An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
13 March 2016
It was May 2012, and I was further from home than I had ever been before. Kazakhstan, to be precise, arriving in its capital after a 56-hour train journey out of Moscow. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
Back in Russia, at the hostel I’d stayed in, everyone seemed to be talking about the Trans-Siberian Express. I was surrounded by boisterous groups of Australians en route from Beijing to St. Petersburg, drinking their way across Eurasia one train station at a time. I pictured carriages filled with noisy gap year students, downing vodka shots and strumming acoustic guitars all the way across Mongolia and Siberia. The closer I got to the start point, the less appealing it sounded.
Kazakhstan on the other hand seemed like an uncharted realm; I knew nothing about it, knew no one who’d been, and even at that hostel in Moscow, surrounded by dozens of international backpackers travelling the full length of Russia, not one person I spoke to had ventured south into the land of the Kazakhs. My curiosity grew with every day.
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. It’s huge. I would discover, too, that a less-than-perfect public transport network serves to make those remote, rural areas even harder to get to – so that in practice, the country ends up feeling larger still. I arrived with hopes of exploring Kazakhstan’s hidden treasures, but soon found that without private transport it just wasn’t going to be a reality.
Instead I found myself based for a few weeks in the capital, Astana: a half-finished citadel of glittering towers amidst the endless plains of north-central Kazakhstan.
During those weeks I became borderline obsessed with the bizarre architecture of Astana, and the esoteric symbolism that seemed to permeate every facet of this brand new capital. But for all my avid urban wandering, I still yearned to get out of the city – to look past President Nazarbayev’s showpiece city, his expensive gesture to the world, and experience (if you’ll pardon the cliché) the Real Kazakhstan.
My invitation to the wilds came unexpectedly; as I took the air outside the National Ballet Theatre in Astana between the second and third acts of Coppélia. There I got talking to a German, who was also travelling through the country – and he gave me the number of a friend who ran a guesthouse in the Burabay National Park.
The next day I was browsing a travel forum online, and ended up chatting to a Turkish girl who was backpacking across Kazakhstan. She was about to arrive in Astana, and was looking for a travel companion for her intended trip to Burabay. It felt like fate.
Astana Railway Station and the Bus to Burabay
We arranged to meet at Astana Railway Station, a place which I soon found to be exactly as bizarre as the rest of the city; all curved windows and glass domes, a post-modernist mutation that faces out onto a dusty car park. The vehicles that filled the forecourt were spotless though, as dictated by Kazakh law – those caught driving a dirty car here are liable to face police fines. Beside the road, a lonely camel stood tethered to a tree.
It was a hot day and so I waited on a shaded bench outside, until a man took the seat next to me and began asking for money. Then his friends arrived: five of them stood around me in a close circle, gesturing for me to give them a few coins each. I pretended not to understand. A bottle of brandy was produced from the pocket of a shabby trench coat, and as it was passed about the group I took advantage of the distraction and slipped away.
Near the entrance to the station I found Zeynep, my travel companion for the next few days. She was travelling solo from Ankara, backpacking across Turkey, Iran and the ‘Stans; but we only had enough time for the briefest of introductions before plunging straight back into the chaos of Kazakh public transport.
In Kazakhstan, no one seems to use taxis. Instead you simply need to stand beside a main road, wave at cars, and perhaps one in five will stop to offer you a lift. They’ll haggle over the price for a while, and then you’re off – cruising around with an unlicensed stranger who’ll almost always want to be your new best friend. Sometimes these drivers didn’t bother to charge me. Other times they were drunk out of their minds.
Our mode of transport to Burabay proved to be just as erratic.
Just past the train station, a small fleet of marshrutkas were parked up nose-to-nose. Drivers roamed the car park, shouting out their destinations in Kazakh and in Russian.
Minibuses pushed their way through crowds of would-be passengers; beggars stalked the herd, touching and grabbing; it was hectic. Several times as we walked the row of buses, someone would try to lift my bag right off my back. Shymkent, one man kept saying to me, nodding and smiling as he got his hands under the straps of my backpack and tried to tug it free of me. I had to fight him off, or else I would have been dragged onto a marshrutka pointing in the opposite direction to where I wanted to go.
