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Altyn Emel National Park

Almaty Region, Kazakhstan

The Altyn-Emel State National Park was established in 1996 by a decree of the Kazakhstani government to preserve a unique natural complex on the right bank of the Ili River and rare species of animals and plants. The total area of the park is about 520,000 hectares, which makes it the biggest park in Kazakhstan. Its area consists of western branches of the Dzhungarskiy Alatau, desert mountains of Katutau, Aktau, Ulken and Kishi Kalkany, and a unique natural monument the “Singing Sand Dune”. The park is a unique combination of various natural landscapes, which results in versatile vegetation and wildlife. The security includes regular control by the park inspectors stationed in 19 cordons, both along the perimeter and in key spots.

The park has different archeological sites. The most impressive of them are the so called Besshatyr (“Five Tabernacles”) King Mounds. These are huge hills of 20 m high and 100 m in diameter. They are burial places of the Saki chiefs in the 7th-3rd centuries BC. You can see here the ruins of settlements, numerous petroglyphs of animals and hunting scenes. The sight is striking – the mounds, which are quite numerous, shine in the sun as black pearls, at the foot of blue mountains. These structures are more than 2,500 years old. The mounds are amazing in their power, color and beauty. Notably, their tops are somewhat cut off. The mounds are girded with a ring of menhirs, megalithic structures which remind of the famous Stonehenge in Great Britain . The rocks look like they are lacquered – the so called desert varnish.

Here, you have an opportunity to see a wonderful natural phenomenon, the “Singing Sand Dune”. If while traveling in this area you hear the sound of a plane or the hoot of a steamship, in the middle of a rocky desert, you should know this was the voice of the sand dune. This sand hill is about 100 meters high, and its ridge is about 0.5 kilometer long. Unlike other sand dunes, this one never changes its shape because here, in the hollow between the hills, the wind rose has a special direction. The ridge of the unique sand dune is sharp as a blade. The sand crumbles underneath your feet, but the ridge does not get blunt. Two smaller sand dunes continue this one. The sand ridge has an area of about 10 square kilometers. The voice of the sand dune can be heard only in dry weather, as after the rain it keeps silent. Scientists fail to give a clear explanation of why this sand dunes “sings”. There are a lot of versions saying this phenomenon is caused by friction of moving particles or resonance.

The Katutau Mountains are just as attractive and unique a shrine. Time, water and the sun have created intricate rock rarities here. As you pass wild and uninhabited gorges, you can see a mother bear bending over a bear-cub, or a huge upturned boat of Robinson Crusoe, with the dead Aktau Mountains nearby. These lifeless, ragged, white, pink, green and red slopes look like an alien landscape. Even animals rarely come here. The environment looks like that of the Mexican savannah or North America ’s canyons. A willow tree grows in Khoz-Bastau, which is 700 years old, according to scientists. It takes eight people to embrace this giant tree which has survived through many epochs.

The flora of higher plants includes 634 species of which 41 species are rare, and 29 species are endemic. Altyn-Emel is famous for groves of the relic argan tree (Caucasian hackberry), riparian scrubs (a kind of the Semirechye jungle), and black saxaul .The Asiatic poplar, dzhida and various shrubs grow in flood-plain forests. Black saxaul woods occur in the desert, and the white saxaul shrubs on the slopes of the “Singing Sand Dune”.  

The park is one of the few places in the country with freely roaming goitered gazelles, argali, tau-teke ibex, and, of course, Asiatic wild ass. All in all , there are 7 species of artiodactyls here, listed in the Red Book, and 120 species of birds. The Ili River on the one side and the mountains on the other side are the natural protective barrier of Altyn-Emel. The fauna of mammals includes more than 50 species, with such rare ones as snow leopard, wild Pallas’ cat, Central Asian otter, and stone marten. Here are 250 species of birds in the park, of which 22 are rare. Mountains are nested by golden eagles, serpent eagles, bearded vultures, saker falcons, etc. The desert is inhabited by black-bellied sandgrouse, Pallas sandgrouse and ruffed bustard. The swamps are inhabited by herons, ducks, sandpipers and other birds. The Ili River and Kapchagai Reservoir are abundant in European carp, grass carp, catfish, zander, asp, etc.  

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