Despite being the size of Haiti or Rwanda – approximately 29,000km2 – the Saryesik Atyrau is an infrequently visited Central Asian desert. The southern extent is less than 50 km from Taldykorgan, an industrial city home to 100,000+ residents. From there it stretches over 200 km north to the southern shores of Lake Balkhash. This collection of Saryesik Atyrau desert photos were taken during English ultra-runner Jamie Maddison’s 2017 70-mile east to west run across the desert. Maddison has completed two other runs in Central Asia. His first was a 100 km+ camel-supported run around Uzbekistan’s Kyzyl Kum desert in 2013. In 2014 he completed a 7-day, 190-mile run across Kazakhstan’s Betpak Dala on Lake Balkhash’s western edge.
Although the desert is a few hours away from Almaty, it remains relatively unknown. The only roads are sandy tracks and the central section has no towns or villages. The far north, on the shores of Balkhash, are even more remote. The Saryesik Atyrau desert photos from this trip are most likely one of only a handful of images from the area available online.
In 2020, the Kazakh government completed a plan to restore the Balkhash tiger in the Ili-Balkhash State Nature Reserve. Until the late-19th century, this tiger species was found between the Black Sea and western China. It also roamed in the northern areas of Afghanistan and Iran. The last sighting of the Balkhash tiger in Kazakhstan was in 1948. The major reasons for their decline are; targeted extermination in the Soviet period; the destruction of their natural habitat from irrigation projects; and the hunting of ungulates leading to a decline in prey for the tigers.