Altyn Emel National Park amazes tourists with its singing sand dunes, picturesque sites, millions of years of history

NUR-SULTAN – While the Kazakh wilderness is usually associated with horses and steppes, it is also the land of the famous singing sand dunes, forests, mountains and rare animals on land almost twice the size of Luxemburg. Altyn Emel National Park is an expanse approximately 260 kilometres north of Almaty.

Aktau Mauntains. Photo credit: caravanistan.com.

The government made the land a national park on April 10, 1996 to preserve its pristine nature and biodiversity, as well as archaeological and historical monuments. Altyn Emel is the largest reserve in Kazakhstan and part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) world heritage.

Despite some minimal infrastructure for a comfortable stay, most tourist reviews on tripadvisor.com rated the back-to-nature experience as “excellent.”

“Multicoloured desert mountains and Kazakh savannah. In order to see the wonderful Altyn Emel National Park, it is necessary to allocate three days. Drive about 500 kilometres of the main road and 250 kilometres off the road for the entire tour, but it is worth it. Deep into the colourful mountains, you can make many hours of hiking. This place is a treasure for photographers and it is still quite a wild place,” said Konstantin K.

Southern Kazakhstan is rich in eco-tourism destinations that remind visitors of scenery from science fiction movies. The colourful clay mountains with white, red and orange bands lying horizontally across the Aktau Mountain range provide such views. Palaeontologists discovered 56 species of Early Miocene flora such as spruce, birch, alder, linden and ailanthus in the mountains, as well as remains of ancient animals like crocodiles, turtles and giant rhinos with an estimated age of 25-30 million years, writes caravanistan.com.

The Altyn Emel steppes change to singing sand dunes approximately 1.5 kilometres long and up to 120 metres in height. When the west wind disperses the sand, the desert “sings” with a sound similar to an organ. Scientists suggest friction electrifies the sand in dry hot weather to create the mysterious vibration.

The singing sand dunes. Photo credit: yvision.kz.

Most tour buses from Almaty are limited to a stop at the desert, yet tourists should plan to visit other places on their own. For the sights from the Iron Age, guests rush to get a permit from the park representative in Almaty to see the Terekty petroglyphs (stone carvings) of arkhars, deer and ibex and Besshatyr, a complex of approximately 30 kurgans and ritual burial mounds for warriors and leaders from previous civilisations.

Amid the dunes, clay mountains and mounds, Altyn Emel also has its oasis – the Turanga forests. Turanga is an endangered poplar species endemic in Kazakhstan. Its roots are able to penetrate up to 30 metres deep in search of groundwater, allowing it to endure fierce wind and heat. Scientists estimate Turanga survived the Ice Age, yet is in the Kazakh Red Book, as it might not survive the axe.

Turanga trees. Photo credit: express-k.kz.

Altyn Emel flora has nearly 1,800 species, 21 of which are listed in the Red Book. As for fauna, 260 species live in the park, 56 of them considered rare. The park is home to endangered amphibians such as the Siberian toad and rare and endangered birds like the black stork and imperial eagle. The Red Book includes mammals such as manul, gazelle, argali, lynx and Tien Shan brown bear. Thus, most sightings are from a distance.

Kazakhstan has a sharply continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. Many tourists, therefore, prefer to visit during the milder conditions from April-June and August-October.

One needs a permit to visit the national park, which can be secured at the Altyn Emel National Park office in the Basshi village of the Kerbulak district. The office also assigns an employee who will accompany visitors. Tourists who come for more than a few days should bring their own tents or stay at one of the small hotels in Basshi.