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Kazakhstan, lying at the heart ofCentral Asia on the Old Silk Road, isa massive country spanning2,717,300 square kilometres from theCaspian Sea to western China; an area thesize of the whole of western Europe! Yet,with a population of just 17 million mostlyliving in the cities, this is a land of vastopen and unpeopled spaces. Great stoneand sand deserts, and wide grassysteppes occupy the great majority of thecountry, interspersed with such great inlandlakes as Lake Balkhash and the Aral Sea.In dramatic contrast, along its south-eastern borders stand the mighty TienShan Mountains, the 1,610-kilometre spineof Central Asia and northern extension ofthe Himalaya which waters flower-filled alpine meadows, lush forests of Tien Shan Spruce and lowland Turanga, andfeeds the great lakes and inland deltas to the north.We reach Kazakhstan's former capital,Almaty, on a scheduled flight fromHeathrow. This city, built as a Russianmilitary outpost in the latter part of the 19thcentury, and formerly known as Verny(meaning Faithful) and more recently Alma-ata, is today a pleasant and abundantlyleafy modern capital with a fabulousbackdrop, nestling as it does beneath thepeaks of the Tien Shan Mountains. Fromour hotel we overlook city parkland, andthe towering and fabulously ornate woodencathedral of the Russian Orthodox Churchwhich stands before snowbound summits. We begin the tour by taking an overnighttrain to Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve, theoldest reserve in Central Asia having beenestablished in 1927. The reserve protectssome of the finest habitats of the Tien ShanMountains, and to best explore it we willbase ourselves for three nights in a simpleguesthouse from which we will take daywalks and optional pony rides into thereserve. This part of the holiday will beparticularly rewarding, for Aksu Dzabagly isa botanical paradise with over 1,400species, many of which are rare orendemic to the western Tien Shan, andinclude a wide variety of primulas, tulips,saxifrages, alliums and Astragalus,plussuch fine endemic trees as Betula talassicaand Populus talassicus. A rich selection ofbirds includes a number of raptor speciesand nearby steppe lakes promise suchattractions as Little Bustard, DemoiselleCrane and Collared Pratincole. Returning to Almaty by train, we then beginour exploration of the area that liesbetween the spectacular red sandstonegorges of Charyn Red Canyon and theriverine Ash forest of Charyn YellowCanyon. The Charyn Canyons are east ofAlmaty, close to China's border, andbetween them span wide green steppeswhere stately Demoiselle Cranes andGoitered Gazelles may be seen, togetherwith huge breeding colonies of Rose-coloured Starlings, a dashing Saker Falconperhaps, or even the elusive Pallas'sSandgrouse. En route eastwards fromAlmaty we will pass agricultural landswhere telegraph wires are decorated withBee-eaters, Rollers, Isabelline Wheatears,Lesser Grey Shrikes and Red-headedBuntings, and we will stop to explore therocky gullies of the Tien Shan's outlyinghills hoping to find Long-legged Buzzards,Pied Wheatears, and White-capped andGrey-necked Buntings.We next focus our attentions on theTuranga forest. Turanga is an endemicspecies of poplar tree - Populusdiversifolia- found along the banks ofKazakhstan's rivers and in the inlanddeltas. The broad swathes of green thatthis riverine forest creates through anotherwise desert landscape provide habitatfor such special birds as White-wingedWoodpecker, the declining Eversmann'sStock Dove, and Azure and Turkestan Tits,whilst in the associated Saxaul bushes livesthe attractive Saxaul Sparrow. Such forestsare found along the Ili River and we visitseveral areas of Turanga forest in search ofthese specialised residents. We also spendtime exploring remote steppes and desertsthat are home to numerous larks andwheatears, Macqueen's Bustard, Black-bellied and the much rarer Pallas'sSandgrouse, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, andthe delightful Desert Warbler. Amongst