Friday, June 21, 2013

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Kazakhstan

When I decided to take a trip to Kazakhstan, I was focused on getting back to my roots. My family lived close to Almaty, the capital of the Soviet Union's Kazakh republic, when I was born. We moved to Germany eleven years later, so this was my first visit to my homeland in 24 years. 

I didn't know much about my birth country, but I read a travel guidebook before going there. I found out that the ancient history of the Scythians is deeply rooted in this land. There are many astonishing legends about the brave kings, queens and warriors of that nomadic tribe.

I also found out that this country has many sacred places like the Khan Tengri mountain called The God Of The Sky. This natural wonder located in the Tien Shan massive has always been the highest deity in the Tengrism faith. Its peak is 7000 meters high and covered by snow year round. The old stories say that shamans used to go there to die. This made me curious to get to the bottom of such legends.

Kazakhstan is a wild eastern country. Most of its terrain is steppe and its infrastructure is not well developed. Besides that, Khan Tengri mountain is located on the border with China and Kyrgyzstan. This border zone requires a special permit to visit. Plus, you need a guide. Since I didn’t apply for the permit soon enough and couldn
t find a guide who would take me there at that time of year, I decided to go there independently and on the hush-hush. Hoping some shepherds would point me closer to the mountain on their way to the summer camps in the Tien Shan, I set off wildly.

From Almaty, I hitchhiked to the dramatic mountainous region. The guidebook advised a place called Charyn Canyon on the way to the Tien Shan massive, so I decided to stop off there. The Charyn gorge is Kazakhstan's answer to the Grand Canyon and well worth visiting.

The Charyn river has sculpted a marvelous landscape out of the steppe over thousands of years. The red sandstone formations have names like Notre Dame, Duck, Penguin and Winnie-Puh. The best thing about this place is that there are hardly any tourists. You will find yourself walking alone across a fantasyland of sandstone.

For the night, I found a man who offered to let me sleep in his yurt. He introduced me to a shepherd, who would soon lead his herd to the mountain summer camp. The shepherd said I could go with him, gave me his phone number, and told me to call him in three weeks. So, I planned to go to the Khan Tengri then return for the journey with the herdsman after that.

However, I relished spending the night in a yurt before going back to Almaty. People say that you often dream vividly while sleeping in a yurt and I had that yurt all to myself. The owner said I should lock the yurt from the inside. "You never know who might come at night," he said. His dog slept in front of the yurt, so I felt reasonably safe.

When night came, I heard a truck arriving outside. This truck sounded like a growling dragon. An unusual sound to my ears, but I figured this is how trucks sound in Kazakhstan. After a while, the sound faded and I drifted toward sleep. Half conscious, I had a sensation that someone was pulling the blanket off me and the dog was scratching the yurt door. I got scared and woke up. No one was inside the yurt, so I assumed it was merely a nightmare.

Back on the way to sleep, the same experience happened again. This time, I even had the sensation that someone was lifting me up and trying to carry me away. Again, the dog was scratching the door outside. Now, I was even more scared. I remembered a mantra designed to protect one from nightmares. I recited this mantra, then suddenly felt something leaving my body, like ants running down my skin. All hope of sleep was lost and I simply waited for the sun to rise.
When I opened the yurt door in the morning, the dog was jumping up and down, almost as happy to see me as I was to see him.

Valentin Kunstmann started traveling two and a half years ago with the intention of washing away the stress from his office job. After coming back, he felt no desire to return to office work, so he continued traveling in search of what he really wanted. Today, he can't imagine life without traveling, which has enriched his existence and filled it with adventure.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen footage and photography of Kazakhstan, enough to certainly intrigue me, including Charyn Canyon. I'd like to see the area for myself.