In the heart of the northern Greater Himalayas, Kazakhstan is a mountainous country interspersed with vast steppe located within Central Asia, so many of the special birds here are surrounded by breathtaking scenery.
Kazakhstan is huge – the fifth largest country on Earth, but with only about two-thirds of the population of Texas. There is a great diversity of habitats and a mouth-watering array of birds special to Central Asia that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The country is a bridge between Siberia, Mongolia, the Middle East and Africa. The scale of everything is vast. Massive expanses of flat steppe grasslands merge into sandy and stony deserts. A smattering of saline and freshwater lakes act like magnets to nesting and migrant birds. In sharp contrast, the massive towering peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains – a northern extension of the Himalayas – edging onto China, rise to over 20,000 feet. Here we find ecosystems varying from massive tracts of deciduous and coniferous forest cut by untamed rivers in deep gorges at lower elevations, to snow-capped peaks and flower-rich alpine meadows.
We begin in the northern city of Astana, a literal oasis in the desert. The oil economy of Kazakhstan is nowhere on show more than here, with a futuristic city fit to be the set for Blade Runner its centerpiece. The central arid steppes are a stark contrast to the south, and home to a set of unique habitats and birds. Unfortunately, this region is suffering much transformation, and the scarce grassland birds are under increasing pressure. Some of the stars include the elegant Demoiselle Crane, the superb and Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing, and the spectacular White-winged and Black Larks. The larks can occur in immense numbers, performing incredible aerial displays. We will of course see some widespread species including harriers, waterbirds, and warblers; vast numbers migrate through here to breed. We then fly to the southern city of Almaty and head directly towards the Charyn River and then the Taukum Desert. The latter locality is in the steppe-like plains, where we’ll stay in the amazing traditional Yurt-camps. Briefly experiencing the lifestyle of a Mongol horseman is sure to be a cultural highlight. Here we search for Dalmatian Pelican, Macqueen’s Bustard, Caspian Plover, and Black-bellied Sandgrouse. We also hope to find Yellow-eyed Dove, Turkestan Tit, Saxaul Sparrow, and typical desert birds like Desert Wheatear, Asian Desert Warbler, Mongolian Finch, and Pallas’ Sandgrouse. The plains have grazing mammals such as Goitered Gazelle and Great Gerbil. Our final destination in this giant country is the Tien Shan. With its immense icescapes and jagged peaks, it has a magical road that leads us up to 11,155ft (3400m). The groves of conifers may reveal White-tailed Rubythroat, Red-fronted Siskin, and Red-mantled Rosefinch, or perchance the positively-painted-in-pastel-pink White-browed Tit-Warbler. Accentors fly overhead, Eversmann’s and White-winged Redstarts adorn the crags and low bushes, and the shrill, piping whistles of Himalayan Snowcocks echo through the mountains. A flash of red may betray a Wallcreeper, while giant shadows are cast by Lammergeiers, Golden Eagles, and choughs patrolling the skies overhead. We will spend some time scanning boulders for the incredible, rock-like Ibisbill. Long-tailed Marmots are furrier denizens of these climes.
There is a pre-tour extension to Uzbekistan. A country steeped in ancient history, that was replete with splendid cities and cultures based along the Great Silk Route to China – a true crossroads between east and west. We will visit fabled historical sites in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, viewing incredibly beautiful, extravagant ancient architecture. There is also a short-list of extremely special birds to be found. Several species at the western edge of their range in Asia. At the top of the list is the enigmatic and curious Pander’s Ground Jay, readily found in the stony deserts of Kyziyl Kum. Others include Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Rufous-naped Tit and local specialties such as Pygmy Cormorant, White-tailed Lapwing, Ménétriés’s Warbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Hume’ s Lark, Yellow-breasted Tit, Persian Nuthatch, Finsch’s and Variable Wheatears, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Clamorous Reed- Warbler.
