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.