Will our correspondent tumble down a mountain, or claim a 40-inch trophy? Read on to find out.
The first ibex I ever saw was in a National Geographic magazine when I was in high school. I knew more than 30 years ago that I wanted to hunt the animal with long, curving horns, and I was finally able to realize that dream last fall. Though I had what I consider to be the trip of a lifetime last October, there were plenty of bumps along the way—any one of which should give you pause if you are considering taking a similar journey. The following report is not your standard hunting tale. My trip was expensive (and we paid for everything), arduous, dangerous at times, but ultimately very rewarding. However, we recognize that this trip isn’t for everyone. Below, we describe what actually went on during more than two weeks in the the former Soviet bloc country of Kazakhstan—without pulling any punches. This article will give you the information you need to answer the question: Should you go?
Making The Arrangements
I booked my trip with RUS-Adventures (Dept. FT, 225 Foster Ave., No. D3, Brooklyn, NY 11230,  633-4197), finding the company’s advertisement in the Safari Club Journal. The ad briefly described ibex hunting in Kazakhstan, so I dialed the toll-free number and spoke to outfitter Adil Aliyev. He was a Russian who had moved to the United States to set up a hunting connection to his homeland for Maral stag, Saiga antelope, Marco Polo sheep, Russian boar, snow sheep, bears, and Siberian ibex. We corresponded by phone and letter for six months trying to find a combination that I could afford. I figured that if I were going to do this, I might as well do it right and try for two trophies. Aliyev quoted a price of $8,000 for the package, without airfare. Aliyev suggested my hunting partner Bob Pace and I leave on November 1, 1996, which he said was the best time to hunt ibex. Learning that we might face some very cold weather at that time, I suggested we move up the date to October 22. We would hunt Saiga antelope in the vast steppe area of Kazakhstan first, then transfer to the eastern mountainous region for ibex. We would spend a total of 17 days in the country, allowing for the long travel times between the hunting areas.
We soon began planning seriously. Preliminarily, we needed passports, a Kazakhstan visa, an invitation from the state hunting organization in Kazakhstan, certificates for bringing trophies home, and rifle authorizations. We also began looking at the pricing in detail. We would spend $1,500 roundtrip for travel and accommodations, $4,200 for the ibex and $1,995 for the saiga antelope permits, and another $1,000 for passport and visa charges, a veterinary certificate, and other incidentals. These charges totaled $8,695. But we worked on these details over the next several months, and before we knew it, it was time to leave.
After a three-hour drive to Portland, Pace and I flew to Seattle, to St. Louis, to Chicago, then on to New York. After a five-hour layover, we then crossed the Atlantic and headed for Austria. We spent another four-hour layover before embarking to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. We would spend some 23 hours in the air and nine hours of waiting in various airports by the time we arrived.
When we deplaned in Kazakhstan, we didn’t know what day it was or what time it was—why, we barely knew our own names. We passed through customs, met our guides and interpreter, and headed for what we thought would be our hotel. Instead, some six hours later, we arrived at a small village on the banks of huge Lake Balquash. There, we met Victor, game keeper for the area and our hunting guide. We hoped we would finally get some sleep before proceeding; instead, we set out on another eight-hour trip in a four-wheel-drive Nissan.
A large army truck followed us the entire distance. The big truck served as storage, diner, and sleeping quarters. When we finally stopped, we had a cup of tea and jumped into the back of the truck to sleep. Pace and I decided that a tent on the desert floor might suit us better, so they accommodated us with a small tent. I was asleep before the zipper of my sleeping bag was all the way up.
The Hunt Begins
After sleeping, we were revived and ready to go. As we loaded the Nissan, we were both surprised to see them fire up a motorcycle that had been stored in the truck. As we drove off, the cycle fell in behind the Nissan and tailed us through the desert for a couple of hours until we spotted our first herd of Saiga.
The role of the cycle quickly became apparent as the Nissan came to a halt and the cycle went into high gear. We were still puzzled about what was going on until, about 15 minutes later, the Russians all became loud and agitated. Through the binoculars I could see a distant trail of dust from the cycle. It wasn’t until the Russians practically dragged us out of the car that we realized what was happening. Boris, the cycle driver, had singled out a male Saiga antelope and was driving him toward us. The cycle came to an abrupt stop about 200 yards to our left. The Saiga continued in front of us about 100 yards away. Now we were beginning to get the drift of hunting Saiga in Kazakhstan.
We called for a brief time-out. We politely explained that we don’t do this sort of thing in America and that we would prefer to stalk the antelope and pick out our own quarry. We quickly learned that we were not in Kansas anymore, and that we probably ought to act like it was fun. These folks were very proud of their methods of hunting and were offended that we didn’t appreciate their skills. I turned to Pace and said, “You know, Bob, there is an awful lot of desert out here. If some Russians took a dislike to a couple of strange American hunters, they could probably dump them off out here about anywhere and no one would ever find them.”
Pace replied, “You know, Dave, I’m beginning to like this Saiga hunting. I think I am going to do this just exactly the way they want us to.”
Pace took two shots behind his first running Saiga, and that buck escaped to the safety of the desert. About an hour later Pace got another chance, and he was ready this time. I followed the buck with the binoculars and called his first shot. It was behind the antelope 2 feet. He quickly bolted in another round and hit the buck on the second try.
After a few congratulatory slaps on the back, Pace said, “I should have brought my shotgun.”
Shortly thereafter, we ended hunting for the day and went back to camp. At camp we ate our first full-scale Russian or Kazak meal consisting of borsch (stew with a lot of cabbage), salami, stale bread, cheese, cookies, tea, and vodka.