Day 1: Arrival in Almaty and transfer to Sogety Valley via Kokpek Pass. Our flights arrive early in Astana (if you are not taking the extension, and your flight does not arrive early in Almaty, you should plan to arrive the day before and we can assist with the hotel booking). We then drive 125 miles (200 km) east to one of the more spectacular and well-known sites in Kazakhstan – the red, yellow and black canyons of the Charyn River Gorge. Amidst this lovely scenery we should encounter beautiful species such as Chukar; Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrushes; and with luck Chestnut-breasted-, Grey-necked-, Rock- and Red-headed Buntings. Raptor might include Egyptian, Himalayan Griffon and Cinereous Vultures, Long-legged Buzzard, Golden Eagle, and Lesser Kestrel. We will hopefully come across roadside colonies of the bizarre, pink-and-black, nomadic Rosy Starlings. In the evening we visit a small artesian where leaking pipes created small puddles. We wait for incoming Desert Finches, many Mongolian Finches should be seen and hopefully also several much larger Asian Crimson-winged Finches should pass by for a drink. After this spectacle we drive to our basic guesthouse which is located in an oasis of the Charyn River for a two-night stay. The guesthouse is excellent locality to find the sparkling Azure Tit and Eurasian Scope Owl.
Day 2: Charyn Canyon. We start the day with an early walk in the Sogety Valley where we are in search of one of the most sought after species in Central Asia, Pallas’s Sandgrouse! Here we also might come across: Steppe Eagle, Sykes’s Warbler, Asian Desert Warbler, (Steppe) Horned Lark and Lesser Whitethroat. Later we set sail for the superb and astounding landscapes of the Charyn Canyon where we can expect closer views of Lesser Kestrel; Pied Wheatear and Desert Wheatear. Our journey continues in southern direction towards the Kyrgyz border where a lunch stop might render cute Rock Petronias. When we come close to the mountains the ground becomes more suitable for growing crops and in these agricultural lands we have chance to come across some really interesting birds such as the incredibly rare Saker Falcon, if we are lucky. Large groups of gentle Demoiselle Cranes are seen regularly. We return home to our great guesthouse where a fantastic dinner awaits us. Overnight at the Charyn River guesthouse.
Day 3: Return to Almaty. The day starts with a walk on the Sogety plains to secure that everybody has seen the Pallas’s Sandgrouse. This elegant bird is unfortunately always difficult to see because of its skulky behavior and rarity in this part of Central Asia. In the Kokpek pass we might come across ten thousands of Black-veined Whites. These gorgeous butterflies fly in large numbers during the month of May. Birding en-route we return to Almaty. A stop in one of the small villages along the road might render Red-rumped Swallows; Indian Golden Oriole; Lesser Grey Shrike; Long-tailed Shrike; Greenish Warbler and lovely Laughing Doves. End of the afternoon we arrive at our hotel in Almaty were a refreshing shower feels great. Overnight Almaty.
Day 4: Almaty to Taukum Desert. We depart this morning for our Taukum Desert adventure passing through fields of poppies and other wildflowers and all with the spectacular backdrop of the icy Tien Shan Mountains. Along the way we make a first stop at the fantastic Sorbulak Lake. On the lake itself we will seek out the scarce Dalmatian Pelicans, Great Crested, Black-necked- and the amazing Slavonian grebes might be seen. This is also a great locality for White-headed Duck should we still need it. On the mudflats waders in the form of Little- and Temminck’s Stint can be common. We will enjoy an al fresco field lunch before continuing on to our yurt camp in the Taukum Desert: a surprisingly well-kitted tented camp, a nomadic dwelling used by the local inhabitants of this beautiful country. We should arrive in time for afternoon tea and an opportunity to view Black-bellied Sandgrouse nearby. Overnight in Yurt camp.
