The true heart of Kazakhstan can be found in its vast steppe land, at times stretching to an infinite horizon in every direction. The world’s ninth largest country, a third of Kazakhstan’s colossal land area is steppe, an indication of just how immense this landscape is. So common is the sight of eternal, flat plain that it is easy to take this beautiful habitat for granted and many exploring the natural wonders of the country bypass this glorious grassland and focus mainly on its mountains, canyons, lakes and National Parks.
At first sight, the steppe landscape can appear monotonous and barren but peer closer to the ground and there is a myriad of wildlife to be discovered. Hot, dry summers and freezing winters present challenging conditions for survival, but the species that can be found here are perfectly adapted to the extreme fluctuating conditions of drought, strong winds, frost and grazing.
In the remote, northern regions of the country driving distances are huge and harsh road conditions make overland travel laboriously slow and bone-shaking. A bumpy journey weaving around potholes with little other traffic does have the one advantage of offering the chance to view many steppe species surprisingly close-up. Bobak Marmot relax stretched-out in the sunshine on road verges, lazily watching you swerving past. Around our campsites these stocky, ginger-coloured rodents stand on their hind legs from their sandy burrow entrances, watching you cautiously and scurrying deep underground, squeaking, should you get too close.
The diversity of birds of prey on the steppe is staggering; Eagles, Kites, Buzzards and Kestrels soar and perch every few hundred metres. White Pallid Harrier hover ghost-like over the road verges hunting for mice while magnificent steppe Eagles sit poised on tree stumps surveying the horizon.
We camped wild across the steppe for the entire month of May, a wonderful opportunity to experience spring in Kazakhstan. With a completely flat horizon, the sky presents a ginormous aerial auditorium to view the fast, ever-changing weather patterns which roll in across the landscape. Standing in one place, you can see black clouds with sheets of vertical rain pouring down, flashes of fork lightning and hear rumbling thunder in front of you. Behind you is bright blue sky, white fluffy clouds and brilliant sunshine. One minute we were setting up a picnic in the sun, then 5 minutes later diving for cover of the car as huge icy hailstones battered the earth.
Tall, elegant steppe Hare leap from nowhere as you search for a camp spot, bounding ahead effortlessly along the grass track. Small, charming ground squirrels peep from their burrows, waiting until the last second to dive out of your way, inquisitively reappearing minutes later to see what’s happening.
In the warm light of sunset the carpet of tall grass swaying in the breeze turns golden and the songs of thousands of insects are amplified as the light fades. At dusk, bats swoop from nowhere and the cautious rustlings of small rodents can be heard emerging from burrows nearby, tiny voles wide-eyed when caught in our torch light.
At dawn a new chorus begins as incalculable bugs welcome the arrival of day; butterflies flitting amongst the flowers, vivid, hairy caterpillars climb the tall stems, ants march across the dry soil, bees buzzing between poppies, iridescent beetles clinging to tall grass tips and crickets and grasshoppers leaping in all directions with every step you take through the meadow.
For all the beauty and magnificence of National Parks, it is simply unbeatable to wake with the sound of a cuckoo calling, crickets chirping and an unobstructed 360 degree view of wild expanse, often without any sign of people or buildings.
Though gentle and delicate to look at, not even the might and power of a crushing soviet offensive on these peaceful pastures could tame their roots. During soviet times in the 1950’s, a vast majority of the Steppe was brutally ploughed and planted as far as the eye could see with cultivated wheat fields, with only around 20% of the original steppe preserved. Agriculture failure was widespread and has been abandoned in much of the steppe, where slowly the grassland is regenerating and nomadic pasturing has returned.
Legend has it that wine was invented 8,000 years ago in Georgia, a small country which still produces over 100 million bottles of beautiful wine varieties every year. Whilst immersing ourselves in this important part of the country’s heritage, we felt it necessary to soak up the potent grape juice with some of Georgia’s delicious array of culinary specialities and these are some of our favourites.
We lost count of the Khachapuri we consumed throughout the country owing to their availability everywhere, low cost and variety. Predominantly pastry based, these hefty parcels were sufficient for a lunch or dinner snack and sold on every street in many small bakeries producing them fresh from the oven. Triangles, squares, slices, circles stuffed with melted cheese, ham, garlic mushrooms, potato, salty panir, onion… whichever you point to and pick it’s a snack lottery with a win every time. Adjaruli Khachapuri from Adjara region is a particular speciality, the pie is shaped like a boat and brimming with hot melted cheese and butter swimming round a warm, runny egg.
