Singing Barkhan Aygaykum (translated from the Kazakh language as “singing sands”) is the main attraction of Altyn-Emel National Park.
Singing Barkhan is a mountain of pure quartz sand without vegetation, with a steep slope. When dry sand moves, grains of sand rub against each other, which produces a long, loud sound similar to low singing. That is why the barkhan was called “The Singing”. Such a rare natural phenomenon is found only in a few places in the world.
Singing barkhan is considered one of the seven natural wonders of Kazakhstan. It was included in the list of nominees for the world competition “7 New Wonders of Nature” held in 2007-2011. It has the status of a natural monument of national importance (Resolution № 746 of the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, dated 19.07.05).
Singing Dune is located in the south central part of the Altyn-Emel National Park, on the right bank of the Ili River, between the mountain ranges of Ulken (Big) and Kishi (Small) Kalkan, 46 km from the village of Bashi, about 300 km from the city of Almaty.
Singing barkhan was formed as a result of geological changes in the region of Semirechye. About 200,000 years ago, part of the volcano Ulken Kalkan (Big Kalkan) shifted, forming the mountains known as Kishi Kalkan (Small Kalkan).
Winds blowing from the southeast to the west-northwest drew sands, which were deposited at the bottom of the volcano, into this new corridor, like a wind tunnel, forming huge barchans about 10-12 thousand years ago.
The Great and Small Kalkan Mountains surround the Singing Barchan, thereby preserving its unchanged shape.
The Singing Dune is 3 km long and 150 m high. It is a big southern dune and the most popular among tourists. Nearby is the northern dune, which is about 100 m high.
The total area of the barchans is 240 hectares. The absolute height of the ridges reaches 600-650 m.
The Sound of the Singing Dune
The sound of the Singing Dune reminds of a low throaty chant, the low sound of an organ or the rumble of a jet plane which can be heard from several kilometers around. It occurs in dry, windy weather, when the sand mass moves.
There are various theories about the mysterious mechanism of the singing sand. According to one of them, the frequency of the sound depends on the shear rate of the sand mass. Other scientists believe that the frequency of vibration is related to the thickness of the dry surface layer of sand. Sound waves resonate between the surface of the dune and the surface of the wet layer, increasing the volume of the sound. The sound itself can be caused by friction between the sand grains or by the compression of air between them.
The sound effect is achieved not only by wind, but also by the mechanical action of sliding down the dry slope of a barchan, but scientists have raised concerns about the stability of this sand ecosystem. Frequent rolls down the slopes of the barkhan cause crushing of sand grains and accumulation of the dusty fraction, which over time may lead to loss of the Singing Barkhan’s ability to produce sound.
Singing sands sound differently in different places around the world, depending largely on the size of the sand dune.
Due to its imposing size, the Singing Dune Aigai Kum produces a strong, low and prolonged sound under certain conditions.
Singing Barkhan is the main tourist attraction of Altyn Emel National Park.
Why does Singing Dunes attract thousands of tourists from all over the world? First, because of its mysterious ability to make sound. Standing next to the dune during its “singing” it’s hard to believe that this sound is made by a sand mountain and not by some low-flying plane.
Secondly, the Singing Dune is remarkable because it never wanders around the desert and never loses its shape, but remains in its place for several thousand years, despite the unsteadiness of the sand and strong winds. By the way, it is a special wind rose in this area that determines the invariable shape and immutability of the barkhan.
Thirdly, climbing Singing Dune, especially barefoot is pure pleasure and possibility to hear the sound of dune under your feet. The ascent is not difficult, and the barkhan itself is surprisingly soft. In addition, from the top there is a stunning panorama of the national park. The big southern barkhan has three ridges – the last of them comes close to the Ili River.
Singing dune is incredibly beautiful and serves as an excellent background for photo shoots.
The local desert flora and fauna is very unusual. You can always find nimble lizards in the sands of Singing Dune.
On the way to the Singing Dune you can stop at the information boards “Dinosaurs of the National Park” and learn a lot of interesting things about the ancient animals that inhabited the current territory of the national park. On the way you can also visit historical monuments – the spring of Chokan Valikhanov and ancient stone steles of Oshaktas.
