Aksu Zhabagly is Kazak’s oldest nature reserve whose rocky and snow capped mountains straddle the borders between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. It’s an isolated wonderland of Juniper trees, wild apples, Ibex and Bears – and the elusive Kazak snow leopard.

We met up with a lovely Zhabagly local (an NGO guide and nature enthusiast), Svetlana, in Almaty who happily hand drew us some maps of the local sights, organised park permits and horse-riding and even called the local ranger to ask if we could camp in his backyard! (Friendly Kazaks are the perfect antidote to a country which can be otherwise difficult for independent travels.)


Unfortunately we arrived in Zhabagly under the cover of darkness and mist; our plans seemed to go pear-shaped. We couldn't find the red and white house of the ranger, and ran out of phone credit just in time to call Svetlana and say 'We're here and lost....'

We spent the next 15 minutes driving in circles around the muddy roads of this small rural village in the dark, not noticing the young man in full cammo gear who was trying to flag us down. When he finally caught our attention, I wound down my window suspiciously, and in an exasperated tone he introduced himself; 'I am Svetlana's son. I will take you to our house now.' He then showed us into a room and left us for the night. It was one of those confusing yet delightful scenarios best left unquestioned.

The next day we'd planned to go horse riding to Kshi Kaindy Waterfall, but we woke up to freezing temperatures and blindingly thick fog. We went along to the Nature Reserve HQ anyway, into the massive central heated official looking building where we were told by the tourism committee (it was a whole committee) that conditions were too dangerous for horse-riding, and that we should go tomorrow. Instead, a young Kazak guy called Rustian showed us through an absolutely brilliant museum of dioramas and stuffed animals, and later, took us for a hike into the lower hills, where the fog made the autumnal colours and cherry trees look like the mystical scenic backdrop that everyone use to have behind their family photos in the 80s (the only thing missing was the matching sailor suits my mother insisted we wear). We saw plenty of bear ‘evidence’ but no real bears
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We spent a chilly night transforming Bob’s interior into a lounge room, kitchen and bed, and woke the next morning to chilly but clear skies. The ranger opened his front door and yelled ‘CHAI???’ at us, and we happily obliged. Finally we got to have a snoop around a real Kazak’s home. Inside, his wife in her leopard print house coat had laid out a complete spread, and we sat on the floor sipping tea and trying to make conversation. Unfortunately we only got as far as how many children and grandchildren they had, their sexes, where they lived etc, and it was time to go horse riding.

Rustian arrived at the ranger station with our trusty steeds and three other travellers in toe, and we set off rather slowly towards the waterfall. My horse quickly decided that I was a complete amateur and refused to move now matter how many times I yelled ‘CHU’ and kicked it. At one point, Rustian had to drag it behind his own horse... Joe’s horse seemed to have some deviation of IBS, so I made sure I was constantly ahead of him. We made it back in one piece, albeit freezing and spent another night camped inside Bob at the ranger station.

We decided to take the back roads to Shymkent, past the spectacular Aksu Canyon the next day – and using only a hand drawn map managed to navigate the wilderness. It really did feel isolated along the dusty landscape of rolling hills, except for the occasional shepperd on horseback – and the more frequent white Lada laden with 5 large Kazak men with gold teeth and caps.