Note: This article has been originally published by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
I find myself captivated by the piercing yellow gaze of a northern goshawk. Balanced on a solitary rock amidst the scorched steppe, it stands tall, its chest puffed up like a warrior prepared for battle. I am close enough to observe the intricate patterns on its feathers: the dark, chestnut brown tips of its upturned wings, the cinnamon and white stripes on its underbelly reminiscent of a tiger’s coat. Its yellow talons and sharp, curved grey beak possess a formidable strength.
This remarkable encounter takes place en route to Charyn Canyon National Park in Kazakhstan, situated 124 miles east of Almaty. Our driver abruptly hits the brakes, and his voice breaks the silence, “Eagle!” he exclaims, pointing towards a silhouette emerging from the tea-colored plains. Hearts racing, we grab our cameras and dash into the swirling dust, eager to catch a glimpse of Kazakhstan’s national bird.
“It’s a hawk,” whispers our Kazakhstani guide, Sergei, as we cautiously approach for a better view. While Sergei may be slightly disappointed, as someone whose most thrilling bird sighting this year was a seagull on Brighton beach, spotting a hawk in the vast steppe is more than satisfying.
Continuing our journey in the car, we follow a newly constructed road that stretches towards the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains, near the border with China. This road, a part of Kazakhstan’s ambitious investment in tourism infrastructure, was built during the Covid-19 pandemic to enhance accessibility from Almaty, the country’s largest city, to Charyn Canyon National Park. The 50-mile-long canyon is renowned for its abundant Sogdian ash trees and is home to numerous rare animal species, including the Siberian ibex and goitered gazelle.
“Kazakhstan is undergoing rapid transformation,” Sergei remarks as we arrive at the park’s entrance, greeted by new signs that guide visitors through the park’s trails. Recent improvements such as upgraded restroom facilities and GPS signal coverage have made the park more accessible. Sergei points to a newly installed hiking route map, clearly marked with water stations and viewpoints, emphasizing the shift towards tourism as Kazakhstan’s future.
We find ourselves in the Valley of Castles, one of the five canyons within Charyn Canyon National Park. It feels unimaginable after the long drive through seemingly endless plains, but now, there is no flat land in sight. Towering slabs of red sandstone rise from a ravine 90 meters below, resembling a colossal city of skyscrapers carved out of rock. Descending a steep trail, I run my hands over the red and silver earth shaped by the Charyn River over 12 million years. The silence envelops me, allowing me to hear the rhythmic beat of my heart and the melodic whistling of the wind between the rocks. If this were Arizona, where the Grand Canyon receives hundreds of times more visitors than Charyn Canyon National Park, I would be surrounded by throngs of tourists. Yet, here in Kazakhstan—a country that only recently emerged from the Soviet Union—this trail is mine to explore alone.
“Kazakhstan is still a young country, but it holds abundant treasures,” Sergei remarks. With his hair tied in a ponytail and dressed in a leather jacket and fingerless gloves, he resembles a participant in a heavy metal concert rather than a hiking guide. “We possess mountains, deserts, forests, modern cities, and ancient cultures. It has taken time to realize the true diversity of our country, but the shift towards tourism is changing everything.”
Our next destination is Yellow Canyon, a remote section of the park that requires a 4WD vehicle for exploration. Our driver, a solemn man who has remained silent since the hawk sighting, suddenly breaks into a smile. Accelerating on an open dirt track, we venture into a series of ditches and potholes that could easily double as swimming pools. The air tastes of scorched earth, and my eyes sting from the dust permeating the vehicle’s air vents.
As the car gradually slows and the dust settles, the sun-bleached sandstone of Yellow Canyon comes into view. It feels akin to landing on the surface of the moon. Sandy-hued mountains stretch endlessly, bearing deep lines and grooves like the weathered skin of an elephant. Sergei explains that these lines serve as mountain highways for the Siberian ibex. I squint, hoping to catch a glimpse of these elusive horned climbers clinging to the canyon walls, but luck eludes me—at least for today.
We traverse the ridges of Yellow Canyon until the last light vanishes behind the Tien Shan mountains. At this hour, the pale yellow sandstone transforms into a blank canvas for the sky, reflecting the deep orange hues of the setting sun, followed by the soft pink of dusk. Racing back to Almaty, the sky fills with millions of stars, and a tinge of regret seeps in. I yearn to linger a bit longer in this starlit canyon, where the vast skies are never-ending and majestic hawk warriors soar above the open steppe.
How to Get There:
Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa offer flights to Kazakhstan via Istanbul and Frankfurt. Enjoy a comfortable stay at the five-star Rixos Almaty, offering double rooms starting from £255 per night, including breakfast.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Kazakhstan’s natural wonders
Q: How do I reach Charyn Canyon National Park in Kazakhstan?
A: You can reach Charyn Canyon National Park by flying to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa offer flights via Istanbul and Frankfurt, respectively. From Almaty, you can access the park by following the newly constructed road, which has improved accessibility to the park during recent years.
Q: What can I expect to see in Charyn Canyon National Park?
A: Charyn Canyon National Park offers breathtaking natural landscapes, including the Valley of Castles and Yellow Canyon. You’ll witness towering slabs of red sandstone, resembling a city of skyscrapers carved out of rock. The park is home to rare animal species like the Siberian ibex and goitered gazelle. You may also encounter fascinating birdlife, such as hawks and eagles.
Q: Is Charyn Canyon National Park crowded with tourists?
A: Unlike popular tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Charyn Canyon National Park receives fewer visitors, providing a more serene and intimate experience. You’ll have the opportunity to explore the park’s trails and admire the stunning scenery without large crowds.
Q: Are there amenities and facilities available in the park?
A: Charyn Canyon National Park has seen improvements in recent years to enhance visitor experience. You’ll find improved restroom facilities, GPS signal coverage, and newly installed signage to navigate the park’s trails. Additionally, there are water stations and viewpoints marked on the hiking route maps, ensuring convenient access and assistance for hikers.
Q: What is the best time to visit Charyn Canyon National Park?
A: The best time to visit Charyn Canyon National Park is during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to October) seasons. The weather is generally pleasant, with mild temperatures ideal for hiking and exploring the park’s natural wonders. However, it’s advisable to check the weather conditions and plan your visit accordingly.