The weekend after the Constitution Day Holiday hike, my roommates and I were hungry for more time in the mountains. This time, however, we decided to take a different bus up a different valley to go check out the well-advertised Big Almaty Lake. One of my roommates had heard from some Danish guys that, because of the bizarre things that have happened in the mountains recently, it would be best to keep the crew small. We invited only one Lithuanian along, for a total of four, and took a new bus to another new bus, and rode up the hill into Ile-Alatau National Park.
The bus rides were uneventful, and we started walking up the road from the final bus stop without issue. It was a very hot day, and walking on the black asphalt did not help the sweaty situation. Luckily, however, they had put all sorts of weird touristy cafes, restaurants, and wedding venues along the road, so we laughed and took pictures for the first five kilometers or so.
After a while under the sweltering sun, we finally came to the water pipe, which was notable since every online guide, as well as the Danish dudes Mara had met with, insisted it led directly to the lake. We took the primitive stairway alongside the pipe up a steep hill.
At the top, we found the road again, which ran parallel to the pipe. We opted to stay on the completely empty road since cloud cover had cooled everything off substantially, but some Russian tourists insisted that walking on the pipe was the only way to go. We politely refused (when I say “we,” I mean my Russian-speaking roommates). I stayed a little behind and snapped some photos of the mature ladies upon the pipe as they communicated with Ieva and Mara.
We ascended another hill, passed a creepy Soviet watchtower that looked to be of little use during the past 20 years, and boom. There was the lake, in all of its blue, mountainous glory.
Of course, there were signs in Russian that we did not understand, and there were guards blowing whistles at tourists trying to cross the dam-like fortification between us and the parking lot, but we slipped past the sign to the shores of the lake for a nice picnic and to see if the glacial waters were as cold as they looked (they were).
We relaxed for probably a half hour before an unmarked helicopter started flying around and above the lake. It landed on the other side of the hill from where we were sitting, and within five minutes a soldier appeared, whistle-in-mouth, and began whistling and shouting at us and the other lake visitors who were hiking on the hills just behind our location. We packed up and retreated to the spot we first saw the lake. The other picnicking tourists joined us, plus a park ranger casually armed with an AK-47.
Apparently, this particular national park has had quite a bit of crazy things happen lately. The bizarre death of 11 park rangers, all of whom were stabbed to death, is probably at the forefront of examples that fall under “crazy things.” This was slowly becoming noticeable in the news until a fire broke out on a mountain near Medeu, which filled the horizon, city, and headlines with smoke and hot air about how it was suspected arson. Nothing was ever really mentioned about the murdered park rangers after the fire, but it was apparent the remaining national park rangers are still on high-security alert for the time being.
Also, the date was September 2nd. This was an important date for me because my visa, as well as the visas of my hiking companions (all three were foreign students) expired on September 1st. In addition, none of us actually had our passports because our new visas, and therefore our passports, were in processing with the immigration police. This information was telepathically realized between the four of us after seeing the gun, and after a few quiet conversations about it, we all started to feel pretty uncomfortable in the given situation. We decided the best thing to do was to walk back down to the bus stop before the number of park rangers with automatic assault weapons increased.
We decided to follow the road all the way down, rather than the sketchy stairs next to the water pipe, which allowed for some more great photos of the beautiful national park.
This was a good choice, because besides seeing more beautiful mountain views, we also saw some grammatically interesting graffiti, Hello Kitty armed with a Kalashnikov on the side of a Mazda, and a pack of horses causing traffic problems because someone’s KFC Family Meal Deal fell out of their car. The big take-away from this trip? Kazakhstan National Parks are not at all like their American counterparts.
We picked apples from the trees alongside the road all the way back to the bus stop, and then rode down to Almaty for a completion of one successfully bizarre experience. I totally intend to go back to Big Almaty Lake when there is less ammunition present, so probably sometime next spring, or late November depending on the snowpack. It’s too beautiful to not want to see more.