Days 5-6: Taukum Desert & Turanga Woodland (night in Yurt Camp). The next two days are wonderful opportunities to encounter a wide variety of habitats and some fine birds and other wildlife. Awakening in the midst of this remote desert, we will try to find the amazing McQueen’s Bustards close to our camp, Caspian Plovers are breeding nearby, and Wolves are very occasionally spotted together with Persian Gazelles all before breakfast! The bustards are getting scarcer by the year and so we will need some luck to find them. Then we will set forth along narrow back-roads through a variety of steppe/desert habitats to an area of unique Turanga woodland where with a bit of luck we should encounter such specialties as Turkestan Tit, Saxaul Sparrow, White-winged Woodpecker, Pale-backed Pigeon (Eversmann’s or Yellow-eyed Dove) and if we are especially lucky Pallid Scops-Owl. Along the way we will undoubtedly encounter many Greater Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed and Calandra larks and Isabelline Wheatears and Isabelline (Rufous-tailed) Shrikes but amongst which we must diligently search for Steppe Grey Shrike. Other possible species along our way include Pied and Desert wheatears, Rock Petronia, and Spanish Sparrow. Overnights in Yurt Camp.
Day 7: Return to Almaty. Early this morning we will drive for about 15-20 miles into the desert looking for beautifully marked Caspian Plover and Greater Sand Plover that should look exceptionally smart in breeding plumage. After breakfast we will break camp and head back towards Almaty. We will make several stops along the way including a fascinating area of ancient petroglyphs; a scrubby, rocky area for the perky Eastern Rock Nuthatch and a breeding colony of exotic Red-headed Buntings. With a bit of luck we may find something exceptional! Nearby fringing scrub acts as a magnet for migrant and nesting birds such as Eurasian Hoopoe, European Roller, European Bee-eater, Shikra, Lesser Gray Shrike, Blyth’s Reed-warbler, Sykes’s Warbler, Oriental Turtle-Dove and Desert finch. Overnight in Almaty.
Day 8: Tien Shan Mountains. It will take us about two-three hours to transfer from Almaty to the Astronomical Observatory, situated at the Big Almaty Gorge of the northern Tien Shan Mountains at an altitude of over 8,500 feet. During our ascent we’ll pause to seek out the Brown and White-throated Dippers and Blue Whistling-thrush along the fast-flowing mountain streams. In the open patches of mature, mixed deciduous/coniferous forest Greenish and Hume’s warblers are quite common. The observatory is an old Soviet construction in a lovely open area of flower covered alpine meadows and juniper-covered slopes, with a 360 degree backdrop of steep alpine peaks. Arriving in time for lunch, we can spend the afternoon ambling across the alpine meadows where the stunning little White-tailed Rubythroat, Black-throated Accentor, White-winged Redstart and Fire-fronted Serins are to be found.
Day 9: Tien Shan Mountains. We have a full day in this glorious high-altitude landscape to find a wonderful array of alpine specialists. Altai and maybe Brown accentors, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Red-mantled Rosefinch, White-winged Grosbeak and the incomparable White-browed (Severtzov’s) Tit-warbler await us! We will descend a short distance to the Big Almaty Lake where wide, braided, stony river beds are home to the utterly unique Ibisbill. Another rare bird with maybe only a single pair living in a large area, we will scour it in a quest to find our quarry. Higher up in the mountains at an altitude of 10,500 feet, we will look for Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Red-billed & Yellow-billed choughs, Plain Mountain-finches, White-winged (Güldenstädt’s) Redstart and the star-attraction: Himalayan Snowcock which we have a good chance to see.
Day 10: Tien Shan Mountains to Almaty. We will spend much of the day in the Tien Shan region and slowly make our way back to Almaty, arriving by late afternoon This will allow for further searches at high altitude for anything so far missed, and also to descend slowly through the forests for Rufous-backed (Eversmann’s) and Blue-capped redstarts, Songar Tit and the scarce Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker at mid-elevations. We will spend our final night in Almaty.