The road to the Singing Barkhan, passing through the steppe surrounded by the Dzungarian Alatau mountains and the desert Katutau mountains in the distance, is very unusual for city dwellers. It is a popular route for quad, motorcycle and bicycle tours.
You can combine a trip to Singing Barkhan with a visit to the colorful Aktau Mountains. You can stay for the night in a hotel in Basshi village, for example, in a conceptual camping on wheels “Caravanserai”.
Mentioned in the art
The Singing Barchan is one of the sacred places where the protagonist of the novel Zaire by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho receives a spiritual revelation.
“It is a pity that your famous Singing Barkhan, which made the strongest impression on me, cannot be seen or heard from the Alatau Mountains,” Paulo Coelho said to journalist and writer Zhumagali Ismagulov, the translator of his novel into the Kazakh language.
In 2005, Paulo Coelho visited Kazakhstan with the presentation of his novel “Zaire” in Almaty. One of its central characters is a wise man who lives on the shores of Kapchagai. In a letter dated March 20, 2005, Paulo Coelho tells Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper readers: “After my friends’ enthusiastic stories about Kazakhstan, I started searching the Internet for everything there is to know about this country. The longer I searched, the more I fell in love with Kazakh culture. At the same time, I began to write a book called “Zaire. And by magic of inspiration one of the main characters became the Kazakh. From that moment the landscapes of Kazakhstan and “Zaire” became intertwined, and the main storyline pointed the way in the direction of the steppes”.
Thanks to its extraordinary photogenicity, the Singing Barkhan is a favorite place for photo and video shoots, and can often be seen in various videos and music videos – for example, in the clip of the famous Kazakh performer Dimash Kudaibergen “Qairan Elim”, praising the beauty of natural places in Kazakhstan.
Legends of the Singing Barkhan
Several folk legends are connected to the Singing Barkhan:
In ancient times, a shaitan (devil) traveled the world. He spied on people, made intrigues, had time for everything and didn’t miss anything. One day the Almighty was angry with him and deprived him of the ability to move from one place to another at lightning speed. Then the Shaitan had to walk to his house, which was on the top of a mountain. The shaitan walked for a long time across the steppe, along the winding paths along the banks of the Illy River, and finally got tired and lay down to rest. So hard was his way and so heavy was the burden of his deeds, that the shaitan fell asleep soundly. He still sleeps, turning into a lonely barkhan, and nothing and nobody can wake him up – neither the scorching sun, nor the rains, nor the thunderstorms, nor the winds. Only sometimes a lonely moan escapes from his chest when someone tries to disturb the sleeping shaitan forever.
In a distant, faraway country, in the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains, there lived a Spirit. A jolly one. The Spirit was very fond of jokes, but how could he joke? No voice, no body… Who will understand jokes without a voice or a body? So the Spirit decided to find a body and have a body and a voice. “Then I’ll have fun!” – the Spirit thought. He looked around – to the left there are mountains, to the right there are mountains, between them there is the steppe and in the steppe there is a sand dune. Rarely and rarely do trees grow there, dry grass is blown by the wind.
“Some strange barkhan,” thought the Spirit, “All barkhans are like barkhans – in the desert. This one stands in the steppe and doesn’t move.” An eagle soars high in the sky, looking for prey: maybe a turtle will crawl through, and maybe a gopher will run by. “No, I don’t want to be a tree, an eagle, or an eagle’s prey,” Spirit decided, and he became sad. Suddenly the wind blew from the western mountains and started blowing grains of sand from the top of the barkhan. He reached the eastern mountains, pushed off, picked up grains of sand and carried them back. “So that’s why the barkhan is still there,” rejoiced the Spirit, “That’s what I’ll become. Oh, good! “
He climbed over the barkhan, measured himself and dove into the sand. He moved and rustled the sand grains: it was warm and comfortable, and then the wind calmed down. Night in the foothill steppe is cold, stars are shining – yellow, white, blue, green, red – like flowers in the meadow. They twinkle, winking at the Spirit: “Well done.”
