Kazakhstan & Uzbekistan - The Best of Central Asia
Kazakhstan - Sunday 17th – Sunday 31st May 2018
Extension to Uzbekistan 31st May – 6th June 2018
Kazakhstan is located on the border between the western and eastern biogeographical subdivisions providing an intriguing blend of the exotic alongside the familiar in terms of its avifauna. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan has come into its own as a birding destination and one of the most accessible places to see a wide range of exciting Central Asian species . For those who enjoy immersing themselves in vast open spaces, the ninth largest country in the world is a great place to do this while enjoying a large number of the region’s speciality species. Great expanses of flat steppe grasslands merge into sandy and stony deserts with saline and freshwater lakes dotted around the country which are magnets to nesting and migrant birds. In sharp contrast, the massive towering peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains - an extension of the Himalayas - edging onto China rise to over 20,000 feet. Here we find ecosystems varying from massive tracts of deciduous and coniferous forest cut by untamed rivers in deep gorges at lower elevations, to snow-capped peaks and flower-rich alpine meadows higher up. The birdlife in these habitats is as varied as it is exciting. In arid areas we expect to find several species of Sandgrouse, including Pallas’s Sandgrouse while in the high mountains Himalayan Snowcock awaits us. Shorebirds are well-represented too with Caspian Plover, Sociable Lapwing the highlights and Ibisbill a possible bird of the trip. Add to this a wide variety of Central Asian passerines, raptors, waterbirds and woodland species and this can be seen to be a tour high in quality and variety. And if that was not enough, MacQueen’s Bustard performing its courtship dance is yet another reason to visit this exciting country.
The extension to Uzbekistan visits a country steeped in ancient history. In ancient times it was a rich region of splendid cities and cultures based along the Great Silk Route to China – a true crossroads between east and west. The country is steeped in fabled historical sites in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara where ancient civilizations have travelled and fought over possession of central Asia for thousands of years. There is also a list of very special birds to be found. Several species at the western edge of their range in Asia such as Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Rufous-naped Tit and Pied Bushchat mix with local specialties such as Pygmy Cormorant, White-tailed Lapwing, Ménétries’s Warbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Hume’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Tit, Finsch’s and Variable wheatears, White-throated Robin, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Clamorous Reed-Warbler. At the top of the “want-list” is the enigmatic and curious Pander’s Ground Jay, easily found in the stony deserts of Kyzyl-Kum.
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DAYS 1 UK – Almaty - 17th May
Flight from London to Almaty and transfer to hotel. Night in hotel in Almaty.
DAY 2 Almaty - Kaskelen
This birding adventure begins in the city of Almaty, often referred to as the greenest city of Central Asia. Travelling a short distance south of the city we spend our first day of birding in Kaskelen Ili-Ala-Tau National Park where we will get our first taste of the wide open spaces of Kazakhstan and sample some of the beautiful scenery, birding in wooded valleys amongst attractive mountains. Here we can get acquainted with some of the commoner species such as the cute Azure Tit, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Grey-crowned Goldfinch, which should be abundant, Golden Oriole and Common Rosefinch. As well as these species we should be able to find Siberian Meadow Bunting and Rock Bunting as they sit out on their song perches and both Blue Whistling Thrush and Blue-capped Redstart are possible too. Night in hotel in Almaty.
DAY 3 Almaty - Sogety Valley - Charyn Canyon
Leaving Almaty behind we travel 125 miles east across to the red, yellow and black canyons of the Charyn River Gorge, which delivers some truly stunning Central Asian scenery. Amidst this rocky semi desert we will look for some of the keynote species of the habitat such Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush and Blue Rock-thrush perched out on rocky outcrops, Chukar Partridges scurrying in between the vegetation and rocks and Hume’s Whitethroat, as well as some handsome buntings in breeding plumage; White-capped Bunting, Grey-necked Bunting, Rock Bunting and Red-headed Bunting. As one might expect, a habitat as wild and rich as this is a good place for raptors and there are a number of strong possibilities including the huge Himalayan Griffon, both Cinereous and Egyptian Vultures, as well as Long-legged Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Saker Falcon and Lesser Kestrel are also exciting species we will be looking for here.
