Aksu-Zhabagly is the oldest and most famous nature reserve in Central Asia. It was founded in 1926, its territory was constantly increasing and now is 132.6 thousands hectares. It is located on the Ugam and Maidantal ridges of Talasskiy Alatau in Western part of Tien Shan. The name of nature reserve is formed from the name of its two biggest rivers – Aksu and Zhabagly, between which it was originally created. All the diversity of wildlife and abiocoen objects is carefully conserved in the nature reserve. Only catastrophic occurrences like fires assume human interference. That is why the scientists have a unique laboratory to research the nature in its original condition, and nature reserve visitors can observe and value the original beauty and diversity of West Tien Shan landscapes. The most special and representative are landscapes that include Juniper forests. These forests or, to be more precise, sparse forests, are formed by two species of Juniper. Juniperus semigloboza and J. seravschanica are 6-7 (sometimes up to 12) meters in height. The oldest specimens reach 3 meters in girth. The third species – J. turkestanica – in the limits of nature reserve has a creeping form, its “tablets” are observed on the slopes of subalpine zone. The visitors of nature reserve are stunned by the opportunity of wide view of amazing landscapes that are seen all the time in any part of the reserve’s territory: bright meadows among Junipers, deep and spacious river valleys, rocky ridges and snow tops, a lot of clean water streams. This water you can (and you should!) drink right out of the streams, because they are born here out of the melting snows. The canyon of Aksu river in the limits of nature reserve is unique. None of the nature reserve’s canyons is like another.
The interval of altitude in Aksu-Zhabagly is from 1300 to 4242 meters. The diversity of natural conditions of nature reserve corresponds to its rich plant and animal world. The list of flowering plants contains 1312 names, many of them you can see for sure only here in the reserve. Thirty nine of those plants are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan, but they are common in the nature reserve. There are a lot of beautiful plants in Aksu-Zhabagly, but the most famous are tulips – Tulipa greigii and T. kaufmanniana. They are ancestor species for 75% of the world’s tulip types diversity.
Fauna of nature reserve lists 267 species of birds, 130 of them are recorded as nesting species. Thirty species are included in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan. They include Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetus) – the symbol of Kazakhstan nationality, amazing birds of prey – Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), Steppe Eagle (Aquila rapax), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug), beautiful Black (Ciconia nigra) and White Stork (C. ciconia), Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo), Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) and Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus coereleus). Among other very interesting species we can name Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradise), Himalayan Snowcock (Tetraogallus himalayensis), White-winged Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucopterus), White-throated Robin (Irania gutturalis), Rufous-naped Tit (Parus rufonuchalis), Yellow-breasted Azure Tit (Parus flavipectus), etc.
Aksu-Zhabagly is very rich in insect diversity. Scientists identified 2124 species, but they predict to find up to 6000 species. Twenty five of the recorded insects are rare in Kazakhstan and are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan. Among them there are Papillio machaon, Parnassius apollo, Calosoma sycophanta, Stethorus punctillum, Bolivaria brachiptera and others.
And, of course, the most famous inhabitants are mammals. There are 52 species in nature reserve. During the excursions early in the morning or closer to the dark time you can see Siberian Ibex (Capra sibirica), Arkhar (Ovis ammon,) Isabelline Brown Bear (Ursus arctor) and Red Deer (Cervus elephus). Other species that are listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan include Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), Lynx (Lynx lynx), Stone Martin (Martes fiona) and Indian Porcupine (Histrix indica), who can be rarely seen by the reserve’s visitors.
Aksu-Zhabagly is a region of mountain salubrious air, bright sun, breath-taking landscapes and clean water, unique plant and animal world. You will never forget your visit here! The great impressions will allways be with you throughout your whole life!
