Let’s be honest: we are not birdwatchers or birds lovers. However, since we got stuck in Astana waiting for the bus to Olgii (Mongolia), we had to find interesting activities in the surroundings. That’s where the remote town of Korgalzhyn fits in.
Located at around 130 Km from the capital, it’s the perfect two days visit to see completely different things from the futuristic urban landscape of Astana or Almaty
On the way, you can also stop at the Alzhir Museum Memorial Complex of Malinovka (now Akmol). But let’s go step by step.
Minibuses run frequently from Astana’s bus station to Korgalzhyn and Malinovka. We caught the 11.50 one for 400 Kazakh Tenge each (just to Malinovka-Akmol). It took around 45 minutes to reach our first destination. The driver pulled off the main road and pointed the structure at 200 meters on the left.
The complex is quite impressive from outside, with some eye-catching installations reminding the cruel gulag times. The museum (200 Tenge entrance fee + 500 optional for a movie) is fairly small and can be seen in about 30 minutes.
After the cultural stop, we tried to catch a ride to arrive to our final destination, Korgalzhyn, still 100 Km far away. By accident, the first vehicle to halt at our lifted finger was a public marshrutka, which didn’t hesitate to pick us up. A bit crammed inside, we got to the terminus in two additional hours. The road is a bit rough in between.
Luckily a guy in the van helped us to call the advertised accommodation in Lonely Planet, Bibinur & Marat Alimzhanov, which after some negotiation offered the “deal” of 6000 Tenge just for sleeping.
We tried to lower further without any result though. The room is a simple space inside a wooden cabin designed for guests. Basic but ok. By the way, we also tried to find a cheaper accommodation by asking to the reception of the facing Reserve Visitors Centre. After a long series of fruitless calls (just one answer), we gave up and accepted Marat’s offer.
We then started to inquire around regarding a tour to Lake Tengiz, which supposedly hosts the world’s most northerly flamingo colony
This is only the main lake within the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site with more than 200 steppe lakes populated with many sorts of birds migrating from Africa and Middle East, from June to September.
Full of hope, we received instead several disappointing answers from various interlocutors:
- Our guesthouse: they could only engage a non-English speaker driver without much experience and the permit to enter Tengiz Lake. Price 12,000 Tenge.
- Reserve Visitors Centre: just across the street from Marat’s guesthouse, the office was not so helpful either. Tours not available and no English speakers around. In the end, nevertheless, a friendly woman advised us not to go to Tengiz for flamingos, but near the hamlet of Ushsart, 35 rough Kilometres far away.
- Two German girls in the guesthouse: they had just finished one tour with the guesthouse driver and were quite satisfied with it. Nonetheless, no flamingos spotted anywhere. Besides, they told us that for Tengiz Lake you need a special permit from the Visitors Centre, together with a dedicated guide. Quite expensive in the end, let alone that the Visitors Centre was not organizing tours when we asked to them (see point 2 above).
After gathering this info, we decided to try to hire a taxi on our own from the town main square (in front of the Mosque and a recommended shashlik stall) the following morning.
Our first two attempts failed : ). Our offer was too low according to the drivers (we put 7000 Tenge “on the table”). Finally, the great surprise: a taxi driver (who was about to go to Astana with people inside) got unexpectedly interested in our proposed route and all at once offered himself as our “guide”.
He could speak some few words of English and amazingly didn’t claim any money in return
A bit confused, we notwithstanding jumped into the car to see what would happen. We could not believe in such unusual generosity. We then started to speculate that he was probably appealed by our “birdwatching” mission; or our European cultural background; or simply wanted to give a small twist to his flat routine. Anyway, we were pleased with it!
On the untarmacked way he also picked up a woman wishing to go to the nearby hamlet called Shalkar, on the shores of Birtaban Lake. That was another good opportunity for us to see the annexed human and birdlife. We stopped for a few minutes there to walk on the shore and gaze at the peaceful, lovely surroundings.
We afterwards headed for some tiny lakes not even in the GPS. Nothing to report though. Through “savannah-like” bare fields and bumpy roads we eventually reached Ushsart, maybe 30 houses all together.
There, we received the utmost hospitality: first a çay stop at a driver friend’s house; then a proper lunch at another pal’s place. We spent very cheerful moments while eating the local specialities: plov, mutton meat and biscuits.
Once replenished and done with some ritual pictures, we pointed to the recommended Bozshasor Lake, approximately 10 Km further. We had our funniest time there: almost neglectful of the invisible roads, our friendly driver was just crossing the naked steppe in any possible way! We were even afraid that the jeep could break at no notice. But all fine.
We arrived to Bozshasor in one piece. Armed with borrowed binoculars, we endeavoured to spot the long-awaited flamingos or other rare species. No way! Just a few common ducks and small birds.
Eventually, after coasting the muddy lake for a while, the driver seemed to identify afar off in the middle a few flamingos. We could see something as well, but in fairness we were not able to guarantee 100 % : ). In another desperate, closer attempt, we could see a bit more, but still not enough as to report our full success.
It was unluckily getting late. We were supposed to catch the last daily minibus directed to Astana at 5 pm. We had then to abort our expedition to return to the town in time for that. On road we were hit by a sudden, violent hail, which made our tour even more adventurous and unpredictable.
Despite all the adversities, at around 4 pm we arrived to Korgalzhyn, overjoyed with our curious route.
We could not clearly spot flamingos, pelicans, antelopes or other mentioned species
But we relished very much the rough drive in the nude steppe, the meals at very traditional houses and above all the amusing company of our unexpected pilot, who by the way even refused our contribution for the gasoline in the end!
To all our most dazzling amazement, on top of that he offered to bring us to Burabay, another charming lake near Astana. But this is another story…
To sum up, we enjoyed the museum stop at Malinovka and the genuine countryside life in Korgalzhyn. However, unless you are fortunate like us with transportation, you will struggle to find services to go further.
Reserve permits, lack of tourist operators and language barriers will weak your pure enthusiasm for the wild life
Nevertheless, some remote, secluded areas nearby are doubtlessly worth to be seen and lived. To us, they vaguely reminded of some African savannah landscape. Another side of Kazakhstan!
And you, have you ever been lucky to spot flamingos in your trips? Please share with us your most valued experience!