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Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe Area

Introducing Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe Area

West of and parallel to the Malaya Almatinka valley lies its ‘big sister’, the Bolshaya Almatinka valley. The paved road south up this valley starts beside the colonnaded entrance to the First President's Park on Al-Farabi on the southern edge of Almaty. After 7km you reach the entrance to the Ile-Alatau National Park. Immediately before the park gate is the Sunkar Falcon Centre. Sunkar also keeps hunting dogs and caged wolves and is worth a look any time, but the real attraction is the entertaining display of trained raptors in flight (1000T) at 5pm daily except Monday.

About 1km past the park gate is the restaurant complex Tau Dastarkhan, with half a dozen midrange and top-end restaurants in a pretty woodland water-garden setting. The road forks 250m past here, at a spot known as GES-2 after a small hydroelectric station nearby. The right branch heads to the settlement of Alma-Arasan (4km). The left branch follows the Bolshaya Almatinka River upstream, passing another small hydroelectric station, GES-1, after 8km, and reaching Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe (Big Almaty Lake) after a further 7km. The picturesque turquoise lake, 1.6km long, rests in a rocky bowl at 2500m altitude and is a good birdwatching spot, especially during the May migration. Border guards are often present around the lake so it's not advisable to walk along its east side (this path eventually leads to the Kyrgyzstan border), though a ramble on the west side is usually acceptable.

Two kilometres up the track to the west from the lake, at 2750m, is the outlandish Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory, sometimes still referred to by its Soviet-era acronym, GAISh. This has the second-biggest telescope in the former USSR, with magnification of around 600 times. It only operates at part-capacity now due to shortage of funds, but when the astronomer is in residence he'll give tours (in Russian) of the working sections for 1000T.

At the head of the Zhusalykezen Pass (3336m), 6km up to the southwest from the observatory (the road continues paved all the way), is Kosmostantsia, a group of mostly wrecked buildings belonging to scientific research institutes.