Daisy is exploring the garden in the shallow valley that Satı lies in. She is ignoring the labrador puppy who is busy playing with a shoe on the doorstep. The little kitten that we named last night pads into the centre of the grass, look around and, as if overawed by the beauty that surrounds her, runs back to the kitchen. Anička and I sit and watch while we wait for our lift to Lake Kaindy.
I decide to play with the puppy. I begin by scratching his belly then chase him towards the end of the garden. Like I would with Manta and Maruška, our chihuahuas, I jump around him like an idiot and surge in for surprise tickles.
He is confused and scared at first. No one plays with him, or other dogs, here. They are working animals – part of the family but not pets. He slowly works out what is happening, but his mother puts the kibosh on our games by barking from her kennel as he is beginning to enjoy himself. She is worried I am attacking him.
Anička and I wait some more in the morning sunlight falling on the porch. Eventually, we hear the roar of a motor dying outside the gate and go to check. An old, olive brown van is waiting. It is a Red Army personnel carrier with a glum little face, nicknamed the Bukhanka or loaf of bread, here to take us to Lake Kaindy. We climb onto the threadbare seats in the back and swing the door shut with a bellow of hollow steel.
The van drives slowly through Satı – possibly at the top speed of its seventy-five horsepower engine. We realise that we are in for a rough ride. We bounce around the cabin like rag dolls while exhaust fumes circulate around us. The driver wrenches the steering wheel and we turn onto a track leading into the mountains.
Boneshaker, as I decide to name the van, bumps along through the mountain meadows full of foxgloves and thistles. Bulls and cows roam free. They look at Boneshaker with annoyance as the get out of the way. Hobbled horses must hop of the track to let us pass. A cliff falls away to the side of the trail, ending in a rushing river.
We slip down a steep hill, ford the water and begin a steep climb. Boneshaker’s little engine is roaring as we inch higher and higher through the forest. His left wheels suddenly lose grip and we spin towards the steep drop. Our driver slams on the brakes and wrestles him back to the track. After an hour, slightly giddy from the fumes, we finally come to a stop by a camp. A fire burns in a pit nest to a few yurts, with a small group of people gathered around it.
Now we must walk. The trail takes us into the spruce forest and we’re immediately surrounded by the sound of crickets. White butterflies flutter past and ten centimetre long dragonflies scoot around us. The track leads us upwards, then drops steeply. We can just about see the green lake through the trees.
As we reach the bottom there is silence. The lake is still. The trunk of a dead tree lies in the water, pointing at what we have come to see. Lake Kaindy contains a submerged forest. Hundreds of spruce trees, stripped of their branches, spike skywards from the water. Their surviving brothers and sisters look down on them from the mountains.
Lake Kaindy is a new lake. It formed when the Kebin earthquake triggered a huge landslide that blocked the river that feeds it in 1911, as well as razing Almaty to the ground and killing four hundred and fifty-two people. The dry trunks that poke from the surface were once part of the forest that stretched through the valley and up the mountain face.
It is a truly wondrous sight. Silence surrounds us, apart from the occasional scurry of some creature through the wood. We walk around the water’s edge to find a small waterfall while a pair of ducks float through the trees.
This is as wild as it gets. We are hundreds of kilometres from Almaty as the crow flies and perhaps a thousand by road. The only human sounds are made by us, and a local who appears briefly to ask if we would like a horse ride. There is no rubbish and there are no climbers trying to scale the peaks. This is the wilderness. Lake Kaindy is the first time I have seen somewhere so untouched by humanity.
It is a shame that we can’t stay longer, but we must return to our lodgings for some lunch before making the run back to Almaty. I will come back to spend longer hiking through the spruce. There is another lake to see that is currently inaccessible because of the storms, and we must check in on Daisy.
Reeling from the fumes, we climb out of Boneshaker at our lodgings. They have given Anička a sore head so I pack the car, called Mashina, while she lies down and puts an old episode of Friends on the laptop. Lunch will be in an hour, and I play with Daisy and the puppy before checking in on Ross and Rachel to kill the time.
Clouds gather on the horizon. My Irishness and geography teacher mother have taught me to understand the rain. They are big, black and, underneath, a haze obscures the mountains. A big storm is coming. Our host said lunch would be ready soon two and a half hours ago. There is still no sign of it. We make our apologies as if we are in the wrong – there is a storm coming, the road is bad and we must get to Almaty before dark – and say our goodbyes.
The first drop slams into the windscreen as we pass the turn to Lake Kaindy. We have left it too long. Another splat, and another. Soon enough Mashina is struggling up a steep road through a river. His windscreen wipers are on their highest setting and it is only enough for a momentary glance forward through the blur. The potholes are impossible to see through the torrent rushing towards us.
Mashina is pushing his way up another hill when the hail starts to crack all around us. I have never seen larger hailstones – they are two to three centimetres across. I begin to worry that the windscreen will smash. The river rushing towards us is white with little balls of ice.
We crest the hill and begin to drive through the meadows. The storm shows no sign of abating and the road is now a sheet of floating hail. Mashina is crashing through the potholes and over rocks at the grand speed of five kilometres per hour. We are not going to make Almaty for nightfall.
The sun breaks through the clouds as we spot Jalanaş in the distance and the rain stops, just like that. A murder of crows flock over a field looking for the choicest worm. Two rainbows appear in the distance.
We cannot make Almaty by nightfall and have had to call off our trip to Great Almaty Lake tomorrow. Our car must be returned earlier than we had planned for, and to the airport. It will be impossible to make it into the mountains again. It is unfortunate but it means there will new sights to see when we return.
Kazakhstan has turned out to be one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been. At times, it has been difficult but we estimate that we have covered well over three thousand kilometres in three weeks. Such a journey was always going to be a hard ask but we have ticked off most things that we planned to see and have never been disappointed with anything we have done.
Kaindy Lake may be representative of our trip: a long, difficult journey followed by a glimpse of the most incredible unspoilt beauty – which most can only dream of. When we come back we will make sure we stay longer.