Altyn-Emel’s premier treasure is Aigaikum, (the “Singing Dunes”), a 240-hectare double sand dune stretching more than 3km. Around 200,00 years ago, an earthquake split the surrounding mountains apart and a strong wind corridor formed, carrying grains of sand from the foot of the mountains into the eventual dunes. I wanted to hear Aigaikum’s elusive song: at certain conditions, the dune produces a loud, low-pitched vibration sound akin to the nomadic throat-singing tradition that’s being repopularised by young Kazakh folk groups like Turan.
“I came to Altyn-Emel originally to help my parents,” said Saltanat Bayadilova, owner of the nearby Aigai Kum guesthouse, as she poured me a cup of fresh-from-the-cow raw milk, a drink that’s still commonly found in rural areas. “I never left. Our nature is so special, and I love the fact that I live here.”
Setting off on the A-3 road that would eventually bring us back to Almaty, I was quieter than usual. As petrol stations, fast food restaurants and the tell-tale signs of urbanity reappeared, I thought back to what Mugynov told me: “Our culture is all about the land. It’s important for us to see what our land looks like, to develop a connection.”
“We were nomads,” Mugynov added. “We were not living in the cities, we were traversing this land. This is who we are.”
The Open Road is a celebration of the world’s most remarkable highways and byways, and a reminder that some of the greatest travel adventures happen via wheels.
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