When visiting the nature reserve you should keep in mind that:
– all the excursions are carried out only with a nature reserve’s stuff (local guide or inspector-guide, usually Russian-speaking);
– fires are prohibited on the territory of nature reserve. This means you can not make fires or smoke in fire-hazardous period (from June to October);
– there is only 10 km of car roads in the reserve, and you can only get there on a 4-WD vehicle. Other excursion paths are made for trekking or horse-riding;
– all the travel on the territory of nature reserve is done only using the transport of nature reserve. The nature reserve has a big amount of good horses and four 4-WD vehicles (2 “UAZ” and 2 “Niva” cars). The vehicles should be ordered in advance (at least one day in advance).
– payment calculation step for visiting the territory is “current day”.
There are cordons around the territory of nature reserve, inspectors who guard the reserve live there. Those cordons are named after the territories they are located near and, choosing the routes for travel, you can orientate on them, looking at the map.
So, we recommend:
Visit to Aksu river canyon always leaves a bright impression. This is a deepest canyon in Eurasia, its depth is from 300 to 500 m, the distance between its sides is about 1 km. The walls of the canyon are formed by conglomerates of ancient lake deposits. They are going down to the riverbed of violent full-flowing river, where the water is always very cold because it is made by melting of Talasskiy Alatau and Ugam snows. During the spring flood (June-July) the river has turquoise color, it contains the small parts of rocks from the upper part of the mountains. In August it becomes absolutely transparent, but in any case it is cold and tasty. River forest (tugay) stretches along riverbed, it consists of Birch, Poplar and Willow. A path which is twisting between ledges of the Southern slope will lead you to the river so you can look at its violent flow and relax in the shade of the trees. This is a good spot to look at the precipitous walls and terraces of Southern slope of the canyon, here and there covered by the trees of Juniperus seravschanica, groves of Celtis caucasica, Padellus mahaleb and shrubs. After the rest it won’t be hard to climb up, and when you come up you can once more appreciate the canyon panorama. On the Northern slope the path goes through the apple forest of Malus sieversii. Its fruits are tasty and its forms are extremely diverse, so it is a treasure for breeders. After the canyon the road goes to the Southern part of nature reserve, to Chuuldak.
The canyon is beautiful in any season, but it is open for visits from April to November. In spring you can see a lot of interesting plants even on the way to the canyon, and in the canyon itself you will find Tulipa greigii and Tulipa kaufmanniana, fields of blooming Eremurus lactiflorus, peculiar onions and other grass plants, the aroma and beauty of blooming shrubs. Later, when the plants on the Southern slope are drying out, the coniferous Juniper aroma increases, and in autumn the scenery is amazing because of the contrast between yellow plants and brightly blue shades in the depth of the canyon. In this season you will definitely like the bright fruits of Ephedra equisetina, blue-gray cone-berry of Juniper and all the other fruitful plants.
In any season you can watch birds of prey flying above the canyon. On the side of the canyon in the rocks you can record Rock Thrush, Wheatears, etc.
If you do not want to go down in the canyon, you can walk along its edge, and see the canyon from a different perspective all the time. Nearly half of the way along the canyon goes by a path down to the upper terrace of the canyon, then it will take you to its upper part again.
In case you are interested in the culture of local people, on the way back you may stop in a small village (aul) with patriarchal life style. You can chat with its people, take pictures of the everyday life. If you are lucky, you may even take part in some traditions, for example, in the making of “koshma”.
And as a wonderful decoration, you will be able to see the snow tops of Ugamskiy ridge and Talasskiy Alatau on the horizon all throughout the trip.
To reach the canyon the road goes for 35 km (including 15 km of earth-road), you can use a 4-WD vehicle or a bus. Going down the canyon may take a little more than an hour, and going up will take about an hour and a half. You may walk about 5 km on the middle terrace up the canyon and come back along the upper edge, or vice versa. You can also reach the canyon by foot or on a horse from Taldybulak tract (about 6 hours of walking). Some part of the way will be out of the reserve’s territory (on the foothills). And after you go down the canyon on its Southern side and up the Northern slope, you can go further to Chuuldak tract.
