Pearl of Altyn Emel
Although there is a lot of deserts in Kazakhstan, we do not have any classical lands where only lifeless sands are spread to the horizon. However, the following areas with picturesque dunes ridges with Aeolian ripples, can be easily found in the Aral Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Moyynkum, Taukum, Saryesik-Atyrau, and everywhere in our desert zone. There are lots of dunes in Kazakhstan, but Barkhan is the only one - a mountain of pure sand over one hundred metres in height and several kilometers long on the right bank of the Ili River. A wonderful natural object commonly known to lovers of curiosities far outside the Republic. This rare monument has its own name.
The year of 1956. Work the pedals!
This impressive sand mountain, built by winds of Ili sand between the two stony hills of Maliy and Bolshoy Kalkan, attracted tourists even in the Soviet times. In those years it was not so easy to get here. Here is an interesting description of popular cycling route from brochure of Alexander Berggrin "To the Singing Dune" issued by the publishing house "Kazakhstan" in 1956:
"Widely accessible and easy journey to the Singing Dune by bicycles is of great interest. We offer the following circular route: Alma-Ata - Chilik village - Ayak-Kalkan resort - Singing Dune - Taigak Gorge (mountain Chulak) - Chingildy village - Alma-Ata. Its length is equal to 435 km.
... The route is estimated for 9 days and is fully consistent with the cycling tour of the first category of difficulty giving the right to receive the "USSR tourist" emblem. Journeys along this route can be made from June to October."
We must say that the journey was not as simple as it may seemed to today's tourist from these fragment. You need to take into account the ascetic simplicity of single speed bicycles of that period, lack of basic equipment, lack of route counter stores, isolation of participants from the outside world (phones were available only in major towns), off-road and ... complete uncertainty ahead. It will suffice to mention, that along the way travelers had to cross a quite impressive Ili River (200 m wide) relying on the imagined help of a light man who could "step out for a bit" and who, of course, was not notified of anything in advance.
But no one was afraid of difficulties in those postwar years so people took a philosophical approach to constraints. Especially, when difficulties were more than outweighed by an opportunity to see a miracle of the nature famous all over the Soviet Union. And not only to see!
Is it better to see? Or to hear?
Yes, we have a case before us where opportunity to see has not prevented you from disappointment. Because the majority of those who surmounting difficulties reached the Dune in the past and, with relative comfort, reaches it today, travel with a secret ambition - not only to see but also to hear the Singing Dune; with their own ears to hear the innermost property of its nature, which has led to the national glory.
However, the Singing Dune is not a street singer. And to hear its song, you have to not only get in the right place but also in a happy hour. "Why does the sand mountain sing?" asks himself one of the most ardent promoters of Kazakhstan nature a professor and zoologist Pavel Marikovskiy in his fascinating book "Across the Semirechie." To that question he replies himself:
"Two winds, from the east and from the west, are constantly hitting against the sand mountain. At first, one of them comes on it rushing down the slope upwards and piling the sand reefs on the leeward side of a sharp ridge, then the other will do the same. The reef of the piled sand stays together for some time and then begins to roll down in patches. At this very time, a loud song of Peschaniy Kalkan is heard. That's why Kalkan usually sings after strong wind and is silent during periods of prolonged no-wind conditions. The mountain is silent after a rain as well, even with the wind, because the wet sand is motionless."
Anyone can be left with no song. However, visitors of the Singing Dune know a right way to stimulate its vocal cords. Here is a simple tip from Berggrin's brochure:
"Run, better as a group, down the hill for a few steps where the layer of dry sand is thicker, and jump. In response, the mountain beneath you will quietly gasp, and you will hear a smooth and calm, a growing rumble of a low tone; the sound so captures that you do not immediately notice that the mountain is trembling and you are trembling, too."
2018. Do not forget your wallet.
It is not difficult to see the Singing Dune now. You only need to consider that now it is a part of the state national natural park "Altyn-Emel". And it implied the restrictions and reliefs. Restrictions are associated with the visiting regime. Today you can't come and put up a tent near the sand Dune wherever you want. All entrances and exits to the protected area shall pass through Basshi village. Here, in the Park office, there is a museum and an office where permits are issued (for fee, of course).
Here, in Basshi, a problem of overnight accommodation is easily solved. More modern hotels are being built in the village gradually turning from traditional agriculture to non-traditional tourism, and there are already built ones, with all the amenities. And outside the village there is a camping area for genuine tourists - here you can put up a tent and have a shower.
The entry through the access gate is possible on your transport but road options are limited only by the official routes. As well as the visiting time - the Park is closed at night.
What season is the best to go for a meeting with the Singing Dune? Above I cited a passage where June-October were mentioned. So, in my opinion, the best time to visit the Ili Valley is still spring. April and May is the time of flowering and the greatest rave of local nature. Although autumn - October and November - is quite distinctive as well.
If you are going to a rendezvous with the Singing Dune in windy conditions then do not forget the glasses (preferably, safety goggles). Sand in your eyes is not the most pleasant memory from all possible ones. As well as blood suckers - loads of them can unexpectedly drift in from Kapchagay cattails in the calm periods. So repellent might not go amiss, too.
Theoretically, the route to the Singing Dune from Almaty can take one day. But such an option "for show" does not bring a great joy because it leaves you with a feeling of incompleteness. Especially that the Dune is not the only thing that one can (and should!) see in Altyn-Emel.