The Tien Shan Mountains and Deserts Tours /8 days/

Short description

A botanical and birdwatching holiday to the deserts, steppes and lakes of Kazakhstan, including an 8-day programme in the spectacular Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve high in the Tien Shan Mountains.

Tour itinerary
Day 1
Almaty – Charyn - Chundzha Village.

Arrive Almaty early in the morning. The city today is a pleasant and abundantly leafy modern capital with a fabulous backdrop, nestling as it does beneath the peaks of the Tien Shan.  Our birding begins with Blyth’s Reed and Hume’s Warblers, Masked Wagtails and Common Mynas all likely around the airport car park. As soon as we can, we will drive eastwards from Almaty, following the Great Silk Route towards China. Our destination is the eastern edge of the Sugaty Plain where we stay for two nights at a very simple but conveniently situated Guest House. After stopping for a roadside breakfast, much of the day will be spent on the road but we are sure to stop frequently to enjoy some of the way-side avian spectacles. En route eastwards from Almaty we will pass fertile agricultural lands, watered by rivers and streams that tumble from the Tien Shan; here European Bee-eaters, Rollers, Isabelline Wheatears, Lesser Grey Shrikes and Red-headed Buntings adorn telegraph poles and wires. In the rocky gullies of the Tien Shan's outlying hills we will stop to search for breeding Rock and White-capped Buntings, Pied Wheatears and Long-legged Buzzards. In the Artemisia-scented steppes, as we near the Charyn River we may find huge numbers of exotic-plumaged Rose-coloured Starlings, which can sometimes be found breeding in colonies many thousands strong amongst wayside boulders Other possibilities during the journey include; Long-tailed Shrike, Oriental Turtle Dove, Lesser Kestrel and if time permits visits to a Pale Martin breeding colony and an artesian well, where we will hope to see Mongolian Finch, Grey-necked Bunting and Crimson-winged Finch. If we don’t manage to do all of this on this day these last two sites will be built into the itinerary over the next two days. We are also likely to encounter our first mammals - rodents such as the abundant Great Gerbil, numerous susliks, and perhaps some of the Goitered Gazelles that now roam the steppes in pitifully reduced numbers.

Day 2
Charyn area.

Rising early, there will be an opportunity to walk around the village where we are staying, looking for some of the breeding birds of the area plus migrants such as Greenish, Barred and Blyth's Reed Warblers. We will then drive back eastwards across the Sugaty Plain, but on a different road to yesterday looking en route for such species as MacQueen’s Bustard,, Lesser Kestrel, Demoiselle Crane, Pallas's and the much commoner Black-bellied Sandgrouse, as we head for Charyn Gorge. The gorge lies close to the Chinese border, and has been carved over the millennia by the thundering Charyn River as it flows from the heights of the Tien Shan's Trans Ili range to ultimately join the great Ili River. It is one of Kazakhstan's most famous and spectacular geographical features, and home to Crag Martin, Azure Tit, Grey-necked Bunting and a variety of birds of prey including both Himalayan and Cinereous Vultures. From the tops of the dramatic walls of the canyon you will look towards the Ketmen range of mountains on the Chinese border. Roller Azure Tit. After visiting the gorge we will explore the surrounding hills above the gorge where we will search for Pine and Siberian Meadow Bunting, Shorelark as well as enjoy the carpets of wildflowers that cover the hills, before returning to our Guest House accommodation.

Day 3
Charyn - Almaty- Tien Shan Mountains.

This morning we will either take another walk around the village or depart early on our long journey back to Almaty depending on how many of the Sugaty Plain sites we have been unable to visit over the previous two days. When we leave the Guest House we will probably make two or three stops on the Sugaty Plain looking for Steppe Eagle, Desert Warbler and Desert Wheatear and to explore interesting sites and unusual sightings made from the coach. After we arrive in Almaty we then have the slow uphill drive into the mountains but we soon reach the high mountain spruce forests and meadows of the Tien Shan. We will stop en route to look for Brown Dipper on the river and Blue Whistling Thrush nearby as well as any raptors we see as Bearded Vulture, Booted Eagle and the local race of Common Buzzard are all possibilities. Our accommodation is at the mountain lodge and if we arrive in good time a short walk from here should produce Nutcrackers, Black-throated Accentors, Red-fronted Serins and the Tien Shian race of Goldcrest and Wren.

