Three weeks in Kazakhstan was an add-on to our April and May trip through China.  Nigel Croft's hand was still in plaster and John drove the car from the border crossing at Horgas 360Km to Almaty ( Place of Apples).

The countryside was scantily populated and fields not overgrazed, unlike a lot of Xinjiang.  Single-story wooden houses were painted mainly white and Kazakhstan's national colour, sky blue.  Well-tended gardens were enclosed by picket fences.

Almaty itself lay at the foot of the Tienshan mountain ranges, with tree-lined avenues and Russian cyrillic signs everywhere.  

Kazakhstan gets very few foreign visitors and, especially away from Almaty, accommodation is very hard to find.  Tourist attractions, such as waterfalls and viewpoints, were of mainly local interest.  We were acutely aware we were in part of the old Soviet Union and despite Jemi's  one-day tutoring in Russian by the lady hotel manager in Horgas, we struggled to be understood.

Kazakhstan has  a bread-and-cheese food culture and  was pleasantly different to China.   Ordering shashlik was easy enough , we just mimed the appropriate animals. 

To bird the mountains, we stayed at a hotel called "Alpine Rose" for three nights, beneath the Kosmostantia Observatory overlooking Almaty.  The Observatory, with junk and wreckage lying in the snow, looked like an antarctic whaler's camp.  Best birds included Himalayan Snowcock, White-winged Redstart and Altai Accentor, - with Three-toed Woodpecker and Spot-winged Grosbeaks nearer the hotel. 

On a day trip we drove out to the extensive grasslands near Karoi.  After viewing a breeding colony of Rosy Starlings, we had a picnic lunch at a wooded windbreak and found ourselves very close to a family of Long-eared Owls.  

Culturally, the highlight was a visit to the ballet -  it was great!  It was obviously a big family occasion, and people dressed smartly but it was not at all over-formal.  

A colourful feast at lunch time near Bakanas

Bakanas is a town in Balkhash District in the Almaty Province of south-eastern Kazakhstan.