Day 11: Almaty to Astana. This morning we take a short flight from Almaty to Astana, and then head out into some forested areas in the open steppes where Pine Bunting and Pallid Harrier will be our goals. We return for lunch to Astana and there will an optional city tour in the afternoon. Night in Astana.
Day 12: Korgalzhyn. We need an early start to the day and will reach Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve at the perfect time. It possesses a collection of birdlife that has recently attracted a nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The vast wetland area, a combination of virgin steppe and lakes, is home to rare wildlife (unlikely to be seen) like Wolves, Marmots and Saiga. However, birds are the real attraction. Located at the crossroads of two migration routes, the wetlands act as a giant motorway junction service station for birds (Lake Tengiz alone has the capacity to feed 15 million birds). The area, most of which is protected as a ‘Zapovednik’ (national nature reserve), is home to over 300 species of birds, which includes one of the largest wildfowl populations in Asia. Other notable residents include pelicans, cranes and a variety of birds of prey. Our main targets for the day are nesting groups of the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing, which are getting rarer each year, and we will count ourselves luck y to see. There are many other fine attractions in this vast landscape. Roadside colonies of Black-winged Pratincoles and White-winged Black Terns in glorious breeding plumage should be dotted with migrant shorebirds. These enumerable wetlands and lakes may produce breeding Dalmatian Pelican, White-headed Duck, Red-necked and Eared grebes, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Red-crested Pochard and Caspian Terns. More special still are often close colonies of splendid Great Black-headed Gulls, with a supporting cast of Steppe Gull! The damp grassy steppe contains elegant Demoiselle Cranes while scattered scrub, bush should hold Booted Warbler, Pallid Harrier and gorgeous little Red-footed Falcons. Two other very special birds we should find today are Black and White-winged Larks, often numerous along the roadside, both species confined to the Central Asian steppes. After a long day in the field we return to Astana.
Day 13: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the Astana airport.
UZBEKISTAN BIRDING & CULTURAL EXTENSION
Conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and capital of central Asia under Timur (whose family was related to Genghis Khan), Samarkand is steeped in history. A key point along the Silk Road, it is over 2500 years old. We will visit some of the most amazing sites in this World Heritage City, including the amazing Islamic Registan, the Bibi-Kanym Mosque, and the Gur-e-Amir (Timur’s tomb). The architecture of the Gur-e-Amir would later influence the construction of the Taj Mahal. We will also visit the amazing city of Bhukara and its sensational structures. While we lap up the culture, we will not ignore the superb birding opportunities all around us, seeking out White-winged Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Tit, and Pygmy Cormorant. A special expedition out towards Kyzyl Kum will be in order to search for the amazing and striking Pander’s Ground-Jay!
Day 1: Tashkent to Samarkand. After our flights arrive early in the morning, we will start out for Samarkand. En route we will hopefully have the localized Variable Wheatear staked out for us in addition to a nesting colony of White Storks. We should arrive into Samarkand in time for some preliminary exploration of this fabulous city. (Note: if your flight does not arrive early in the morning, please plan to arrive the night before, and we can help arrange a night in a hotel in Tashkent)
Day 2: Samarkand. Birding and culture go hand-in-hand in Samarkand, and we will take time to appreciate both here. Today there are many wonders in store for us with a day based in and around the ancient city of Samarkand. We will commence with an early morning start, driving out of the city to rocky, scrub and bush-covered hills of the Takhtakaracha Pass lying between Samarkand and Zarafshan, where Tamerlane roamed in centuries past. High on the wanted list will be White-throated Robin along with Eastern Orphean Warbler and the obscure Hume’s Lark. Also to be found here are Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Turkestan and Yellow-breasted Tits, extremely rare Asian Paradise-Flycatcher and White-capped Bunting. Back in time for lunch, we will wander from our hotel into the quiet, small ancient city area to explore its historical treasures. Samarkand in itself is one of the primary attractions of this region. We will spend time admiring the absolutely divine architecture of the many mosques, tombs and religious schools, complete with minarets and towering ornate domes, of which the Registan complex is particularly attractive. In addition, we will have time to see the massive Bibi Khanum mosque (once the largest in Central Asia), Timur’s Mausoleum, the Street of Tombs and the local bazaar which all present a stunning and memorable “visual overload” of exquisitely elaborate tiled, painted and carved buildings. The legend of Samarkand’s beauty is centuries old and it is no surprise that Alexander the Great once wrote that it is more beautiful than he could ever have imagined.
