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What do we know about the Karatau Mountains
Karatau is the northernmost ridge of the Western Tien Shan. With its southern end, it closes with the spurs of the Talas Alatau, and then goes north for almost 400 km. These are very old mountains that have experienced repeated alignments and uplifts in their geological history. Therefore, they have a very complex and original relief and consist of a system of strongly dissected individual small ridges. The whole array is conditionally divided into three parts – Borolday, Small Karatau and Big Karatau. Due to their peculiar geographical location and unique geological history, these mountains are extremely interesting for nature lovers. Suffice it to say that the number of endemic plant species and races reaches 9%, this is one of the richest endemic territories in the world. Despite the general dryness of the region, almost every gorge has a small river or stream. Due to this, they form an original microclimate, a kind of flora and fauna. The Karatau Mountains are surrounded by numerous salt and fresh lakes.
Your acquaintance with Karatau can begin with the Berkara gorge (the northeastern slopes of the Borolday ridge), overgrown along the stream of the same name with a forest of Sogdian ash, listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan.
Right at the beginning of the gorge you will be able to observe paradise flycatchers Terpsiphone paradisi, fluttering in the crowns of trees, and even discover their nests. If you get to the gorge in the second half of April, you will admire numerous tulips, including the Greig tulip of extremely rare, almost white color. Along the slopes you will be able to observe the groves of the relict Pyrus regeli,i and if you have the time and are well physically prepared, you have the opportunity to get to the unique grove of Populus bercarensis, which grows only here. On the same day you can visit nearby lakes.
You can explore the neighboring ridge Ulkun-burul, where you will be able to observe a vulture from a short distance Neophron percnopterus and a whole colony of the steppe kestrel Falco naumani .The structure of the dry canyons of this ridge is amazing and original, the walls of which are composed of layered rocks as if from separate blocks and slabs. In spring, you can admire tulips, very beautiful Crambe curtains with a honey smell, and a lot of other unusual plants. A little later, a whole sea of poppies spreads along the slopes of this ridge, unusually decorating the landscape. From the top of the ridge there is a very beautiful view of the surrounding landscapes.
The next extremely interesting point is the gorge Aktogay (north-eastern slopes of Maly Karatau). Here, a clear river flows through an opening in the rocks, the flow of which in soft white rocks has washed intricate recesses and bowls, the shape and variety of which are amazing.
There is a rounded deep natural pool in the riverbed, where large swimming fish (marinki) – Schizothorax intermedius – are visible in the clear dark depth. A spacious gorge opens behind a kind of rock gate, on the slope of which there is an extensive cave where several species of bats meet. After the turn, the gorge becomes narrower and shady, along a convenient path you can go deep into it, get acquainted with its flora and fauna.
Then, passing the city of Zhanatas, the path leads you to the lake Kyzylkol (translated as Red Lake). This is a large salty reservoir, on which the mass of the most diverse waterfowl is kept: Along its shores you can meet jack Chlamydotis undulata, cupcakes Alectoris, during the flight time of various heaters(Oenanthe) and other birds. The flat part of the coast is replaced by steep slopes of bright ochre-red clay, on their flatter areas in April you can find a bright red Tulipa borszczowii. And if you want to go around the lake, you will get to a rounded hill, at the foot of which a small river flows, washing along its banks the shells and teeth of sharks that once inhabited ancient reservoirs here. Gray Gymnodactylus russowi geckos are darting in niches and gullies. The slopes of the hill are in places completely covered with shards of ancient dishes, and from its top you can see all the surroundings so far that you immediately think of either a guard post or a sanctuary.
Another place of unique beauty is the gorge Arpa-ozen on the site of the Big Karatau, which has its own name – Kenchektau. You can get here from Kyzyl-kohl, bypassing the city of Sholakkurgan.
