Aksu Zhabagly National Park: the ultimate travel guide
This post is a travel guide to Aksu Zhabagly National Park for independent budget travellers. Most people head to Shymkent to see the mausoleum in Turkestan, but the south is not all about history. There is also some incredible nature with the best national parks in Kazakhstan to see wild tulips. Aksu Zhabagly and Sayram Ugam National Park are just around the corner.
Aksu Zhabagly is where the steppes end and the mountains begin. Hiking trails, waterfalls and canyons make this a great place to visit in Southern Kazakhstan. In spring it is famous for its wild tulips that bloom in late april and may.
For independent travellers, Aksu Zhabagly is not an easy destination. Even though it is easy to get to, activities into the park are not the cheapest. A guide is mandatory as per national park rules. Furthermore, going on a jeep safari into the Aksu canyon is a lot of money when you can not share the costs with other people.
However, expensive tours or activities are not necessary to enjoy Kazakhstan’s nature in Aksu Zhabagly. Animals know nothing about park boundaries and there is enough natural beauty to see without even entering the actual park.
In this travel guide I like to share how to visit Aksu Zhabagly independently and how to get the most out of your visit if you are travelling on a budget.
My experience in Aksu Zhabagly
On my first trip to Kazakhstan I did not make it to Aksu Zhabagly. However, I heard such positive stories about the park that I was determined to make it happen on my second trip.
Visiting Aksu Zhabagly turned out much easier than I tought it would be. My first lucky catch was finding Ruslan’s guesthouse. It is one of the few places that offers accomodation in the mountains rather than the village of Zhabagly. The location was spectacular with beautiful views over the valley and the mountains.
It was the best way to explore Aksu Zhabagly without spending a lot of money. Ruslan’s guesthouse is right next to the park and we could take several hiking trails right along the border without having to pay the entrance fees. We walked all the way up till the snow line with Ruslans dog Molly that followed us.
It was the end of march, which is actually too early to visit Aksu Zhabagly. The canyon was still closed due to snow and the tulips were not yet in bloom. In the end we decided to spent some money to do some hiking inside the park with our mandatory park guide. It was money well spent and we had a great time, despite the cold weather.
Even though our park ranger couldn’t speak english and wasn’t very talkative in general, we were very glad to have him with us. He pointed out the footprints of wolves that we heard howling the night before. Furthermore, he managed to spot a herd of wild mountain sheep.
We walked for about three hours to a beautiful waterfall where we had a picknick lunch with homemade pelmeni made by Ruslan’s mother. After our lunch we walked back to the guesthouse where we were in time for the sun set over the valley.
Things to do in Aksu Zhabagly
1. jeep tour into the canyon
Jeep tours into the Aksu canyon are the most popular activity in Aksu Zhabagly. Unfortunately we were not able to do this, because there was still too much snow on the road to the canyon. Although not from my own experience I was told you get to see some of the most beautiful parts of the park.
2. hiking with a guide
Aksu Zhabagly is a great place to go hiking. The scenery is beautiful and there is a good chance you get to see some of Aksu Zhabagly’s elusive wildlife.
Hiking is also one of the cheapest activities inside Aksu Zhabagly especially compared to the jeep tours. A mandatory park guide comes along, but they will not speak english. The official Park website has an interesting number of tourist trails that you can do.
3. horse riding
Wherever you can explore Aksu Zhabagly on foot, you can also go by horse. Horses are central to Kazakh culture and almost every farm in Zhabagly has at least one or two horses. Together with the Kolsai lakes near Almaty, Aksu Zhabagly is one of the best places to go horseriding in Kazakhstan.
4. Watching wild tulips in spring
Few people know that tulips come from Kazakhstan and one of the best places to see wild tulips is Aksu Zhabagly. Every spring from late April to early June they bloom. Besides tulips Aksu Zhabagly has lots of other unique plants and flowers.
Wildlife in Aksu Zhabagly
Aksu Zhabagly has an astonishing amount of wildlife, but unfortunately many of them are enlisted as highly endangered. There is the extremely rare and elusive snow leopard and you would be extremely lucky if you see one. Other animals include the brown bear, wolves, marmots and the Tien Shan argali (mountain sheep). Also very rare to spot.
When we were there we were lucky to see a herd of the Tien Shan argali on top of the mountains. We also heard wolves and found many of their foot prints in the snow, but did not see them.
Aksu Zhabagly is also an excellent place to go birdwatching with many different bird species including eagles, storks, cranes and bee eaters.
Where to sleep in Aksu Zhabagly
Ruslan’s guesthouse: We stayed at Ruslans guesthouse. He has one guesthouse in the village of Zhabagly and one up in the mountains right next to the border of the national park. I can very much recommend the latter option, because the location is spectacular and you will get very close to nature. If you are really on a tight budget you can do some nice walks here without entering the park and therefore without paying the entrance fees.
There are two double rooms inside the house and a yurt outside. Ruslans mother cooks delicious meals and Ruslan also offers affordable transfers from Zhabagly to his mountain guesthouse.
