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The Aksay Valley

A tiny but still active monastery with a few monks still exists in the valley of Aksay on the far heights of Mount Kyzylzhar. The monastery can only be reached on foot, but a visit is worthwhile, if only for the beautiful view. To get there, drive west from Almaty to the village of Tausamaly (Kamenka), which has all but become part of Almaty as expansion steams ahead. Keep going west to the valley of the Aksay River, then turn south. The fence of the national park lies beyond a toll post, across a once well-settled area, now full of neglected and abandoned dachas on a serpentine road, the condition of which deteriorates quickly. Here, you have to leave the car. Walking upstream along a clearly visible path, you pass through pastures and half-wild apple orchards. In late summer, you should try the shrunken but delicious apples. Now you have to cross the river before venturing upward on a steep path, then steps and even ladders. The last barrier before your destination is a fir wood. Having crossed it, you enter a meadow and suddenly you find yourself overlooking a marvellous panorama of Almaty.

The monastery consists of a charming new wooden church and a community house. The monks themselves live all year in earth caves. Monastic solitude obviously suffers from the crowds of curious visitors who arrive weekend after weekend in spite of the laborious climb. Don't be surprised if the monks, who made their dwelling up here in the 1920s in an attempt to escape persecution by Red Guard zealots, look for even better hideouts in years to come. To respect the brothers' constant prayers for peace and wellbeing in the land, one should behave quietly, unpretentiously, and not smoke. However, sometimes the monks themselves come out to talk to visitors.

The Aksay Valley is relatively broad and in its middle reaches it consists of dense woodland. Above the tree line it splits in two. Both subsequent valleys wind up between high peaks covered with year-round snow and cross into Kyrgyzstan. With the exception of Mount Akbulak (3,690 metres), all of them are covered with glaciers and are over 4.000 metres high-all in all no place for mere day-trippers. Up here, you still have a good chance of seeing ibex jumping from crag to crag and golden eagles soaring in the blue sky.