Singing dunes, tiramisu mountains and Genghis Khan’s golden saddle, sounds like a children fairytale. But it’s not fiction, it’s a day in Kazakhstan’s Altyn-Emel National Park.
Covering an area of over 300,000 ha, the park was established in 1996 from several natural reserves created during the Soviet period to protect the region’s fauna and flora. The park was created not only to preserve the unique ecosystems and biodiversity and protect endangered species, but also to preserve paleontological sites, as well as historical and cultural monuments.
“Since 2017, the park has been designated part of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves and yesterday [on 20 September 2023] areas of the park were designated World Heritage as part of the Cold Winter Deserts of Turan covering Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan”, explained Askar Abdrakhmanov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to UNESCO.
1. Visitor centre
Before adventuring into the park, the visitor centre, just opened in June 2023, welcomes guests at the southeast entrance. Over the past year, similar centres have also opened in the Ile-Alatau and Charyn National Parks. They have been designed to be the first point of entry to the parks, offering visitors information about routes and safety, as well as snacks or a good cup of millet coffee.
It is the first touch point for tourists coming to protected areas, where they are informed about possible dangers, as well as the importance of the environment, so they can keep the park and themselves safe.Kairat Sadvakassov, Deputy Chairman of Kazakh Tourism
“We tried to adapt the visitor centre to the local landscape. We use local materials and very efficient, ecofriendly energy sources. We also involve and support the local communities and villages. We are trying to be as sustainable as possible and that’s what we want to teach our visitors as well, how to preserve the national park”, Viktoriya Yen, from Qazaq National Parks, the company responsible for building the visitor centres and infrastructure across the country’s national parks told Travel Tomorrow.
2. Genghis Khan
Altyn-Emel gets its name from a legend of when Genghis Khan and his troops arrived on the territory of the park. The mountains that appeared golden in the sunlight, today named the Big and Small Kalkan Mountains, reminded the conqueror of a horse saddle. So it is believed that, in the Mongolian language, Altyn-Emel means golden saddle.
In the valley of the Kalkans, a little off one of the park’s paths, a structure made of three 2-metre-tall rocks called Oshaktas is believed to mark the place of Genghis Khan and his troops stopped to rest in 1219. According to the legend, they set up the rock slabs to support a giant cauldron used to cook for the entire army.
Research has however found that the rock pillars were set up much before the times of the Mongolian conqueror, dating back to 8th-6th century BC. Similar structures have been found in the Besshatyr necropolis, of the Saka tribes, in a different part of the park, leading historians to believe Oshaktas might have been a place for religious rituals.
3. Saka tribes
Besshatyr is a complex of royal burial mounds dating back to the 7th to 4th centuries BC, constituting the largest necropolis of the Saka Tigrahauda nomadic tribe. The complex houses around 150 burial places of various sizes, some covered with stone, others covered with a layer of crushed stone and clay.
The larger burial mounds were intended for leaders and members of their families and military commanders, the middle ones were for lower ranked military leaders, heads of clans and famous warriors, while the smaller burial grounds were allocated to ordinary soldiers and ordinary people.
The entire complex was sacred and various religious rituals were held on the site besides funerals, including sacrifices. Structures similar to the Oshaktas, called menhirs, are scattered around the area, the rocks being carved with images of animals, symbols of the sun and tamgas of Kazakh clans.
4. Singing dune
The singing dune, or singing barchan, is a 150 metres tall sand dune and one of the park’s main attractions. “Sand dunes usually move or change shapes, but because of aerodynamics in the region, this dune always stays the same. No matter how much time passes or how many people climb it, the wind will always bring it back into the same shape”, Zhanar Gabit, out guide, explained. Some estimates place the formation of the dune to 10,000-12,000 years ago.
During particularly dry days, when people climb the dune, or even when the wind blows, the sand starts vibrating, emitting a sound that some compare to a pipe organ, while others compare to an airplane taking off. A local old wives’ tale says that the devil sits inside the dune and is bothered when people walk on the sand, so it is making the sound to scare them off.
5. Tiramisu mountains
The west part of the park houses the Aktau Mountains. Their name translates to the White Mountains, ak meaning white and tau meaning mountain, given for the bright white colour they show in the sunlight.
The entire area used to be the floor of an ancient sea that filled the basin of the Ili River. As the sea dried up, gorges and canyons formed, made of multicoloured sedimentary rocks, each colour determined by the time period the layer was formed in. This unique layered structure, alternating white with shades of brownish red, has reminded people of the white mascarpone cream alternating with the coffee soaked savoiardi in a tiramisu, giving Aktau the nickname of tiramisu mountains.
The area is also a large paleontological site, storing many fossils from the Eocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era, from about 56 to 33.9 million years ago. Bearing the name of the mountains, the Aktautitan hippopotamopus was discovered here, an extinct mammal that, despite the name, is believed to have resembled modern-day rhinoceroses rather than hippopotamuses.
6. Fauna and flora
The flora of the Altyn-Emel National Park includes a valuable gene pool of medicinal, decorative, aromatic, forage plants, spices and herbs, food crops and other groups of useful plants. The park houses over 1,800 different plant species, over 60 being endemic to the park and surrounding areas, while 31 species are considered rare or endangered, some of which being classified as “relics”, having survived in the park from as far back as the Ice Age.
Altyn-Emel is also home to around 70 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles, 5 species of amphibians, 28 species of fish and over 1,500 species of insects. Snow leopards, Tien Shan brown bears, Eurasian lynxes, black storks and Siberian salamanders are just a few of the endangered species protected in the park.
7. Spend the night
There are currently 5 cabins next to the visitor centre, each being able to accommodate 2 guests. For those wanting a more authentic experience, 3 yurts are also available, which can fit up to 20 people.
Camp and trailer sites are also available throughout the national park, fitted with ecological dry toilets. I can only imagine what the sky must look like on a summer night in the middle of wilderness.
But for the best experience of all, a guesthouse in one of the villages is the way to go. We had the opportunity of having lunch one of them. Locals opened their house for us, spent hours in the kitchen making everything from appetisers to desserts and even warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, some preparations having even started the day before.
The homemade bread, the village, walking barefoot in the courtyard felt like being a child again at my grandmother’s house, making the day that more unforgettable.