• Kazakhstan landscape

    This tour is excellent for anyone who gets joy out of photographing unique landscapes. The village of Katon-Karagay offers these moments, and we will dedicate a considerable part of our trip to this discipline that your photographic guide Ed Michels masters so well.

    Ed Michels © 
  • Endemic species

    One of the highlights for a birding expedition to Kazakhstan is this little wonder, the cute Black Lark! They live on the windy grassland’s steppes of northern Kazakhstan; their aerial display is spectacular, it is slowly rowing in the air with fully extended raised wings and a fanned tail. Simply breathtaking!

    Machiel Valkenburg © 
  • Siberian chipmunk

    The Siberian Chipmunk is found over the most parts of Siberia with the Altai Mountains as their most southern occurrence. They are very versatile and usually live solitary lives. They survive the harsh Siberian winter in a burrow that they leave in April-May while in the summer they mate and will prepare for surviving another winter by storing 3-4 kilos of food in their shelter.

    Machiel Valkenburg © 
  • Species of butterfly

    Butterflies like this Glanville Fritillary are excellent subjects for us to practice our skills on and discover the world of macro photography. The detail we bring forward will amaze you. The word fritillary refers to the checkered pattern of the butterfly's wings, which comes from the Latin phrase 'fritillus' which means "dicebox".

    Ed Michels © 
  • Mount altai

    One of the most familiar birds in Siberia is the legendary Siberian Rubythroat. They occur all over but still are shy to pose in front of a lens. Your leader Ed Michels photographed this stunner in the Kazakh Altai during one of his visits. We love the composition of this image, do you?

    Ed Michels © 

KAZAKHSTAN: Photography special: Flora & Fauna of the Altai!

This new tour takes us to a little known and isolated part of Kazakhstan, the Altai Mountains. For many years we have run very successful tours into the Russian and Mongolian side of the Altai. In Kazakhstan the Altai Mountains are located in the far northeast of the country where the two superpowers of China and Russia meet. Amongst Kazakhs, the Altai is considered the best natural environment in the country. Natural products from Altai such as jam, honey, and horse milk are sold widely throughout the country. People from all over flock to the Altaian health resorts in the high mountains for the clean air. However, to a foreign public, the Altai remains largely unknown with very few western tourists visiting each year.

We start this tour in the capital Nur-Sultan – the city was renamed from Astana in 2019. This newly developed city was built from scratch in only 30 years. The profitable oil and gas fields have made this a modern city. Despite this rapid urbanization, just 200 km to the west the grassland steppes of Korgalzhyn National Park hold healthy populations of Wolves and Saiga. In the air the semi-endemic Black Lark and White-winged Lark dart like butterflies while Pallid Harriers and Short-eared Owls patrol for mice and lemmings.

From the capital a domestic flight takes us to Ust-Kamenogorsk, the largest city in eastern Kazakhstan. From the plane we will have excellent views over the green hills and mountains of the beautiful Altai. Around Oskemen the natural delights begin Here we have a chance of witnessing the spring migration of Great Veined Whites. Millions of large white butterflies are on the move; this is a unique occurrence. There is a great variety of butterflies in the Altai, no less than 800 species. Many representatives are small blues, colourful fritillaries and giant swallowtails. Birds also abound, with White-winged Scoter, Brandt's Mountain Finch, Asian Rosy Finch, Eversmann's Redstart, Brown Shrike, Siberian Meadow Bunting, Pallas's Bunting, Altai Accentor and the superb Güldenstädt's Redstart being some of the most attractive. In recent years Black-faced Bunting, Great Rosefinch and Altai Snowcock have been found in small numbers. The mountain flowers are amazingly beautiful and varied. We may come across a blue carpet of lovely gentians, of the 'grandiflora' species. More common plants include Siberian Dogs-tooth Violet, Altai Foxtail Lily, and a wide variety of Saxifrages, Gentians and Irises.

RBT operated its first and highly successful tour in 2007 and since then have become established as the leading ground operator for many large international tour companies. We are sure that participants will be delighted with this extraordinary Central Asian experience!