thewayside plants we may find Nanophytonerinaceum,Convolvulus fruticosusand theendemic Limonium michelsonii,plusHaloxylon aphyllum,Halimodendronhallodendron,Eremurus anisopterusandBerberis iliensisin the more sandy areas.We complete our circuit of the deserts andsteppes with a visit to Tamgaly, wheresome fine rock engravings dating from theearly Bronze Age are to be found, togetherwith abundant Bimaculated Larks, EasternRock Nuthatches and Desert Finches and anumber of interesting plants, includingJuno kuschakeviczii,Gagea iliense,Irisalberti,Euphorbia jaroslaviiand Eremurusaltaicus.On completion of our exploration of the TienShan we must reluctantly return to Almatyfor our flight home. However, one finalornithological highlight awaits with a visit tothe mountains above Almaty, where thesplendid montane birdlife includesHimalayan Snowcock, Ibisbill, HimalayanRubythroat and many other exciting speciesinhabiting the flower-filled mountain valleys.The Tien Shan Mountains & Deserts of KazakhstanA birdwatching holiday to the deserts, steppes and lakes of Kazakhstan, including four days in the spectacular Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve high in the Tien Shan Mountains. Saturday 4th May - Sunday 19th May Cost: £2,895Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationCHINAKAZAKHSTANUZBEKISTANKYRGYZSTANLAKE BALKHASHTAMGALYGORGEMERKE GORGEBIG ALMATYLAKEALMATYCHARYNREDCANYONSARYYAIGYR GORGE& KARZHANTAU RIDGEDZHAMBULILI DELTAAKSU DZABAGLYNATURE RESERVEALAKOLLAKECHARYNYELLOWCANYONILI RIVEROutline itineraryDay 1Fly Almaty.Day 2Overnight train to AksuDzabagly.Day 3/5Aksu Dzabagly NatureReserve, Tien ShanMountains.Day 6Overnight train toAlmaty.Day 7/8Charyn Red and YellowCanyons.Day 9Return Almaty.Day 10/12Turanga forest, Tamgalyand Taukum Desert.Day 13/15Observatory aboveAlmaty.Day 16Fly London.AccommodationComfortable hotel of internationalstandard, Almaty; simpleguesthouse in Aksu Dzabagly andfully serviced camping elsewhere.We will also stay in simpleaccommodation in theAstronomical Observatory aboveAlmaty. Facilities are shared exceptin Almaty.FoodAll included in the price. GradingDay walks only. Grade B. Moderate.Between 1,830 and 3,660 metres.FocusBirds and plants (plus somemammals). LeaderAlan Curry.Single room supplement£195.Web quick search: KAZ03245Tien Shan MountainsPapaver roemeria refracta and Blue sp.Himalayan Rubythroat

Following the popularity and successof our spring tours to Kazakhstan'sTien Shan Mountains, where we haveso enjoyed the magnificent displays oftulips and irises, this summer tour offersan opportunity to explore the high alpinemeadows of the region, at a time when theglorious carpets of alpine flowers are attheir best. Although Kazakhstan is still largelyunknown to Westerners, it is the ninthlargest country in the world and, sincegaining independence from Russia, hasbecome a most exciting new frontier fortravel, particularly for botanical andornithological exploration. The Tien ShanMountains, our focus of attention on thistour, is the Central Asian extension of theGreat Himalaya, and extends alongKazakhstan's southern border all the wayto China. We will be based initially in theAksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve, whichtakes its name from the two rivers that runthough its deep gorges, and is the oldestprotected area in Central Asia. The reserveis an unspoilt and spectacularly beautifulplace, dominated by high mountains, lushjuniper forests and alpine meadows. Longrenowned as a naturalists' paradise, it hasa huge and interesting flora, with manyendemics, as well as an abundance ofbirds and mammals.We begin our holiday with a flight fromLondon to Almaty. After a day in the citywe travel by rail and road to the village ofAksu Dzabagly. By early evening we arriveat our comfortable guesthouse to bewelcomed by our hosts. In order to explorethe area as widely as possible during thefollowing days, we will have the use of 4-wheel drive buses, but will travel primarilyon foot (although, for those happy to rideat times, ponies will