Almaty is on lockdown. A man has started shooting on streets not far from our hotel. Martial law and a curfew are to be imposed on the city. We had only planned to be in Almaty long enough to hire a car. Now we need to move fast – not just to get away from the attacker but also so we are able to reach Charyn Canyon.
Anička turns on the radio as we drive along the highway. She searches for the news and listens quietly. Once the report is over, she explains: six people have been killed – one woman last night and five today. The gunman, Ruslan Kulikbayev, is thought to have links with the ultra-conservative, but not necessarily violent, Salafist movement in Islam. Kulikbayev appears to have opened fire on a police station, hijacked a car and attacked the building of the secret police. He was only stopped after hijacking another car.
Quietly, we drive on. The route is easy and Kazakh driving is not too bad, although overtaking ancient lorries feels a bit hairy. Anička pulls out her phone when the radio signal dies and begins to blast out Justin Bieber.
We turn off the highway onto a wide, bumpy track as the day approaches golden hour. It runs across a large plateau between two mountain ranges. I rally along faster than I maybe should. A plume of dust rises behind the Kia as I dive between potholes and hold the racing line. A backpacker appears ahead of us. We’re still debating whether to pick him up as we drive past. I hit the brakes too late and he runs to catch us up. He is Russian and is hitchhiking around Central Asia.
Anička speaks with our Russian friend and I keep the car on the road. We realise he would not have made it to the canyon before nightfall. We picked him up seven or eight kilometres from the entrance, where we find some confusion about how much everything costs. Once we’re through, we park the car at the edge of the orange Charyn Canyon and watch the moon rise through the sunset.
We must still climb down the cliffs and there is not much time because night will soon fall. We can see a path but fifty metres down a slope it splits into three, so we follow one and then another. They lead us to amazing views but not to the floor of the canyon. The third takes us to a scarp of scree. Gently, gently we half slide, half walk down.
The cliffs block out almost all of the light. There is just enough to see what is front of our feet. We begin to walk downwards knowing no other direction or what awaits us at the end. We have heard there are yurts but we are not sure. Through the opening at the top we can see the deep blue sky filling with clouds.
We walk through a giant lump of granite and under an arch. The roar of a river is getting louder and louder. By now we can see very little and we’re concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. By chance we find ourselves in the middle of a camp and go to reception.
The receptionist pops his head up from under the desk and says hello. We are surprised to hear that a night in a yurt is rather expensive. There is not enough Kazakh Tenge in our pockets to afford one. We gamble and ask if he will accept British pounds. He will, and feeling slightly ashamed I hand over fifty. I know they are useless to him. The notes are never accepted in England because they are Northern Irish, let alone able to be changed in foreign countries.
A thunder storm breaks suddenly. Flashes of lightning illuminate the cliffs and draw our attention to the forest that surrounds us for the first time. Huge raindrops splash off the hardened ground while the thunder echoes all around. We shelter with a beer and some plov in the restaurant and watch waterfalls run off the roof.
The storm blows over quickly and we try to reach our yurt. The track has turned into a lake and there seems to be no way to cross. The receptionist thinks for a minute and then goes to find another member of staff. When he returns he has a teenager in tow. He will guide us with the help of a faint torch.
The teenager takes the lead and I fall to the back so that Anička can see the path ahead. I follow the dim shapes that I can see moving ahead. We are led through a forest of tall weeds that catch on our clothes, past a thrumming generator and to the main road. It has turned into a boiling river. Our guide steps down into and then jumps back out. We can’t cross here.
A few minutes up the river we find a ford and hop from rocks to sandy islands until we reach the other side. We climb a fence – upon which I bash my leg and draw blood – and finally arrive at our yurt. For a few minutes, we take in the splendour and then make our beds. We are ready to sleep like the dead.
I wake at dawn and hunch out of the yurt into the light. Most of the flash flood has run off but large puddles remain. I lug my camera equipment over fences, up a hill and past a sign that warns me to go no further in case I fall into the torrent of water beneath me. I set up my camera over the river and wait for the sunlight to fall on the peaks.
