Issyk Lake and Issyk Kurgan – Kazakhstan

issyk lake kurgan almaty day trip

Into the Mountains

Compared to the steppes and deserts to the north, the southern provinces of Kazakhstan are walled off to the south by the towering peaks of the Tian Shan mountains, separating it from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The majestic range is home to the tallest mountains that I have ever seen, with peaks towering well over 16,000 feet in places, snow-capped even in high summer. It is in these mountains that the elusive and endangered snow leopard, one of the national symbols of Kazakhstan, can be found. Its importance is such that the creature featured prominently on the seal of the city of Almaty. From there, the mountains are easily visible, serving as a directional reference point for city dwellers.

While in Almaty, I sought to explore parts of this area. With my guide, Rabiga, we set off east on a hot July morning along the road towards the mountains. We were not unique in our endeavor, as there were many cars going in the same direction.

While in Almaty, I sought to explore parts of this area. With my guide, Rabiga, we set off east on a hot July morning along the road towards the mountains. We were not unique in our endeavor, as there were many cars going in the same direction. Prepared for a hike and picnic at Issyk Lake, we were well stocked with beer and other foodstuffs. I inquired if this is the road that leads to China. My experienced guide affirmed in her soft Kazakh accent, explaining that it takes approximately eight hours to reach the Chinese border from Almaty along this road. Unearthing beers from her bag, she told me of her travels to Chundja, the border region to the east where the Uyghur people live, and about their particular dishes and culture. Initially, I felt rather weird at the thought of drinking while in a moving car. Such a concept is unimaginable in America, and I am fairly sure that it is illegal even in Romania, but on a hot summer day in Kazakhstan – why not? За друзей! we both toasted to the clang of glass bottles. 

My eyes widened as I beheld the complex of over 80 burial mounds (kurgans) attributed to the Saka, the eastern branch of the Scythian people. There were exhibits displaying the interior structure of the Saka burial mounds, as well as armor (including for horses), weapons, and jewelry.

No visit to Issyk Lake is complete without first stopping at the archaeological museum near the town of Issyk. For fans of Eurasian nomadic cultures, this place is Mekkah. My eyes widened as I beheld the complex of over 80 burial mounds (kurgans) attributed to the Saka, the eastern branch of the Scythian people. There were exhibits displaying the interior structure of the Saka burial mounds, as well as armor (including for horses), weapons, and jewelry.

There were exhibits displaying the interior structure of the Saka burial mounds, as well as armor (including for horses), weapons, and jewelry.

I also beheld a replica of the Golden Warrior (the original is displayed in Astana), another important symbol of Kazakhstan, that was discovered in the region. I stood mesmerized, staring at the golden parade armor of a Saka noble (perhaps even a king!). The hat appeared to be similar to a medieval hennin, with a red base overlaid with golden jewelry. Rabiga, noticing how captivated I was by the exhibits, promised that she would show me a very special kurgan later that day.

A Day Trip at Issyk Lake

Taking our leave of the museum, we passed through the town of Issyk proper, and took a road leading into the wooded mountains. As the road climbed, we were greeted with spectacular views of deep valleys and sharp peaks. Eventually we reached one of the jewels of the northern Tian Shan Mountains – Lake Issyk (also Esik).

It was originally formed millennia ago, a result of landsides damming off the Issyk River, creating a natural lake. The place is popular among families from Almaty who visit for weekend picnics, barbecues, and swims. It is probably best to visit between May and August, as I imagine that the water would be too cold for swimming during other times of the year.

The lake is another one of the geological oddities that make Kazakhstan a special place. It was originally formed millennia ago, a result of landsides damming off the Issyk River, creating a natural lake. The place is popular among families from Almaty who visit for weekend picnics, barbecues, and swims. It is probably best to visit between May and August, as I imagine that the water would be too cold for swimming during other times of the year. Perhaps the waters are sufficiently cold even in July, as I observed a staggering man curing his drunkenness by falling into the chilly water, emerging with a sober smile on his face. The inviting aroma of shashlik (lamb skewers), noodles, and oriental sauces gave away the presences of families, happily chatting among each another in Russian, enjoying a Sunday afternoon away from the chaos of the city. Along the shore, I noticed a blonde Russian girl serenely picking brightly colored flowers – making a crown of them to wear in her hair.