gladly be provided).Our exploration of the area begins with avisit to the Koksay Valley. Here we will walkover feathergrass steppe and along theshores of the Ters Lake, returning to AksuDzabagly village for the night. Thefollowing day we will leave the village,bound for our hosts' mountain house. Thissits in a spectacular location at 2,030metres (6,660 feet), and we will spend thenext three nights here in order to explorethe region fully. On day walks the highpasses and alpine flowers of the Tien Shanwill be within easy reach, and just as atour hosts' village guesthouse, we will beable to enjoy some delicious home-produced food during our stay here. The special flowers that we will hope tofind are too numerous to list here, but twolate-flowering tulips, Tulipa kaufmanniaandT. dasystemonoides, remind us that ourown garden tulips originated from here,almost certainly via the Silk Route. Moretypical of the colourful alpine flowers atthis season will be Delphiniums, manyspecies of Allium, Pedicularis, louseworts,Eremostachys tienshanica(a tall labiatewith strange hooded flowers), a brightblue teazle, Dipsacus azureus, and severalCampanulas including Codonopsisclematidea, a native of the damper slopesof the Tien Shan and Himalayanmountains. Beside mountain streams wewill see the Globe Flower, Trollius altaicus,with its large orange-yellow flowers;Aquilegia atrovinosa, a dark wine-coloured columbine, and a bright yellow poppy,Papaver croceum. Beneath our mountainguesthouse, we should find the beautifulthistle-like Morina kokanica, growingalongside abundant roses; whilst abovewe will find several species of gentians,including Gentiana turkestanica, and mostexciting of all, a beautiful high alpine plant,Paraquilegia anemenoides, which grows inhigh rock crevices and is anotherspeciality of the Himalaya and Tien Shan.Of course, this fabulous area offers muchmore than its flora alone. We have achance of spotting Isabelline Brown Bearsfrom our mountain retreat, whilst onexcursions higher into the mountains wemay encounter Red Deer and Ibex. Raptorslook down upon us (and their prey themarmots!), and the eerie calls of HimalayanSnowcock echo across alpine valleys. Wewill even find Bronze Age rock engravingsto satisfy those with a cultural craving!Returning to Almaty by overnight train, wetravel from the city high into the nearbymountains, where we stay for three nightsat a former Soviet AstronomicalObservatory. This is an area of greatbeauty and offers relatively easy access toa variety of habitats at over 3,000 metreselevation, ensuring a wonderful selectionof montane plants. A large lake nestles ina valley below the Observatory and thesurrounding meadows are also notable forthe profusion of wild flowers growing there.The strange Ibisbill, a specialisedHimalayan wading bird, occurs on theshores of the lake adding ornithologicalinterest to the excursion. At the end of ourstay we descend to Almaty and early thefollowing morning catch a flight back toLondon.Alpine Flowers of the Tien ShanA 13-day holiday in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan in search of alpine plants. Saturday 15th June - Thursday 27th June Cost: £2,895Outline itineraryDay 1Fly Almaty.Day 2Train to Aksu Dzabagly.Day 3Aksu Dzabagly.Day 4Transfer to Ulken-Kaindymountain house.Day 5Ulken-Kaindy Pass.Day 6Baydaksai.Day 7Aksu Dzabagly.Day 8Aksu Canyon. Train toAlmaty.Day 9/11Big Almaty Lake, TienShan Mountains.Day 12Return to Almaty.Day 13Fly London.AccommodationComfortable hotel in Almaty; simpleguesthouses elsewhere. Facilitiesare shared except in Almaty.FoodAll included in the price.GradingB. A selection of botanical daywalks of varying lengths, thoughthe option to ride instead is alwaysavailable. FocusPlants.LeaderNeil Anderson.Single room supplement£150.Web quick search: KAZ01246Call now or visit your free Trip ItineraryILIRIVERCHINAKAZAKHSTANKYRGYZSTANUZBEKISTANLAKE BALKHASHTAMGALYTAS GORGEMERKE GORGEOBSERVATORYALMATYDZHAMBULILI DELTAAKSU DZABAGLYNATURE RESERVEALAKOLLAKEViola altaicaAllium caeruleum, Tien Shan Mountains