Further down the line a small, dark-skinned man was yelling, “Burabay, Borovoe!” We approached, and this time we let the bus porter take our bags.
The price was 1,500 tenge – about £3 – for the three-hour journey. We paid upfront, before being ushered to our seats on the empty bus. These marshrutkas don’t keep timetables though, so we simply had to wait until every seat was filled.
At one point a young boy with a pot came over to ask me for money. He couldn’t have been older than ten. I was about to pass him a few coins when the driver appeared and shoved the child away. When he playfully bounced back again, the driver caught him by the ear. At first the boy resisted, grinning relentlessly and shaking his pot, until the driver twisted the ear enough that the boy let out a howl. He didn’t come back after that.
It took something like an hour and a half to fill the last seat; when an old woman, with padded coat and heavy bags, squeezed onboard and planted herself down next to me. The door slammed shut, the engines revved and we were off. Through the car park, past the barrier, onto the road… and then immediately we were waved over by the police, and the bus pulled to the pavement.
The Kazakh police officer didn’t so much as glance at us in the back – he was interested in the driver, and in the documents hastily produced from the glove compartment. I didn’t understand the conversation; but after a stern telling off the driving simply got up and walked away from the vehicle, back in the direction of the train station. The police officer left too, and for a few surreal minutes we just sat there in an unmanned bus on the side of a busy road.
The old woman, who’d boarded last – she got fed up, grabbed her bags and abandoned the vehicle. As a result, when our new driver reached us from the train station he found an empty seat in the back; and so rather than driving to Burabay, he took us back to the car park to start the process over again.
It was another 40 minutes before we finally set off: driving out of the capital and north, 250km from Astana. I settled back, got comfortable, and tried to sleep.
Burabay National Park
There is a Kazakh creation myth that talks of Burabay. The legend has it that when the creator gave life to the world, he bestowed the different nations with their respective landscapes: fields or mountains, lakes or rivers or seas. When he eventually came to Kazakhstan though, all he made was endless, flat steppe.
The Kazakh people were upset with this meagre offering, and they begged their god to give them something more. And so this deity reached into his sack, and emptied it onto the steppe – pouring out all the leftover bits of mountains, cliffs and lakes, fresh springs and fields full of flowers.
The result was Burabay: an oasis of life, colour and rocky contours surrounded on all sides by hundreds of miles of bare steppe. The locals call this region the ‘Pearl of Kazakhstan.’
Much of the tourist infrastructure here was built during the time of the Soviet Union; the Russians called this place ‘Borovoe,’ and dotted around the many lakes – Shychie, Koturkul, Karasye, Gornoye, Lebedinoye, Svetloye, Big Chebachie, Little Chebachie and of course, Lake Burabay itself, from which the region takes its name – they built health resorts, sanatoriums, spas and holiday villas.
Pine forests roll out in a carpet around and between the lakes, broken in places by the rocky outcrops of the Kokshetau Heights: a cluster of ridges and cliffs that reach their highest point at 947m, on Kokshetau (‘Blue’) Mountain. The town of Burabay sits on the eastern shore of the lake. South of that, Burabay (‘Camel’) Mountain rises to a height of 690m; south again, the Shychinskiye Hills gather about the peak of Zheke-Batur, the ‘Lonely Soldier.’
In this region every rock seems to have its own name – titles like ‘Sphinx,’ ‘Cow,’ or ‘Sleeping Knight’ – and each name is a thread, woven into the complex folklore established by early nomadic inhabitants. We were greeted with local stories from the moment we arrived.
Back in Astana, I’d called that number for the guesthouse. The excited voice on the other end had sounded very welcoming, and in broken English had offered to meet us straight from the bus stop. Now, as we pulled into the holiday town beside the lake, Aslan was true to his word.
He was younger than I expected, and more enthusiastic than I could ever have imagined – rushing us back to his family’s hotel to drop our bags, before insisting on giving us an evening tour of the lake by car. He drove us to a crest of rock in the south, and began to detail the historic battle that once took place here; mimicking the Kazakh archers, hiding behind trees before popping out to loose volleys of death upon their enemies.
The following morning I came down to a table laid with fresh pastries, eggs, sour cream and salad. Over breakfast, we decided to attempt a complete circuit of the lake – a day’s hike – working our way counter-clockwise from the town of Burabay itself.
