Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve

Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve

Aksu Zhabagly National Nature Reserve founded in 1926 is the oldest in Central Asia and one of the easiest visited of Kazakhstan’s nature reserves. It preserves part of the Talasky Alatau range of the western Tian Shan Mountains. The reserve, at the west end of the Talassky Alatau range, is the most northwesterly spur of the Tian Shan, extends from the edge of the steppe at about 1200m up to 4239m at Pik Sayram. It offers a range of environments from steppe to upland meadows, juniper forest and snow-capped mountaintops fringed by large glaciers.

The reserved name came from the two main rivers flowing through its territory. The River Aksu means ‘white water’, the color obtained from its passage through the limestone mountains. The River Zhabagly is named from the Kazakh word meaning ‘one-year-old horse’. A legend surrounding this name tells of how the first settler of this picturesque valley, arriving here with his family, was forced to leave to join his tribe’s folk in a war. In his absence, the family members he had left in the valley were kidnapped by bandits, his livestock slaughtered and his yurt razed to the ground. When the hero returned from the war he found an only scorched ground where his yurt had stood. In total despair, the horse he had left as a foal suddenly ran towards him, having miraculously survived both the bandits and the subsequent winter. The hero saw the horse’s appearance as a sign that he should not give up and persevered with the establishment of a settlement on the banks of the river he named in his horse’s honor.

Fauna and Flora

In this area where mountains meet the steppe, there’s a great diversity of life. In late April and early May, the focus of all those who come to the reserve is the bright-red Greig’s tulip: one sight, known as Red Hill because of the color the tulips turn it in spring, boasts densities in places of more than 60 wild tulips per square meter. Kaufmann’s tulip is another valuable species of the western Tian Shan, often found at rather higher elevations. The local tourism authorities bill these mountains as the possible birthplace of the wild tulip.

Among the mammal species found in the reserve, the snow leopard is one that visiting tourists are unlikely to face. Numbers in the reserve are pretty low it is confined to remote spots and hunts mainly at night. The reserve also provides a home to the white-clawed Tian-Shan bear, a relative of the brown bear, the Siberian ibex and Eurasian lynx. Wildlife you stand a chance of spotting includes ibex, argali sheep, red marmots, paradise flycatchers, golden eagles, various vultures – and bears, most likely in spring. The scenery, a mix of green valleys with rushing rivers, snowcapped peaks and high-level glaciers, is gorgeous.

How to Get to Aksu-Zhabagyly Reserve

The main entrance point is the village of Zhabagyly lies 70km east of Shymkent. From Zhabagyly village it’s 6km southeast to the nearest reserve entrance, then 6km, about 1,5 hours’ walk to Kshi-Kaindy, a mountain refuge near a waterfall at 1700m, then a further 6km to Ulken-Kaindy, a second refuge. From Ulken-Kaindy it’s 10km to a group of some 2000 stones with petroglyphs of up to 900 years old, below a glacier descending from the 3800m peak Kaskabulak. A great way to visit these sites is by horse, spending two nights at Ulken-Kaindy. More demanding treks will take you over 3500m passes with nights spent in caves. Another great spot is the 300m-deep Aksu Canyon at the reserve’s western extremity, a 25km drive from Zhabagyly village. 

You can visit at any time of year, yet the best months to come are April to September. In September and early October, the canyon is a busy migration route. There is an obligatory entrance fee. There are a variety of local accommodation options that offer a range of well-run trips in the reserve. 

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