. In this area where mountains meet steppe there’s a great diversity of life.
In late April and early May, the focus of all those who come to the reserve is the bright-red Greig's tulip: one sight, known as Red Hill because of the colour the tulips turn it in spring, boasts densities in places of more than 60 wild tulips per square metre. Kaufmann's tulip is another important species of the western Tian Shan, often found at rather higher elevations. The local tourism authorities bill these mountains as the possible birthplace ofthe wild tulip.
Among the mammal species found in the reserve, the snow leopard is one that visiting tourists are unlikely to encounter. Numbers in the reserve are low; it is confined to remote spots and hunts mainly at night. The reserve also provides a home to the white-clawed Tian Shan bear, a relative of the brown bear, the Siberian ibex and Eurasian lynx. Wildlife you stand a chance of spotting includes ibex, argali sheep, red marmots, paradise flycatchers, golden eagles, various vultures – and bears (most likely in spring). The scenery, a mix of green valleys with rushing rivers, snowcapped peaks and high-level glaciers, is gorgeous.
The Menzbiers marmot, smallest of all the marmots, is endemic to the western Tian Shan. It has dark, almost black, fur on the upper parts of its body; pale yellow underneath. One further mammal rumoured by some locals to live in the remote mountains of the reserve is a yeti, a wild snowman. An expedition in the Soviet period even tried to find him.
The largest of the birds found in the reserve is the lammergeyer. You may also see the golden eagle, often found circling above the Aksu Canyon, the Himalayan griffon vulture and the Eurasian eagle owl. Another rare species found here is the blue whistling thrush: hearing its whistle is considered good luck.
You can visit at any time of year, but the best months to come are April to September. From Zhabagyly village it’s 6km southeast to the nearest reserve entrance, then 6km (about 1,5 hours’ walk) to Kshi-Kaindy, a mountain refuge near a waterfall at 1700m, then a further 6km to Ulken-Kaindy, a second refuge. From Ulken-Kaindy it’s 10km to a group of some 2000 stones with petroglyphs of up to 900 years old, below a glacier descending from the 3800m peak Kaskabulak.
A good way to visit these sites is by horse, spending two nights at Ulken-Kaindy. More demanding treks will take you over 3500m passes with nights spent in caves. Another great spot is the 300m-deep Aksu Canyon at the reserve’s western extremity, a 25km drive from Zhabagyly village. In September and early October the canyon is a busy raptor migration route. Obligatory fees for entering apply. Local accommodation options will deal with these for you and all offer a range of well-run trips in the reserve and further afield, for specialists and nonspecialists alike (their websites are great information sources for the area).