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Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake

West of the Malaya Almatinka valley lies its ‘big sister’, the Bolshaya Almatinka valley. The paved road south up this valley starts at a large roundabout on the southern edge of Almaty where Al-Farabi meets Navoi. You pass many roadside cafes and restaurants before reaching, after 7.5km, the entrance to the Ile-Alatau National Park. 

Immediately before the park gate is the Sunkar eagle farm. Sunkar Falcon Centre was originally established to protect the saker falcon, whose numbers dropped alarmingly following the break-up of the USSR, with the development of the sale of these birds to the Middle East, where they are highly prized for hunting. It has now expanded to encompass a wide range of birds of prey, including even vultures and lammergeyers, housed in lines of cages set amidst elegantly manicured lawns. Larger birds, such as owls and eagles, stand on wooden posts beneath a corrugated roof, their tethers allowing them only to fly to another post a few metres away. More birds of prey fly more freely in a large fenced enclosure, with a net for a roof. There are also lines of cages occupied by tazys and other hunting dogs.

Paying the admission charge allows you to walk around the centre, but it is more instructive to attend one of their bird displays. Several birds are exhibited, usually including falcons, an eagle owl and a white- tailed eagle, with the demonstration encompassing hunting techniques, , at 4pm or 5pm daily except Monday.

About 1.5km past the park gate is the restaurant complex Tau Dastarkhan ( Well-heeled Almaty-dwellers head here in their Toyota 4x4s for summer weekend lunches at one of the selection of themed restaurants. The fast-flowing stream of the Bolshaya Almatinka makes for a very attractive setting, the food is of a high quality.

The road forks 250m past here, at a spot known as GES-2 after a small hydroelectric station nearby. The paved right branch heads to the settlement of Alma-Arasan (4km). The unpaved left branch follows the Bolshaya Almatinka River upstream, passing another small hydroelectric station, GES-1, after 8km, and reaching 2500m-high Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe (Big Almaty Lake) after a further 7km. (From GES-1 hikers normally shortcut the road by following the water pipe straight uphill to the lake.)

The 'big' label comes from the name of the stream on which it sits, the Big Almaty River (Bolshaya Almatinka), not as a commentary on the size of the lake itself, which is a somewhat modest 1.6km by 1km. On a fine day, however, this is one of the most beautiful places in all Kazakhstan. It's a great place for a picnic, though you will be far from alone here on sunny summer weekends. A side track to the left just before you reach the lake is the start of the difficult mountain track to Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan.

The picturesque, 1.6km long lake, resting in a rocky bowl, is frozen from November to June and only takes on its famous turquoise tinge once the summer meltwater has drained away. It’s a good birdwatching spot, especially during the May migration. 

Two kilometres up the track to the west from the lake (about a 40-minute walk), at 2750m, is the outlandish Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory, sometimes still referred to by its Soviet-era acronym, GAISh. This is a real jumble of buildings and equipment, some long disused: satellite dishes, domed observatory buildings, and cosmos-directed metal devices which look just like ray guns out of a stock 1930s Hollywood sci- fi movie. The observatory has the second-biggest telescope in the former USSR, with magnification of around 600 times, installed in 1991. It only operates at part-capacity now due to lack of funding, and a former radar dish is used as a TV receiver. At the head of the Zhusalykezen Pass (3336m), 6km southwest from the observatory, is the Kosmostantsia, a group of mostly wrecked buildings belonging to scientific research institutes.

Getting there & away

From central Almaty, bus 63 runs south on Furmanov and along Al-Farabi to the roundabout where it meets Navoi. Here you can switch to bus 28, heading up the valley about every 15 minutes from 7am to 7.30pm, as far as the GES-2 fork. To walk from GES-2 to the lake takes four or five hours, with a rise of nearly 1100m. But there are easier ways of getting there: you can get an Almaty city taxi  to GES-1 (after which the road deteriorates). Even better news: the road to the lake has been undergoing a major upgrade, which should make it passable for all vehicles right up to Kosmostantsia, possibly as soon as 2012.