Sampling the bucolic pleasures of Kazakhstan’s ‘mini Switzerland’. By Daniel Allen
From the windswept summit of Mount Bolektau, Lake Burabay is a shimmering, sun-kissed expanse of water, ringed by sweeping forests of larch and pine. Towards the horizon, a series of low mountains are silhouetted against a pastel-hued sky. In a country famous for its vast expanse of desiccated, pancake-flat grassland, the Kazakh landscape here is as surprising as it is stunning. As we drink in the view, Diana, my guide, fills me in on a little local lore.
“According to legend, the people of Kazakhstan were unhappy with God after he gave them the featureless steppe to live on,” she says. “After they complained, God created Lake Burabay and the surrounding mountains to shut them up.”
Burabay National Park is home to 14 lakes fed by natural springs. Early the following day, deep in the larch forest, I watch a family fill plastic bottles and jugs from one fast-flowing stream, kids squealing as they splash each other with its icy, restorative waters.
“In Soviet times, only the politicians could come here to bathe in spring water and medicinal mud,” says Diana. “Luckily, everyone is allowed to visit now.”
After a high-calorie breakfast of boiled horse meat and baursaki (savoury doughnuts), Diana and I wander down to the Goluboy Zaliv (Blue Bay), a local scenic spot. Just offshore lies Zhumbaktas (‘riddle stone’ in Kazakh), a bizarrely-shaped rock that emerges, Sphinx-like, from Lake Burabay’s placid waters. Forming an impressive shoreline backdrop is Okzhetpes, a soaring, 1,247-foot cliff.
“In the 18th century, a beautiful princess was captured and brought to Burabay, where many Kazakh warriors wanted her as a wife,” explains Diana. “The princess agreed to marry the first warrior who could reach her with an arrow on the top of Okzhetpes. But after they all failed, she jumped into the lake, creating Zhumbaktas.”
Today, Burabay’s health regime not only comprises mud and spring water, but copious quantities of kumis too. This fermented horse-milk drink, the national beverage of Kazakhstan, is definitely an acquired taste. But with Burabay famous for a particularly therapeutic variety of the drink, I’m curious to go and witness the production process.
After lunch we drive out to Kumisnai (literally ‘kumis village’), a small settlement on the nearby grassland. At the appointed time, a line of mares is led into a low stable building by a Kazakh babushka, who proceeds to fill two metal churns with frothing milk.
“In two days, after they heat the milk and add yeast, this will be kumis,” says Diana. “In ancient times, bread and milk would simply be strapped to the saddles of nomads. That way the horse’s motion could do the mixing and fermenting. As we say in Kazakhstan, this is the only country in the world where you can eat and drink what you drive.”