On Friday, four of us went up to the Tien Shan observatory. It’s in the Alma-Arasan mountain range, a few hundred metres above a big lake. In order to get up to the lake you have to walk on a water pipe. It was a bit scary when the pipe was slippery and it passed high off the ground. At least it led directly to the lake. Plus a lot of the discussion around energy policy in Central Asia involves maps of pipelines, so it felt good to actually walk on a real one.


In order to get into the observatory compound you have to pass a military outpost. A skinny guy with a kalashnikov slung over one shoulder asked us for our passports. I noticed his magazine was empty. He made a fuss over mine because he didn’t see the multiple-entry visa and only saw my single-entry visa (which has, obviously, expired). Anyway, he eventually let us through.

The outpost has an obstacle course, a barracks, and a little drill ground. The drill ground had a billboard with the portraits of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Aliya Moldagulova, Eset Batyr, and Ivan Panfilov. It was an eclectic lineup.

There’s a rusty radar array next to the road into the compound, then in the main area there are two observatories opposite the main building. Behind the main building is a series of small huts, an abandoned observatory and a radar dish. There were two other observatories further up, but I didn’t get to see them properly. Another observatory next to the main building houses a telescope, which we used to observe Jupiter, the Moon, and what looked like the Gemini constellation. The Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia lists it as the second-largest observatory complex in the CIS.


A few of the huts were abandoned, and I went into one of them. There were mattresses piled up against the door as if people had tried to sleep in the entrance. The second room was full of old computers, radio equipment and filing cabinets. The left hand side of the room had a shelf with a cassette player, accompanied by reels of tape and cassettes. On the floor was a strange machine with a dial. In the next room I found a book on rocketry, some reports from the Academy of Science of the Kazakh SSR, various sheets of paper with handwritten equations and drawings of star patterns, a soviet science-fiction novel, and a very old copy of ‘Scientific American’.


The main building has a few bedrooms, a kitchen, and a ping pong table. It’s staffed by two women, and an old man who operated one of the telescopes for us. The bedrooms had a few spiders, but thanks to the solar heating pipes the rooms were warm, and the beds were comfortable. It was relatively expensive, but again we weren’t in any position to bargain as once the sun sets behind the mountains it gets very cold, and we weren’t prepared to walk all the way back down in the freezing darkness.

At around 9pm I had a headache and felt nauseous, but the feeling passed after a while. It might have been altitude sickness, and I was fine after a night’s sleep.

When we came out the following morning there was a minor commotion at the outpost, we’d said we were going to walk back a different route, around the right hand side of the mountain. The soldiers said we were prohibited from going any further up the mountain. They then tried to claim that the road back down the other side didn’t exist, which was odd because not only was it clearly visible on the map, we could also easily see it from where we were standing. They checked our passports again, and then a man with some authority turned up and just waved us through.

We were told there was another military outpost further up the mountain. As I understand it the Kazakh-Kirgiz border along that mountain range was disputed in the 90s, but I thought the border had been settled since then. There was the incident at the lake a few weeks ago, and I think islamists or smugglers sometimes try to cross into the country through the mountain range. That would explain the nervous presence of the soldiers.


The woman in the compound told us quite firmly to stick to the road and not to take any shortcuts. From the discussion with the soldiers I half-expected the land either side of the road to be mined, but I was probably just being over-cautious.

After a while the tracks in the road stopped, and we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up walking into a steep valley. At one point the valley became so steep that we had to climb up one side and slide down. We were getting quite worried because we couldn’t see the road through the trees, so there was doubt over whether we were going the right direction. After around two hours of climbing the valley flattened out and we saw a clearing, then about ten minutes later we hit the pipe, which we followed down to the road.


Marc spotted some fresh wolf or fox tracks leading down the same way as us, we must have been chasing an animal down the valley as we went.

Once we got down to the bottom, we took a series of buses back into Almaty. I mustered enough strength to go eat at Kaganat with Gumyr, then I went to see the BBC production of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ in the Great Hall. Azima joined me for the film, even though she said she needed to go see her aunt. She was restless and fiddling throughout the film, maybe she didn’t get the story, or she just wanted to leave.

All photos in this post were taken by me. Michael has more photos on his Tumblr.