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The Khan Tengri Massif

Most locals' knowledge of this region extends only to the road sign that reads Narynkol. They know simply that beyond this town, tip the river of the same name, is the border with China-but few have any idea how beautiful this remote area is. Because of its status as a border district, you can only visit the Khan Tengri massif by buying a permit through one of the larger travel agencies in Almaty.

Travelling from Almaty to the Khan Tengri region takes a whole day. (There is a bus service to the area-starting from the Sayakhat bus station in Almaty-for patient travellers with great patience and endurance.) Driving time for the 350 kilometres in private transport is at least six hours, and it is hard to resist the temptation to stop and enjoy the beautiful views from 200 kilometres onwards. Fifteen kilometres after the hamlet of Kegen, after having passed many tomb mounds, most of which date from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC the road crosses the 2,000-metre Sholadyr Pass. The enormous, multi-forked high-level valleys of the rivers Kegen, Shalkodysu and Tekes, each with their own tributaries and flancked by the mountain chains of Terskey Alatau to the south and Ketmen to the north, has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty that you could easilv stay for a couple of weeks there to explore the salt lake of Tuzkol on the  right side of the road from Karasaz to Sarybastau, the river valleys of the Tekes, the Orta-Kokpak, the Ulken-Kokpak, and Baynkol and Narynkol. To the south, the Terskey Alatau rises mightily towards the Khan Tengri massif-especially from the Tekes Valley, it offers views that will live long in your memory. You can drive a considerable distance into the mountains by car along the rivers Tekes, Orta-Kokpak and Ulken-Kokpak, up to the slopes of Kaynar, Kokpak and Karatogay. but for this region 4WDs are a must.

The two most beautiful valleys are the Karkara Valley, on the Kyrgyzstan border, and the Bayankol Valley with its side branch of Akkol, reached through the towns of Zhambyl and Karatogay. The valley splits after the checkpoint where the border zone starts. (NB: You can only enter with a special permit.) To the left, the idyllic main valley of the Bayankol River leads directly to the Saryzhus mountain ridge, behind which stretches the northern Inylchek Glacier. There is even a rough track that leads to the gold mine of Zharkulak. To the right, the Akkol Valley begins; following the shore of Lake Akkol on foot or horseback will bring you very close to the mighty mountain that is held in such esteem by the Kazakh people. In this closed region, riding a staunch, obedient Kazakh horse is surely the best, fastest, most comfortable and ecologically sound way to travel. But remember: given the vastness of the territory, a mountain guide is strongly recommended, if not essential.

This is an ideal area for camping, and the Akkol campsite is particularly beautiful. It is situated at 2,600 metres on the middle reaches of the Bayankol River where the Akkol flows into it, near the mountain lake of the same name. As a base camp for mountaineering groups attempting to conquer Khan Tengri, it has a helicopter landing site. You can use the main building's kitchen and dining room-but you must bring your own food. Electricity comes from a small hydroelectric plant, and there is a sauna with a dipping pool and wooden toilet cabins. There are even rather spartan huts to sleep in for US$10-20 per night.

The base camp of Karkara is also wonderfully situated and well equipped; it can be reached by turning right in Kegen and driving through Karkara towards the Kyrgyz border. Be sure to keep to the left, since the border with Kyrgyzstan is immediately at the Karakara Valley's entrance. There is accommodation at the Khan Tengri Tourist Inn in Narynkol and at the sanatoriums Kayshi and Shogansay in Zhambyl, should you want to base yourself there and make multiple excursions into the mountains.