While watching the scenes of serenity unfold, I was approached by a rather drunken man, a Kazakh, who smiled, inquiring as to my name and from where did I arrive. “My name is Darius, and I’m American” I politely responded in Russian. Whether it was because of my American accent or the fact that the name Darius simply does not exist in the cultures of Central Asia, he did not seem to understand and again repeated his question. Bemused, I ultimately blurted out that he could call me Dasha. (Dasha is the diminutive for Darya, a common name in Russia and Central Asia). Everyone laughed, and satisfied with my response – we toasted a beer under the shaded shores of Issyk Lake.

A Day Trip at Issyk Lake from Almaty

It should be noted that a mudslide originating from the Zharsay River destroyed the lake during the 1960s, killing quite a few people. There is a memorial close to the lake honoring the deceased. The lake would not be restored until the 1990s. 

Issyk Kurgan and the Golden Warrior

After hours of merrymaking, picnicking, and drinking, we again set out for our next stop. Again, passing through Issyk and then east past the towns of Koktebe and Turgen, Rabiga asked our driver to stop near a small road leading towards a mountain. Facing us was a large statue of a tall Saka warrior, standing next to the smaller statue of a snow leopard. Before both statues was a small burial mound and a tree that was covered in colored ribbons, offerings to the warrior’s memory.

 A similar statue stands in the center of Almaty, the Golden Warrior being an inspiration for Kazakhstan’s independence, and pride in its history.

It appeared that Tengrism, the original religion of the steppe nomads, was alive and well at this place. Rabiga explained that this is where the Golden Warrior was originally found by archaeologists during the 1960s. Mesmerized, I stepped inside the dark and hollow interior, imagining that the warrior had spent nearly two millennia sleeping here. The unknown warrior’s importance to the country should not be underestimated. A similar statue stands in the center of Almaty, the Golden Warrior being an inspiration for Kazakhstan’s independence, and pride in its history.

Almaty region is rich in cultural, geographic, and historical sites and I have only just glazed the surface.

Wiping the sweat off my brow and lying in the grass next to the kurgan, I mused over the day’s travels. This region obviously had a strong historical significance – being the site of so many rich Saka burials alongside Almaty’s role in the ancient Silk Road, connecting Eurasia both East and West. The region is rich in cultural, geographic, and historical sites and I have only just glazed the surface.

This region obviously had a strong historical significance - being the site of so many rich Saka burials alongside Almaty’s role in the ancient Silk Road, connecting Eurasia both East and West.

Perhaps another day I will return to Kazakhstan – to meet old friends, to get to better know its mountains and deserts, and to continue exploring and discovering the history and culture of the region. To that promise, I found a small ribbon in my backpack, and making my way to the tree, I tied it there, feeling the mountain wind blowing in my hair, ready to welcome me back.

Garni Temple – Hellenistic Temple in Armenia

Perched along the arid cliffs overlooking the meandering river Azat, the town is famous for the impressive Temple of Garni.

In the time before their kingdom’s conversion to Christianity, the Armenians were pagans, worshipping deities of fire, water, and the sun. Indeed, the exact roots of the original Armenian religion are a bit difficult to identify. At its base, there appears to have been an inherited Mesopotamian root – the worship of Khaldi, Teisheba, and Shivini being documented in the Urartian kingdom. There is also evidence that early Armenians revered the phenomena of nature, in particular the sun.

Chief among their deities was Ara, the physical embodiment of the sun, and the Armenians called themselves the Children of the Sun. Over time, Armenian religion would be heavily influenced by the experience of the Iranians and later – the Greeks. Indeed, during the era of Persian dominance, Mihr, related to the Persian Mithra, began be worshiped as the god of fire. Also noteworthy was the goddess of fertility, love, as well as water sources and springs – Anahit, who is still celebrated by Armenians to this present day.

On the day of Vardavar, usually celebrated in June or July, Armenians playfully drench each other in water, to celebrate the summer. Later, during the Hellenistic period, Armenian deities began to be depicted with human images, contrary to Iranian tradition. Indeed, through the interpretatio graeca, Anahit would, for example, be associated with Aphrodite.

Concerning Garni Temple

In a land of endless churches, the ancient Garni temple stands out no less impressively than the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome. Tradition holds that the monument was first built during the 1st century of our era by the Armenian king Tiridates as a temple dedicated to Mihr.

During my travels to Armenia, I found myself in Garni, a small town located to the east of Yerevan. Perched along the arid cliffs overlooking the meandering river Azat, the town is famous for the impressive Temple of Garni. In a land of endless churches, the ancient temple stands out no less impressively than the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.