Day 3: Samarkand to Bukhara. We can opt for an early start to nearby wetlands on the outskirts of Samarkand for such specialties as White-crowned Penduline Tit, or spend more time immersing ourselves in the historical delights of Samarkand. Later in the morning, we continue our journey along the Silk Road to Bukhara. Formerly one of the most important trading cities anywhere in Central Asia, there is a rich and colorful history and an overwhelming number of historic sites of interest. The turquoise-blue domes and towering minarets of Bukhara provide a wonderful backdrop to our stay here, while the markets and covered bazaars are bustling, a great place to barter for a huge range of very inexpensive souvenirs such as jewelry, spices and the famous Bukhara rugs. Needless to say, we shall have some time to explore this wonderful city, including the intricate architecture and its spell-binding mosques. We spend the first of two nights in Bukhara.
Day 4: Bukhara. We will have an early start to spend much of the morning exploring close-by wetlands, which surround the oasis city of Bukhara. These oases can be extremely attractive to a wealth of water and marsh-loving species and we hope for plenty of Pygmy Cormorants, Dalmatian Pelicans and Glossy Ibis and an abundance of herons and egrets, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater plus perhaps scarcer finds. Elegant White-tailed Lapwings are easily found. The extensive reed beds, marshy and dry scrub cover here is home to many additional smaller species of interest: Clamorous and Eurasian Reed warblers, Rufous-tailed Bush-Robin, Pied Bushchat and Long-tailed Shrike; (the latter two at the furthest west of their Asiatic range). Returning to the city by late morning, we will be able to spend more time discovering further historical delights – the Ark (the fortified citadel of the Emir within the immense city walls), the Bolo-Hauz Mosque, the 10 century Ismail Samani Mausoleum and the Char Minar with its four elaborately tiled minarets.
Day 5: Bukhara to Tashkent. Today’s birding will be a day to remember. A very early start must be made into the Kyzyl Kum desert, where we expect to arrive just after dawn, beginning our search for the handsome Pander’s Ground Jay. The amazing ground-jays are strictly a Central Asian group of birds, icons of the region, and well worth the journey entirely in itself. This strange, weird bird is not the only attraction here though, and in the desert we should also encounter Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Short-toed Lark, Isabelline Wheatear, Scrub Warbler, Desert Whitethroat, Brown-necked Raven, Desert Finch and Spanish Sparrow. Moving back toward Bukahra we’ll explore the edge of the lush oases at some lakes, reed beds and fish ponds, hoping to find a large variety of birds including Great Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Grey and Purple Herons, Northern Shoveler, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, the sought-after White-tailed Lapwing, Slender-billed Gull, Little and Whiskered Terns. We will return to Bukhara for lunch, followed by some relaxing further opportunities to take in some last sights, including the historic town centre with its surrounding old madrassahs, the Kalyan Minaret – a 150 foot tall tower built in the 12th century, and also the Miri-Arab Madrasa and Trade Domes. In the evening we will take a flight from Bukhara arriving back in Tashkent. Night in Tashkent.