At night the steppe dwellers, who were hiding in holes during the day from the heat, came out of the shelters: some to eat, some to drink, and some just for a walk. The jerboa decided to take a short cut to visit his family: he jumped on the dune, and the Spirit: “Ouch!”. The jerked up in fright and the brush on his tail trembled. Dukh – fun. The jerboa has thin paws and long, scratching claws. The jerk, jump, and Spirit goes, “Ouch!” The jumper jumped as fast as he could, followed by “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” He barely got his tail out of the way.
A corsac, a steppe fox, came out to hunt. Its coat was yellow-grey like sand and its eyes were round and shining, looking for prey. The fox stepped on the barkhan, and the Spirit said “Tya!” The fox was surprised and took another step. “У!” – the Spirit responded. The fox ran, and the Spirit: “Ya-ya-ya! Ya-ya-ya! Ya-ya-ya! Beware, night folk, the fox is looking for prey.” The fox is hungry, but the Spirit is pleased.
The Spirit has gone wild. The snake crawled on the barkhan and the prankster hissed: “Psst, psst, psst, psst.” The snake was wise, it has long lived in this world – it was not afraid. She only shamed the Spirit: “Your jokes are bad, wicked. You scared the jerk, you left the foxes hungry, you made fun of me, an old woman. What for? You’ve got a voice now. Live – enjoy yourself and make others happy.
The Spirit pondered. And in the morning the sun rose, the wind blew lightly, and the Spirit asked, “Help, brothers! Warm, sunshine, hotter, blow, wind, stronger.” The sun was warming, the wind was blowing from left to right. Dukh sings with the voice of the barkhan. He sings in different keys: now it overflows like a mountain river on a rock, now it hums like bees in a blossoming garden, now it sounds like an organ.
Spirit had been to different places and could tell a lot of stories. And he sang so beautifully that the word spread far and wide. People started to come to the singing barkhan from afar. They pat the sand with their hands and the barkhan sings. And when brother-sun and brother-wind give a concert, it becomes a real wonder.
And Dukh forgot about insulting jokes – now he has songs to tell about many things.
A poetic legend is associated with Genghis Khan, who passed through Altyn-Emel in the 13th century during his raid on Central Asia. It says that Genghis Khan himself and his comrades-in-arms are buried under the sands of the barkhan, and the sand sings when the khan’s soul, “exhausted from mental torment, tells his descendants about his exploits”.
Singing Barkhan in Kazakhstan
Have you ever heard how the sand sings? No? Then you haven’t seen the “singing dune” in Kazakhstan! “Akkum-Kalkan” (translated from the Kazakh language as “singing barkhan”) is a natural landmark, which was included in the world short-list of “7 New Wonders of Nature” and one of the most mystical places in Kazakhstan. What is this sand barkhan famous for? Why is it called “singing”? How to get to the Singing Barkhan from Almaty on your own? Where can you buy a sightseeing tour and what does it include?
In our article you will find out the mystery of the Singing Dune and see it on the photo, listen to the video as a “singing” barkhan; we will tell you how to get to this natural wonder by car and introduce you to the weekend tours, which offer travel agencies in Almaty.
“The season of singing dunes” comes from late spring to early autumn. The main thing is to have sunny and warm weather for several days and then barkhans will “sing” their songs to you.
Singing dune – a miracle of Kazakhstan
The Singing Dune Barkhan is the jewel in the crown of the famous Kazakh Nature Reserve “Altyn Emel”. Currently, “Singing Barkhan” is included in the list of “7 Wonders of Kazakhstan” and has the official status of a state natural monument of national importance.
A 150-meter sand dune rises alone in the desert near the Ili River between two ridges of the Jungar Alatau – Kysty-Kalkan (Small Kalkan) and Ulken-Kalkan (Big Kalkan). The length of this barkhan is around 3 km. There is only a stony desert overgrown with saxaul and small bushes around, so where did this sand dune come from? And why it hasn’t scattered all over the Iliya valley?