Khinkali are the ubiquitous Georgian dumplings, the filling stuffed raw and cooked so all the piping hot juices stay inside, to be politely sucked out on the first bite. The tough, twisted top is purely for practical reasons and traditionally discarded on the plate (although then you can’t ignore how many you’ve devoured in one sitting). Filled with mixed beef and pork mince with onions and garlic, but also sometimes stuffed with herby mushrooms, cheese or potato, these delicious dough finger-foods are cheap and cheerful eats sold everywhere.
For a slightly more refined appetizer, my favourite was Badridzhani Nigvsit, delicious slices of lightly fried aubergine topped with a rough, garlicky walnut sauce and decorated with pomegranate seeds.
And for something sweet? Churchkhela is definitely unique to this region and looks more like a slightly mouldy, lumpy sausage than a syrupy delicacy. These odd-looking sweet snacks are a string of softened walnuts dipped in a thick, fragrant red or white grape juice and flour mixture, sometimes with honey. After the initial acceptance of such a novel taste and texture combination, chewing a Churchkela is actually very pleasurable and weirdly addictive.
Within hours of crossing the border from Turkey into Georgia the landscape began to feel more ‘wild’. Gone was the previous week’s dismay of exploring a valley only to be met by industrial development; indiscriminate scarring of the rock sides for roads and mining and rubbish strewn everywhere.
We were determined to see the beauty of the Black Sea after our motoring of the Turkish coast was disappointing with persistent torrential rain and grey skies. Sadly, a heaving great highway scours the entire Eastern Turkish coastal length; an ugly, dirty, noisy (and in most parts impassable) barrier to the narrow beaches and waves beyond. In Georgia, we arrived back at the Black Sea again just south from the port city of Poti, on the edge of Kolkethi National Park.
Our camp that evening was in woodland next to a calm lagoon opposite an islet with the Black Sea beyond. As the sky flushed orange from a glorious sunset, Egrets and Herons paddled through the margins. The next morning, braving the onset of drizzle, we hired a speedboat and driver through the park office and sped across shallow Lake Paliastomi. Reaching the far side, past docile water buffalo grazing in the shallows, we manoeuvred into the mouth of the Pichori River. Motoring through reed-fringed backwaters, we passed wading birds in the Bulrushes and peatland swamps. We alighted briefly on land in the heart of the wetland relic forest, a chorus of frogs singing and wild horses padding warily through the trees. I was in binocular and field-guide-clutching wildlife geek heaven.
A staggering 40% of Georgia is still covered by pristine forest and nowhere does this feel more evident than Borjomi National Park. The protected area covers an impressive 850 km2 and is strictly safeguarded to the extent that no tracks, and consequently no vehicles, are allowed in the park.
We took the opportunity to swap wheels for walking, made easier by the comprehensive free hiking maps and permits to enter the park distributed by the park office and visitor centre. It was a very steep climb up muddy trails through the shady evergreen forest. We reached the snow line- the silence, isolation, crisp air and mist creating an atmosphere in which we felt we may stumble across one of the parks 90 native brown bears in every clearing. As the fog cleared, the panoramic views from the summit across the Lesser Caucasus and into the Likani valley below were breath-taking. Eagles soared level with our vantage point, dew-covered spring flowers doted the grass hillside and vibrant orchids poked from the mossy forest floor.
Our route towards Russia took us through another protected area, this time through the high mountain range of the Greater Caucasus and into Kazbegi National Park. A combination of high-altitude passes through forest, windswept alpine pastureland and rocky valleys produce magnificent scenery around every twist and turn of the dramatic roads and trails. The snow-covered peaks towered above us as we set up chilly camps alongside clear, gushing glacial rivers in remote high valleys. Wildlife here is well adapted to the harshness of the terrain but excitedly, within the first day, I had the pleasure of spotting several rarer bird species within the gorges and rocky Mountains.
The Georgian agency of protected areas successfully manage these wild places; wildlife protection quite rightly has priority with strict management of access and activities. Eco-tourism is well established yet minimal and without detracting from that ‘wilderness’ feel. Carefully implemented infrastructure along the trails includes visitor’s centres, marked trails, maps, camping areas, overnight shelters, campfire pits, springs and picnic spots. I have only talked about a few of the many protected reserves and parks in Georgia, 10 of which have developed marked trails. I was so impressed by how well they’ve achieved creating the balance of organised, well-designed, minimal eco-tourism development with genuine conservation.