Tamgaly Tas: How to Visit Kazakhstan’s Enchanting Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary

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During my time in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I relished the opportunity to get some fresh air outside of the city. Besides visiting Big Almaty Lake, an absolute must while in Almaty, I also went on a day trip to Tamgaly to see the Buddhist petroglyphs known as Tamgaly Tas. While getting to Tamgaly is a bit of a trek from Almaty, it was an amazing day and I’m so glad that I went. Here’s everything you need to know to get out of Almaty and see Tamgaly.

 

An Introduction to the Tamgaly Gorge

Tamgaly gorge is home to both the Tamgaly Tas, as well as the separate set of petroglyphs known as collectively as the UNESCO World Heritage Site the “Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly.” It’s not hard to see why ancient peoples would have found the gorge such an enticing place to set up camp, and the numerous rock faces make for the perfect canvases for those passing through.

 

The Tamgaly Gorge at Golden Hour
View of the Tamgaly Gorge at Golden Hour

 

 

Tamgaly Tas – A Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary

When people think of religion in Kazakhstan, very few will think of Buddhism. However, Buddism had a strong influence on some of the Turkic peoples of the steppe. According to the Astana Times:

 

Within that area are the Tamgaly-Tas (“Stones with Signs”), one of Kazakhstan’s most popular tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cliffs, about 120 kilometres from Almaty, are marked with thousands of rock paintings and carvings dating from the Bronze Age onward. Among the hunting scenes and animal figures are carvings of the Buddha, Buddhist mantras in Sanskrit and pictures of important Buddhist teachers.

Local legend has it that a Buddhist mission had stopped by the banks of the Ili River under some rock cliffs when a sudden earthquake caused a hunk of rock to fall from the cliffs near them. In gratitude at their deliverance, they created the largest Buddha image there, facing the sky from a large, sunblasted rock, before they continued.

 

The main and most elaborate Buddhist petroglyph at Tamgaly Tas
The main and most elaborate Buddhist petroglyph at Tamgaly Tas

 

After exploring the elaborate Buddhist temples in Bangkok, I found that these detailed drawing on the natural stone were extremely moving and different from any Buddist sites that I’d seen before. They’re on a large rock, which is located partway up a hill.  Even though I was on a large group tour, it was easy to get some shots without people in them because of the fact that they are situated high off the ground.

 

Details of the left Buddha
Details of the left Buddha

 

I found that photographing them in the bright midday Kazakh sun was difficult. I’ve edited them here to try to bring out the details so you can see what they look like, but I don’t think my photos do them justice. The white details come out so clearly in person.

 

Details of the right Buddha
Details of the right Buddha

 

Even when my friend took photos of me, it was so bright that I could barely keep my eyes open. The best photo I managed to get was me squinting about 95%. It was an extremely bright day. I found that the sun seemed infintely brighter in Central Asia. I’m not sure why this is, but my eyes felt it.

 

Looking like a creep in front of the petroglyphs
Looking like a creep in front of Tamgaly Tas

 

When you’re at Tamgaly Tas, remember that this is a religious site and open-air sanctuary, as evidenced by the fresh prayer flags strung across it. Sometimes visiting “historic sites,” it’s easy to forget that some people’s history is someone else’s current faith. Like in any church or synagogue, be respectful.

 

Buddhist prayer flags in front of the main petroglyphs at Tamgaly Tas
Buddhist prayer flags in front of the main petroglyphs

How to Visit Tamgaly Tas from Almaty

The easiest way to visit is to go on a group tour. I went with the company Steppe Spirit, which you can contact via their Instagram account. I paid 5000 tenge (about $14 USD). This included transportation, seeing the Buddhist petroglyphs, a boat ride across the river, and visiting Nomad’s Land. Snacks were not included.

 

Oh it also included a cool choreography session. I was too awkward to participate, but the rest of the people on the trip thought it was awesome.

 

Read:  Visiting Nomad’s Land: The Abandoned Movie Set in the Kazakhstan Steppe

 

A day tour complete with a dance class.
A day tour complete with a dance class.

 

For those who choose to go solo, you can drive if you have access to a car (just note that foreigners tend to get hassled on the roads by the police). I believe there is also a public bus, but after my friend’s bus to the Singing Dunes broke down, I think I would prefer the comfort of a bus tour company to the Kazakh public bus system.

 

Another option, which will be pricier but give you a lot of luxury to plan your own itinerary, is to use Yandex to hire a taxi for the day. I explained how to use Yandex to plan day trips in my post on Visiting Big Almaty Lake by taxi. Essentially, you can list up to four destination points. So you can list Tamgaly Tas, the Petroglyphs, and Nomad’s Land. Put Almaty as the fourth destination. This will give you the cost of the driving distance. When your day is complete, it will add in the wait time, so your final total will be higher but accurate. This keeps you from having to negotiate a taxi and means that your ride is registered and priced accurately. For my trip to the lake, I was charged about 1000 tenge for the driver to wait for me for an hour. If you do this as a day trip, I would estimate 4 hrs of wait time:

 

  • 1 hr for the Buddhist petroglyphs
  • 2 hrs for the UNESCO site
  • 30 min for Nomad’s Land
  • 30 min for miscellaneous stops and meals

 

Of course, you could end up spending more or less wait time. Just know that this will be added into your total once you’re back in Almaty and the driver lists the ride as complete.