We were up early and on our way once again. It took about 2 hours of driving to finally catch our first group of Saiga. Like the other antelope we had seen, this group was running across the endless tabletop terrain. It went on without a ravine, ditch, stream, hill, or tree of any kind. I likened it to about five eastern Wyomings lined up together.
Early in the afternoon, I got my opportunity as Boris drove an antelope toward us. Victor, the gamekeeper, was a powerful local functionary, and he also had the eyes of an eagle and could spot Saiga with the naked eye long before I could see them with binoculars. He was very proud of this talent and assured us that he had ‘crystal’ eyes.
I reached down and turned the Zeiss variable down to 4 power, bolted a round in, stretched out the Harris Bi-Pod, and got myself set. The chorus of Russian raised to a feverish pitch as the cycle approached. The interpreter grabbed me and said this is a great trophy—don’t miss! The antelope quartered to my left at 100 yards when I got on him. I tried to lead him about 3 feet and squeezed off my first round from the 264. The Saiga took a tumble, and I stood shaking and speechless. The trophy’s horns were deeply corrugated clear to the top where they turned in toward each other. The last inch or so of the horns was jet black, and I couldn’t get over its very strange nose. There were Saiga steaks that night, and they were some of the best meat I have tasted anywhere.
On To The Ibex
With our antelope in tow, we made the long trek back to Almaty where we finally get a shower and a bed with sheets. The government-owned hotel was not plush, but it was comfortable. After a day of delay getting permit problems straightened out, we embarked on a drive that lasts 14 hours. We stopped at another city after 6 hours to meet Mr. Ukransky, who heads the Kazakhstan hunting organization. He had our permits and our passports, and he traveled with us the last leg of the journey to ibex camp.
We finally reached the 9,000-foot mountains about 1 a.m. and were introduced to the six-person ibex crew. We ate tea, bread, and ham, and drink vodka before we rolled out the sleeping bags on two old beds on each side of the room. Just as we started to nod off, the door opened and all six Russians (including Ala, the female cook) filed in, moved our stuff out of the way, and proceeded to stretch out all over the floor. Every inch of the 12-foot-square room was packed.
The next morning we drove up a road leading to towering mountains on each side. The road became washed out, and we proceeded on foot, crossing the river several times. About a half-mile up the valley, we suddenly spotted our first ibex—right on top of the world. The two young guides, Vitaly and Sergei, studied the cliffs and determined there were three male ibex there.
The next few hours of climbing were some of the worst I can remember. It reminded me of Dall sheep hunting in Alaska. If you fell, you wouldn’t be hurt—you would be dead. By late afternoon we made it to the top only to find that the ibex had moved.
Darkness came quickly in this steep country, and the trip down the mountain was even more precarious than going up. The guides, for some reason, didn’t have a flashlight. Thank goodness Pace had one, or we could have had a serious tragedy that night. We were soon exhausted, because the terrain was steep and rocky, and each step had to be chosen carefully. When we finally reached the bottom, the jeep wasn’t there. That meant another couple of hours walk back to the cabin. Since we were not allowed to take our interpreter hunting with us, the guides didn’t seem to understand that we were sick and about to collapse. They would hike far ahead of us then wait until we got close. Then they would forge ahead, laughing and smoking cigarettes. We eventually made it back to camp and collapsed into the bags.
We took the next day off, and during the downtime, we made it clear to our hosts that we were not going back up that mountain. The chief game keeper said there was another area over by China that was much easier to hunt and had lots of game. The next morning we got up at 5 a.m. and drove about two hours to get there.
At one point, we slowed down then came to a brief stop. Sergei pointed out the window to the mountains on our left. “China,” he said, then continued into a narrow canyon. We traveled 20 minutes up the canyon road when the guides spotted some ibex. As Pace got ready, I grabbed the 20 x 60 Zeiss binoculars and marked a good ibex separated from the group. Pace’s .300 Weatherby did the trick on the second shot at about 350 yards, and we had our first Asian ibex.
We continued up the road several more miles until we spotted another ibex. Just as I got set to shoot, the ibex turned and went over the top. Vitaly motioned for me to follow him up the hill. We went on a dead run up the steep rocks for about 300 yards when Vitaly motioned uphill. The ibex had seen us and was dashing for the top. I squeezed off a round as he disappeared, but I missed.
Toward evening, we walked down an old trail that wound down a nearby valley. We spotted four male ibex, and they all looked like world records to me. Vitaly was excited and instructed me in Russian about which one to shoot. I settled on the third one down from the top and fired away, but missed again. It was a long ride home that night.
The next day, guards at a check station were much friendlier once Sergei gave them a front shoulder of Pace’s ibex. We floated right through the check station and headed for ibex country. We saw a number of smaller males and some females, and it wasn’t for a couple of hours that we finally spotted what appeared to be a bedded trophy ibex. I saw he was quite a bit longer than the other male with him, and he had a great curl at the end of his horns. I found a large boulder and settled the bipod down to wait for him to get up. It took about 10 minutes before they got nervous and began to move out. As soon as he took the first step, I fired and missed. The guides were yelling, “Shitzen! Shitzen!” because they were upset that I was not shooting more, but I held my ground as he moved up the mountain. Just as he reached the very top of the mountain, he stopped and looked back at me. The .264 boomed and all I saw was legs in the air. He went down. It took well over an hour to get up to him, but I finally ran my hands over all 40 inches of that beautiful set of horns.
Field Tests Recommends
On the flight home, I awoke somewhere over the Atlantic and realized we had actually gone halfway around the world to collect the trophies of a lifetime. But should you go? My trip allowed me to realize a 30-year dream, and not everyone shares that vision. There were aspects of the trip that weren’t to our liking—some of them dangerous, some merely inconvenient or uncomfortable—which means hunting ibex isn’t for everyone. But if you have a taste for raw hunting adventure, Kazakhstan certainly has it.