A fairly long road will not seem boring and tedious to you: birds of prey constantly come across along the road on poles, the landscape outside the car window impresses with its spaciousness and the changing contours of mountains in the distance, as well as such original elements as flocks of grazing two—humped and one-humped camels, horses, and sometimes flocks of sheep. Involuntarily, Kazakh kuis begin to sound in my head, which are performed on a folk instrument — dombra. Kenchektau get up in the distance, and as they approach them, they cause more and more surprise. It is difficult to imagine more bizarre and fantastic rocks with sharp teeth resembling dragon teeth. In the elegant gorge at the foot of these mountains, it’s nice to camp out to spend the whole next day observing the Egypius monachus vultures, which nest in large numbers here in the rocks. It is not at all difficult to climb the trail to the top of the ridge and see the amazing teeth up close, as well as look into the vast valley behind them, where ancient leveling surfaces – table-shaped mountains are visible. In spring, there are many tulips and other ephemeroids in the gorge, later trees and shrubs begin to bloom – a day spent here turns out to be pleasant and full of impressions. If you happen to leave the gorge early in the morning, in the slanting sunlight you can easily distinguish the mounds of ancient burial mounds that dot the foothill plain. If you are interested in historical places, it is worth visiting the city during the route Suzak with its ancient settlement, it will take half a day.
If you are not going to Suzak, then to continue your journey along Karatau, you need to move to its opposite side, to the western slopes.
There are two possible routes from the city of Sholakkurgan for this. If you want to visit ancient Turkestan with its mausoleums and other attractions nearby, you need to choose Achisai Pass. The road through the ridge is very picturesque here. You can admire the reservoir, which in the first half of summer is full of pure mountain water. Then, on the descent, look at the beautiful rocks that stand on both sides of the road.
After the inspection Turkestan You can choose a path to drive to the famous Syr Darya River, watching the mass of waterfowl on the vast spills along the way. The Syr Darya is full-flowing and really great. You can look into the tugai forest on its banks and get acquainted with the floodplain vegetation of the Asian river.
From Turkestan or Syrdarya, the road lies to Shymkent. You either finish your trip here, or return to Zhabagly to explore the reserve.
On the way to Shymkent (if you still have a place for new impressions), we would advise you to explore the Ak-Mall cave. This is a grandiose underground hall, under the arches of which even a small grove of trees grows. The hills on a small section of the field road in front of the cave itself are bloomed in spring with a mass of tulips, a little later with a magnificent white Eremurus lactiflorus and a colorful carpet of Geranium, Astrogalus, and other plants. A little closer to Shymkent, next to the road, there is a small and very beautiful mausoleum, an example of modern architecture – Domalak-ana, a new place of pilgrimage.
If you do not want to go to Turkestan, you can cross the Karatau through another pass, which will significantly shorten your journey. In spring, a variety of plants are extremely interesting here, at the end of April you can see endless fields of tulips on the plains beyond the pass, in May the blooming Ferula and white Crambe clubs will delight the eye. By choosing this road, you can also visit the Ak-Mall cave and explore Domalak-anu.
The most interesting thing is that all these exotic places can be explored in just 4-6 days, if you are not afraid of a long jeep ride and do not go too deep into all the listed gorges.
Moreover, the roads along the Karatau mountains are quite good. You will have to spend the night on all these routes in tents, a decent hotel is available only in Turkestan.
On the western slope Boroldaya has another very interesting gorge – Kokbulak, an excursion to which takes one day. In it at the same time you can see juniper, pistachio, wild grapes, Celtis caucasica and groves of large-fruited Crataegus pontica, a rare semi-shrub Lepidolopha talassica, endemic and relic of Pseudoeramostachys severzovii, the tall and infrequent Stubendorffia orientalis, and much more. In spring, tulips are very good here, among them there are often unusually colored hybrids of Greig and Kaufman tulips.
Gorge Borolday with the river of the same name is also a botanical paradise. In May, it is magnificent, to the list of all the botanical rarities of Kokbulak, you can also add Spiraeanthus schrenkianus – the rarest endemic and relic, except for Karatau, which is still found only in the Betpakdala desert.. The gorge is very picturesque, and one or two days of excursions here will give you great pleasure.