Back in the yurt, Anička has awoken and we take a proper look around the Tardis-like tent. Multi-coloured tassels hang from the centre of the roof and red woven drapes draw the eye to the walls where local crafts are hung. A toy yurt sits on the floor with a tail and camel’s head poking out. Standing on a Persian rug is a doll wearing traditional dress. I put on an azure robe with golden stitching and place pointy green slippers on my feet and pretend to be a nobleman.
Once we have finished exploring our yurt it is time to hike up the canyon. The sun has risen high in the sky and the walls radiate heat. We walk back under the arch and through the granite batholith. As we leave the black walls behind the grandeur of Charyn Canyon opens up in front of us. There are beautiful rock formations everywhere – persimmon arches, stacks and tors tower over us. One huge boulder, perhaps fifty metres high, has fallen from a cliff after centuries of weathering. With its stratifications set at forty-five degrees, it lies in the sand beside the cliff face as if it could have fallen from the dream of a constructivist artist.
A group of men walk down the canyon towards us. At home, it is common to greet everyone you meet on a hike. It is ingrained in me, but here it does not seem to be the done thing. The two Frenchman and a Kazakh take my “Hello” as an opportunity to stop and talk. As the conversation draws to a close, the Kazakh says: “This is our Grand Canyon.” It is hard to disagree – Charyn Canyon is surely as beautiful, if not as large, and there are millions fewer tourists.
Stupidly, we did not bring any water with us on the hike. As soon as we arrive at the Kia, which we have named Mashina – Russian for car, we put the air conditioning on and drink as much as we can. Never have I been so happy to see a Kia.
Once we hit the tarmac again we’re immediately winding through mountains around sweeping curves and tight hairpins. The drive on the empty road thrills me. Even though I’m not driving fast or pushing Mashina hard I must concentrate as we exit one bend and immediately enter the next. I feel as if I am a rally driver. Anička takes to calling me Michael Schumacher.
The road around one particularly tight hairpin leads us to a viewpoint over a gorge. At the bottom white water rushes by with a roar. Towering mountains break the horizon and, on the opposite side of the gorge, little grassy hillocks roll into each other to create a small range.
More rally driving takes us and Mashina into a plateau. It stretches out for miles all around us. The road straightens out like a ruler and, with no cars in sight, I begin to push the speed again. We are in a race against the sunset. At this rate we should arrive in an hour.
Our map tells us to fork to the right to avoid a village – the first we have seen in about a hundred kilometres. But as soon as we are on the road it becomes clear that it is only for tractors. We must go through Jalanaş instead. Every villager we pass stares at us. Dogs and cats, cows and horses run wild on the street. It is clearly very poor. The small houses are badly in need of maintenance, the people are dressed in old ragged clothes and if there are any amenities we can’t see them other than a corner shop. It is a forgotten part of the world.
The highway to Jalanaş had been smooth. We bumped our way through the village but we are not prepared for what we find on the road to our final destination – Satı. The road is covered in rocks and untarmacked. I must weave through the potholes as best as I can. Our top speed is twenty kilometres per hour and we have thirty to go.
However, the view is majestic. Meadows surround us in the foothills of the mountains. They are full of thistles three feet high and violet foxgloves. When I ask Mashina to stop as the sun sets all we can hear is the rasping of crickets.
Now we must drive in the dark. Perilously, we slide down the rocks on steep hills and slowly turn around mountain streams. Occasionally, Mashina is grinding against the ground. I jump out to check the damage but can see nothing. Poor Mashina has not been built for this. It is the hardest drive I have ever been on
Two hours it takes in the dark. Two hours of slipping into unseen potholes and gradually rocking Mashina out. We arrive at our lodgings ready for sleep. But our host wants to talk long into the night. She clearly wants to travel herself and would like to hear about our adventures. A kitten, only two weeks old, sleeps on Anička’s lap. She has not been named because she is so young. Our host asks if we would like the privilege, and we call her Daisy.