Day 6: Chimgan Hills. We plan to spend our final days in the Chimgan Hills. These lush green hills will provide a perfect ending to our amazing trip to Central Asia. Even on our final days we will still be searching for some gorgeous little gems. Both Yellow-breasted Azure Tit and Rufous-naped Tit are the main attractions of this region. Overhead we might see European and Oriental Honey-buzzards. We overnight in a local ski resort right in the middle of the Chimgan Hills. In the grounds of our splendid hotel set amid mixed forest we should find Red-rumped Swallows and Common House Martin, while the bushes can be alive with the cacophony of Common Nightingales, Hume’s Whitethroat, Greenish and Hume’s leaf Warblers.
Day 7: Departure (and first day of main tour). The extension ends this morning with a transfer to the Tashkent airport. We will advise you which flight to book in order to join the main tour, and can assist with the booking if needed.
PACE: Moderate. Very early starts are usually not necessary on the main tour. Breakfast is typically served around 7am, and on some days there will be some pre-breakfast birding. One major exception is on Day 3 when we must leave very early (4h30 or 5 am) to reach the Korgylzhyn area. Kazakhstan is a huge country and birding sites are not close to each other therefore we must travel quite some distance. We estimate to drive around 1150 miles (1850 km) for the entire Kazakhstan trip. Lunch will be served al fresco in the field on most days, but we always attempt to return to the hotel before dark. On the Uzbekistan extension, early starts are necessary to take advantage of the cool early morning hours, and we’ll usually have breakfast around 4:30am; however we’ll usually be back to the hotel by lunch and then have a relaxing afternoon taking in the nearby cultural and historical sites.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. The mountains south of Almaty, which are visited for three days, has some fairly steep and rocky trails (a walking stick helps a lot), but they are relatively short. You can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. All morning of day eight of the main tour will be spent at 11,500 ft. (3500 m.) elevation, but apart from a short uphill stretch, most of the walking is on a wide, flat track. Much of our birding in the Tien Shan Mountains (2 days) will be spent at elevations above 8,200 ft. (2500 m.)
CLIMATE: Ranges from cold (down near freezing early in the morning) during the two days in the Tien Shan Mountains to pleasant around the middle elevations (about 59°-86°F, 15°-30°C),a and a bit hot at the lower elevations and in Uzbekistan (around 77°-104°F, 25°-40°C). Some rain or even snow can be expected in the mountainous areas. In the Taukum Desert it can get windy but this pleasantly cools down the heat of the day.
ACCOMMODATION: In Kazakhstan (Almaty and Astana) and on the Uzbekistan extension, we stay in excellent hotels, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. In the remote Charyn Canyon and Tien Shan mountains, accommodation can be very basic, and lodges have shared bathroom facilities, hot water is sometimes only available in evening hours, and electricity is erratic. In the Taukum desert we will do some camping in local traditional yurts. Each yurt is privately equipped with twin beds and is very comfortable, with plenty of space. The dining yurt is decorated in traditional Kazakh style, where we dine sitting on large comfortable pillows, the true nomad style. There are three shared erected shower-tents that can be rigged to have warm water, and there is a shared long-drop style bathroom tent.
PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have some decent opportunities to photograph birds and scenery.
WHEN TO GO: This tour is best taken during May and June, when millions of birds migrate north towards their breeding grounds in Russia.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of the following countries can currently enter Kazakhstan for 15 days without a visa: US, UK, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, and some (not most) European countries; all other nationalities require a visa. The main tour is 14 days long, so that should cover most people if they arrive and depart on the scheduled arrival and departure days. If you are planning on staying longer then a visa will be required, no matter what your nationality. A visa is required for the extension to Uzbekistan by every nationality. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double-check at least 6 weeks before you travel, or ask our office staff for help.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 12 (main tour); accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 6 (extension); meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 13 (main tour); meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 7 (extension); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 1 to the evening of day 12 (main tour); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 1 to the morning of day 7 (extension); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 12 (and from day 1 to day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; airport transfers; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; one way flight from Almaty to Astana; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (if you require their services); flights other than those mentioned, such as the international flight required for extension; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; visa and passport fees; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.