Andrey Babenko: a brave man, a great companion

Andrey Gennadyevich Babenko

I have some very sad news to report. Andrey Gennadyevich Babenko, a national parks inspector and one of our official guides for the 2018 Zhetysu Expedition in eastern Kazakhstan, was killed in July when his horse was swept away while crossing the Agynakata River in the Djungar Alatau Mountains. Andrey, 49, was a highly experienced and competent inspector and his death is a tragedy. This river runs through the Solnechnaia Dalina (‘Sunny Valley’), and eventually into Zhassyl Kol, a place I have visited three times in the past. The Agynakata River is fast and strong and when we crossed it in 2018, it required good teamwork and safety ropes. However, we all got across it without trouble. The next day, Andrey – who had arrived that morning to escort us down the mountain to the campsite at Zhassyl Kol – enjoyed a moment of peace on the Suyk Plateau together with his colleagues Sergei and Maksut.

Andrey Babenko, on the right, along with Sergei and Maksut during the 2018 Zhetysu expedition.

We extend our condolences to Andrey’s family and take a moment to remember a real professional. These national park staff spend their lives out in the wild mountain areas of the Djungar Alatau, in every kind of weather. We salute their bravery…

I should add that in 2019 I was also swept off my horse into a fierce mountain river, the Big Bascan, not far from Zhassyl Kol. On that occasion, my life was saved by one of the national park inspectors, Ruslan Nurgozhanov, to whom I will eternally be grateful. You can see film of that event here.

Apples and kurgans in the Djungar Alatau

The Djungar Alatau Mountains never cease to surprise. I had passed through some of the magnificent wild apple forests in the past, but during this trip I was able to form a much better impression of these spectacular areas. According to some estimates, there are hundreds of millions of apple trees in the mountains, with more than 35 separate species. In fact, the ancestor of all domestic apples, Malus sieversii, is found in these forests – a fact established in the early 20th century by biologist Nikolai Vavilov who traced the apple genome back to a grove near Almaty.

It is likely that the Tian Shan apple seeds were first transported out of Kazakhstan by birds and bears long before humans cultivated them. By the time humans began to grow and trade apples, the Malus sieversii had already taken root in Syria, where it was discovered by the Romans, who dispersed the fruit even further around the world.

During my recent trip I was fortunate enough to be taken to see a 300-year-old Sievers apple tree high up in the mountains. Still producing fruit, the tree can only be reached after a long journey in a 4×4 vehicle followed by a 20-minute walk. It is magnificent.

300-year-old Sievers apple tree in the Djungar Alatau Mountains

During the Soviet period, thousands of hectares of apple forest were cleared for agriculture, but now there is a determined effort to protect this important area. Climate change is another challenge, but for now these wonderful forests continue to exist and impress.
Nor was it just the natural beauty of the mountains that impressed me. No-one visiting this part of eastern Kazakhstan can fail to notice the vast number of ancient tombs – known as kurgans – that dot the landscape. Most of these date to a period over 2,500 years ago, when the Scythians (known locally as the Saka) dominated the area. These kurgans can be found from Ukraine in the west to Mongolia in the east, but eastern Kazakhstan is a particular hotspot. In the hills not far from Lepsinsk we visited a huge kurgan at Uygentas. Constructed from massive round stones, it was surrounded by 150 or more subsidiary kurgans.

Part of the huge unexcavated kurgan at Uygentas in the Djungar Alatau

Further south, in the Kugaly Valley, more than 100 massive kurgans dominate the landscape. All over this region there are similar structures, some looted in ancient times, but mostly still intact. Excavations at Eleke Sazy (see my previous articles) in the Tarbagatai Mountains show that the burials often include remarkable artefacts made of pure gold.

Massive kurgan in the Kugaly Valley
Kurgans as far as the eye can see in the Kugaly Valley – known locally as the Valley of the Kings.

Signs of an even older civilisation are not hard to find in these mountains. At Karabulak, not far from the town of Tekeli, hundreds of beautiful petroglyphs dating back 4-5,000 years can be found. Horses, deer, cattle, ibex and humans are all represented in these artistic works.

The petroglyphs of Karabulak

These are just some of the wonders I came across on this trip. Food for thought…

Tourist threat to the Relict Gull on Lake Alakol

Just back from my latest visit to the Djungar Alatau Mountains of Eastern Kazakhstan, the first since 2019. Not so much as expedition as an exploratory visit, gathering information for future projects. I had originally intended to take horses in the Tarbagatai Mountains, to the north of Lake Alakol, to fill in yet another part of the journey undertaken by Thomas and Lucy Atkinson during their return from the Great Steppe in the summer of 1849. However, no horses were available and so we returned south to the Djungar Alatau.

En route, we were able to complete a circuit of Alakol lake itself and to visit Ostrov Kishkene-Araltobe, one of three islands in the central part of the in lake. The islands are protected places, due to the presence there of a very rare species of relict gull, Ichthyaetus relictus, which can be found on just a handful of lakes in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and whose total numbers are estimated at around 10,000. It is classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.

Relict Gull, Ichthyaetus relictus

The Alakol State Sanctuary was created to protect the lake as an important breeding and nesting ground for this and other wetland birds after UNESCO designated the Alakol Biosphere Reserve as part of its Man and Biosphere Programme in 2013. Not far away, on Piski Island, for example, there are flocks of flamingo, and 40 species of other birds.

Sadly – and despite prominent warning signs telling people not to land on the island – there is a constant stream of speedboats bringing visitors from both Kabanbai on the north-east coast of the lake and from the southern shore also. Many of the boats have ‘boom box’ sound systems that blare out pop music during the 30-minute crossing to the island. Signs of human activity on the island, including empty bottles, beer cans, plastic waste, etc, are everywhere. Unless this activity is stopped, the future for the Relict Gull on Alakol Lake looks bleak.

A sign on the island warning visitors not to land
Visitors returning from a party on the island
Speedboats prepare to take visitors to the island
Rubbish on the island

Tourism is increasing around Alakol, with thousands of visitors travelling from Almaty in the south and from Oskemen in the north to spend time on the rapidly developing resorts. Without enforcement action to stop the disturbance caused by the speedboats and visitors, birdlife on the lake will be decimated.