– Kshi-Kaindy tract is one of the most interesting and easy to reach parts of nature reserve. The length of the route (in one direction) is about 7 km. Excursion road meanders on the slope along Zhabagly river and gives a look at the beautiful panorama of spacious river valley. From one side you can see sparkling stream of Zhabagly river, and the wind carries its sound up to the road sometimes. From the other side there are high mountain snow tops. Separate trees and groves of Juniper are seen here and there at the road and on the both slopes around, sometime they form parts of a real forest. The air is filled with plant aroma and especially Juniper aroma which is believed to cure all illnesses. The most fragrant air is felt in hot summer days. The peculiarity of Juniper zone is presence of beautiful clearings with meadow vegetation taking all the space between the trees. Meadow motley grass is bright and colorful in any season. In spring it is rich in ephemeroids – Gagea, Crocus, Corydalis, Leontice, Anemone, Tulipa, Juno, Korolkovia, young leaves of Umbelliferae and shots of other plants. Later there are simultaneously blooming plants of yellow, pink, white colors and every shade of violet, and tons of blooming shrubs. Among them one may find a lot of interesting and rare plants: species of Allium, Morina kokanica, Aconitum talassicum, numerous representatives of Labiatae, Dianthus hoeltzeri with its amazing aroma, and many others. You will meet several small groves of Malus sieversii with traces of bear presence – the twigs on the trees with sweetest apples will be broken many times. There will be lots of interesting insects on the plants and on the ground, above the flowers you will always see wonderful butterflies. It is really a great place to be for people who love botany and entomology. And if you have a binocular, you may see a bear on a young grass at the snows (especially in spring), or Ibex that take rest in the rocks and look at their traces right on the road. The birds flying around are also interesting and rare like Asiatic Paradise Flycatcher, Rufous-naped Tit, Yellow-breasted Azure Tit, Black-headed Penduline Tit, Blue Whistling Thrush, Stonechat, Long-tailed Shrike, etc. At the end of the route you can relax at a small field base and then go further on the road and enjoy the waterfall in scenic rocks. If you go a little further you can drink some water from a very clean mountain stream named Kshi-Kaindy and listen to its sounds in the shade of willows. All this time beautiful spacious Kshi-Kaindy canyon will be in front of you, on its steep slopes you may see the change of vegetation zones – from long-boled Junipers to alpine meadows.
It is interesting that the way back will give you a different perspective and you will never regret that you used the same road back. If you travel on a horse (or a car) you will have different impression, but it will still be very pleasant.
The trip to Ulken-Kaindy tract is a continuation of the route to Kshi-Kaindy. The length of the road is about 6 km. The road leading there is extremely nice and not hard for walking. It is hard to visit both places in one day by foot, but if you have a horse or a car, you can plan this excursion for one day as a continuation of Kshi-Kaindy visit. At the beginning of the route after quite steep ascent from Kshi-Kaindy stream you will reach an amazing mountain meadow which will mesmerize you by its abundant flowers. It changes colors many times in one season, depending on the plant that blooms in great numbers. Hypericum, bright colorful onions, fragile white umbels, luxurious Delphinium confusum, bright Betonica foliosa, odorous Dianthus hoeltzeri – this is just a small list of species that form the beauty of these meadows. From all the sides this meadow is surrounded by Juniper forest. Here you may see how actively the Junipers are rehabilitating as a result of full protection: young trees of Juniper appear on the meadow areas. But Juniper grows slowly, and the scenery of these places will change after quite a while. Here you may hear the voice of Common Quail, watch Grey Partridge and Chuckar Partridge running from your feet, and in the sky Black Vulture and Golden Eagle will seek for their pray. On the road it is possible to see the tracks of bears and wild boars who feed on these meadows at night. On your way you will find an interesting stream with Orchis umbrosa thickets on its side, then you will see Ulken-Kaindy stream valley overgrown with Ligularia macrophylla and Chamaenerium. A big field base is located in Ulken-Kaindy (where the car road ends); as in Kshi-Kaindy, it may be used to spend the night. If you travel by horse or a car, the same day you can visit an interesting gallery of petroglyphs in Baidaksay gorge (it is in 2 km from Ulken-Kaindy field base and you can get here either by foot or on horse). The next day from Ulken-Kaindy you can have an excursion further along Zhabagly which goes on a nice and scenic path, or you can go to Ulken-Kaindy pass and enjoy new views, or you may visit Kaska-Bulak tract, where in a mountain depression at the height of 3200 m above sea level you can look at many petroglyphs, see the plants of highland subalpine and alpine zones. And with a binocular you may see flocks of Himalayan Snowcock on big rocky screes.