Tradition holds that the monument was first built during the 1st century of our era by the Armenian king Tiridates as a temple dedicated to Mihr. The evidence for this lies in an unearthed Greek inscription naming a certain Tiridates Helios as the founder of the temple. Indeed, during early nineteenth century, the Scottish traveler, Robert Ker Porter, recorded that the locals referred to the Temple as the Tackt-i-Tiridate (throne of Tiridates) in the Persian language.

The area is part of an impressive natural fortress complex, towering 300 feet over the river Azat below, and beyond it – lush, green forests teeming with deer, antelope, and leopards. The area feels almost like a sacred place, the Khosrov Forest providing a geographical respite from the increasingly dry and arid lands of southern Armenia.

The area is part of an impressive natural fortress complex, towering 300 feet over the river Azat below, and beyond it – lush, green forests teeming with deer, antelope, and leopards. The area feels almost like a sacred place, the Khosrov Forest providing a geographical respite from the increasingly dry and arid lands of southern Armenia. Beyond, the forest ends with the rising slopes of the Gegham mountains in the background.

On the plateau, the fortress complex also houses the ruins of a Roman style bathhouse and the ruins of a Christian church. The colonnaded Temple of Garni was built in the Hellenistic style, indeed the only surviving example of such a temple in Armenia and the territory of the former Soviet Union. The temple is a peripteros, a temple surrounded by a portico with columns, built on an elevate podium.

From my own observations, I noted that the cella is surprisingly small, suggesting that worshippers stood outside the building, while a priest performed ceremonies and sacrifices in full view of the audience. It is possible that a statue of Mihr once stood inside the cella. There are surprisingly large steps outside of the temple of which I found more difficult than expected to climb.

garni hellenistic collumns - dariusroby.com

Destruction and Survival

The obvious pagan nature of the temple begs the question – how did it manage to survive Armenia’s conversion to Christianity during the 4th century and the systematic razing of pagan monuments that succeeded it? The simple argument is that the temple may have been converted to a Christian church at some point. However, if this is truly the case then why was there a church built nearby during the 7th century? There is a theory that the temple was in fact – the tomb of a Roman client king, and therefore – a symbol of Rome’s authority in Armenia, one that would not have been undermined by their subsequent conversions to the Christian faith. There is also a legend that the temple’s survival can be traced to the efforts of Princess Khosrovdoukht, the sister of Tiridates III, who pleaded with her brother to spare the pagan temple.

Be that as it may, the temple survived until 1679 until it was hit by a devastating earthquake, centered squarely in the Garni gorge. The earth tempest reduced the structure to rubble and so it remained over the next three centuries. The massive ruins became the stuff of fascination for European travelers, and it would not be until the 1970s that the Soviet Armenian government would approve the reconstruction of the site under the auspices of the archaeologist Alexander Sahinian.

inside garni temple - dariusroby.com

Remarkably, over 80% of the original stones were used during the reconstruction, with the additional stone being made clearly visible for historical purposes. Today, the temple is a popular stop among travelers to Armenia and is even the site for Vardavar and Trndez (another Armenian celebration of pagan origin, connected with sun/fire worship) celebrations. Standing proudly over the Azat valley, the Temple of Garni stands as a testament to Armenia’s classical history and hints towards its even older pagan past.

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Singing Dunes of Altyn Emel – Kazakhstan

Singing Dunes of Altyn Emel - Kazakhstan Desert

In the Kazakh language, the place-name Zhetysu means “seven rivers.” The name is a bit of a misnomer however, as there are only five rivers that still flow through the arid region south of Lake Balkhash, their names being – Ayaguz, Lepsy, Aksy, Karatal, and Ili. In the past, there were two additional rivers, whose names are not known to me, but they have since been lost.

During the time of the Russian empire, the region was called Semirechye, which translates to the same name of “seven rivers.” Historically, this region served as a meeting point between the nomadic cultures of the steppe, and the trading cities that made up the great Silk Road, and interaction between settled and nomadic cultures was intense.

Kazakhstan (Singing Dunes) - Summer 2018 - Darius Roby Travel

Indeed, it is true that in the ancient past, this land was the home of the Saka, a nomadic eastern Scythian culture that have left behind tumulus burials containing gold artifacts as well as the golden parade armor of a warrior, which has since become the symbol of Kazakhstan.

