Aksu-Zhabagly State Natural Reserve is the biggest reserve in Kazakhstan and clearly one of the most beautiful and well loved in the country. International tourism is a new phenomenon in this former Soviet Union state and Aksu-Zhabagly State Natural Reserve is a very good way to kick it off.
The reserve is located on the Western region of the famous Tien Shen Mountain at the westernmost part of the Talasski Alatau ridge. The Western Tien Shan landscape has scenic meadows, semi-deserts, deep canyons, rugged mountains, narrow gorges with overhanging stone ledges, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers and mountain lakes with clear, icy waters. Located near the historic Silk Road, the park is also home to rich juniper forests with altitudes ranging from a thousand meters to more than 4,000 meters. At this height, climate is very continental with the coldest months dropping to an average temperature of 4.9°C and an average of 21.6°C in the warmest months. It rains mainly in spring.
Aksu-Zhabagly is the only Biosphere Site designated by UNESCO in all of Central Asia. It was also the first established nature reserve park in the area. Its most spectacular land features are the giant Aksu Canyon, which is about 15 kilometers long and 500 meters deep, the Burgulyk Gorge, Kelte-Mashat Gorge, Kyzyl-kol Lake, Balyktin Lake, Akbiik karst cave, Crying Cave, underground springs and rivers, and the paleontology sites of Aulie and Karabastauc, which highlights petroglyphs believed to be carved from the 7th-5th-century BC. The prehistoric stone drawings show hunting scenes, wild animals, domestic animals, and day-to-day activities of the ancient settlers. There are also well preserved imprints of prehistoric plant, fish, insect and pangolin remains.
Thriving in this rich natural habitat are 1,279 flower species, the most popular of which is Greigs Tulip, the national symbol of Kazakhstan. In spring, the mountain landscape comes to life with thousands of crimson tulips and pinkish Morina Kokanica flowers in full bloom. There are 42 species of mammals and 238 species of birds, which include the endangered snow leopard, Central Asian lynx, brown bear, paradise flycatcher, Egyptian vulture, black stork and blue bird among many others. Hikers and tourists are sure to see passing goats, rams, deer, pears, porcupines or even wolves. There are also about a hundred insect species and 700 bug species.
The reserve offers the following tour routes, among many others, to visitors: an 8-km horse ride or hike on the Kshi Kaindy Pass Route through the petroglyph sites in Baidak Gorge, 15-km horse ride or hike on the Topshak Ranger Route through meadows and glaciers, an 8-km horse ride or hike on the Koksai Gorge Route through waterfalls and lakes, or a 8-km horse ride or hike on the Zhabagly Village Route through a fir forest, Kshi-Kaindy Waterfall and beds of tulips.
Leading tourist activities within the reserve are hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, sightseeing, seeing the wild tulips, listening to village folks play dhombra music, tasting kumyss (a local beverage), picnicking at the bottom of Aksu Gorge and driving through Kazakhstan’s famous historic sites. Throughout Aksu-Zhabagly State Natural Reserve, visitors are expected to take care of Mother Nature, respect local customs, be informed of possible dangers, stay on the route, avoid disturbing or feeding the animals, and observe the rules on Specially Protected Natural Area (SPNAs).