Kazakhstan’s ‘Little Switzerland’


Kazakhstan’s ‘Little Switzerland’

...an Exotic Escape for All Seasons

By David Witherspoon, Edge

If you drive north of Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana for a couple of hours, you’ll begin to see trees breaking up the monotony of the steppe. A little further and you’re in a wonderland of alpine lakes and intriguing rock formations.

Welcome to Burabai, the Switzerland of Kazakhstan. The resort offers much more than spectacular vistas. It has healing mineral waters and mud baths and is home to a national park with teeming animal and plant life. For those who prefer an activity-filled vacation rather than lounging on a lake beach, Burabai (known as Borovoe in the Soviet times) boasts boating, hiking, rock climbing and winter skiing. Cultural aficionados can visit a replica of a nomad village near the resort. And history buffs will be intrigued that the area was a favorite haunt and a headquarters of one of the greatest Kazakh warriors and statesmen, Ablai Khan. Proud that the great man trod the hills and refreshed himself at the lakes, Burabai has marked his residency with a monument, museum and statue.

Burabai, which is 1,400 meters high, has 14 large deep-blue lakes and many smaller ones. One of the biggest carries the same name as the resort. The other big ones are Shchuchye, Bolshoe Chebachye, Maloe Chebachye and Kotyrkol. One of the rock formations that visitors love is a Sphinx-shaped island rising from Lake Burabai. Someone who has observed the Sphinx from many angles said one view looks like the face of a girl with curly hair, another angle looks like a middle-aged woman’s face and a third angle an old woman’s face. Another rock formation, at the very top of the Ok- Zhetpes cliffs, resembles an elephant lying down. An American couple came across another interesting rock formation on the way to a waterfall that their guide wanted to show them. The monolith “looks like a camel,” they exclaimed in their blog.

Kazakhs came up with a legend to explain why a glittering jewel like Burabai popped up in the middle of the steppes. The legend goes that when God created the earth, he parceled out forests, mountains and lakes to all of the world’s peoples except the Kazakhs, who got only steppe. The Kazakhs beseeched the Creator for a bit of natural beauty of their own. God reached into the remnants of his creation bag to find a few scenic cliffs, deep blue lakes and grassand flower-covered meadows, the story goes. He populated the meadows with rare species of butterflies and other insects and filled the lakes with fish, according to the legend.

And the Kazakhs delighted in his generosity. It isn’t just Kazakhs who come to Burabai, however. People from across the former Soviet Union do. And, as Burabai’s reputation spreads, the resort is attracting more visitors from the West and other parts of the globe. A six-lane highway from Astana to Burabai that was commissioned in 2009 is likely to increase the number of international visitors, tourism officials say. The Astana-Schuchinsk Highway is also expected to accelerate development in the area, which makes some nature lovers wince.

The resort’s accommodations range from cabins to five-star hotels. For those wanting to energize their nights, casinos beckon. Visitors enjoy taking deep breaths of the fresh air at the resort, which smells of pine and steppe grass. Mineral waters in the area have spawned a health-spa industry, the first iteration of which opened in 1910. One of Burabai’s modern healing facilities, Zhumbaktas, is a combination spa and health-enhancement center about 7 miles from Shuchinsk in a forested area along the shore of Lake Shchuchye. The cost of staying at the spa includes accommodations, food plus relaxation and health-enhancement programmes. Zhumbaktas provides its clients with five healthy meals a day. Guests can guzzle horse milk or camel’s milk as vitamin therapy. The spa’s treatments include artificial pine, turpentine and herbal baths, physiotherapy and galvanic and mud baths. Amenities include a fitness center, volleyball and badminton courts, Ping Pong tables, a sauna – and even a shooting range.

To ensure that the area’s beauty is preserved for future generations, the government established Burabai National Park in 2000. Underscoring Bura-bai’s status as a national treasure, the park is under the direct supervision of the President’s Office. There are about 800 species of plants and 300 species of animals in the park’s forests, meadows, marshes and steppe areas.

Burabai, which is 1,400 meters high, has 14 large deep-blue lakes and many smaller ones. One of the biggest carries the same name as the resort.

One hundred of the plant species are mushrooms, making the area a mushroom-hunting paradise. A local English-language guide to the area declares: “Mushrooming is very exciting and useful for good mood.” A note to those who raised their eyebrows over the writer’s assessment: Chances are he was making a general statement about the joys of finding and consuming mushrooms rather than a reference to psychedelic varieties.

Burabai is a great place to ski in the wintertime. It has downhill courses, but because its peaks are less than a quarter of a mile high, the option that many enthusiasts choose is cross-country skiing. The area will soon boast ski jumping, too. The Republic Ski Lodge plans to build a 350-metre jump, complete with a 3,000-seat stadium for spectators.

Because of its “coniferous” forests, Burabai is famed for its therapeutic fresh air. The wafting aroma of fresh pine and steppe grass are ever-present.

The nomad village near Burabai attracts both Kazakh and international visitors, including celebrities. Last year, Hollywood movie star Dolph Lundgren, Hong Kong director Yuen Woo-Ping and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson toured the village before an action film festival in Astana. The celebrities watched as a woman portraying a Kazakh bride of old rode a camel to her groom’s traditional tent, or yurt. They also saw how carpets were weaved. And they tasted traditional dishes such as beshbarmak, baursaks and kuyrdak. Yuen, who is world renowned for his staging of battle scenes in films, said the village captured “the true, ancient way of life of Kazakhs.” Tyson enthused over the performance of a troupe of equestrian stuntmen. Riding at full gallop, each of the troupe members loosed an arrow at a target – and each hit the mark.

Those living in the resort area are justly proudthat one of Kazakhstan’s national heroes, Ablai Khan, chose Burabai as his stamping grounds. Ablai’s life spanned most of the 18th Century. His dream was to carve out a Kazakh nation on a steppe that included a number of tribal rivals – including the Dzungars and Kyrgyz – and that was in the shadow of the big powers Russia and China. Today’s Kazakhs revere him for his statehood quest, a dream that finally came true in 1991, when Kazakhstan became an independent country upon the break-up of the Soviet Union. Ablai commanded Kazakh armies that fought a number of battles against the Dzungars between the 1720s and 1750s. His tactical skills and bravery during those campaigns earned him the title of batyr, or hero. When he died in 1781 he was buried in the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui in the southern Kazakhstan area of Turkestan. But he spent much of his life in the Burabai area. That’s why the locals built a monument, museum and statue to him.

The monument is a sleek, impressive obelisk with an eagle – one of the symbols of Kazakhstan – perched at the top. Kazakhs love anniversaries, and the museum opened in 1999. Its many artifacts include one of the shields the warrior used against the Dzungars and a sword belonging to another war hero and khan who lived in the area, Kenessary Kasymov. The Ablai Khan statue is awesome, depicting a fierce warrior with a Mongol countenance. The area includes a stone that is said to be the outdoor throne where Ablai sat. “But the truth,” as one foreign visitor commented, “is that it looks like an ordinary lump of stone.” Locals told the visitor that it really is a throne – but it has been rubbed featureless over the decades by the backsides of tourists trying it for size.

Burabai is a great place to ski. It has downhill courses, but many enthusiasts choose cross-country skiing through its scenic terrain.

That stone is one of the few featureless monoliths in the area, though. Burabai’s many one-of-akind rock formations, combined with its alpine lakes and fresh air, make it a place visitors to Kazakhstan shouldn’t miss.