Highlights

  • Be part of the extraordinary mass migrations of Great Veined Whites.
  • Enjoy close-up views of rare steppe specialities like Black and White-winged Larks, Sociable Lapwing and Demoiselle Crane.
  • Travel abundantly through amazing pure mountain scenery and real wilderness.
  • Appreciate the sundown at Rakhmanovskiy Lake with a nice glass of wine!
  • Enjoy many superb photographic opportunities throughout, both wildlife and landscapes.
  • Appreciate the expert advice of a professional landscape and macro specialist!
  • Siberian top species like Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Rubythroat and the rare White’s
  • Thrush are possible amidst the taiga forests.
  • Relish the tastes of the locally produced honey, jams and fermented horse milk!
  • Come across picturesque vistas throughout our 13 days in the Altai.
  • The tour is led by our Rubythroat photography and widely acclaimed specialist Ed Michels.

Itinerary

  • Flight from your home to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

  • Arrival in Nur-Sultan. Birding the vicinity of Nur-Sultan for Pine Bunting.

  • Full day visit to Korgalzhyn National Park for Black- and White-winged Lark and if we are lucky the endangered Saiga Antelope!

  • Domestic flight from Nur-Sultan to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

  • Full day excursion on foot around Gorny-Ulbinka for macro and wildlife photography.

  • Visiting the wilderness around Katon-Karagay and the higher grounds near Maymir in search of Black-throated Accentor and Willow Grouse.

  • Several days exploring Rakhmanovskiy Klyuchi for breathtaking panoramas, rare White-winged Scoters and dazzling alpine meadows full of wildflowers.

  • Full day drive back to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

  • We head for the West Altai Nature reserve for a 3-night stay. We venture north towards the Russian border.

  • Final morning excursion in the reserve before driving back to Ust-Kamenogorsk for our flight back to Nur-Sultan. In the evening we enjoy a grand final dinner!

  • Departure from Nur-Sultan Airport towards home.

What’s Included?

  • Expert English-speaking Rubythroat wildlife/photography guide.
  • English-speaking Russian/Kazakh cultural guide throughout. 
  • 14 nights of accommodation, ranging from attractive tourist hotels to basic lodges off the beaten track.
  • Full board meals in restaurants or picnic lunches in the field, depending on the itinerary. Water distributed by need.
  • We are dining a la carte in the cities of Nur-Sultan and Ust-Kamenogorsk.
  • All land transfers by comfortable Mercedes Sprinter
  • Domestic return flight Nur-Sultan – Ust-Kamenogorsk – Nur-Sultan.
  • Visa support (if needed)

What’s excluded?

  • International flight to/from Kazakhstan
  • Personal expenses; laundry, telephone costs etc.
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Extra rooming not mentioned in the itinerary
  • Meals on day 1
  • Single room accommodations
  • Travel and health insurance
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Costs: $2,500 or €2,200, excluding international flights to/from Kazakhstan

Single supplement:   $330 or €290 

Deposit:   $480 or €420

Group size: minimum 4 and maximum 10   

Availability: Spaces available     Leader: Ed Michels

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MAIN FOCUS:

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PHOTOGRAPHY

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BIRDS

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LANDSCAPES

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MAMMALS

SPECIES SEEN:

190-240

DIFFICULTY:
 

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MEDIUM

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Extended Tour Program

June 00, Day 1: Arrival in Nur-Sultan.

Clients depart from home for the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan. This futuristic city resembles those of the oil states of Dubai and the United Emirates. Kazakhstan has an abundance of natural resources, and has profited from the vast reserves of oil and gas, but also minerals like uranium and zinc.

NIGHT: Day 1, en route.

why do starlings swarmeurasian hoopoe

June 00, Day 2: Nur-Sultan surroundings.

We start our tour this morning with excursions around Astana. We are in search of waterfowl that use the lakes around the city as a stopover during their migration north. Our top target, however, will be a small passerine, the Pine Bunting, which will likely be accompanied by several Red-footed Falcons and numerous Pallid Harrier. In the evening we will check-in to our comfortable Astana hotel! 

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel, Nur-Sultan.

masked wagtaillesser whitethroat

June 00, Day 3: Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve.

An early morning rise will see us depart at 0500 for the breathtaking drive to Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve. This region is surprisingly little known, even within Kazakhstan, but the abundance of birdlife here has recently attracted a nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The vast wetland area, a combination of virgin steppe and lakes, is home to Wolves, Marmots and Saiga. However, it is the birds that are the real attraction. A crossroads of two migration routes, the wetlands here act as a giant motorway junction service station for birds (Lake Tengiz alone can feed 15 million birds during migration).