In Baidaksay gorge (you will reach it in forty minutes or an hour) you will find the closest gallery of rock carvings in nature reserve. Here you may see more than a dozen of rocks of different size, all covered by prehistoric rock paintings. One of them (probably the largest) is more than two square meters in area and contains more than 30 paintings with pictures of hunt, domestic and wild animals, etc.
Southern part of Aksu-Dzhabagly nature reserve (everything located Southern from Aksu river) is typical West Tien Shan in its composition of species and landscapes. In this part of nature reserve you will see a lot more of Juniperus seravschanica, although in more shady and cool areas it forms mixed plantations with Juniperus semigloboza.
A trip to this part of nature reserve you can start from Aksu canyon (it is preferable to go on horse): you will go down its Southern slope and up along its Northern slope, and then you’ll start you way to Chuuldak tract. You will climb not very high mountain ridge top that goes along left side of the canyon and you will follow it, looking at the beautiful views of the canyon that will open to your eyes. It is interesting to look at the original look of Southern wall of the canyon in its upper part. Here the layers of sediments are crushed an wrinkled up by later tectonic movements. In the horizon there will be the chain of Ugamskiy ridge with its snow tops and glaciers. Following this scenic abandoned road in the middle of beautiful Juniper forest you will reach a nice cozy clearing with a weather station and nature reserve’s inspector cordon, and at bottom there is a stream. Scenery is very good here: flattened surfaces of not high mountain ridges are covered by parts of Juniper forests. The view of Bala-Baldabrek river valley is quite magnificent. Meadows in this part of nature reserve are less colorful, mainly cereal, but there large size and calming colors are nice to look at. It is hard to observe animals here, but you can probably see Rufous-naped Tit, Orphean Warbler and Barred Warbler, Persian Robin, etc. And everywhere there are plants typical for Juniper forest and grass vegetation societies of this height. In May in Chuuldak you may observe a big population of yellow Tulipa greigii, which is rare in nature reserve.
You will need tents for the night. To get to Chuuldak it is necessary to go by car for about 100 km (first by asphalt, then by ground road). It takes about 2 hours each way.
From Chuuldak you can go further on horse to Baldybrek river valley and Darbaza tract. A convenient path going through a meadow and Juniper forest will go up a little bit and then down to Bala-Baldybrek river-bed. On the slopes along the river you will meet huge old trees of Juniperus seravschanica. Their crown are already sparse, tops are often harmed by past nature cataclysms, and the trunks reach 2.5-3 m around. Bala-Baldybrek in its upper part looks more like a beg stream. Small part of the way the part goes along this stream, then goes up to Kol-Zhailyau pass. And there you see a canyon with the coldest river of nature reserve at the bottom – Baldybrek. On its right side in the bushes there usually are a lot of roedeers, they are often seen during the day. In the upper part of this river in hard to reach rocky tops the traces of Snow Leopard were most often recorded, and sometimes these rare animals may be even seen here.
