June 18, 2021
MY CAPTIVATION WITH CENTRAL ASIA
By Machiel Valkenburg
I developed a grand interest in former USSR countries during my early adolescence. The urge to know more led me to spend countless hours reading books and looking over maps, wondering about those mysterious faraway cities. I became fascinated by the tales, legends, and history related to these lands. When I was old enough to start my journeys, I began traveling to Central Asia. The beauty of the local nature lured me to keep coming back. A little while later, I had to face one of the most formidable choices in my life—to move abroad. I had lived with my parents for 22 years in a peaceful village in the southern part of the Netherlands. The experience of moving was exciting, but it also made my heart tremble. Finally, at the age of 23, I found myself living on my own in a region I had read about for so long. I moved from a village of 1,500 to a metropolis of three million, the “Green City” of Almaty, Kazakhstan, my home from now on. This was quite a change for me, and I had to overcome several hurdles before deciding to start my own birding business in Kazakhstan. Over 15 years later, I am still amazed by the beautiful scenery and lovely people here in Central Asia.
Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, is developing rapidly, meeting modern society's standards. An exciting book written by the wife of a former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Bentleys in de Steppe, summarizes modern Kazakhstan perfectly. This oil-rich country is making bold steps on the world stage, and this is reflected in the daily lives of the local people. It is a sovereign country rich with unique historical and cultural phenomena. The passage of the Silk Road through Kazakhstan's territory contributed to the boom of the local culture and architecture, bringing trade and prosperity. Even to this day, you can sense the impact of the trading.
One of my favorite places in Almaty is the legendary "Kok Bazar," or Green Market, where you can still witness traditional trade methods practiced for thousands of years. You will be met by a flurry of greetings from local sellers and offered myriads of tasty goods and fruits as soon as you enter the halls of the market. A lot of haggling will get you the best deal! Sometimes I have felt as though I were actually in the busy streets of the Silk Road as it was hundreds of years ago.
Another major highlight is the close proximity of the Tien Shan Mountains. This range is part of the large Himalayan massif with peaks above 17,000 feet; peak Khan Tengri is close to 23,000 feet. Wherever you travel in the south, you will always have the spectacular backdrop of the snow-capped Tien Shan in your rearview mirror.
My local birding spot is around a 15-minute drive from home. Here I find avian delights like rubythroats, redstarts, and alluring Asian rosefinches. I always feel privileged when out birding in such a great environment, often after a day in the office. As few birders visit this region, the possibilities of new discoveries are considerable. For example, on a previous VENT tour with Dion Hobcroft, we found a Trumpeter Finch, the fifth record ever for the country.
In May 2022, I am leading a tour to Central Asia. It would be my pleasure to have you join me in my beloved region. The COVID vaccination program in Central Asia has been effective, and life is returning to normal. I will be happy to travel again and meet all of my friends around the world in person. I am thrilled to travel and get back to my passion in the coming months on VENT tours to Malawi and Madagascar. A few openings are still available on both of these tours.
Stay safe my friends. I hope to see you again soon somewhere on our beautiful globe!
Central Asia: Birding the Silk Road, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan, May 2-24, 2022, with Machiel Valkenburg
Machiel’s bio and upcoming tour schedule
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours | 2525 Wallingwood Drive, Suite 1003 | Austin, TX 78746
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