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Charyn Canyon

Suddenly, to our right, the steppe was pulled away from beneath us like a carpet to reveal two massive red sandstone canyons that fell away for hundreds of metres. It was a breathtaking sight, made doubly impressive by the abrupt way in which it came into view. It seemed impossible that such an enormous natural feature could remain so completely hidden. We drove carefully along the ridge as far as we could, parked the car, and continued on foot. One of the canyons had a dry bed, while the other contained the ribbon of a river. A mile or so away, far below, there was an island green as an oasis. We walked and climbed along ledges and promontories for hours, dwarfed and alone, awed into silence. Even Ivan was affected: 'Yes,' he said thoughtfully, as he lit a cigarette, 'this is beautiful.'

The most pleasing aspect of the gorge for me was the evident pleasure the philosopher and his son took in it. Here was a unique and spectacular feature of their native land that neither the tsars, nor the Soviets, nor even globalization could ruin. It was as if we had a scaled-down Grand Canyon all to ourselves, with its fantastic, wind-sculpted red towers and arches. One of the deepest of the northern Tien Shan, the canyon runs for 150 kilometres and contains a number of astonishing rock formations with names like Ghosts' Gorge, the Devil's Gorge and the Valley of Castles. The philosopher risked life and limb to take photographs.

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The road east from Almaty in the direction of Narynkol follows a northern branch of the Silk Road of old. The southern side of the road offers fantastic views of the mountains, while the northern side overlooks fertile river valleys, the Kapshagay Reservoir on the horizon and further on, the mountain steppe of Shodak and Altyn Emel. Along the road you often see herds of horses, cattle and sheep. In September, dried tobacco hangs in front gardens, and everything the gardens yield is neatly displayed along the roadside. Near Km Stone 52 is a botanical park, planted about 50 years ago with some 1.500 differ species of trees and bushes from all over the world-everything seems to grow willingly in the fertile ground.

Around 195 kilometres from Almaty, the fast-flowing Charyn (Sharyn) River, a tributary of the Ile, has cleft a rough gorge some 80km in length during its northward journey from its headwaters in the Tian Shan Mountains across the arid semi-desert east of Almaty. The depth of the canyon reaches as much as 300m where it cuts through the Toraigyr Mountains on its journey. Tour operators bill Charyn as a miniature version of the Grand Canyon, and although this is a little ambitious, it is still impressive and does have a particular charm of its own.

The road to Sharyn Canyon winds over the mountain ridge of Sogety, passing a side road shortly before the tiny hamlet of Kokpek that leads to the reservoir of Bartogay, which is worth a separate visit. The main road leads through Kokpek to Sharyn Canyon and the Sogety heights looming behind it. This large, seemingly barren area is a favourite place for hunting with birds; it is said that many an Arab sheikh has enjoyed his favourite hobby here, attended by high-ranking local politicians. Ground squirrels are nonetheless present in abundance-the plain is full of their holes.

In the village of Nura, before the rise to the high plateau of Sogety, there is a family which for generations has been teaching the art of training eagles to hunt. There is a museum here that recounts the history of the highly respected profession of the "berkutch".

To get here, take the main road east from Almaty, through the small town of Chilik. Around 190km east of Almaty, turn left onto a signposted track. You reach the canyon after a further 9km, and having passed a checkpoint at which a small fee is taken for your entry into the Charyn National Nature Park. From the parking area here, a path heads down into the canyon. Another path, 1km to the north, is steeper but more picturesque.

The Charyn River offers some challenging white-water rafting and canoeing. It is also home to a fish endemic to the region, sporting the rather picturesque name of the naked osman.

Shortly before reaching the end of the Sogety plateau, you will see a sign with a barrier where you turn off. In passing the barrier you pay a small entrance fee to the national park for the car and for each person, if the post is manned. The last 11 kilometres through the canyon lead along a natural track over the barren highlands. One can drive directly into the canyon with a 4WD or robust car, though hikers tend to find this particularly annoying.

The road down into the canyon is not too difficult, but strong shoes are recommended: the crumbling sandstone has caused many hikers to fall.

The place the tour groups head for in this part of the canyon is a dry side ravine known as the Red Canyon or Valley of the Castles. Some 3km long, and up to 100m deep, with a path running along its base, the red sandstone walls of this gorge offer natural sculptures of dramatic form. You will bake here at the height of summer: spring and autumn are ideal times to visit the canyon.

The fairy-tale sandstone formations along the road through the canyon have also been given names, some slightly embarrassing, like Notre Dame, Penguin, Duck or Winnie the Pooh. In summer, visitors are accompanied by the deafening sound of cicadas and the sight of unusual vegetation, including saksaul, ephedra, thorny bushes and a mass of small succulents. Avoid turning over stones-you don't want to disturb scorpions and poisonous spiders. But rest assured, they never attack passers-by who treat them with respect.

Through the centre of the canyon flows the Sharyn River, brown and foaming. It flows fast, so take care when swimming there. There are a few shallow places where you can swim near the bank without much risk. From down in the canyon, you are free to explore, climb up the peaks and ridges-with varying degrees of difficulty-and enjoy the breathtaking view, which changes with every twist and bend in the canyon. The best time to visit the canyon is from April till October, although in midsummer it can become very hot inside the gorge.

Upstream, the Sharyn Valley has more places of interest to offer, without the tourist hordes. You need either a strong rubber raft with a knowledgeable river guide or for hikers a few days in hand and a good local guide to visit the Valley of Snakes and the Temerlik Valley.

And in its lower reaches, the river offers one more thing worth seeing: remnant of a great forest of Sogdian ash which stretched across this area after the last Ice Age.  The ribbon of relict forest which has survived is a 25km stretch, sheltered by the canyon. The ecosystem of this 48-square-kilometre primeval forest, which consists of Sogdanian ash and Turanga poplar, is more than 10,000 years old. Some of the trees are so thick that five people joining hands cannot get their arms around them. A nature reserve was established here in 1964 to help protect the grove, one of the few large populations of Sogdian ash found anywhere in the world, and this now forms a specially protected area within the Charyn National Park. It is reached via a different road from that for the Valley of the Castles: coming from Almaty turn left on the road towards Shonzhy and Zharkent a few kilometres southeast of the village of Kokpek. Other trees found in the dense patches of forest along the banks of the river include willow, poplar and barberry.

The Scythian grave mounds that lie scattered on the edges of the wood suggest that this forest had a profound significance for the ancient horse-riding nation. Further east, shortly before Chundzha, there are the remains of a prehistoric settlement called Aktobe. To get to the "Relict Forest", follow the road some 10 kilometres southeast of Kokpek that bends in the direction of Chundzha/Zharkent.

Some scholars believe that the name of the river comes from the Uighur word 'Sharyn, meaning 'ash tree'. Others suggest that it derives from the Turkic root 'Char', which suggests a precipice. The two options are rather fitting, since precipices and ash trees are two of the key components that make Charyn such a fascinating place.

Getting here by public transport is possible, but you may not be able to get back the same day. Take a 7am bus or minibus from Almaty’s Sayakhat bus station heading to Kegen or Narynkol, and get out at the signposted turn off to the canyon about 190km from Almaty, just before the road starts descending into the Charyn valley. From here it’s 10km east along a fairly flat dirt road to a parking area and then 3km (about one hour) down through the Valley of Castles to the river. If you’re lucky you might get a taxi or a lift to the parking area; if not, it’s a walk! Don’t try to swim in the river, which is deceptively fast.