A strong wind, Shilik, almost always blows in this area. It was due to this wind that the mountain of sand was formed. Over the millennia, the wind had been lifting clouds of sandy dust from the banks of the Ili River. Ili River shoals and stubbornly carried them in one direction. But Big and Small Kalkans stood in the way, and hitting that obstacle, the wind slackened and dropped the sand… And so, a huge sand dune, the crests of which reached 600-650 meters, had grown in this place. And, unlike other desert sand dunes, Akkum-Kalkan is a “housebearer”. Despite the instability of sand, the slope of the plain and strong winds that always blow, it doesn’t roam and stays in its place.
©Photo by Vadim Boreyko
As for barkhan singing, everything is simple and there is no mystery. In dry weather the grains of sand rub against each other when they move (from the wind or walking on the dune) and produce a variety of sounds – from a barely perceptible “squeak” to a frightening roar, which can be heard for many kilometers around. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can even hear “organ concerto” played by the wind moving the mass of sand.
However, anyone who is not too lazy to climb the ridge and go down the northern slope can “play” on the dune. Of course, the ascent is not easy: the slope angle reaches 45 degrees, the sand constantly crumbles underfoot and the wind is trying to hinder, blowing right in the face and throwing sand! But at the end of the route all those who have done it have a tremendous scenery from the barkhan ridge over the Iliy valley to the south, blue-mauve ridges of Dzungarian Alatau to the north and mountains to the west and to the east. And you can also roll down the sand from the crest of the barkhan and then you will hear the mysterious and mystic sounds, reminiscent of the hum of an airplane or the roar of a dragon, coming straight from the depths of the sand mountain…
Video: A Singing Dune. Listen to the sound
Certainly, such an unusual natural phenomenon could not exist for many centuries without acquiring a whole bunch of legends… In ancient times the sounds of singing dunes frightened and fascinated people. They thought it was the singing of desert spirits, the bells of cities buried under the sand or the roaring of some mysterious animals.
According to one legend, the singing of a barkhan is the moaning of the shaitan. In ancient times, shaitan used to roam the earth and harm people in every possible way. The Almighty was furious with him and punished him by depriving him of the ability to instantly move from one place to another. So the Shaitan had to walk… He went home (his house, the legend says, was on a mountain), walked for a long time in the desert, and, at last, lay down to rest. He got down and fell asleep. And so he still sleeps, having turned into a sand dune. And when somebody disturbs his sleep – wind or people – a deafening moan comes out of the shaitan’s chest…
Singing Dune – where is it located, how to get there?
Singing Barkhan is located on the territory of Altyn-Emel National Park.
You can get to the Singing Barkhan from Almaty on your own or by sightseeing bus by ordering a weekend tour from one of the tourist companies in Almaty. The distance from Almaty to the Singing Barkhan is about 280 km.
If you decide to drive your own car, then follow the road Almati – Kapchagai through Kapchagai, settlement Shengeldy, Arkharly pass to Sary-Ozek, then along the ring turn smoothly on the right (to Zharkent) and follow it through Altyn-Emel pass to the turn from the road (it is about 76 km). Turn right and continue to the village of Baschi (the central farmstead of the national park is located there).
Don’t forget to refuel in Sary-Ozek (there is a petrol station before the ring) for the whole further way – after Sary-Ozek there may be problems with petrol availability.
From the central farmstead to the barkhan there is an unpaved road (you will have to drive about 50 km on it). There are no stones, but after the rain or in spring when the snow melts, it is possible to “sit” in the lowlands.
How to get to the Singing Barkhan from Almaty
To go to the Singing Barkhan you can also as a part of a tourist group by buying a tour. Today many tour operators offer one-day weekend tours from Almaty to “Altyn-Emel” to the “Singing” barkhan. As a rule, such trips are organized in the period from April to September, only on weekends and holidays. The buses take four hours to reach the barkhan.
Another option is to order a cab. The cost is 80,000 tenge – salon. On the way we can stop by the “City of Nomads” (the famous blockbuster “Nomad” was filmed here, the man-made ancient city is preserved, with streets, houses, towers). And then drive on to the “Singing Barkhan”. You can order a cab by phone / WhatsApp: 8 777 584 65 44