Located in south-eastern Kazakhstan, the sprawling Altyn Emel National Park offers access to the country’s breathtaking wilds.
About four times the size of Hong Kong, the park has everything nature lovers – or jaded urbanites – could ask for, from dramatic mountain vistas to elusive wildlife.
Spot rare animals
There are at least 260 animal species in Altyn Emel, including several endangered species like the Siberian toad, black stork and imperial eagle. For the best views, grab your binoculars as most sightings will be from a distance.
Sandboard on sands that sing
Ever heard of the Singing Dune? In dry weather, the sands make low-pitched sounds as they move down a dune in the wind, reminding some of an organ rumble or the hum of an airplane engine. The music can also be heard when people shear the sand away with their hands and feet.
To crank up the fun and volume, climb to the top of the dune (about 150m high) and slide down on your butt!
Soak in its breathtaking beauty
Formed from bluish-gray sandstone and red clay, the Aktau Mountains are known for their chalky hues and unusual relief sculpted by weathering and erosion over millions of years.
Despite its parched appearance, Aktau is home to plants like the desert shrub Calligonum, “cones” of Cistanche and relict argan trees (Caucasian hackberry). You can even find fossils of creatures like crocodiles, turtles and giant rhinos that date back 25 to 30 million years.
Those looking to spend a night in the otherworldly terrain can pitch a tent in many picturesque spots, from where they can catch the sunrise the next morning
The remote Katutau Mountains, a half-hour drive from Aktau Mountains, feature old, badly eroded gorges composed of volcanic rocks. But the sights are no less interesting, with intricate rare rocks, elusive wild sheep known as arkhars and a big willow tree that is said to be more than 700 years old.
How to get there
The entrance to Altyn Emel is in Basshi village, 300km north of Almaty. Visitors are advised to make their way there by car, preferably a jeep-style vehicle that can handle the rough terrain and poor road conditions in some areas.
The drive takes about four to five hours from Almaty to Basshi. Start driving from the Singing Dune, then head to Aktau (about a two-hour drive) before visiting Katutau.