Burabay is not a large settlement, but the local population seems to swell in summer; as visitors flock here from all over Kazakhstan, or across the border from the nearby Russian city of Omsk. The central road through the town was lined with ice cream stands, barbecues, and tourists sat drinking beer for breakfast.
From the main street we passed the local mosque, crossed the railway tracks and stopped at the town museum – an empty place full of glass and taxidermy, its captions written solely in Kazakh and Russian. Outside, a small zoo featured wolves and bears. The animals paced back and forth in alarmingly small enclosures; their fur rubbed down to bare skin from straining against the metal bars. It was a depressing place, and we didn’t stay long.
It was the nature of the area we’d come to see – and soon enough we found ourselves heading out of town, following the track that wound along beside the road before dipping into forests; through the trees and down to Lake Burabay itself.
Zhumbaktas: The Mystery Stone of Blue Bay
The path led us down to Blue Bay: an inlet at Burabay’s northernmost point. We stepped across a barrier of broken masonry to reach the water. The remains of a hotel, perhaps, now just level foundations barely visible beneath the piled rubbles of its walls.
Beyond that, where hard, concrete steps formed a bank, I spotted a figure in the water: a headless statue, discarded in the lake.
Further out in Blue Bay a lonely rock rose from the water. The Kazakhs call it ‘Zhumbaktas’ – the ‘Mystery Stone’ – a formation with a striking resemblance to the sphinx of Egyptian mythology.
The legend goes that a beautiful Oirat princess was captured by a Kazakh army, and forced to take a husband. Against the odds, she found herself falling in love with one of her warrior captors; though his rivals were immediately jealous. In order to settle the matter the princess proposed a contest. She picked a high rock outcrop beside the lake, and promised that she would marry whichever man could fire an arrow to the very top.
The warriors lined up, they fired, and each of them missed. They tried again, and this time her love was the only one to succeed; but the other archers were so enraged by his victory that they killed him immediately. The princess was heartbroken, and threw herself into the waters of Lake Burabay – becoming the stone, Zhumbaktas.
As the path wound on around the lake, we passed the other rock formation mentioned in the myth: ‘Ok Zhetpes,’ whose name translates as, ‘Beyond Arrows.’
It took an hour to walk along the northern end of the lake, around Blue Bay and its Mystery Stone. The road led us through thick pine forests, where occasional tracks led off into clearings beside the water. Inevitably they seemed to take us to the shells of waterside resorts, abandoned stone buildings, forgotten patios and picnic areas that were gradually giving way to the oncoming forest.
We passed a sanatorium, too – a private health resort tucked back amongst the trees. There was a guard posted beside the gate, and he watched us cautiously as we walked on by down the forest road.
Eventually the landscape opened up; and as the shoreline curved south our path continued east, rising above water level, out of the trees, to lead us into a green meadow cradled between walls of rock. For Kazakhs, this place is imbued with a deep and almost sacred cultural memory; the ‘Ablai Khan Meadow,’ they call it, after the legendary leader of 18th century Kazakhstan.
Ablai Khan Meadow
Ablai Khan was born in 1711, as Wali-ullah Abul-Mansur Khan. A descendent of Janybek Khan, the 15th century founder of the Kazakh State, Ablai Khan spent the first half of the 18th century leading battles against the Dzungars. For his role as commander in one particularly successful campaign against the Dzungars he earned the Kazakh title ‘Batyr,’ meaning ‘Hero.’
Ablai Khan was ruler of the Middle Jüz, one of the three traditional nomadic groups that formed the nation – but unlike other Kazakh leaders, he did not bow to the authority of neighbouring Russia and her tsar. Rather, Ablai Khan was a master tactician who played Russia against China, while he consolidated power on the steppe.
In 1771, at a meeting between the leaders of the three jüzes, Ablai Khan united these groups to become the first high khan of a combined Kazakh State. With the full force of a unified Kazakhstan behind him, both Russia and China had no choice but to acknowledge his leadership of the steppe peoples.
Ablai Khan went on to lead campaigns against the Khanate of Kokand and the Kyrgyz; battling south to reclaim the cities of southern Kazakhstan, and even capturing the modern-day Uzbek capital of Tashkent. He died in 1781, at which point he passed immediately into Kazakh mythology – becoming the subject of poems and legends, paintings, monuments and more recently, the 2005 Kazakh film Nomad.