As we travel there will be plenty of opportunities for birding along the way and it is in this way we may be able to see colonies of Rosy Starlings with plenty of adults in full breeding plumage to enjoy. In the evening we visit a small artesian well where water leaking from pipes create some small pools which are a magnet for small birds in this arid environment; species including Desert Finch and Mongolian Finch should arrive and if we are lucky a few Asian Crimson-winged Finches should pass by for a drink alongside many commoner birds. This should be a true spectacle and fitting end to the day before heading to our guesthouse, which is located in an oasis of the Charyn River. Night in hunting lodges.
DAY 4 Sogety Valley - Charyn Canyon
Pallas’s Sandgrouse is one of the most highly anticipated birds of the trip and we will begin the day walking in the Sogety Valley where we hope to find this highly sought-after species. This classic bird of Central Asia is by no means easy to find here but with effort and a little luck we should be able to get fine views of this species. Other species to get excited about that we have a good chance of finding here include the Endangered Steppe Eagle, cryptic Sykes’s Warbler, Horned Lark, Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat and Asian Desert Warbler whose scientific name indicates its tiny size; as you can see, there are many great birds for us to find here. The Sogety Plains are a great place to see Persian Gazelle and we have a fair chance of seeing this lovely animal.
The amazing landscapes of the Charyn Canyon are where we will spend the afternoon and excellent views of Lesser Kestrel are expected as this is a superb place to get to grips with this beautiful little raptor. Pied Wheatear and Desert Wheatear are also both species that we are expecting to see well and continuing towards the border with Kyrgyzstan we are hoping to enjoy lunch alongside the cute Rock Petronias. As we travel, agricultural lands provide us with a change of landscape and habitat and there are plenty of good birds to be found here too including Upland Buzzard, Saker Falcon and hopefully large flocks of elegant Demoiselle Cranes. We return home to our guesthouse where a fantastic dinner awaits us. Night in hunting lodges.
DAY 5 Sogety Plains - Kokpek Pass - Almaty
Pallas’s Sandgrouse is always a tough one to find because of its skulking behaviour and scarcity in this part of Central Asia, so we will take another walk on the Sogety Plains to ensure that everyone gets great views and while travelling back through the Kokpek Pass we have the possibility of a spectacle of huge numbers of Black-veined White butterflies. Afternoon birding will be done en-route as we travel back to Almaty. Typically stopping in one of the small villages along the road results in sightings of Red-rumped Swallow, Indian Golden Oriole, Lesser Grey Shrike, Long-tailed Shrike, Greenish Warbler and Laughing Dove. Arriving back in our hotel in Almaty, a refreshing shower feels great after driving on some dusty roads. Night in hotel in Almaty.
DAY 6 Almaty - Taukum Desert
Leaving Almaty again we look forward to more spectacular landscapes in the Taukum Desert and Tien Shan Mountains as we travel through fields of poppies and other wildflowers. Along the way we make a first stop at Sorbulak Lake where European Rollers and European Bee-eaters will perform a colourful display for us and provide some wonderful photographic opportunities. On the waters of the lake itself we can expect to see the prehistoric-looking Dalmatian Pelican, Ferruginous Duck, Black-necked Grebe and the amazing Slavonian Grebe might be seen in its breeding splendour. On the mud flats around the lake edge we can enjoy some waders in the form of Little and Temminck’s Stints, both of which are quite common, while the very elegant Terek Sandpiper is seen annually in good numbers. We will take an al fresco lunch in the field before continuing on to our yurt camp in the Taukum Desert: a luxurious tented camp, a nomadic dwelling used by the local inhabitants of this beautiful country. The end of the day is something quite special as we have afternoon tea while viewing Black-bellied Sandgrouse and possibly Pin-tailed Sandgrouse coming to drink at an artesian waterhole. Of course plenty of other birds will come to drink as well including Bimaculated Lark, Ortolan Bunting and Red-headed Bunting. Night in comfortable, luxurious yurt camp.
