Our time in Almaty is coming to a close. We used our final week to knock out a few destinations we hadn’t yet visited, and did some “greatest hits” eating and adventuring. We made one last trip to Kok Tobe for sunset, ate at Luckee Yu, and spent plenty of time at the coffee shop. We also visited the Tastak Bazaar. The Green Bazaar has some touristy elements, but Tastak is purely functional. We had some delicious plov at a market stall, and wandered up and down the rows of meat, cheese, shoes, underwear, and everything else.
On Saturday, we arranged for a guide to take us to Charyn Canyon. The guide was recommended by the local State Department email list. It turned out that she works at the Central State Archives, and we’d met earlier in the visit! Since we’d booked a private tour, we had a whole van to ourselves. We invited our friend Madina to join us, since it seemed wasteful to have so many empty seats.
Saturday was rainy and gross, but as Minnesotans, we don’t let weather get us down. Our first stop was for some roadside snacks – meat pockets cooked in a tandoor oven. From there, we visited the Issyk museum. The museum is dedicated to the Golden Man, a hugely important artifact recovered from a burial mound nearby. The landscape is dotted with burial mounds from the Saka civilization. Most of them were plundered in antiquity, so the discovery of the Golden Man in YEAR was a major event. The original is now in The Capitol, and there are copies throughout Kazakhstan. In fact, most of the museum is replicas – one gets the sense that The Capitol has claimed all the important artifacts.
From Issyk, we ventured on to Charyn Canyon. Kazakhs will insist that Charyn Canyon is second only to the Grand Canyon. This may be a bit of an exaggeration (the scale is vastly different) but it’s a beautiful site nonetheless. You drive in at the top of the canyon, and then hike down (though taxis will take you down as well). It was incredibly windy and gross at the top, but the canyon affords some protection. We didn’t know a lot about the geology before visiting, so we got to use our detective hats. We (well, Kat) deduced that it was a series of debris flow deposits from the still-growing nearby mountains that had been eroded by wind and flash flooding. The loosely packed layers were full of angular jagged rocks slowly breaking down into squishy clay. At the bottom of the canyon there was a thick layer of dark lava that contrasted beautifully with the red sedimentary layers.
The rain meant the wet rocks were glowing with beautiful colors. There were also relatively few visitors (they even gave us a rain discount) so we could explore on our own. The canyon has an eco-resort, where you can sleep in huts or yurts right by the small Charyn river. It’s not yet open for the season, but it seems like it’d be absolutely fantastic on a hot summer weekend.
We left the canyon around 4, pockets full of rocks, with the rain still drizzling down. We made our way home, with a stop for goose shashlik. Even though the weather wasn’t great, we still had a fantastic time and enjoyed some extended time with some Kazakhs to chat casually about some of the realities of life here.
On Sunday, we decided to tackle one last hike in the mountains. Having failed at Peak Furmanov once, we were determined not to be defeated a second time. This time we knew which path to take, and we had a few more weeks of snow melt on our side.
Although it went better this time, Furmanov defeated us yet again. We made a few mistakes. First, we assumed that a cloudy day in Almaty would mean a cloudy day in the mountains, and thus forgot our sunscreen. Bad decision, and one which we’re still paying the price for. Next, we didn’t account for the fact that Saturday’s rain fell as snow in the mountains, giving everything a nice, fresh, slippery surface.
Everything started out OK – we took the right trail and made good progress walking along the saddle, instead of in the valley. As we climbed higher, the amount of snow cover increased, as did the steepness. There was a well packed trail through the snow, but missing a step meant falling in up to your waist.
As we passed 10,000 feet, we could see our destination, just above us. The one online article we found describes the last bit of the hike as a “bit of a scramble” which, in the summer, it probably is. With a few feet of snow on the ground, it’s more of a delicate crawl up a 40% incline strewn with boulders. A slip means a scary bit of sliding until you can grab a rock. In truth, the ascent wasn’t so bad, but we were getting nervous about the descent. Our original plan had been to hike down the other side, and then continue on with three more summits until we ended up at the ski resort. However, safety concerns started creeping in the higher we got, and we decided to turn back about 200 feet below the summit. Furmanov wins again.
Sunday night, we met back up with our young friends to visit an “anti-cafe”. An anti-cafe is a space with games, hangout spaces, and TVs, where you pay by the minute. You’re not expected to buy any other products like food or drink (hence “anti-cafe”) and you’re welcome to bring your own snacks. We played some games, some mini-soccer, foosball, and had ice cream and tea. Kat participated in a dance choreographed by the youngest Jackie, sang karaoke with Nuray and tried to teach them both billiards. The girls would have been happy to play all night, but after 15 miles of hiking and 6000 feet of climbing, we were pretty exhausted and called it a night at 11.