On the meadow that day, families shared picnics while children played amongst the flowers. A man dressed as a khan – turban, armour, oiled moustache – stood with an eagle on his shoulder. For a few coins, he’d transfer it to your shoulder, and let you have your picture taken with it. All about meanwhile, walls of rock rose from their pine quilt in shades of misty blue.
The town of Burabay had felt like a tired, post-Soviet holiday camp; but this place was overwhelmingly Kazakh.
Here and there, monuments broke the green surface of the grass: a stone obelisk, raised in 1991 to mark the 280th anniversary of Ablai Khan’s birth; a towering pillar topped with an eagle, the symbol of Kazakhstan; and not far from here the granite throne, a natural rock formation in the foothills of Kokshe Mountain, used in early Kazakh coronation ceremonies. We were headed in the other direction though, towards the visitor centre sat between the meadow and the lake’s edge.
Inside the building, halls had been created as a library and museum space – their exhibits charting the history and myth of Ablai Khan. There was a restaurant too, and so we ate. I had the plov, an oily rice dish served here with the Kazakh favourite, horsemeat.
Back outside, a group of cyclists had just arrived at the restaurant. They were Kazakhs, here on a holiday to the national park and when they spotted me, an obvious foreigner, they immediately wanted to be friends. One of them ducked inside the building to fetch refreshments – while the others sat in the sun on wooden benches. The cyclist with the best English introduced himself as Timur and when his friend returned from the restaurant, carrying a tray filled with bowls, he offered me one.
Timur passed the wooden bowl and gestured me to drink it. I took a sip – the warm, white liquid tasted of sweat and pepper.
“It’s good,” he insisted, with a wide grin. “It’s good,” he said, and then tipped the bowl towards me so suddenly that I had no choice but to drink or drown in it. I finished the bowl and did my best to smile.
“Kumis,” said Timur. “Very traditional Kazakh drink. Make you strong.”
I wiped the last of the fermented horse milk from my mouth with the back of my sleeve, took a swig from my water bottle, and tried to think of something inoffensive to say. “It’s quite interesting,” was the best I could manage.
Timur laughed out loud and slapped me hard on the back. He asked us where we were headed, and when we explained our plan to walk around the lake he shook his head; the southern shore was the property of President Nazarbayev, he told us.
“You do not want to be caught on his land,” Timur said, and I guessed that he was probably right. He told us about a cave, however, a hermit cell, located somewhere down the western shore of the lake; and so we resolved to walk to that, to explore the forests, then come back the same way to arrive in Burabay before nightfall.
Well that was the plan, at least.
Getting Lost in the Kazakh Wilderness
From the meadow, we wandered down the path that cut along the water’s edge. The track led between pines, a dirt path crossed occasionally by snaking roots. Sometimes the trees would clear, opening onto views of the lake; we passed Zhumbaktas again, and this time a small rowing boat was moored beside the rock. A young Kazakh stood between the front paws of the sphinx, waving the national flag in the air.
Around a corner in the headland the lake appeared to us again, and this time I was able to make out the far bank – and the distant square of a palatial residence whose lawns rolled all the way down to the water: the president’s summer house.
As we walked, we’d pass occasional travellers coming back the other way. They seemed to be a mixture of ethnicities, some greeting us in Russian and others in Kazakh.
I’d found so far that very few people in this area spoke English; we had been surviving largely on my poor Russian, up until the point we realised that Zeynep’s native Turkish wasn’t all that very far from Kazakh. The languages shared a lot of similar sounds, almost allowing for a broken half-conversation between the two.
We walked for hours after that. Sometimes the path followed closely to the contours of the shore; other times it led us further inland. There were turnings, once or twice, tracks that veered off towards the interior, deeper into the forest – but so long as we kept the lake in sight, I kept telling myself, there was no chance of getting lost. It seemed impossible.
By the time we reached the southwest corner of the lake, occasional signs were appearing for the holy cave. We followed them, along a wide path that cut beneath the pines. Somewhere along that path though, things went bad. The signs for the cave stopped appearing, and at some point the track forked and we were forced to choose a direction. I guess we must have chosen wrong, as we ended up on a logging path that wound on endlessly through the forest.