DAY 7 Taukum Desert - Turanga Woodland
A wide variety of habitats is always a good way to amass a large number of species in a short space of time and that is exactly what we have today. Waking up in the solitude of the remote Taukum Desert we expect to serve up a wonderful set of wildlife sightings all before breakfast. The incredible courtship display of McQueen’s Bustards close to our camp is an incredible way to start the day, but if we find the Caspian Plovers in breeding plumage that nest nearby, this may be eclipsed. There is also a very good chance of spotting Wolves and Persian Gazelles!
After breakfast we will drive through a variety of steppe and desert habitats to an area of unique Turanga woodland where some enjoyable birding should turn up some regional specialties including Turkestan Tit, Saxaul Sparrow, White-winged Woodpecker, Pale-backed Pigeon (Eversmann’s or Yellow-eyed Dove) and if we are especially lucky Pallid Scops-Owl. Along the way we will encounter a variety of Larks for us to enjoy; these will include Greater Short-toed Lark, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Calandra Lark. Plenty of other exciting birds, typical of this type of habitat are also to be found here including smart Isabelline Wheatear and Isabelline (Rufous-tailed) Shrike and whoever is the first to spot a Steppe Grey Shrike will be very popular with the rest of the group. Other possible species along the way include Pied Wheatear and Desert Wheatear, Rock Petronia, Spanish Sparrow, Azure Tit and Black-headed Penduline-Tit. This will be a day that lives long in the memory. Night in comfortable, luxurious yurt camp.
DAY 8 Taukum Desert - Almaty
In the early morning we take a short drive in perfect habitat for breeding Greater Sand Plover and Caspian Plover. Both of these shorebird species are absolutely stunning in breeding plumage and we will have ample to time to observe and enjoy both of these wonderful birds before breakfast, after which we will break camp and head back towards Almaty.
The sweeping vistas of Kazakhstan lend themselves to birding at any spot along the way and as we travel there will be plenty of opportunities to stop and search for a wide variety of species. Stopping at a rocky area with accompanying scrub vegetation we can take a look at some fascinating ancient petroglyphs while ornithologically we will be able to see Eastern Rock Nuthatch creeping amongst the boulders and a breeding colony of Red-headed Buntings which will be one of the colourful highlights of the day. This is an area that can often turn up something unusual but regularly seen species include more colourful birds including Eurasian Hoopoe, European Roller and European Bee-eater and we should be able to find some more good birds in the form of Shikra, Lesser Grey Shrike, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Sykes’s Warbler, Oriental Turtle-Dove and Desert Finch. Night in hotel in Almaty.
DAYS 9 - 11 Tien Shan Mountains
The next three days will be spent at high altitude, in the fabulous Tien Shan Mountains. We will spend much of our time at an altitude of around 8500 feet, visiting the famous Astronomical Observatory where many key species from this area of Central Asia can be found. As we drive into the mountains we go through the Big Almaty Gorge and during our ascent we will stop alongside mountains streams to look for both Brown Dipper and White-throated Dipper, as well as Blue Whistling-thrush. In nearby open patches of mature, mixed deciduous/coniferous forest Greenish and Hume's warblers are quite common.
The observatory is an old Soviet construction in a lovely open area of flower covered alpine meadows and juniper-covered slopes, with a 360 degree backdrop of steep alpine peaks. In this picturesque habitat we are going to seek out some superb birds including the stunning White-tailed Rubythroat as well as Fire-fronted Serin. The list of target birds that we have a very high level of potential success with is very exciting; Black-throated Accentor, Altai Accentor and Brown Accentor should all be found skulking in the low vegetation and other goodies include Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Red-mantled Rosefinch, White-winged Grosbeak and White-browed (Severtzov’s) Tit-warbler. Usually any of those species would be a potential highlight of the mountains but we have an excursion awaiting that takes to the wide, stony river beds that drain into the Big Almaty Lake where we are expecting to find Ibisbill! We will also spend time above the Observatory, at an altitude of 10,500 feet, where we will look for Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Red-billed Chough and Yellow-billed Chough, Plain Mountain Finch, White-winged (Güldenstädt’s) Redstart and the star-attraction; Himalayan Snowcock which we have a good chance to see. Nights at Hotel Alpine Rose, Big Almaty Lake.