 

Enjoying sitting on the tour bus after a long day exploring Tamgaly
Enjoying sitting on the tour bus after a long day exploring Tamgaly

 

 

Things to Do in Tamgaly after You’ve Seen the Buddhist Rock Art

I got to do a few other things in the area as part of my day trip to the petroglyphs. However, if you go on your own, I highly recommend stopping to take in some of these activities in the area.

 

Visit Nomad’s Land

A short boat ride away is Nomad’s Land, a former movie set that’s being preserved. Visitor’s can walk around the streets, pausing to take that perfect Instagram shot in the beautiful, wood-and-foam town. Take a peek inside and behind the buildings to see where the movie magic ends and the real world begins.

 

Read: Visiting Nomad’s Land

 

A View of Nomad's Land, the abandoned movie set that's being preserved for locals and tourists to enjoy.
A View of Nomad’s Land, the abandoned movie set that’s being preserved for locals and tourists to enjoy.

 

Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “Petroglyphs within the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly”

The petroglyphs at Tamgaly Tas are technically separate from the UNESCO Site, which has over 5,000 additional petroglyphs. If you travel to Tamgaly Tas on your own or with a hired driver, make time to see both sites. Read more about the UNESCO site here.

Appreciate the Beauty of the Kazakh Steppe

Kazakhstan is blessed with beautiful landscapes that can vary widely. Driving from the mountains around Almaty into the steppe, the changing landscape will take your breath away. Before seeing it myself, I thought of the steppe as a large, monotonous grassland. However, the reality is that the landscape is beautiful and varied, at times looking practically martian.

 

Stop to take in the beauty of the Kazakh steppe.
Stop to take in the beauty of the Kazakh steppe.

 

Go for a Scenic Boat Ride

The best way to travel from Tamgaly Tas to Nomad’s Land is by boat. Our tour helped us with our boat rides, but there was a boat that went back and forth frequently. If you traveling solo with a car, I would attempt to negotiate a boat ride to Nomad’s Land, rather than drive between the two.

 

Taking a boat ride to Nomad’s Land and back was a major highlight of my trip.

 

Stay and Enjoy the Gorgeous Sunsets

This is dependant on who you’re traveling with, but we got lucky and our tour was still at Tamgaly as the sun began to set. It was breathtaking.

 

 

See a Bit of Nomadic Life along the Ili River

It’s nearly impossible to visit Central Asia and not spot a yurt or two, but even after seeing hundreds at the World Nomad Games, I loved the picturesque lone yurt sitting beside the river.

 

A yurt sitting beside the Ili River in Tamgaly
A yurt sitting beside the Ili River in Tamgaly

 

Go for a Quick Dip in the River

While I didn’t have a chance to swim in the river, the water looked so refreshing. This account from Carivanistan includes skinny dipping in the Ili river. To be safe, pack your swimsuit instead of going Commando. Even if you don’t swim, you can enjoy people watching along the river. We saw locals out enjoying the beautiful day fishing, picnicing, and camping.

 

 

 

Enjoy a Beer or a Coca-Cola at the Nomad’s Land Magazine

While there aren’t any concessions at Tamgaly Tas, there’s a small magazine with tables overlooking the river outside of Nomad’s Land. It’s a relaxing place to enjoy a refreshing drink after a long day of exploration.

 

The little magazine outside of Nomad's Land, plus an awesome minivan.
The little magazine outside of Nomad’s Land, plus an awesome minivan.

Tips for Visiting Tamgaly

  • Bring your own snacks and drinks. The only place you can buy them is the small magazine outside of Nomad’s Land down and across the river from the Buddhist Rock Art.
  • Drink lots of water. There’s almost no place to get shade.
  • Bring cash. Nowhere takes credit cards.
  • Bring a bathing suit if you want to swim.
  • If you want to go with a group tour, check with multiple tour companies. Not every company runs this tour consistently.
  • Be respectful of the other people on your tour. Most, if not all of the other tourist will be Kazakhs. The trip may seem very economical if you’re coming from a country with a strong economy, but it’s priced to be affordable to locals. Many will be spending what is a large chunk of change to a local to experience their own culture and history. Do not be an ugly American (or wherever).

 

The entrance to Tamgaly Tas
The entrance to Tamgaly Tas

 

5 Things to Pack for a Visit to Tamgaly Tas

 

  • Lonely Planet Central Asia which is available as a paper copy or in a Kindle edition.
  • Food and Drinks for the Day since most day tours won’t provide them and there are no concessions nearby.
  • Your Cell Phone and Camera to get that Insta Pic you know you’re dying to come back with.
  • Trekking Poles for anyone planning to do the hikes nearby or while in Kazakhstan, especially if you have knee issues.
  • Travel Insurance Policy information, because things happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any hiking or trekking while in Kazakhstan.

    I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them.  It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any adventure sports like horseback trekking, hiking, or traveling off-road. Even in Almaty, you’ll be happy when you’re able to replace your stuff if it’s lost or stolen.

     

How to Visit the Tamgaly Petroglyphs and Gorge in Kazakhstan
View of Tamgaly Gorge from the river at Golden Hour

 

 

 

 

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Tamgaly Tas: How to Visit Kazakhstan's Enchanting Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary
Tamgaly Tas: How to Visit Kazakhstan’s Enchanting Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary

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