This area, most of which is protected as a 'Zapovednik' (national nature reserve), is home to the world's most northerly population of Greater Flamingo. One of over 300 species of birds which represents one of the largest wildfowl populations in Asia. Other notable residents include pelicans, cranes, and a variety of birds of prey.

Our main targets here are nesting groups of the globally endangered Sociable Lapwing, which we have "staked-out" for you. There are many other excellent attractions in this vast landscape. We can find roadside colonies of Black-winged Pratincoles and White-winged Black Terns in glorious breeding plumage. The steppe lakes are dotted with migrant shorebirds such as Red-necked Phalaropes, Spotted Redshank, Terek Sandpiper, Little- and Temminck's Stints. Ruff can be observed displaying in all their finery. These innumerable wetlands and lakes should also produce breeding Dalmatian Pelican, Great Bittern, White-headed Duck, Red-necked and Eared Grebes, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Red-crested Pochard and Caspian Terns. More exclusive still are the close colonies of splendid Great Black-headed Gulls, with a supporting cast of Steppe and Slender-billed Gull! 

The damp grassy steppe is home to elegant Demoiselle Cranes while nearby scattered scrub should hold Booted Warbler, Pallid Harrier, and gorgeous Red-footed Falcons. We should find two other very unique birds today – Black and White-winged Larks which are often numerous along the roadside. Both species are confined to the Central Asian steppes and a major drawcard for any visiting birder! In the evening we return to Nur-Sultan where we will enjoy a lovely dinner.

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel, Nur-Sultan.

baby chipmunkLake photography

June 00, Day 4: Korgalzhyn to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

We will drive to the Nur-Sultan Airport for our domestic flight to Ust-Kamenogorsk. If time permits we will enjoy a tour of this newly constructed city in the middle of the steppe! After arrival in Ust-Kamenogorsk, we will transfer to our hotel which is 20 km outside of town and located beside the Gorny Ulbinka river where birds like Common Kingfisher, Goosander and Black Stork breed.

NIGHT: Hotel Gagarin, Ust-Kamenogorsk.

June 00, Day 5: Gorny Ulbinka.

Today we will explore from our hotel on foot. In the morning we will search the hillsides for birds like Siberian Meadow Bunting, Barred Warbler and perhaps a Booted Eagle. Here also we will find many butterflies, mainly blues and fritillaries. During a scouting trip in 2016 we came across the extraordinary migration of Great Veined Whites, with a constant stream of millions of butterflies passing by us! After a siesta during the warmest part of the day (the fanatics amongst us can continue around the hotel!), we’ll visit a patch of riverine forest for White-backed Woodpecker and Wryneck. The surrounding hills are covered with spruce and hold a good population of Nutcrackers and maybe a Black Grouse.

NIGHT: Hotel Gagarin, Ust-Kamenogorsk.

June 00, Day 6: Ust-Kamenogorsk to Katon Karagay.

After some morning birding around the hotel, we will transfer to the region of Katon-Karagay. We will make several smaller stops along the way to stretch our legs during this day of driving. We expect to arrive in the late afternoon, allowing us some time for a preliminary exploration of this picturesque village. On the outskirts of town birds such as Pine Bunting, Common Redstart and Eastern Black Kite can prove quite common.

NIGHT: Hotel Katon, Katon Karagay.

landscapes in photographyflower photography

June 00, Day 7: Maymir.

Today we will venture above the treeline. In this high-altitude habitat, we are in search of goodies like Ptarmigan, Willow Grouse and Dotterel. Amongst the dwarf birch, we should find Bluethroat and possibly Siberian Rubythroat. Grey Marmots will be calling in the valley, and the rocky slopes are home to Altai Pikas. At the same time, a Lapland Fritillary may flutter past during its search for his host plant. Around Katon Karagay we can explore the nearby forest where Oriental Cuckoos will be calling, and the droppings of Brown Bear may reveal their presence. At these lower elevations, around Katon Karagay flowers and butterflies are abundant and sure to be a spectacle.

