Finding our Way to Lake Tengiz (Off-road Kazakhstan)


It took some time to figure out whether there would be a short cut to Lake Tengiz, in Central Kazakhstan. Thanks to our friend Bauerzhan from Zheshkargan, who is an avid traveler and off-roader in his own country, we mapped out a route on our gps.

From Alkalyk we wondered where exactly we had to leave the main road and hit the dirt. With the asphalt being in a terrible state, we were more than ready to get away from it. After having been overtaken and the driver turning left, Coen wondered if that road could be short cut. It was a stroke of luck that the driver stopped so we could ask him. 

Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Removing dirt to prevent the rear light cable from snapping

We had no clue what to make of what he was saying, our Russian being limited to basic words and sentences (we should have pushed harder finishing the Michel Thomas course on Russian). When a Volga stopped behind us, ‘our’ driver discussed with the Volga driver and it was decided he would guide us. The Volga turned the key and sped away, not yet familiar with the low speed of our Land Cruiser. 

The red dirt road cut through cornfields and was as smooth as a billiard ball. After days of having been limited to driving 30 kms/hour due to bad roads/trails, our current 60 our 70 kms/hr felt like flying. The Volga stood waiting on the first crossing. Sunglasses and a set of gold teeth leaned into Coen’s window, smoking a cigarette and firing the familiar questions at us:

‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’ 

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cowboy on the trail, Lake Tengiz (©Coen Wubbels)
cows on the trail, Lake Tengiz (©Coen Wubbels)

He started an incomprehensible explanation of the route while ‘drawing’ on the steering wheel – Then you can go here to X and there to Y, but we’ll go in a minute because road Z is better than X and Y.’

Well, it was something like that.

Which village did we want to go to again?’ he asked. 

‘Matrosogo,’ Coen replied. 

‘Follow me,’ Kouanish (that’s his name) beckoned.

And, again, he was gone. A cloud of dust in the distance.

At the next intersection, Kouanish stood waiting once more. More incomprehensible instructions followed, but it was clear our paths went different ways. We trusted the dots on our digital map.

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Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

Stones, holes, bumps, gullies carved across the width of the road. We were back to the crawling pace and it took us 1.5 hours to cover 30 kms. We passed a farming village with big, round bales of hay on their roofs. Ruins of old buildings, a brand new tractor, old vehicles in various stages of disrepair, adobe houses plastered white, with blue frames and corrugated roofs. Vegetable gardens behind fences, and outhouses. While the houses could be dating from the 19th century, the machinery for harvesting was top of the bill, the newest, fancy machines were working in the field. 

The next 200 kms across a vast, empty steppe simply were gorgeous and relaxed.

I can’t… stop loving you!!!’, we sang along with music blasting through the Land Cruiser. We were happy being where we were and what we were doing. A vague plan as to where to go, following trails across a vast, empty countryside under a blue sky and the sun shining through the open windows.

Life was good.

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Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
old grave, Lake Tengiz(©Coen Wubbels)

We have been listening to the same music for twenty years. Coen’s techno music drives me nuts while Coen falls asleep if he has to listen to my ballad-like music. We listen to our music with headphones when behind the computer while on the road we listen to what we both like. Never mind the endless repetition of mostly pop music from the 80s, 70s, early 90s and a few new ones every now and then. Think tunes from Abba, Spice girls, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, and the Time bandits (and for the Dutch: Doe Maar, Toontje Lager).

We crossed a dry riverbed, green with reeds and grass with purple flowers. Flat dirt tracks followed, cutting through bare grasslands. Birds of prey sat in the grass because there were no trees or bushes to use as a vantage point. Small birds flew low, searching for the tastiest seeds in the vegetation. Some lakes had dried up but the suddenly a wide river was flowing there, the Terysakan. Black cows stood grazing along the shore.

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We stopped for a toilet break and walked into the field to take a look at some old graves. Some were below a heap of flat stones, others protected by beautifully stacked stones, six feet high in a round shape. Where did those stones come from? The landscape betrayed no stones at all.

A fox crossed the trail, a big marmot ran across the field, hopping into its den. Saigas ran in herds of five to tens across the fields, throwing up dust when they crossed sand. Sometimes we spotted three or four herds at the same time, all of them running. It was an impressive sight.

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And then, suddenly, blue blue blue. Vast as an ocean, but it was Lake Tengiz. I read that as a result of the river’s (natural) change of course, the lakes continues to receive less sweet water than it should. Today, Lake Tengiz is almost as salty as the Dead Sea. Farther east, even further away from that river, almost all depressions have dried up.

No trails led to the lake but we spotted a side trail that followed a river that ended in the lake, or maybe it was a long narrow ‘finger’ of the lake. No idea. It was good enough and we found a gorgeous spot to camp.

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Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)
Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

A couple of swans with four little ones bobbed on the water, waders searched for food on a sandbank, groups of birds of all shapes and sizes flew by. I cut a melon, filled a bowl with nuts, took beer from the fridge and our evening meal was ready. 

The late-afternoon sun shone its most beautiful rays across this part of the world, the colors intense, the dull grass now deep green or yellow, the shore on the other side intense red.

Life was as good as it could get.

GPS Waypoint 1: 50.600871, 68.906428

GPS Waypoint 2: 50.715644, 69.318812

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Lake Tengiz, off road Central Kazakhstan (©Coen Wubbels)

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1 thought on “Finding our Way to Lake Tengiz (Off-road Kazakhstan)”

  1. Coen always takes wonderful pictures. The one of the four cows (or 3 cows and a calf) is wonderful. The puffy clouds added impact to the perfect even spacing between the cows.
    It would make a great image for an agricultural magazine for editorial or advertising use.



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