Trip to Charyn Canyon with WFTGA-UNESCO Guide

1 April 2022

Nadezhda Fateeva is a professional tourist guide working in Kazakhstan. Nadezhda was trained under the WFTGA-UNESCO program, organized with the financial support of the European Union under the “Silk Road Heritage Corridors” project.

One of Nadezhda’s favorite sights is Charyn Canyon, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, located three hours away from Almaty. Nadezhda believes that the canyon serves as a reminder of the greatness and beauty of our planet.

“There is a beautiful legend about the origin of the Charyn Canyons, she tells us. "One day, the almighty God, flying over the beautiful Zhalanash valley, dropped one of his fiery arrows. It fell on the Earth, splitting it in two, exposing the depths of our Earth!"

Before embarking on her career as a tour guide, Nadezhda worked for 22 years at Almaty airport, occupying the key management position for the airport’s freight operations. In many ways, it was a calling to nature which inspired her career change.

“My favourite sites are all natural,” she says, “Particularly the Lakes of Kolsai, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. No trip is ever the same; they transform with every season, and each time a new angle or line of beauty opens up.”

‘I’ll never forget one trip I made to Kolsai many years ago,’ Nadezhda reminisces. It was October and the tourist season had long since passed. Many of the traditional routes were already impeded by the Autumn mud, and the air was growing colder and colder. But nothing would stop Nadezhda’s guests: two women in their sixties who had flown all the way from Blagoveschensk in Russia’s far east to visit Kolsai. They had always dreamed of this magical place. Unfortunately, they had missed their flight, and their group excursion. Nadezhda was recruited last minute to give them a private tour around the lakes. Despite setbacks and with the elements against them, the women remained in high spirits as they trekked to each of the lakes. ‘Their enthusiasm was infectious. It reminded me that if something is really your dream, you will find a way to achieve it.’ This is perhaps the second factor which attracts Nadezhda to her profession: the kindness and openness of her guests. Even within the bounds of Almaty city, Nadezhda finds joy in conversing with others. ‘As an Almaty native, I’m always surprised by how much I learn from other locals when I give a tour of the city. Each trip allows me to see new facets of my hometown; I’ve really come to admire the character of old Almatians.’

For Nadezhda and her guests Charyn Canyon is a playground for the imagination. ‘Sometimes people think we need more legends to attract tourists,’ Nadezhda says, ‘Some even grasp at straws, pulling together some half-remembered or made-up stories. But look around you! This place doesn’t need legends, you can create your own. In the stones each guest sees something of their own.’ With a squint of the eye, the rocks come alive: some kids see Winnie-the-Pooh or characters from Nu Pogodi!; others see elephants, or butterflies, or two lions embracing. Even if you don’t quite manage to imagine characters in the rocks, you may still stumble upon interesting personalities: little creatures which run around, surprising tourists with their resilience to the desert climate. ‘Look!’ says Nadezhda ‘That’s a tushganchik. A rodent native to this area. Today you’ll see them popping in and out of their burrows all day long; it’s a sign that spring has come.’ Nadezhda believes it is crucial to preserve canyon’s unique ecosystem: ‘Remember: we are guests here, this is their home. And we should behave accordingly.’

Nadezhda stresses the importance of following the designated tourist routes and procedures: ‘This is a powerful place.’ If you stray far from the known path, you risk being caught in a flood or a landslide or simply getting lost. About fifteen years ago, a son of one of my colleagues veered away from the tourist route. He walked for days before eventually being taken in and fed by a local shepherd. It took a long time before he was finally reunited with his parents. When asked about the proximity of the Canyon to international borders, Nadezhda laughs ‘Yes. If you’re not careful, you might even find you’ve accidentally walked into China!’

Well-planned tourist infrastructure ensures guests’ safety and creates an enjoyable experience for all involved. Nadezhda is grateful for some recent progress at the reserve, particularly the addition of resting stations and drinking fountains which blend seamlessly into the environment of the canyon. She hopes that the touristic development of the site continues in a reverent spirit: ‘I hope that instead of simply taking photos for instagram or social media, young people can grasp the significance of this place. That’s why we need good guides.’ For Nadezhda there’s a distinct difference between having merely been somewhere and having experienced it.

As our tour comes to a close, we drive back to Almaty through the beautiful Kökpek gorge. ‘It was here that the great warrior Raimbek Batyr came up with a cunning plan to defeat the Jungar enemies, despite being ambushed on all sides. What do you think happened?’ Excitedly, we think of theory after theory of how he could have succeeded. In the end, it was quite simple: ‘Raimbek Batyr divided his troops in three: two took round-about routes past the gorge, while Raimbek himself took a small brigade disguised in Jungar clothing and passed through the gorge unimpeded. Later, the three groups reunited and defeated their enemy.’

It is clear that Nadezhda has not only a passion for nature, but skill at recounting history in a captivating manner. ‘Some of my favourite guests are children,’ she says. Whether it is finding ‘characters’ in the rock patterns of the Canyon or inventing creative methods for helping Raimbek through the gorge, the children’s imagination is boundless.

During the tour Nadezhda mentions some true ‘legends’: guides who continue to give tours of the Canyon well into their old age. With Nadezhda’s enthusiasm and genuine love of the site, we leave imagining her continuing her vocation for many years to come.

This material was prepared within the framework of the project "Silk Roads Heritage Corridors in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran - International Dimension of the European Year of Cultural Heritage", implemented by UNESCO with financial support from the European Union

The content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union

charyn canyon + unesco bioreserve + silk roads heritage corridors + almaty + wftga

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