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Kazakhstan: Heading for the Hills

2 Jun

Yum yum ... horses grazing at Ush Konyr

It’s that time of the year in Kazakhstan when people in years gone by would have made off for the high pastures with their horses, cows and sheep in the annual migration to the rich upland grazing land known as the zhaylau. The summer months would be spent fattening up the animals – and the humans – on the riches in the mountains in preparation for the long, cold winter.

Wild flowers in Ush Konyr

Soviet-era collectivisation put paid to this nomadic existence and few people in modern-day Kazakhstan still follow the wandering traditions, but come the weekend and many city-dwellers still feel the call of the wild and take off to the mountains in their 4x4s for a spot of communing with nature and to get their supper by picking wild mushrooms.

Mushroom mania

Last weekend Kazaxia joined the exodus and visited Ush Konyr, which is easily reached from Almaty – head for President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s home village of Shamalgan and then follow the track that winds steeply up to the 3,000 metre pastures. In no time at all you’re in the rolling grasslands where President Nazarbayev spent his early years. He had such fond memories of this carefree existence that he penned a song about it. See it performed here by Kazakh band MuzArt.

More wild flowers in Ush Konyr

The smog and noise of Almaty feel light years away as you breathe in the clean air and concentrate on foraging for edible mushrooms and admiring the rich covering of wild flowers. You’ll see packs of horses grazing as you hike around and the occasional paraglider taking flight, but not a great deal else will intrude to spoil your peace and quiet.

Save Our Saigas!

11 May

The world’s saiga population has taken a hit in recent years with numbers declining drastically due to poaching but now a new eco-tour to Russia’s southern steppe aims to reverse the trend by bringing people to the region and provide much needed funds to support saiga conservation projects.

                                                       A close-up of a saiga’s snout                                                                                                                (taken from Wikipedia)

The saiga is one of the original steppe-dwellers. This strange-looking antelope with its long, flat snout has been around since wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers roamed the earth.

Today there are still saiga populations roaming the plains in Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. However, their numbers have fallen by around 95% since the early 1990s to below 50,000, leaving the species critically endangered.

Poaching, with saigas targeted for their amber horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, has  led to this huge fall in their numbers. Matters were made worse in 2010 as a mysterious virus wiped out some 12,000 saigas in Kazakhstan.

Now the Saiga Conservation Alliance, UK-based charity which runs  saiga conservation projects in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has teamed up with Saga Voyages in Russia to run a 10-day tour starting in late August to see saigas close up in their natural habitat.

Proceeds from the tour will help support the SCA ‘s projects in the region and bring income to rural families.  The cost of the tour – which ranges from $1,275 – $1,600 depending on group size – may be too much for many, but you can still support the work of the SCA by making a donation here.