Day 4
Tien Shan Mountains. Big Almaty Lake, Cosmostation, Zhusaly Kezen Pass.

We will spend a full day exploring the fabulous mountain habitats that surround the Big Almaty Lake (situated at an altitude of 2600m, a reservoir that sits above a dam, whose shingle shores attract breeding Ibisbills.). On the mountain slopes lie colorful alpine pastures, stately forests of Tien Shan Spruce, and areas of boulders and Turkestanica Juniper cover beloved of accentors, warblers and finches. Above tower craggy peaks and snowbound summits from which Himalayan Snowcocks loudly proclaim their presence. Blue Whistling Thrush Ibisbill  Up at dawn, the keener birders amongst the group will no doubt wish to take a morning walk in the vicinity of the Guest House before we head higher up into the mountains after breakfast. We will visit extensive areas of juniper scrub, where White-winged Grosbeaks, Sulphur-bellied and Hume’s Warblers and White-tailed Rubythroats all sing, and Red-mantled Rosefinches may also be found. Birders will also be delighted to find the rather more exotic White-browed Tit Warbler, a superb little montane bird which looks as stunning as its name! This area is also favoured by Grey Marmots and appealing Red Pikas. In the forests of Tien Shan Spruce, Oriental Turtle Dove, Blueheaded and Eversmann's Redstarts, Songar Tits and Crossbills may all be found. Throughout the day we will be searching for Himalayan Snowcocks that can be heard calling frequently from the high mountain ridges – with patience, careful and frequent scanning we should locate a calling bird or two perched on a high rock. Then we visit the high Kosmostation at the Zhusaly Kezen Pass in the mountains above the Lake. Here we will hopefully encounter the largest and hardiest of the redstarts - Guldenstadt's - together with Atai and Brown Accentors, Plain Mountain Finch, and perhaps even the rarer Brandt's Mountain Finch, and Wallcreeper. Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagles, and Alpine and Red-billed Choughs are amongst other high altitude species to be found here. Also we will be able to visit Big Almaty Lake in search of breeding Ibisbills. The walk alongside the lake will provide more opportunities to enjoy again many of the Tien Shan specialities we have seen already with potentially additional species such as Water Pipits and Azure Tit. On the streams we may be lucky enough to see White-bellied Dippers. The alpine meadows of the Marble Valley above the lake are a joy to behold at this time of the year, the slopes cloaked in a profusion of colorful montane flowers most notable being the wild tulips for which the Tien Shan mountains are famous.

Day 5
Almaty - Taukum Desert \ Kolshengel.

This morning we will make a slow decent from the mountains after an early morning walk out from the guesthouse. We will stop to look for any species we have missed so far and to stretch our legs before we head through Almaty and head north. Our first stop after leaving Almaty will be at the Sorbulak Lakes. Here we will, depending on time visit, one or more of the lakes to look for waterfowl and waders. The lakes are superb with flocks of Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, fine Red-crested Pochard and Garganey and with a good chance of seeing one or more Black-necked Grebe White-winged Grosbeak White-tailed Eagles either loafing on the lake shore or circling amongst the Pelican flocks. Typically Temminck’s Stints and Terek Sandpipers are the most numerous waders, but smaller numbers of fine summer plumaged Blacktailed Godwits and Spotted Redshank are frequently seen. On one of the smaller more reed-fringed lakes we will look for White-headed and Ferruginous Ducks as well as Black-necked Grebes in their breeding plumage. Great Reed Warblers sing from the reedbeds and the bushes attract migrant warblers. This will probably be the setting for our picnic lunch. On leaving the lakes we will continue towards our camp site organised by our agents at the site of an artesian well in the desert known as Kolshengel. The combination of water and desert is a guarantee of superlative birdwatching and this remote locality has already in the few years of the camp's existence gained a reputation as one of the best birding areas in the country, but we will probably have to wait until the next morning to fully explore the area. The clarity of the night sky in this relatively unpeopled region should make camping here a real pleasure particularly for those with an interest in astronomy and the night sky.

Day 6
Kolshengel and Zhelturanga.

