Our first and second choices for day excursions from Almaty were Tamgaly Tas and Charyn. Unfortunately, the tour companies don't run tours to either place because they are too hot right now. So, we asked where they did have tours and got the choice of Turgen waterfalls or Lake Issyk. Since Lake Issyk is mostly in Kyrgyzstan where we plan to be spending a lot of time, we opted for Turgen which promised sacae burial mounds as well. We reserved our places, then thought to ask how many people would be on the tour. "50" the woman replied, "On a big bus". Ugh! we signed up for a big bus tour! Well, there weren't very many choices so we figured we'd make the best of it.
This morning we walked to the bus stop on the map given to us by the woman at the Ecotourism center and saw there were 2 big old European buses and lots of people milling around. Finally I found a woman with a list who took our voucher and sent us to the 2nd bus.
All the other people on the bus were Russian speakers so the guide spoke Russian, although the company rep, who introduced him said that he spoke multiple languages so non-Russian speakers just had to ask if they needed info. This of course, was said in Russian. I was a little dissapointed that the guide wasn't an old Soviet-ex-Inturist guide with dyed red hair and a propensity to wax rhapsodically on the glories of the Soviet Un... I mean Kazakhstan... As it was he seemed fairly laid back but still had the Soviet Tour guide skill of going on and on about boring banal things "This is the village X... There is a restaurant with an evening show." "This is the airport. We used to have lots of Russian planes. Now we buy European planes." It would be easy coming away from a tour like this thinking Kazakhstan must be the most boring place in the world.
Our first stop was an ostrich farm which required a long detour from the road to the waterfalls (through numerous apparently extremely dull villages) We didn't want to pay extra to see penned up ostriches and a reindeer so we hung out outside and looked at the mountains as well as a small car with a rather oversized spare tire.
Back on the road to Turgen, we finally arrived at the National Park (Ile-Altau) and were informed not about the geology or plants but about a new hotel called "Stetson" which was named after an American hat which we would be familiar with from the serial "Dallas." I had forgotten about the Russian obsession with Dallas. To his credit, the guide did tell us about how all the Kazakhstan tigers were hunted into extinction with the last one dying in either the 40s or 60s (I can't remember). He also talked about golden bears.
We had 2 hours to hike up a path to the waterfall which was crowded with the occupants of 2 other buses. The area was pretty-- rushing river, tall mountains, butterflies fluttering among the flowers-- but it was hard to ignore the masses of people crowding around the small base of the falls.
The next stop was a fish farm where for $10 you could rent a pole, catch a fish, and have cooks prepare it for you. I guess the concept of ecotourism in Kazakhstan is a bit different from the US/European version. In fact, I think it just means going into a natural place (or non natural place with animals). It could be anything from hiking to visiting a zoo to fishing in a fish farm or crowding into a packed picnic area and barbecuing. I guess it is good that people here enjoy going to natural places. I was envying some of the families with their big pots of laghman simmering over a fire.
But I wish more could be done to prevent over use and littering. Rowshan and I walked down to the river and relaxed. It was actually really pleasant. At one point Rowshan caught sight of a little animal swimming--maybe a muskrat or otter.
As we were waiting by the bus, a woman asked me something in Russian. We started talking and her friends joined in. 4 were from Uralsk and one was from Almaty. It is interesting to note that people seem very surprised that we are tourists rather than volunteers or working here. One girl, finding out we were form CA wanted a photo with us. We all chatted some and then went to see a giant statue of the Golden Man (Kazakhstan's most famous archaeological find) and a burial mound (I'm not sure if it was real or just a copy).
We also filled up bottles with spring water. A girl waiting for a drink evidently thought I was taking too long.
Driving back to Almaty, I think we actually passed some real burial mounds which just looked like little grass covered mounds in a field.