Then you go down, and at the exit from the canyon you’ll see Darbaza, which in translation from Kazakh means “the Gates”. This crack really looks like “gates” that surround an entrance to a spacious valley where mountains harshly transform into flat hills going to foothill steppe. The rocks of the gates look like reddish walls that press the river, in several places even overhanging above it, so the traveler may use only a narrow path along the water. On the walls you may see nesting House Martin and Crag Martin, Blue Whistling Thrush and Streaked Rock Sparrow. It may be not secure to go through the “gates” in June-July because of the high water level in the river that is why it is safer to go “above the gates” and look at them from another side. On the other hand, from above you will get an incredible view with all foothill area and Ugamskiy ridge in all its glory. But in the other time it is not hard to cross the river on horse, and behind the “gates” you will meet comfortable green valley where you can relax and make a camp for the night. Here you can end you journey and go back by car (the horses will stay with the supporting stuff). The described route may also be done walking if you are well physically prepared.
In 2005 Maidantal river valley was included in the territory of nature reserve. It is quite hard and ascetic in its lower part in the limits of nature reserve, but at the same time it is extremely green and wonderful in its upper part, where its bottom is located at the level of more than 3000 m above sea level. The path leading to it is quite hard: in lower part it is rather high rocky pass and crossing full-flowing Maidantal river, then – the part through Aksay glacier. This is a possible new horse route for very confident extreme-lovers.
Highland. Maximal height of Aksu-Dzhabagly mountains is 4240 m above sea level (Sairamskiy mountain top). But the majority of highlands is situated in the limits of 3000 m. The most accessible these heights are at Kshi-Kaindy, Ulken-Kaindy passes and highland depression of Kaska-Bulak mountain. You can reach these tops using a good walking and horse paths, the excursion to each of them will take not more than a day.
On the height of 2500 m and above the vegetation changes quickly: creeping Juniperus turkestanica change long-boled Juniperus semiglobosa, and highland meadows are changed by not less colorful but short-grass subalpine meadows, and on more pebbly and dry parts by meadow-steppes. And, finally, in very moist depressions you may see not big parts of real alpine meadows. On rocky ridges, rocks and placers petrophyte vegetation is dominating. All highland plants are short, but they have large and bright flowers and are extremely beautiful. In highland you may record several species of rare and endemic Oxytropis, carpets of luxurious Geranium saxatile, several species of fragrant Polygonum, extremely beautiful in its blooming Trollius altaicus, highland species of Ligularia along the streams, fields of Allium fedtschenkoanum, Ranunculus and Pedicularis korolkowii, and in pebbly parts and in rocks depressions – Allium oreophilum, Aster alpinus, Red Data Book species Primula minkwitziae, bright sunny Corydalis gortschakovii, Paraquilegia anemonoides and many other pretty plants.
On windy highland slopes there are large silver “cushions” of Onobrychis echidna which blooms with large brightly pink flowers.
Here you will be constantly accompanied by melancholic and soft voices of Alpine Chough, you can easily see a flock of Red-billed Chough, Rock Bunting, Brown Accentor, mountain Water Pipit and forest Tree Pipit. In the evening time on rich grass in hollows you may see a Brown Bear. Be sure that from the rocks you are watched by several dozens of Ibex which have their “guards” near the flock.
A special journey is a trip Kaska-Bulak mountain top (height 3200 m above sea level). Here in the depression there is a whole galley of rock paintings of Bronze Age. On the pictures carved on tanned by Southern sun rocks you may see wild and domestic animals, hunt scenes and even birth-giving process. Scientists state that there is more than 2000 pictures.
Any of the mountain passes gives a magnificent panorama of the surrounding mountain tops with “eternal snows” – a whole “mountain country”. And to the opposite side of the view you can see inhabited by people foothills with tiny (from a bird’s flight height) villages, roads and fields.
If you are well prepared, you can reach any mountain pass by foot. But it is much easier to do it on horse, which will be taken care of by an attendants during the stops and excursion. The excursions to the pass should be planned after a night at the field base or if you’ll get to the beginning of the route by car. In other case you will lack time and will be too tired to enjoy nature.
Highland Kshi-Kaindy pass – 2800 m a.s.l
Ulken-Kaindy pass – 2700 m a.s.l
Kaskabulak tract – 3200 m a.s.l