Up until this point we had followed what appeared to be an obvious and memorable route; but turning back, we found that it wasn’t going to be so simple. Our path was one of several that fed into this space, so that from this angle it was hard to tell exactly where we’d come from. I was still pretty sure I knew the direction of the lake, and so we aimed that way – to get back to the water, at least.
So we walked, and walked, following a path that looked familiar at first… but then soon began to turn, veering off in a direction that felt altogether wrong. When we reached a series of rusted metal gates, an old security barrier – complete with warning signs – now propped up, disembodied, beneath the pines, we realised we were coming into private land.
I was desperately keen to avoid walking into the grounds of Nazarbayev’s summerhouse. The Kazakh dictator, more or less untouchable since he rose to power as leader of the Kazakh Communist Party in 1989, has been accused of making journalists ‘disappear’; and perhaps worse still, of associating with the notorious war criminal Tony Blair. Wandering into his garden with a camera seemed like a truly terrible idea.
By this point though, I was so disorientated that I couldn’t even work out where the lake was; let alone use Burabay as a reference point from which to gauge our proximity to the president’s home. The afternoon was drawing on, too – before long it would be dark, and the region’s nocturnal creatures would be waking up. We gave up on that hermit’s cave altogether, and focussed our wits on getting out of the forest before the wolves came out to play.
After walking some more, cautiously, in what felt like a sensible direction, soon enough we stumbled across a tall rock formation. Boulders were heaped into a mound, its highest peak emerging above the level of the trees. I climbed it for a better view.
Reaching the highest point on the rocks, the forest fell away beneath me. A young tree sprouted from the very top of the pile, and I clung onto it for support as I took in the landscape – pine trees as far as the eye could see, broken here and there by the backs of stone ridges and fenced in by distant mountains. It was breathtaking, and I could see why they called this place the ‘Pearl of Kazakhstan.’
I was so taken with the view, in fact, that it was a few moments more before I realised that there wasn’t a lake in sight. Burabay had disappeared – we must have strayed too far from the water, passed around a ridge in the landscape, and now in all these endless miles of forest there was still no clue which way we needed to go.
All-out panic hadn’t set in yet, but we began to quicken our pace; as we backtracked in what we guessed was the direction of the water. A map or a compass might have been nice – and I’ve been sure to carry them ever since – but on that day it really did feel like we were leaving a lot to luck.
Some time later we reached another rock pile, and again, we climbed it: this time to be rewarded with a view of Lake Burabay, glittering a cool blue in the settling twilight. It was perhaps another 15 minutes before we rounded a corner in the path and the trees cleared – finally revealing the lakeshore up ahead. I was so excited that I failed to look where I was going, crashing on down the path and straight into a swamp.
Tufts of grass grew over the deep mud, a natural camouflage; but the moment I set foot on the surface I sank in to my knees. I heaved myself messily back out and as I tugged my foot free of the clinging swamp, my boot came clean off in it. After a bit of probing in the muck, I found it – but I’d have soggy feet for the rest of the day.
Backing up, we skirted around the bog: pushing our way through the dense undergrowth that lined the sunken path, until at last we burst out the other side into a clearing. The last light of day filled this space with an ethereal yellow glow, and there on the tree ahead of me, pinned to the bark, hung a sign.
It was an advert, pointing visitors in the direction of coffee, baths and accommodation. Go to Comrade Suyundik! it said in Russian, with a picture of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin pointing in the direction of the town.
Hitting the road, we hitched the last part of the journey back to Burabay. Lenin pointed us back towards our Soviet-era holiday resort, to hot showers and home-cooked food… but a little part of my heart stayed behind in the wilds that day.
If I learned anything about the ‘Real’ Kazakhstan during that trip, it’s that the concept can’t be understood by merely examining bricks and mortar. It’s not a place, and it’s not something that can be experienced in the cities; which still echo with shades of the Soviet social model. Rather, it exists in places like this where the nomad spirit – so intrinsic to Kazakh history and mythology – is unconstrained; in the endless forests where the national consciousness resonates in the stories told about every stone. It’s somewhat telling then that in their own language, ‘Kazakh’ simply means ‘Wanderer.’