Svetlana Baskakova: Svetlana has years of experience in guiding people in Aksu Zhabagly and has a wealth of information about the flora and fauna of the park. She has a guesthouse in the village of Zhabagly and arranges a wide range of tours and activities into the park.
Zhenya & Ludia: We walked past the guesthouse from Zhenya & Ludia in Zhabagly village and it looks like another good option for accomodation in Zhabagly.
Aksu Zhabagly Travel tips
Where to eat in Aksu Zhabagly
There are no restaurants in Aksu Zhabagly and you will most likely eat at your guesthouse. Expect classic central asian dishes like plov, laghman or pelmeni. If you are vegetarian it is important to let your accomodation know beforehand and most of them will cook something without meat.
There is a small shop in Zhabagly but there is not a lot of choice. If you stay in Ruslan’s mountain guesthouse there is no shop at all. Therefore, it is not a bad idea to bring some snacks from Shymkent if you like to eat something in between meals. I must say that I was very pleased by the excellent homecooked meals at Ruslans guesthouse.
When to visit Aksu Zhabagly
The best time to visit Aksu Zhabagly is late April and May when the wild tulips are in bloom. However, even outside of this time, the nature is really beautiful. The season to visit Aksu Zhabagly runs from April till October.
In winter there will be snow and a lot of the trails in Aksu Zhabagly will be closed. We were there in late march and the road to the canyon was not open yet. We did some lower altitude treks and the snow made it more beautiful. If you do decide to go in winter bring some warm clothes.
How to travel to Aksu Zhabagly
Most people will visit Aksu Zhabagly from Shymkent. The nearest big city to the park and a great place to explore this part of Kazakhstan with its historical city of Turkestan and its incredible nature. You can read more in my post about all the things to do in Shymkent.
From Shymkent there are several options to get to Aksu Zhabagly National Park. First of all, you need to get to Zhabagly, the closest village to the park where you can arrange accomodation and activities.
By minibus and shared taxi’s
There is one direct marshrutka that operates on demand. When we were there it was not running, but if it does, it usually leaves between 9 AM and 11 AM from Aina bus station.
Rather than looking for the direct marshrutka, you can also take one of the frequent marshrutka’s to either Tulkibas or Turarkent (also called Vanovka or Turar Ruskylov) for 400 – 500 tenge. From both Tulkibas and Turarkent you can take a shared taxi to Zhabagly village (300 – 500 tenge).
In our experience it wasn’t too difficult to get from Tulkibas to Zhabagly. The bus driver showed us the shared taxi stand which is next to the bus station and train station. We waited for about 15 minutes for the taxi to fill up and it was only 10 minutes to Zhabagly.
Turarkent is about 30 minutes from Zhabagly and I am not sure how frequently there are shared taxi’s from Turarkent to Zhabagly.
Most guesthouses can also arrange a pick up from Tulkibas, Turarkent or even Shymkent. Prices will be slightly higher than what you would pay for a shared taxi.
Shared taxi’s might be difficult to find when returning from Zhabagly. When we returned we payed for our guesthouse to drop us off at Turarkent to take one of the frequent marshrutka’s to Shymkent.
In my post on Backpacking Kazakhstan you will find more practical information about travel in Kazakhstan.
Tulkibas also has a train station so it is even possible to take a train from Shymkent, although times are not that convenient. Alternatively, the trains from Almaty, Nursultan (Astana) and Karaganda to Shymkent also stop in Tulkibas so it is easy to add Aksu Zhabagly to your Kazakhstan itinerary. You can read more in this post on how to travel by train in Kazakhstan.
What to bring to Aksu Zhabagly
Sturdy shoes: Proffesional hiking boots are not necessary. However, the trails can be rough and muddy when it rains. A good pair of shoes makes your journey in Aksu Zhabagly more comfortable.
Sun protection: On sunny days it will be easy to get sunburn when you are out all day. Bring a hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun
Money: There are no ATM’s in Aksu Zhabagly so make sure you bring enough money with you.
Snacks: There are no general stores in Aksu Zhabagly. It is best to carry some snacks with you. There are a few basic stores in Zhabagly village, but the choice will be limited.
Water purification system: Bring enough water with you. There is no need to add to the plastic waste problem. You can easily fill up your bottle with tap water at your hotel. However, do use a filter.
Toilet paper: Most toilets are of the drop down variety with no toilet paper in sight.
Sustainable Travel in Aksu Zhabagly
Aksu Zhabagly is a remote part of Kazakhstan, but sees more tourists every year. While Tourism is a welcome source of income for the local community it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably in Aksu Zhabagly, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact in these remote and pristine ecosystems.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. I can recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
You can try to look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices. That said, environmental awareness is still low. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving your accommodation.
Leave no Trace principle: When hiking in Aksu Zhabagly, stick to designated trails to protect the fragile ecosystems. Straying off the marked paths can cause soil erosion and damage to plant life. If you are lucky enough to spot wildlife, observe quietly from a distance to prevent disruption to their habitats and help maintain their natural behaviors.
I encourage you to take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. In other words, leave no trace of your visit. Even better is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.
To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
Respect the culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to respect the culture. Kazakhstan is an Islamic country with a nomadic past that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Kazakh or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
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