Karatau is the most Northern ridge of West Tien Shan. Its Southern end meets Talasskiy Alatau branches and then goes to the North for 400 km. These mountains are very old, they have elevated and depressed many times throughout their geological history. That is why they have very complicated and original relief and consist of a system of separate very partitioned small ridges. The whole massif is divided into 3 parts – Borolday, Malyi Karatau and Bolshoy Karatau. Due to its original geographic situation and unique geological history these mountains are extremely interesting for naturalists and nature-lovers. It is proven by the fact that the number of endemic plant species here reaches 9% which makes this territory one of the richest in endemics in the world. Despite of the total aridity of the region, there is a small river or a stream in almost every gorge. Thanks to that an original microclimate is formed there, containing its unique plant and animal world. Karatau mountains are surrounded by numerous salt and fresh lakes.
Your acquaintance with Karatau may begin from Berkara canyon (North-Eastern slopes of Borolday ridge), where the territory along the stream is covered by a forest of ясеня согдийского (listed in the Red Data Book of Kazakhstan). Right in the beginning of the canyon you may observe райских мухоловок flying from one tree to another and even find their nests. If you come to the canyon in the second half of April, you will have an opportunity to enjoy many tulips, including тюльпаном Грейга of very rare, almost white color. You may see groves of Pyrus regelii on the slopes, and if you have the time and trekking training, you may reach the unique grove of Populus bercarensis, which you can find only here in Berkara. You can visit the lakes at the same day.
Also you may go to the neighboring ridge – Ulkun-burul – where you can observe the nesting of Egyptian Vulture and the whole colony of Lesser Kestrel from a close site. The construction of dry canyons of this ridge is quite impressive: their walls are of layered strata as if made of separate blocks and plates. In spring you may admire tulips and very beautiful clumps of Crambe with honey smell and a lot of other unusual plants. A little later the slopes of this small ridge are covered with a whole sea of poppies which make the scenery very bright. From the top of the ridge one can look at the magnificent view of surrounding landscapes.
The next exciting site is Aktogai gorge (North-Eastern slopes of Malyi Karatau). Local river comes through the rocks opening, and its flow made quite peculiar depressions and basins of different forms in soft white rocks. There is a deep round natural water basin, where in clean dark deep water you can see swimming fish – Schizothorax intermedius. Behind rock gates there is a spacious gorge, and on one slope there is a big cave inhabited by several species of bats. Around the turn the gorge becomes more narrow and shady, and an accessible path leads inside to get acquainted with its plant and animal world.
Then the road goes by Zhanatas town and leads to Kyzylkol lake (which means Red Lake). This is a big salty water basin with a variety of waterbirds, you may record Little Bustard and even Chukar along its coasts. The flat part of the lake side is changed by steep slopes of bright ochre-red clay. In April one may find brightly red Tulipa borszczowii on the flat parts. And if you would go around the lake, you will reach a round hill with a small river at its foot. This river washes away shells and teeth of the sharks that inhabited ancient water basins here. Gymnodactylus russowi are swimming in the gullies. The slopes of the hill are covered by pieces of broken ancient crockery in some parts, and its top gives a good view of the surrounding territories, so we may suppose a watch place or a sanctuary.
The next unique in its beauty place is Arpa-ozen gorge located in one part of Bolshoy Karatau named Kenchektau. Here you can come from a road around Sholakkurgan town. That road is quite long, but you will not be bored: you can watch raptors on the poles all along the way, and the scenery is very spacious with mountain tops on the back and sometimes herds of one-humped and two-humped camels, horses, and sometimes sheep. When you see these pictures, you almost can hear Kazakh ethnic music – kyui – played on a national instrument dombra. Kenchektau are seen far away at first, but once you reach them, you’ll be surprised by these fantastic rocks that look like dragon teeth. It would be very nice to stay at the foothills of these mountains and dedicate the whole next day to observation of Griffon vulture that nest here in the rocks in big numbers. The path (not hard to walk) will lead you to the top of the ridge and give you a closer look of the so-called “dragon teeth”. You can also look at the spacious valley behind them and see the ancient planation surfaces – tabletop mountains. In spring there is a lot of tulips and other ephemeroids, then the trees and bushes begin to bloom, so the day spent here will surely be pleasant and full of bright impressions. If you would leave the canyon early in the morning, in slanting beams of light you will see numerous hills of ancient burial mounds on the foothill plain. If you are interested in historic places, it would be good to visit Suzak town with its ancient city center (it would take half a day).
If you continue you journey in Karatau without visiting Suzak, you will travel to the opposite side of Karatau to its Western slopes. There are two ways there from Sholakkurgan town. If you would like to visit ancient Turkestan with its mausoleums and other sightseeing sites nearby, you will choose Achisayskiy pass. The road that goes through the top is very pictorial. You may enjoy the water reservoir, in the first half of summer it is full of clean mountain water. Then on your way down you’ll see beautiful rocks on the both sides of the road.
After you see Turkestan you may choose to go to the famous river Syrdarya and enjoy a lot of waterbirds at the river flood-lands on your way there. Syrdarya is full-flowing and large. You may look at the tugay forest at its coasts and see flood-land vegetation of an Asian river.
From Turkestan or Syrdarya the road goes to Shymkent. Here you will finish your trip or will return to Zhabagly to visit the nature reserve. On your way to Shymkent we would advise to stop at Ak-molla cave (if you still have the space for new impressions). This is a huge underground hall with even a small tree grove inside. The hills of a small part of field road right before the cave are colored by tulips in spring, and then by beautiful white Eremurus lactiflorus and bright carpet of Geranium, Astrogalus and other plants. A little closer to Shymkent, not far from the road, there is not big but very interesting mausoleum, an example of modern architecture – Domalak-ana, which is a new place for pilgrimage.
If you didn’t want to visit Turkestan, you can pass Karatau in different place and that will dramatically reduce the time spent on the road. In spring here you may enjoy different plants, in the end of April you’ll see endless field of tulips on the plains after the mountain pass, in May you’ll see blooming Ferula and white Crambe. If you choose this road, you may also visit Ak-molla cave and Domalak-ana.
It is interesting that all these exotic places you can visit in just 4-6 days if you are not afraid of long 4-WD vehicle rides and will not spend too much time in the canyons named above. The roads along Karatau mountains are quite good; all along the route you will have to spend your nights in the tents, a descent hotel is only in Turkestan.
On the Western slope of Borolday there is another very interesting gorge – Kokbulak. The excursion will take one day. There you can see juniper and pistachio trees, Celtis caucasica and groves of Crataegus pontica, rare semishrub Lepidolopha talassica, endemic and relict plant Pseudoeramostachys severzovii, high and quite rare Stubendorffia orientalis and many other interesting plants. In spring you can enjoy looking at beautiful tulips, the color of Tulipa greigii and T.kaufmanniana hybrids may be very unusual.
Borolday canyon with Borolday river is also a botanic garden. In May it is magnificent, and to the big list of botanic rarities of Kokbulak you may also add Spiraeanthus schrenkianus – very rare endemic and relict; besides Karatau is also is recorded only in Betpakdala desert. The canyon is very pictorial, and one-two day excursion here will give you lots of pleasure