Sary-Yesik-Atyrau desert’s appearance is very typical for Kazakhstan. It is located close to Balkhash, between the rivers Ili and Karatal. Although on the maps it is marked as an entirely sand, in fact it is mainly clayey, with large areas of overgrown dunes. There are some places with remained haloxylon forests which are actively being decimated.
The former life of "bakanases"
The desert is completely uninhabited in the current historical period. Here are no permanent residents, only poachers, suppliers of haloxylon (also poachers) and rare extreme tourists. But numerous artifacts indicate other times. The culture of medieval towns and ancient canals was interrupted by invasion of Genghis Khan; the culture of kolkhoz wintering and artesian wells - by the beginning of reorientation. Here have survived many "bakanases" - dry sleeves of ancient delta Ili. (The largest are Orta Bakanas, Sheth-Bakanas). Nevertheless, Sarah-Yessyk-Atyrau is so close to the Alma-Ata that one day is enough to get into its wilds, and one day - to get back (if you are lucky!). However, you have to spend the night in the desert anyway. And probably this is the main charm of the trip.
At the end, the most important thing is the feelings that you gained from experience, which will excite you many years later. If you spend the night in the desert, right under the starry sky near the haloxylon fire, it will be an exciting event for any citizen (anyone living in a city).
For the overnight rest it is better not to climb on the dunes, sandy areas are full of all sorts of small animals, which would disturb your sleep with the patter of their feet and persistent rustle. Better to choose a place in the haloxylon grove, there will be no problem with firewood, and the silence is so intense, especially in the autumn, so you could hear the hiss, when falling meteorites pierce the atmosphere.
So do not rush to fall asleep. Sleep in the desert is so qualitative that for the complete rest you will need only half of urban dose. It is better to use the time for direct contact with the cosmos. (Do you remember the last time you indulged in this primitive pastime?) Especially, since the action that will unfold over you, compensates for any insomnia.
Haloxylon as a firewood is a poetry. It lights up with a half of a match and lit evenly and quietly, without nerves and sparks, no chatter and lashing. The steady chug of the haloxylon fire disturbs just a little bit an environmental harmony and a great silence of the desert night. Though, the wood, dried by the hot sun, burns fast, the heat from the coals stays; and in the morning if you put a kettle above coals, it will boil up instantly. Even during the winter, when the temperature is minus twenty, overnight in the desert is not a problem if you have haloxylon.
Fire burns through and becomes silent and you will stay alone with the Sky. And, perhaps, something special will open for you in this boundless space that will allow you to look differently at everything around, and at the same time you could evaluate your modest place in this infinite greatness.
Is there a treasure? Yes it is!
There are no doubts in the fact that deserts around Balkhash are full of old treasures. An original urban civilization flourished ten centuries ago here, in the center of Sary-Yessyk-Atyrau, it was based on a large-scale irrigation system, using water from this long dry "bakanas". Ancient canals that need to be crossed over here and there in the ancient delta are impressive even today.
According to scientists, a chain of cities were stretched from Malaysary ridge to the north, up to the Balkhash. Even today, you continually come across their guttered walls and broken pieces of pottery scattered around the surface. No serious archaeological research was conducted in the ancient delta, except for the timid reconnaissance loosening of the ground. And, judging by the state of local science, no research could be expected here in the next thirty years.
Mean while, we are dealing with one of the most interesting and mysterious civilizations on the territory of Kazakhstan. It suddenly appeared at a deadlock where none of the main caravan routes passed through; it experienced a fast and rapid bloom and fell under the hits of the Genghis Khan’s army. It left behind no memory, except for clay walls and fortifications - Turtkul, guttered furrows of canals scattered along the desert. Scientists use names for designation of these old cities - Aktam, Agashayak, Karamergen, which have nothing to do with their real names. True names are the mystery that may never be uncovered.
Quotations of the treasure hunter in the desert
"Involuntarily I recalled that shortly after the Great Patriotic War, during one of the trips in Semirechye, I met an old shepherd, who said that in the desert Sary-Yessyk-Atyrau, close to the Lake Balkhash, he saw a destroyed settlement, covered with sand. Inside, the edge of the bronze cauldron is visible from the ground. It was so big that could easily contain a camel. (...) Huntsman that lives on the peninsula Saryyesik heard about the same settlement... It seemed that the old settlement with a bronze cauldron located deep in the desert and suffered less from time would be, therefore, the most interesting. But I could not find it."
Pavel Marikovskiy, "The Forgotten Islands", Moscow 1991