Shalkar-Nura is in the central section of the Irgiz-Turgay Nature Reserve and is a part of the Aktobe Region’s easternmost district: Irgiz. Although the district appears small on a map, it’s in fact slightly larger than Switzerland, but has a vastly smaller population by comparison: 15,000 vs. 8.5 million people.
The Irgiz-Turgay Nature Reserve itself is over 7,600 km2 and covers nearly a fifth of the district. It was established in 2007 to protect its desert, steppe, and wetland biomes, and the saiga at threat from poachers from neighbouring Kyzylorda. Access to the reserve is strictly by permission only.
One route you could take to explore the area, based on Georgy Osadchiy’s (Георгий Осадчий) Shalkar-Nura trip report, is to drive from Yrgyz village to the Kul dam via the Kuylys and Zhaisanbay settlements. Bear in mind that the roads are unpaved and rapidly worsen once you leave Yrgyz. The dam serves to block off the Turgay River’s access to Kurdym Lake.
From the lake and dam, you can drive along the 1,800 km2 Shalkarteniz salt marsh’s southwestern shores to the twin-peaked Kosbuirek mountain (158 m), which means ‘two kidneys’ in Kazakh. A nine kilometre wide area called the Minsay tract separates Kosbuirek from Shalkarnura’s cliffs. Zhamanai Mountain (209 m) forms the outermost edge of the cliffs, locally known as chink. Measured from Zhamanai, the cliffs extend for some 50 km north to Nura village and for over 80 km east to the Aktobe-Kostanay border. Seven kilometres to the west of Zhamanai is the freestanding Sunkarkiya Mountain (191 m), and between these two peaks it’s possible to drive further north along the cliff’s west face.
The south-facing cliffs, which overlook the Shalkarteniz, are the tallest and ascend up to a 239 m unnamed high point. Along this stretch, some of the rock faces are over 100m high. The west-facing stretch overlooks a 15 km-wide desolate plateau, sparsely vegetated apart from patches of tamarisk, saltwort and wormwood. Atop the western cliffs you might be able to spot the Turgay River further to the west. Backing the cliffs is Shalkarnura’s plateau, which has several small lakes and few saline basins. The largest body of water is Akkol (Акколь), in the plateau’s north-eastern corner. Outside of the plateau area there are very few water sources in Shalkarnura, aside from a few natural springs and man-made wells created for the saiga, some of which are thermal.
Although Shalkarnura’s geological history and composition is similar to the Ustyurt and Aktolgai Plateau’s, morphologically it’s different with mellower slopes and fewer dry canyons. However, it’s still spectacular in its own right and given its remoteness is likely to remain one of western Kazakhstan’s least-visited areas.
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