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Mountains of the Zailysky Alatau

"Multi-coloured mountains beyond the Ili" is the translation of the Russian-Kazakh name of this, the northernmost spur of the Tien Shan. The unusually rich colours of the wild fruit tree woods and mixed forests in autumn could be the origin of the Kazakh name, Alatau. The nomads have certainly valued the sheltered and fertile valleys of this mountain spur for centuries. The range is situated south of the Ili River, which makes its way westwards from China through the centre of the Land of Seven Rivers, accumulating water from myriad mountain streams rushing out of the Alatau, before flowing into the giant reservoir of Kapshagay, then on for a further 300 kilometres across Zhetisu to empty finally into Lake Balkhash.

To the east of Almaty the mountains of the Zailysky Alatau reach their highest points: a long sequence of peaks above 4,600m, with the highest of them the bulky Mount Talgar, which may or may not top 5,000m (its height is variously quoted as 4,973m and 5,017m) but which, either way, is taller than Mont Blanc. The name of the range, which forms part of the Tian Shan system, is a mix of Russian and Kazakh: Alatau' in Kazakh refers to the multi-coloured character of the mountains, while the Russian- language prefix 'Zailysky ('beyond the Ile'), refers to the range lying on the far side, from the perspective of Tsarist Russia, of the Ile River. The area was explored in the 1850s by the Russian geographer Pyotr Semyonov, whose research led him to disprove the theory of one of his teachers, Alexander Humboldt, that the Tian Shan Mountains were volcanic in origin. In 1906, on the 50th anniversary of the first of Semyonov's expeditions to this then little-known area, the Tsar decreed that Semyonov and his descendants had the right to add to their surname the name of the mountain range he had done so much to uncover, and Semyonov became Semyonov-Tianshansky.

The Ile Alatau National Park, established in 1996, covers the northern slopes of the Zailysky Alatau along a 120km stretch from the Shamalgan River west of Almaty to the Turgen River to the east. The crest of the range marks the southern boundary of the park. The stretch to the east is accessed along roads running southwards along the floors of mountain valleys from a line of small agricultural towns at the foothills of the range: Talgar, Esik and Turgen.

The vegetation belts start with broadleaved forests in the lowland areas, with wild apple trees reminding of the claims of the Tian Shan to be the birthplace of the apple, as well as the apricot, aspen, birch, rowan and hawthorn. With increasing altitude the Schrenk spruce takes centre stage, sometimes accompanied by pine and birch, the trees gradually thinning out to isolated stands of Schrenk spruce, mountain ash and juniper. Among the mammals found in these mountains are deer, wild boar, fox and badger, along with rare species such as the Tian Shan brown bear, central Asian lynx, red wolf, stone marten, and that emblem of Kazakhstan the snow leopard.

Mountains of the Zailysky Alatau