Those keen to maximise their chances of Pallas's Sandgrouse are likely to rise at dawn this morning to watch for sandgrouse coming in to the well and surrounding damp areas to drink. They are not guaranteed at this site but it is an exciting experience to search among the gathering flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse for their rarer relations. However, we have an exciting day ahead of us so we will be departing quite early. Initially we pass through the Taukum Desert, a vast expanse of fairly well vegetated sand dunes, and we will stop to look for Steppe Grey Shrikes and Rufous Scrub-Robins but after a couple of hours we reach a series of lakes set which are frequented by numbers of waterbirds including Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Great Egret and White-winged Black Tern. This is also a good locality for watching a Hobby dashing after prey and to observe the high-speed dash of a hunting Shikra chasing after an unfortunate victim. We should also find Citrine and Blackheaded Wagtails, Bearded Tit, Paddyfield Warblers, and with some luck Little Bitterns and perhaps Black-headed Penduline Tits, which unfortunately have declined in recent years as a result of their favoured reedbed habitats being cultivated. Beyond the lakes, we begin to search for Saxual Sparrows and the halimodendri race of Lesser Whitethroat that breeds in the desert habitats along with Turkestan Shrikes. After this, we head further north to Zhelturanga and the light Turanga woodland an endemic species of poplar tree- Populus diversifolia - found along the banks of Kazakhstan's rivers and inland deltas. The Turanga forests have increasingly (though perhaps not yet adequately) been afforded some protection from the livestock overgrazing and deforestation that would otherwise destroy so unique and important a habitat. In the woodland the Yellow-eyed Stock Dove nest relatively commonly in the hollows of mature Turanga. Other specialities of this unique habitat which we hope to see here include the very local White-winged Woodpecker, Pallid Scops Owl and Turkestan Tit. We will return along the same route as we came – again stopping if time permits or we spot something interesting from the coach.

Day 7
Kolshengel and Tamgaly.

We will be woken by the sound of singing Bimaculated, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks and will be out early to enable us to head out as soon as possible before the heat haze develops. We will head out west from the camp, crossing the flat expanses as it is here that we may find MacQueen's Bustards warily keeping their distance, and perhaps Demoiselle Cranes. Recent observations include both Caspian and breeding Greater Sand Plovers whilst flocks of sandgrouse wing in from the desert to take advantage of the water supply at several wells. Other species seen during recent tours include both Mongolian and Desert Finch. We will spend some time searching the area for Caspian Plover and bustards, but also find time to visit a small isolated group of trees which usually holds good numbers of migrants ranging from Ortolan Buntings, Common Rosefinches to Blyth’s Reed and Hume’s Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats. After lunch at the camp we will then head south in the afternoon to visit Tamgaly. The rolling hills and rocky valleys of Tamgaly are the famous site of some fine and extensive rock engravings dating from the early Bronze Age. Luckily, the site is remote and seldom visited and you will have the chance not only to enjoy the rock engravings at your own leisure, should you so wish, but also to explore the area for its avian potential. Here, Chukar, Bimaculated Larks, Eastern Rock Nuthatches, Pied Wheatears and Lesser Kestrels all occur, and the peaceful ambience of the site makes it an ideal place to birdwatch. A further attraction of this area is the sighting of White-winged Larks near here in recent years.

Day 8
Kolshengel – Almaty.

We will have time to look around the camp again this morning before we start the return journey south to Almaty. We will stop in Kolshengel to check the trees and an Artesian Well for migrants and have a quick look at the famous “Wishing-tree” at Aidarly.

If there is time we will stop again at the Sorbulak Lakes and possibly at the Kurty River - either place will provide a good place to enjoy our picnic lunch, before continuing south for a further 120 kilometers to reach Almaty by midafternoon. Our final evening in the Almaty hotel will allow us to relax, wash off the desert dust and enjoy a nice meal before retiring early as we have an early start in the morning.

Day 9
Home sweet Home

Free day and transfer to the Airport. Breakfast is included in the price.

Essentials
Tour route
Day 1
Almaty > Charyn

Distance: 225Time: 3 hours

Day 2
Charyn area

Distance: n/a, Time: n/a

Day 3
Charyn > Big Almaty lake

Distance: 250km, Time: 3 hours

Day 4
Tien Shan mountains area

Distance: 250km, Time: 3 hours

Day 5
Big Almaty lake > Taukum

Distance: 275km, Time: 3 hours

Day 6
Taukum > Kolshengen

Distance: 90km, Time: 2 hours

Day 7
Kolshengen > Tamgaly Tas

Distance: 186km, Time: 3 hours

Day 8
Tamgaly tas > Almaty

Distance: 110km, Time: 2 hours

Day 9
Home sweet Home

Distance: n/a, Time: n/a

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