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Altyn-Emel National Park

Established in its present form in 1996, and covering an area of some 460,000ha, the Altyn Emel National Park ( is one of the largest in Kazakhstan. Its southern boundary is formed by the Ile River and by Lake Kapchagai. The northern boundary of the park is marked by a line of hills, a western spur of the Dzhungar Alatau range, whose name changes from west to east: Degeres, then Altyn Emel, then Koyandytau. It is said that the name 'Altyn Emel', which means 'golden saddle', was given to the hills by Genghis Khan when he passed this way in 1219 and saw them covered with sun- yellowed grass. In the east of the park are two further ranges, Katutau and Aktau. The rest of the park comprises dry plain.

This is one of the best places in Kazakhstan to see herds of wild hoofed mammals. The park boasts a population of some 6,000 goitered gazelle, known as jeiran. In the 1970s, a small population of central Asian wild ass, or kulan, was brought here from the Barsakelmes Nature Reserve, in response to the ecological problems associated with the desiccation of the Aral Sea, which turned Barsakelmes from an island into a peninsula and greatly raised the salinity of the Aral. The wild ass have thrived in Altyn Emel, and now have a population of some 2,000. Much harder to spot are the park's arkhar, some 400 in number, which prefer remote upland environments. The park authorities latest projects are the introduction to Altyn Emel of the Przhevalsky horse, using horses brought from Munich Zoo, and the Bukhara deer. The mammals are at their most active, and easiest to spot, early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Though quite time-consuming and potentially expensive to visit, this large, 4600-sqkm national park stretching northeast from Lake Kapshagay is worth considering if you appreciate beautiful desolation and some unusual natural and archaeological attractions.

The park is open to the public from April to the end of October. An ordinary car is not practical-a good jeep is recommended. The park's severe continental climate only 100 kilometres north of mild Almaty can lead to bouts of intensely cold weather. However, in July you must be prepared for temperatures of 40-50 C and little shade. For this reason, and for the multitude of mosquitoes near the water, long-sleeved clothing is highly recommended.

It’s famous for the Singing Dune, which hums like an aircraft engine when the weather is suitably windy and dry, but archaeology fans will be absorbed by the Terekty petroglyphs and the 31 Besshatyr burial mounds, which are one of the biggest groups of Scythian tombs known anywhere.

Two barchan dunes, reaching a height of 120m and a total length of more than 2km, sit in the funnel of flat land bounded by the lie River in the south, Ulken Kalkan in the east and Kishi Kalkan in the west. The dunes reach their highest elevation at the southern end; a track runs down the eastern side to enable you to get a good view. But despite the attractiveness of the dunes, and their striking location amidst dry mountains and saxaul-dotted semi-desert plain, visitors mainly come here to listen to the dunes rather than just to see them. The Singing Sand Dune is celebrated in the tourist brochures of Kazakhstani travel companies for emitting a loud humming noise, often likened to that of an aircraft engine. The generation of the noise is related to the movement of the sand: scientists continue to debate whether the movement of air between the sand grains or friction between the grains, possibly linked to the generation of opposite electrical charges, causing repulsion of the grains, is the primary cause of the sound. Local legends offer a different interpretation: that the noise is the groaning of the slumbering evil spirit Shaitan, or perhaps the moans of Genghis Khan and his army, buried beneath the sand.

You may however find that on your visit to the Singing Sand Dune, rather than the humming of the sand, all you get to hear is one of the reasons given by the park guide for an absence of noise: sand too wet; not enough wind; wind in the wrong direction. It is sometimes possible to encourage the vocal talents of the dune by running quickly down the side: the southern slopes of the dune are said to be best for noise generation. Climbing up to the top of the dune is not as easy as it looks though, but the walk is good exercise for the calf muscles.


While some national parks in Kazakhstan have taken a cautious approach to tourism, seeing their role as to protect the natural environments from people rather than to attract visitors in, Altyn Emel sees tourism development as one of its central activities. The positive side of this is the provision of relatively good facilities for visitors, including eight tourist cottages scattered across the park, and ease of booking. The park maintains an office in Almaty. The downside is a pretty steep charge to visit the place: foreigners from outside the former Soviet Union are charged T5.800 (around $40) a day, as against just T800 for Kazakh citizens. This fee is however reduced by 10% for day two, and by 20% for the third and subsequent days, if you are planning a really in-depth visit to the park. Additional fees are levied, reasonably enough, for provision of accommodation, meals, a guide and use of a banya, as well as, less logically, for overnight car parking. The guides are mostly park inspectors who can direct you to the sights well enough, but are unable to offer much in the way of explanations about them.

In terms of touristic visits, the park is effectively divided into two separate parts by a specially protected reserve, or zapovednik, in the central section, through which tourists are not usually allowed to pass. The village housing the park headquarters, Basshi, is the gateway to the sights of the eastern section of the park, including the Singing Sand Dune, and Aktau and Katutau hills. The western section of the park, containing the Besshatyr burial mounds and Terekty petroglyphs, is best approached direct from Almaty, and you will need to make your payment in advance through the park's Almaty office or a travel agent.