As we descend towards Almaty on our last day in the Tien Shan we will stop for birding in the mid altitude forests where we are hoping to connect with some more key species including Rufous-backed (Eversmann’s) Redstart, Blue-capped Redstart, Songar Tit and the scarce Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. Night at a comfortable tourist hotel in Almaty.
DAYS 12 - 14 Almaty - Astana - Korgalzhyn
In the morning we travel to another region of Kazakhstan by flying from Almaty to Astana, around 1000km north. A three-hour drive from Astana takes us to Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve which possesses a collection of birdlife that has recently attracted a nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the Korgalzhyn area remains surprisingly unknown, even within Kazakhstan. 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 and the lake acts as a real migratory stopover hotspot for many species situated, as it is, at the crossroads of two migration routes.
The globally endangered Sociable Lapwing is our main target species here and as we know where they breed we are expecting to gain the best views of this highly-anticipated bird. This area is also home to the world's most northerly population of Greater Flamingos with about 300 individuals. This huge landscape is full of birdlife including colonies of Black-winged Pratincoles and White-winged Black Terns in glorious breeding plumage, and there will also be migrant shorebirds to be found including Red-necked Phalarope, Spotted Redshank, Terek Sandpiper, Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint and one of the most spectacular sights in the form of male Ruffs in full display. This wetland birding serves as a nice contrast to the forests and mountains with huge numbers of birds to be seen in a myriad of pools, lakes and streams. We will expect to see breeding Dalmatian Pelican, White-headed Duck, Red-necked and Eared Grebes, Whooper Swan, Great Bittern, Red-crested Pochard and Caspian Tern. Great Black-headed (Pallas’s) Gull is one of the most handsome of the world’s gulls when it is in breeding plumage and we will see colonies of this species as well as Steppe Gull and Slender-billed Gull.
The damp grassy steppe contain elegant Demoiselle Cranes while scattered scrub and bushes should hold Booted Warbler, Pallid Harrier and gorgeous little Red-footed Falcons. Two other very special birds we should find today are Black and White-winged Larks, often numerous along the roadside, both species confined to the Central Asian steppes. Nights at Bibinuur guesthouse, Korgalzhyn.
After a final morning’s birding in Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve for missed species, we will drive back to Astana where we will enjoy a large traditional meal in of the fantastic restaurants of Astana. If time permits we will enjoy a city tour to this futuristic completely newly built city in the middle of the steppe! In the end of the day we drive to the Astana Airport. Night at Goldman Empire, Astana.
DAY 15 Astana - UK - 31st May
After a memorable trip in Central Asia we say goodbye to our local guides at Astana Airport from where we will catch our flights home.
UZBEKISTAN EXTENSION: 31st May - 6th June
DAY 15 Astana - Bukhara - 31st May
Today we begin our excursion to Uzbekistan, which is a combination of birding and visiting some of Central Asia’s most fabled historic sites. In the morning we fly to Tashkent immediately followed by a domestic flight which takes us to the city of Bukhara, formerly one of the most important trading cities anywhere in Central Asia, which has a rich and colourful history and an overwhelming number of historic sites of interest. The turquoise-blue domes and towering minarets of Bukhara provide a wonderful backdrop to our stay here. Needless to say, we shall have some time to explore this wonderful city. Birding in the vicinity of the city; we will find out that Clamorous Reed Warbler, Black-headed Wagtail and White-tailed Plover are all common species. Here we will also search for Marbled Duck and Glossy Ibis and certainly see the first Pied Bushchats of the trip. Night at Malika Bukhara Hotel, Bukhara.
