Monday, March 21, 2011

3.1. Almaty National Park Reserve; elusive rural kumys; bird rescue center

Timur B., Daniel C., Eugene M., imbibing airan

helmeted steppe eagle
high-protein eagle cuisine

Posted by Eugene Moon; photos by Sandra Powers and Daniel Corral

Timur, Sandra, Daniel, and I departed at 11 AM to go to the Almaty Lake and the Observatory Tower in the Almaty National Park Reserve, with our new driver, Ivan, a Russian with a warm disposition who seems to understand a bit of English. Before entering the park, we encountered a fancy looking golden fountain at the center of a roundabout and a large elaborate gate flanked by pillars that looked like something from Caesar's Palace. It was actually the entrance to the First President's Park, built exclusively for the first and current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. There was a hill in the center of the park with what appeared to be two Acropolis-like buildings, built for the president as a retreat, and a place to write his books and memoirs. There are buildings, restaurants, and cottages lined up along the streets that are built like medieval castles and forts.

After hiking up a small mountain, we decided to go in search of kumys, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk. The pure kind of kumys is found in rural areas or on ranches, while the factory-made kumys, available in the city, is diluted with water or cow's milk. We headed for a ranch near the entrance of the Reserve. When we got there, we were told that the mares weren’t ready to be milked for kumys for two more weeks. That was disappointing, but they did have airan, a milk drink similar to keffir. It’s not yogurt but it has the texture and taste of sour yogurt.

The ranch also happened to be a bird rescue center, with owls, hawks, falcons, and eagles native to Kazakhstan. The steppe eagles, tethered outside the cages, look amazing and fierce. They make a weird sound similar to a duck. Another striking creature: the Griffin Vulture, a large majestic white vulture. It has a large wingspan and it wasn't happy with its situation, gnawing at its tether. When it tried to fly away, one can see how long its wings are. We were also shown a Bearded Vulture, which looks like an eagle and is known for eating bones and dropping them from high ground. These are the largest birds I have ever seen and their wingspan is 10 ft! Their eyes look menacingly monstrous and frightening, as does their appearance and color. Sandra described them as "hardcore."

The tour guide wanted to show us more animals, and she brought us us to a building that housed rats. She told us they are raised as food for the birds since they have more nutrition than chickens and chicks. Next, she showed us two wolves, who were painted red, and looked like they just killed an animal. I thought they fed them a whole deer before she told us they were painted like that for a film. The last cage held a black wolf, which looked more like a dog than a wolf. In fact, I have heard black wolves are actually part dogs, since pure wolves cannot produce black colored offspring. It must be true, because that wolf really looked and acted like a dog. Daniel and I are grateful for all the work Timur and Sandra have done to bring us to Almaty and to the Reserve and to Almaty, and to give us such a memorable adventure from this unplanned excursion.

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