Indeed, it is said that the Saka culture was centered in Zhetysu itself, and the archaeological record testifies to that. Presently, the region is populated mostly by Kazakhs, Russians, and Uyghurs. The Russian language dominates in the city of Almaty, but one is more likely to hear Kazakh spoken in rural areas. The Kazakhs and Uyghurs are Muslims, while the Russians follow the Orthodox faith.

The Saryesik-Atyrau Desert – from the Saka to the Kazakhs

On a hot July morning, I left Almaty traveling north towards the Dzungarian Alatau mountains with my guide, Rabiga, and our driver, Azamt in order to explore an area of Zhetysu called the Saryesik-Atyrau Desert, a monochrome sandy steppe. The aforesaid mountains, forming a chain stretching southwest towards the Ili river are a wonder themselves.

DariusRoby.com - This chain of mountains becomes higher (including some isolated snow-capped peaks) in some areas, while at the border with China lies the Dzungarian Gate, a mountain pass that effectively separates Central Asia from East Asia.

The verdant mountains of the Dzungarian Alatau are quite rocky, protruding over the landscape with rather sharp ridges. The chain of mountains achieves higher elevations (including some isolated snow-capped peaks) in some areas, while at the border with China lies the Dzungarian Gate, a mountain pass that effectively separates Central Asia from East Asia. It was through this pass that nomadic invaders would sweep across Asia, ultimately reaching Europe. As we traveled the mountains, I watched the sun continue to rise over the eastern regions of the world, beckoning us towards the desert steppe that lies beyond.

kazakhstan - desert trip - singing dunes

The Saryesik-Atyrau Desert is rather peculiar, being full of geological and historical oddities. It stretches over 250 miles from Lake Balkhash in the north to the Ili river in the south, also bordered by the aforementioned mountains to the west. It is sandy for the most part, with bits and pieces of scrub-like vegetation eking out an existence under the merciless and scorching steppe sun. There are random lakes, ponds, and springs that can surprise a weary traveler, but these travelers are far and few in between.

Indeed, Kazakhstan strikes me as being so empty that it is difficult to imagine from where came the multitudes of mounted warriors who once troubled the great civilizations of Rome and China. Indeed, between Basshi, the entrance to the Altyn Emel National Park, and the ranger station near the singing dunes, we did not encounter any other sign of human settlement for another two hours, only endless desert steppe.

DariusRoby.com - Basshi, the entrance to the Altyn Emel National Park & the singing dunes.

A hike over the desert steppe

After a couple of hours of traveling over the endless steppe, I spotted large sand dunes in the distance. We had arrived at the famous Singing Sand Dunes of Altyn Emel. They are large dunes formed thousands of years ago by sand deposits blowing from the nearby Ili River, reaching a height of nearly 500 feet. It is possible to reach the summit by climbing the light-colored sand along a narrow ridge.

The climb gives the impression of being perilous but the sand is so thin and soft that each step easily left me trudging knee deep. In any regard, were one to fall from the dune, one would probably land comfortably in the soft sand below. The dunes are not only famous for being photogenically beautiful, but also for their singing characteristics.

DariusRoby.com - Climbing the singing dunes in Kazakhstan. The climb gives the impression of being perilous but the sand is so thin and soft that each step easily left me trudging knee deep.

Rabiga told me that should one reach the summit and then run down at a great pace, it would be possible to hear the dunes singing of the exploits of Genghis Khan. However, I found that one simply needs to place his ears low to the ground to hear the sand whispering the tales of this largely unexplored land. The dunes stretch for a few miles, and we continued hiking through the desert, exploring the barren paths and avoiding the sharp vegetation.

DariusRoby.com - The singing dunes stretch for a few miles, and we continued hiking through the desert, exploring the barren paths and avoiding the sharp vegetation.

We saw tracks and other evidence of animals native to Central Asia, such as lizards, snakes, antelopes, and perhaps even the extremely rare Przewalski’s horse. It is clear that this area is teeming with wildlife during the morning and evening, when the sun’s glare is not so powerful.

Continuing, we eventually climbed a ridge and over it, we saw the desert give way to the silver ribbon of the Ili River, quietly continuing its course from Xinjiang towards Lake Balkhash. There underneath a tree we found respite from the scorching sun, admiring the view below and losing ourselves in conversation about Kazakh culture and the wealth of geographical beauty that the country has been blessed with.

DariusRoby.com - Day trip to the Singing Dunes in Kazakhstan.