DAY 16 Kyzylkum Desert
Turkestan (Pander’s) Ground Jay is the key bird today, one of the most sought-after species of Central Asia with a very limited world range. To find it requires a very early start to get into the Kyzyl-Kum desert a little before sunrise so that we can find the Ground Jay in the cool early morning, and often it will be spotted alongside the road! Lots of other desert species are also found here including Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat and Desert Finch. As the heat builds we spend the afternoon in Bukhara visiting some of the key historic sites: Lab-I Hauz pool, Divan-Begi madrassa, Kalyan ensemble, Mosque and Minaret. Night at Malika Bukhara Hotel, Bukhara.
DAYS 17 - 19 Bukhara - Samarqand - Tashkent
Traveling cross-country there will be plenty of birding stops as we travel and an excursion from Samarqand takes us out of the city to rocky, scrub and bush-covered hills of the Takhtakaracha Pass lying between Samarkand and Zarafshan, where Tamerlane roamed in centuries past. High on the wanted list will be White-throated Robin along with Eastern Orphean Warbler and the obscure Hume's Lark. Also here are Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Turkestan and Yellow-breasted Tits, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher and White-capped Bunting. There will also be time to wander from our hotel into the quiet, small ancient city area to explore its historical treasures. The massive Bibi Khanum mosque (once the largest in Central Asia), The Registan, Timur’s Mausoleum, the Street of Tombs and the local bazaar present a stunning and memorable “visual overload” of exquisitely elaborate tiled, painted and carved buildings. On the last morning in this are we will visit some more excellent areas of wetland where we can see many of the species previously seen again and look for any that have been previously missed; White-crowned Penduline Tit is a speciality here. Nights in hotels in Samarqand & Tashkent
DAY 20 Samarqand - Tashkent
We plan to spend our final full day in the Chimgan Hills where Yellow-breasted and Rufous-naped Tits are the main attraction. Overhead we might see European and Oriental Honey-buzzards. Then we return to Tashkent where we enjoy a final dinner in a local traditional restaurant, plus a visit to the historical Barak Khan Madrassa. Later we will transfer to the Tashkent International Airport (airport code TAS) for flights that generally depart between 1:00-3:00 a.m. on the morning of June 6 to Europe. We have use of day rooms to rest in before our flight home.
DAY 21 Tashkent - London - 6th June
Early hours departure from Tashkent airport for the journey back to UK/Europe.
Leaders: Nick Upton & Machiel Valkenburg.
Ground Price (Main Tour): £2850.00 - Almaty/Astana
Ground Price (Extension) : £1850.00 - Astana/Tashkent
Airfare: £700 - £900 (approx) - UK/UK
Single supplement (main): £350.00
SIngle Supplement (ext): £185.00
Group size: Minimum for tour to go ahead 6 and maximum 11 with 2 leaders.
Included in cost: Accommodation in twin rooms, mostly en-suite, all transport and airport transfers, domestic flights, international flight Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan (extension only), all meals, English-speaking birding and cultural guides, all entrance fees and permits, bottled water.
Not included: International airfare, travel insurance, visas, alcoholic drinks, tips, sight-seeing in Astana & Almaty, cost of Letter of Invitation (extension only) and items of personal nature.
Accommodation: For most of the tour good quality hotels are used but when staying in remote areas basic lodges and camps are used.
Tour Code: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are both countries of wide open spaces and remote areas, although towns and cities provide all the comforts of modern life. The nature of these countries means that there will be some travel on dirt roads and this means that travel can be difficult to time accurately if there are any unforeseen circumstances. The level of physical effort required is low to moderate with birding done by scanning open areas and short walks in key habitats. There will be time spent above 9000 feet in the Tien Shan mountains where most people will not be troubled by the slightly thinned air by taking it at a steady pace.
Expect the weather conditions to be mixed, with fairly moderate temperatures ranging between 12-25 degrees C in the daytime and some chilly nights. Although the weather is not expected to be extreme it is best to be prepared for most eventualities on this trip, pleasant springtime weather is the normal.
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