Sometimes we seek beauty and sometimes we find it. Sometimes we seek a thrill and it finds us, giving us more than we had bargained for. Along our journey into the Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan, we encountered pieces of history, stunning landscape, a draining hike, and the softer side of Almaty. The only thing missing: a map.
The Hike to Big Almaty Lake
In an effort to get up close and personal with the Tian Shan Mountains that frame Almaty’s southern flank, we began our hike towards Big Almaty Lake (Bolshoe Almatinskoe Ozera) on a Saturday afternoon in early September.
After more than 12 kilometers of uphill hiking – some of it balanced atop a large water pipe – we finally reached Big Almaty Lake. At 7500 feet in late afternoon, the lake is small, but striking. Its bright aqua hue is well-seated in contrast to the austerity of the surrounding mountains.
We were exhausted. After taking a few photos, we resumed our hike to face a few more turns and some more elevation in order to reach our destination for the evening, a Soviet-era observatory above the lake.
Bush Legs and a Night with the Stars
We were greeted at the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory by an eerie silence, rusted vehicles, satellite dishes and observation towers. We didn't see or hear a soul and wondered if our plans to spend the night there were misguided.
Like a scene from a bizarre science fiction film, people began to gradually appear from buildings we thought were abandoned.
Later that evening, the kitchen whipped up a dinner of “Bush legs” and potatoes. We were so hungry that we almost licked the plates clean. (For those uninitiated, chicken legs exported from the United States to the former Soviet Union in the early 90s were named “Bush legs” after President Bush, Sr. The name is still affectionately used today, so much so that our host continually teased us that the evening's “Bush legs” dinner was especially planned for “the Americans.”)
Following dinner, the local astronomer, a mad scientist looking Russian man with long white hair, powered up one of the large 2500x telescopes. After cranking open the observatory panels by hand, he led us through a nighttime tour of a series of star clusters and exploding stars. Very cool. The astronomer echoed our excitement. He told us that he's still in love with astronomy after almost forty years.
We were dragged back to earth a few minutes later when the smog and ambient light from Almaty crept in and prevented us from seeing anything more. The astronomer shook his head in sadness. “It gets worse every year,” he said.
While some do what they can to keep the observatory alive as an active scientific center, the odds are against it. The lack of funding is evident in the junkyard of Soviet-era rusted vehicles, buildings and equipment. But it's Almaty's rapid development that poses even more problems, threatening to make the observatory obsolete.
The next morning we discussed our hiking plans with our host. “First to the Soviet-era meteorological research center Kosmostantcia and then down the Prokhodnaya river gorge to Alma Arasan ski resort,” we offered with unassailable optimism. He smiled, “You certainly like to walk.” Wondering if he knew something we did not, we set off for Zhusalykezen Pass.
Upon arrival at Kosmostantcia, we were met with more Soviet trucks that looked well past their prime. The breakup of the Soviet Union froze them in time, on the edge of a much needed visit to the junkyard. In this post-apocalyptic setting, we half expected to see each vehicle commanded by a skeleton in the driver's seat – hands on the steering wheel and a cigarette hanging from the mouth.
A few humans still lurk almost imperceptibly in a handful of half-destroyed buildings. It is an immensely lonely existence. If you sent a letter addressed to Nowhere, there's a high probability it would end up here.
We continued over barren lands scattered with asbestos-covered trailers and abandoned weather station outposts towards Big Almaty Peak (Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky) at 10,000 feet.