Yurt Hospitality

Making our way back, we again traveled over the monotonous desert steppe until we again reached the green mountains of the Dzungarian Alatau. There, we stopped at a yurt and were greeted by a Kazakh family who demonstrated to me the famous hospitality of Central Asia. They dressed me in Kazakh robes, bade me enter the spacious interior of their yurt and offered me baursaki and kumys, the famous fermented mare’s milk that Herodotos once described the Scythians drinking.

yurt life in kazakhstan - nomad life, steppe

The taste was quite rich, and surprisingly good, being served cold and slightly fermented (having a stronger alcoholic content than kvas, but a bit less than a light beer), I felt quite refreshed after the day’s trip.

picture inside of a yurt in kazakhstan, nomad life

My hosts asked me about life in America, and in my bad Russian – I answered their questions, conveyed my gratitude for their hospitality, and remarked about how close I feel towards Kazakhstan, its nature, and culture. Eventually, Rabiga, Azamat, and I bade our hosts farewell and we set off again towards the sun setting west beyond the mountains, the road continuing on.

Interested in learning more about the grassy steppes, meandering rivers, historical sites, and diverse peoples that shape the eastern regions of the world? Indy Guide has the largest selection local guides, drivers, tour operators and hosts in underrated destinations such as Central Asia, Caucasus, Russia & Mongolia.

Erebuni Fortress – the Founding of Yerevan

Entrance to the King's residence. Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

Just outside of Yerevan lies an arid hill overlooking the Ararat plain, that is known as Arin Berd. The name in Armenian means “Fortress of the Blood.” It is home to the ruins of an 8th century BC city of the Urartian Kingdom called Erebuni, which is the origin of the modern name Yerevan.

I made a note to visit this place during my travel in Armenia, not only due to its antiquity, but also due to the connection I would feel with the great civilizations of the Near East. Urartiu, the earliest identifiable predecessor of Armenians, thrived at a time when its chief rivals were the Assyrians, the Medes, and the mysterious Cimmerians.

Cuneiform inscription near Erebuni's granary and storehouses - Erebuni Fortress | Armenia

A cuneiform inscription found inside the fortress states that Erebuni was built by Argishti, the son of Menua, the king of Urartiu in 782 B.C. This means that Erebuni predates the founding of Rome by nearly 30 years. In the inscription, Argishti proudly proclaimed that “The land was a desert, before the great works I accomplished upon it. By the greatness of Khaldi, Argishti, son of Menua, is a mighty king, king of Biainilli (an early form of Van, seems to be local name of the kingdom), and ruler of Tushpa.” It is known that the city was built through the labor of captured prisoners of war. This could be the origin of the hill’s name.

Entrance into the Citadel - Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

The wind blew dust into my eyes as I climbed Arin Berd under the early summer sun. Armenia is not a desert country, being situated in the southern Caucasus mountains, but south of Yerevan – the terrain becomes increasingly dry and arid. The climb is relatively simple, aided by stairs, and a fountain at the foot of the hill. At the summit, the fortress is surrounded by the ruins of thick walls that once stood nearly 40 feet tall. The fortress is triangular, with the entrance being found at the southeastern section of the outer wall, beckoning the traveler to enter the world of the ancient Near East.

A quick breather on the ruins of the Granary. Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

Just beyond the entrance is a central yard, which was once used for ceremonies and parades. The ruins of palaces, residences, and fire worship temples can be seen, yet my eyes were taken by the ruins of the temple of Khaldi. Despite being covered in Russian and Armenian graffiti, it was still possible to see beautiful geometric and floral murals on the wall, with vivid frescos, including one of the god himself – standing upon a lion. While the other buildings inside the city appear to have had stone or adobe floors, the temple appears as if the floor might have been made of wood. To the east of the temple can be found economic structures including grain, oil, and wine storehouses. Another cuneiform inscription can be found there, stating that the storehouses were constructed by Sarduri, the successor of Argishti.

Touristic graffiti serves as a reminder of the fragility of modern tourism. Erebuni Fortress, Armenia

Argishti’s successors, Sarduri II and Rusa I, continued work on the fortress, enlarged it, and used it as a staging ground for wars of conquests to the north. However, once the nearby town of Teishebaini was constructed, Erebuni began to lose its importance. It survived the establishment of Persian dominance due to becoming a center of the satrapy of Armenia. Over the centuries, modern Yerevan would sprawl on the plains below the hill.

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