NIGHT: Hotel Katon, Katon Karagay.

June 00, Day 8: Katon Karagay to Rakhmanovskiy Klyuchi.

This drive will take us to possibly the most beautiful mountain lake in Central Asia, the Rakhmanovskiy Lakes. The long and bumpy road will take us over a pass at an elevation of around 2000 m. During our ascent, we will stop and explore several forest types. We hope to find the greyish form of Eurasian Bullfinch, Pine Grosbeak and maybe a Dark-sided Flycatcher if we are lucky. The gorgeous Brown Shrike is likely to be seen perched in the top of a thorny bush while Golden Eagle may be observed hunting for small marmots. In the afternoon, we will arrive at our luxurious lodge high in the mountains.

NIGHT: Resort Rakhmanovskiy Lake.

 

June 00-00, Days 9-10: Rakhmanovskiy Klyuchi.

We have two full days to explore this beautiful place situated high in the Altai Mountains. At the lake itself, we should secure close views of the interesting White-winged Scoter. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a pair of Black-throated Divers joining the scoters. Siberian Rubythroats will be singing from their posts along the lake. Black-throated Thrushes, Siberian- and Willow Tits are finding food for their recently hatched chicks. Inside the scrub, we can find Greenish-, Hume's- and Dusky Warblers, while open patches of forest hold Eversmann's Redstarts, Siberian Nuthatches and Three-toed Woodpeckers. Pacific Swifts and large flocks of Red-billed Choughs rule the skies above. The substantial walk up the slopes through flower-filled alpine meadows will guarantee fantastic scenery. Here we are in the habitat of Plain- and Brandt's Mountain Finches, Güldenstädt's Redstart, Asian Rosy Finch and Altai Accentor. In 2013 we found a breeding pair of Pallas's Bunting here. We will end each day with a lovely dinner on the terrace overlooking the lake.

NIGHT: Resort Rakhmanovskiy Lake.

June 00, Day 11: Rakhmanovskiy to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

Today we leave the gorgeous lake behind us for a full day of driving which will bring us back to Ust-Kamenogorsk. We will aim to arrive back at our hotel in the early evening.

NIGHT: Hotel Gagarin, Ust-Kamenogorsk.

June 00, Day 12: Oskemen to Ridder.

Today we will pass through glowing agricultural fields as we drive northwards to the Russian border (a 2.5-hour drive) where we will be lodging in a cabin in the forest. We will start with a visit to the wet fields around the city of Ridder, where Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler and Long-tailed Rosefinch are our main objectives. In the hedges, Red-backed Shrikes are common while Azure Tits forage nearby. Here we hope to add some more aquatic species like the White-crowned Penduline Tit and, less likely, Blyth's Reed Warbler. In the early evening, we will arrive at our lodge. 

NIGHT: lodge Ridder.

beautiful pictures of landscapesbutterfly

June 00-00, Days 13-14: West Altai Nature Reserve.

Over the coming two days, we will explore the forests near the West-Altai Nature Reserve. This reserve is the largest in Kazakhstan, at 56,000 hectares, and gives us countless options for wildlife viewings. Starting around our lodge, we have a reasonable chance of finding Ural Owl, Taiga Flycatcher and Olive-backed Pipit. Sometimes even Siberian Jay may appear on one of the feeders! In these dark coniferous forests we are sure to hear the call of the White's Thrush and if lucky, maybe come eye-to-eye with one of these subtle beauties. Commoner birds here include Red-flanked Bluetail, Black-throated Thrush and Hawfinch. The botanists amongst us will enjoy the thousands of species of plants surrounding us –  Siberian Adder's Tongue and Pink Rhodiola being the most interesting. The threatened Altai Weasel has a stronghold in this splendid reserve, and we have a chance of seeing Siberian Chipmunks and Common Shrew.

NIGHT: lodge Ridder.

June 00, Day 15: Ridder to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

We will have one last walk before checking out and driving back to Ust-Kamenogorsk. We will board our domestic flight at 2000, which will take us back to the capital.

NIGHT: Comfortable tourist hotel, Nur-Sultan.

June 00, Day 16: Astana to home.

After a splendid holiday in Central Asia, it is time for us to say goodbye. We convey our farewells at the Astana Airport from where we board our respective international flights home.