Kazakhstan lies at the heart of Central Asia, across the Old Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China and the West. It is a massive country, half the size of the United States or the whole of western Europe! Yet with a population of just 17 million, mostly concentrated in the cities, this is a land of vast open and unpeopled spaces. Great stone and sand deserts — the Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum and Tau Kum — and wide grassy steppes occupy the great majority of the country, interspersed with such great inland lakes as Lake Balkhash and the Aral Sea. In dramatic contrast, along the south-eastern borders of Kazakhstan stands the mighty Tien Shan mountain range, the 1,610- kilometre spine of Central Asia and northern extension of the Himalaya which waters flower-filled alpine meadows, lush forests of Tien Shan Spruce and lowland riverine Turanga forest, and feeds the great lakes and inland deltas to the north.
Kazakhstan’s flora — consisting of over 6,000 species — is interesting and varied. Its alpine and bulbous plants are particularly special, and one of the highlights of this tour will be the wide variety and colourful displays of wild tulips that we will find in bloom in the meadows and mountains. It was only during the second half of the 16th century that Asian tulips found their way to Europe, and the majority of forms in cultivation around the world today were originally obtained from Greig’s and Kaufmann’s Tulips, both of which we will see in their meadows of origin during this exciting tour. Indeed, as we journey westwards from Almaty across south-eastern Kazakhstan, amongst a bewildering variety of other beautiful spring flowers, we will hope to see up to 10 species of wild Asian tulips.
We will begin our tour with a scheduled flight to Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty. Built as a Russian military outpost in the latter part of the 19th century, and formerly known as Verny (meaning Faithful) and more recently Alma-ata, present day Almaty is a pleasant and abundantly leafy modern city with a fabulous backdrop, nestling as it does beneath the snow-covered peaks of the Trans Ili range of the Tien Shan Mountains, amongst which stands Mount Talgar (5,017 metres). We stay for two nights in a modern hotel in the city and, after breakfast on the first morning, drive to Lake Kapchagai on the River Ili (which originates in China), approximately 80 kilometres north-east of Almaty. In this arid area we should find such tulips as Tulipa albertii, T. busheana and T. behmiana as well as the attractive Iris tenuifolia and Corydalis karelinii. This area is also rich in reptiles and hopefully we will see Horsfield’s Tortoise here.
Leaving the luxury of the Astana Hotel behind, we spend two nights in simple accommodation close to the wonderful Merke Gorge, breaking the long drive from Almaty with frequent botanical stops along the way. A picnic lunch will be taken at the Kurdai Pass, where we should find the endangered Berberis relative, Leontice eversmannii with its showy yellow flowers and distinctive divided glaucous foliage. This site is a tulipophile’s delight as we should encounter Tulipa kolpakowskiana, T. ostrowskiana and their hybrids, providing a tapestry of yellow, orange and red flowers. We may also find the unusual leaves of T. regelii which flowers very early, as well as a couple of iris species.
Merke Gorge is situated in the Kirghiz Alatau mountain range, its steep slopes covered by clumps of ferns (Ceterax officinarum, Asplenium septentrionale and Cystopteris fragilis) as well as relict Iron Tree (Celtis caucasica). The highlight here, however, is likely to be Zinaida’s Tulip, an endemic species of the Kirghiz Alatau.
We will now drive to Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve, the oldest reserve in Central Asia having been established in 1927. During the journey we will stop to explore both the Kuyuk Pass and the Syrdarynski Karatau range where Greig’s Tulip, the largest and most spectacular of the world’s wild tulips, will be in bloom. We will pass riverine forests where the relict species Fraxinus potamophila, numerous Eremurus lactiflorus and the very beautiful Allium karataviense may be found. A simple guesthouse will be our base during our 6- night stay in Aksu Dzabagly. From it we will explore the Aksu and Boroldai Gorges; the latter displaying an unrivalled density of Greig’s Tulips, the former offering such unusual or endemic plants as Korolkowia sewerzowi, Rhinopetalum stenantherum and Scilla pushkinioides. We will also soak in the delights of the distinctive Central Asian open forest comprising such species as Pistacia vera, Crataegus pontica, Pyrus regelii, Vitis vinifera, Sorbus persica, Prunus sogdiana and Padus mahaleb, plus one of the rarest plants of the Tien Shan, the endemic Thesium minkwitzianum.
Next, we will drive to the Saryyaigyr Gorge for a 2-night stay. Situated in the Karzhantau range, the steep slopes of this spectacular gorge will reward us with thickets of Ferula tenuisecta, F. penninervis, Prangos pabularia, and patches of forest consisting of the beautiful ‘weeping’s form of Juniperus semiglobosa. The population of Kaufmann’s Tulips will be our main attraction here — with over 10 different forms in bloom!
Finally, we return by overnight sleeper train to Almaty for some final and rewarding botanical exploration in the alpine meadows of the adjacent Trans Ili range, before our return flight to London.