The Franco German
November 10th 2015

Valley of Castles

Southern Kazakhstan. Central Asia. Coordinates 43°21’1.16”N 79°4’49.28”E.
Entering Charyn Canyon. Iftaḥ yā simsim.

East of the country’s former capital, some four hours away by car from Almaty, not far from the border with China, there is a site, nicknamed by various travel guides as the “little brother of the Grand Canyon”: the Charyn Canyon.

Michael Nyman’s “The Departure” was looping in my apartment in Zurich when I first saw images of the canyon in a documentary. My younger brother had just come back from a university exchange at Almaty’s AUPET and the recount of his past weeks in Kazakhstan triggered my curiosity. Seeing the images of those red rock formations while listening to the haunting masterpiece of the English composer anchored that place in my mind. Everyone knows the Grand Canyon. But its little brother in the East remains largely unknown here in the West. I have always had a thing for “supporting the underdog” and the idea of visiting Charyn after my brother had told me about the place was born in that instant.

Some two years later, the opportunity of discovering that canyon presented itself. And so I went.

This was day 2 of my one week stay in Kazakhstan. I am back in Zurich now, writing this post at the end of a long Tuesday in the office and trying to put my brain back into “letter mode” after juggling numbers from morning ‘til evening. Nyman’s Gattaca score is playing again (why he was never awarded an Oscar for a film score is beyond me, such a genius of minimalist music) and delivering the same blows to the soul as it did some two years ago. I have just promised myself that this will be a quick post although I already know: boy, you will most likely be editing and writing this one until the early morning hours. Enjoy the ride and put in the hours. No shortcuts.

Time to start.

Before I get into this and in order to provide an answer to those who question me relentlessly on how I moved around in Kazakhstan without any kind of logistical arrangements from a travel company, let’s just say I know someone who’s damn good at making some calls and is used to navigating through some of the country’s intricacies (thank you again M).

7.40am. It’s a cold but sunny Sunday morning as the bus departs from Almaty. The large Daewoo is packed with an eclectic mix of foreigners, mostly exchange students, and some locals who seem to be just as excited to get some canyon sand in their shoes. I am being told that the Russian speaking guide who’s holding the microphone is telling us that there will be two things we will enjoy once the bus leaves the road and makes its way through the bumpy terrain of the plains before arriving at our destination: 1. The canyon itself, for obvious reasons. 2. The comfort of a proper road and a less shaky bus ride after exiting the steppe and driving back to Almaty. Russian sense of humor: you’ve got to love it.

A couple of hours later, the bus comes to a halt shortly before the entrance of the canyon. A few remarks regarding safety from our guide and off we go.

Charyn is a spectacular ensemble of reddish rocky formations, shaped by the action of water, wind and blistering sun. The different shades of red and grey/yellow in the rocks come from various layers of volcanic lava and gravel. The Sharyn River, now only flowing through a part of the canyon, used to be far longer, licking the walls of stones and thereby largely contributing to the creation of this gigantic corridor, with a depth of 150m to 300m.

Century after century, as the water gradually retracted itself and revealed what it had covered for so long, the winds continued shaping the canyon and gave birth to formations such as “King Kong”, a gorilla like rock, the “Tortoise”, the “Submarine” and others.

Charyn Sharyn Canyon Kazakhstan KZ National Park
Sharyn Canyon Kazakhstan KZ National Park

But the most striking part of the canyon is the Valley of the Castles: its deepest segment towered by structures that evoke ruins of ancient fortresses. The pictures I took clearly don’t do justice to the magnificent scenery, which is why I’d recommend to anyone based in Almaty for a few days to carve out some time to see this canyon with his/her own eyes. And since the entire area has a reputation for having clear skies, spending the night in a yurt located in the canyon would certainly yield a fantastic starry night experience.

After grabbing lunch near the Sharyn River, our guide takes us to higher grounds in order to get a better view. We progress along a non-existing path that requires as much climbing as hiking and soon find ourselves passing gates of rocks (to which the words of “Iftaḥ yā simsim” – “Open sesame” are murmured by some of us) and walking along ridges.

The spectacle from above, as the day comes to a closure and we stand exposed to the evening breeze, is the cherry on the cake. There is something special about seeing the sun go down over a canyon and witnessing the shadows getting longer. I can’t really put my finger on it, but those slowly withered rocks turned into fragile multicolored carvings have a certain grace.

The Zurich born author and world-renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross probably put it best when she wrote that “Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms, you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”

Retrospectively, the experience of walking through the Charyn Canyon was my most memorable one during this one week in Kazakhstan. The timing and weather played nicely and late October turned out to be a rather well chosen time window. Temperatures hovered nicely around 20°C during the day. For those coming during the summer months: make sure you know what you’re getting into beforehand. There is a reason why the soil is falling apart to dust in certain parts of the canyon. The sun can be punishing here. As the country continues to develop its infrastructure and tourism is progressively being ramped up, it is only a matter of time until Charyn attracts an increasing number of international crowds. But that’s a different story.

A new day full of numbers is now awaiting. So long little brother, ’til we meet again.

До свидания.

Charyn Sharyn Canyon KZ Tien Shan National Park
Charyn Sharyn Canyon Kazakhstan KZ valley of the castles
Alone in Charyn
Charyn Sharyn Canyon National Park
Hike through Charyn canyon
Sharyn Canyon Kazakhstan KZ valley of the castles

Shot on Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 50mm 1.2, Canon 85mm 1.8 and Canon 16-35mm 4.0

This post will soon be available in French and German.

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