How Kazakhstan Nearly Killed Us

Barely recovering from self-inflicted death march from Kazakh mountains. Copter airlift looked likely. Rappelling down waterfall = escape.

— Our Twitter update from Almaty, Kazakhstan on 3 September 2007

My, how things can go wrong.

Dan Hiking in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Dan just over the mountain pass. Here’s where things take a wrong turn.

Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook told us to “skirt Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky (Big Almaty Peak) and follow the river gorge down to the ski resort of Alma Arasan.” When we came over the pass, we did that. Or, rather, we thought we did. Instead, what we committed to was a steep descent through a different – and highly unrecommended – giant boulder-filled river gorge.

It dawned on us rather early that we had chosen poorly.

Almost three hours into this downhill scramble, we hit a waterfall about 100 feet high. There was no way to climb down. Our phone had no signal, so calling for help wasn’t an option. Disheartened and beginning to fear the waning light and our dim circumstances, we tried to climb around the waterfall and over the next pass 1000 feet above us. Pulling ourselves up the hill by roots, branches, and bushes, our hearts sank again and again as we stopped to take stock of our position and another way out. We faced cliff edges everywhere we turned.

Several more attempts later, we found a descent covered with fallen leaves and greens. It was impossible to tell whether a cliff lurked under each patch of loose rocks and vegetation. We were forced to inch down, testing the ground beneath us with each step. Although steep, dangerous and rocky, we managed to climb down to the riverbed again, bypassing the waterfall.

As our legs turned to lead and our movements to jelly, we knew we were in trouble. There we were on a simple hike in the Tian Shan mountains with an as-the-crow-flies view of where we needed to be, Almaty. However, with each advance seemed to come another waterfall or rockslide that would eliminate another way out. We were desperately lost, and as night began to fall, we pushed on, losing sight of both the ground beneath us and the risk we were taking with each step.

Mission Impossible in the Tian Shan Mountains?

Lost in Tian Shan Mountains, Final Waterfall - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Our final feat: rappelling down this waterfall. (Yes, it’s as big as it looks.)

Another waterfall 50 feet high blocked our path. Cursing and on the verge of tears, we spied a rope leading from the top of the waterfall. We had no choice, so we each hurled ourselves over the side of the rock, held on to the rope, and did our best Mission Impossible imitation, rappelling over the fall just above safe ground. The rope was not quite long enough, meaning a literal leap of faith was needed at the end. At this point, we had bottomed out physically and emotionally, but we felt the need to press on.

Our hearts soared when we began to notice trash strewn in the bushes near the stream we were following. Trash = people = we’re getting close to civilization.

More good news followed as we found a walking path just as the light dissolved into a grainy darkness. We raced quickly – staggering, praying that we’d find a road…or maybe some people. Instead, the path ended in a mudslide.

We had no choice but to backtrack and return to the riverbed.

We eventually found a questionably beaten path. It was 8:30 at night and we were enveloped in darkness.

Good Fortune and a Random Act of Kindness

Then, out of nowhere, we were spit out onto a dirt road across from a rest stop serving mutton shashlik (barbecue). We tried to flag down a car in hopes that it would agree to taxi us to town. Every vehicle was full as families returned to Almaty after a pleasant day in the mountains.

After a few dozen flagging attempts, a minivan packed with several families inside pulled into the parking lot. I, exhausted and covered in dirt from all of her falls, asked the driver in broken Russian whether he was headed towards Almaty. Before she could finish, the man responded to our obvious deteriorated condition, “Do you need help?

We imagined fitting into the back of their minivan (where luggage normally goes), but the man cleared his remaining friends and family to the back, led us to the large, plush seats up front and gave us a luxurious lift back to the safety and comfort of Almaty, its city lights, and its civilization.

To describe us as thankful for all of this good fortune is an understatement. After all, we were alive and we had a comfortable ride home. We were the very relieved recipients of a random act of kindness from a Kazakh family.

Safe and Reflective

Hindsight being 20/20, it would have been safer to have spent the night under the protection of a tree in the mountains and to resume our descent when we were equipped with better light and better judgment. We were very lucky. We had some scrapes and achy muscles, but things could have been much, much worse.

Hardships and poor decision-making aside, our foray into Kazakhstan’s Soviet past at the observatory and Kosmostantsia provided a grounding contrast to the polish and glitz of nearby Almaty. The mountain scenery, especially around Big Almaty Lake, is striking. Our only advice before you have your own Tian Shan Mountain adventure: buy a real hiking map.

How to Visit Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia

  • How to get there: Take a shared taxi or bus #28 to Kokshoky and follow the signs for Kosmostantsia. If hiking is not your thing, contact the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory for transport from Almaty (see below).
  • Where to stay: The observatory offers basic accommodation and food in a funky Soviet-era junkyard mountain setting. We recommend it. Domicks (10 Euros/person) are the cheapest option with a shared outhouse and sink. There are nicer rooms for 15 euros/person that include en suite bathrooms and hot water. Engage the astronomer on site and gaze at the stars using high-powered telescopes (5 euros/person). Breakfast and dinner run 4 Euros/person.
  • Contact: Aivar (he speaks English): 87055222446, or email him at aivar086022 [at] gmail.com or aivar1960 [at] mail.ru.

Photo Slideshow: Kazakhstan: Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake photo essay.

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