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Visit to Altyn Tyube, Kazakhstan

Last Updated: 5th Aug 2013

By Jolyon & Katya Ralph

The Type Locality for Dioptase - Altyn Tyube

Last week I was in Kazakhstan and met up with local mineral dealer Sergei Golomolzin for a pre-planned visit to a couple of mineral localities in the country. The first was a very impressive deposit of chrysoprase, which I'll write about later. But the second, and most exciting for me, was Altyn Tyube, the type locality of Dioptase.

First, for those who don't know, a brief introduction to Kazakhstan. A central asian republic, formerly in the Soviet Union, it is the eighth largest country in the world. The primary terrain is steppe, vast uncultivated grasslands. A few roads cut across from village to village, but the vast majority of the territory is untouched.

I flew in to Almaty in the south of the country, where I also visited the Geological Museum (which I'll again detail later). Later we took a ten hour train to Karaganda, in the center of the country.

This is the steppe. Wide, desolate but beautiful, richer in colour than the photos can really show, and teeming with wildlife.

Kazakhstan steppe

And this was our transport for the trip, a Russian built UAZ-452 4x4 minivan, nicknamed 'Bukhanka' in Russian (for loaf of bread). The design has been produced, almost unchanged for sixty years. This particular vehicle is only a year old.

The vehicle, with bare fold-down benches for seats in the back, has only one concession for comfort, a padded roof, which I became very grateful for!

Here we are at the chrysoprase locality about to depart to go to Altyn Tyube.

The van.

There are few main roads in Kazakhstan, and Altyn Tyube is not conveniently near to one of them. You have to go off road, and drive on the steppe - for 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the nearest prepared road. Sergei told me that during winter it once took him 18 hours to drive these 18 kilometers through the snow. It took us about an hour (plus 30 minutes in breaks) to drive from the main road to the mine.

On the steppe.

These are the tracks through the steppe we drove over. In many places you really couldn't see much of a track at all, or we made new ones because (as here) the route was waterlogged.

Driving through the steppe.

But some times there was no option but to go through the water.

Fording the river.

We made a slight detour to a little lake. The lake is called Altyn Syu (which means 'Golden Water' in the Kazakh language). Coincidentally, 'Zelotaya Vada', the fake name for the fake 'helidor' locality supposedly in Tajikistan means 'Golden Water' in Russian. You may sometimes see Altyn Syu on locality labels for Dioptase, but this is incorrect, there's no Dioptase found here.

The lake

At the lake Sergei and his friends stripped off and jumped in.


Back on our way, Sergi's son shouted out "Gribi" and the van screeched to a halt. We all jumped out. Gribi (or грибы) is Russian for mushrooms. As an aside, Russian is by far the most popular language spoken in Kazakhstan, with 90% of people speaking it, and only 50% speaking the native Kazakh language. Of course, the further away from major towns you get, the more Kazakh you hear being spoken.


We started collecting mushrooms, and in less than five minutes we had two large plastic carrier bags filled.

Collecting mushrooms

As I mentioned, the steppe is full of interesting wildlife. We saw Ibex, Marmots, wild horses and many birds of prey, including four spectacular eagles sitting on this rock. As we approached only one remained.


Finally, we approached the mine workings. The mine is permanently occupied. Currently there is a lot of activity as they are drilling to find new dioptase-bearing areas. There is good future potential according to their recent exploration work.

The Altyn Tybe workings.

They have built an underground living area, with bunks, kitchen and store room. It is surprisingly cosy. They have water from their own well - in fact this was the only place we visited in Kazakhstan where it was safe to drink the tap water!

Underground living area.

But the luxury doesn't end there. Next door is their underground sauna.

Entrance to the Sauna

The underground living quarters aren't for guests. Guests get to stay in their newly constructed guesthouse (they are extending it to have shower facilities soon).

Guest accommodation

Currently the facilities included in the guest quarters are a clean carpeted room with fantastic views, full electric lighting, a telescope and an underground dioptase mine. Yes, a dioptase mine.

Here is Sergei descending through the trapdoor into the mine.

Entrance to the mine in the guest building.

Down some ladders we go.

Sergei in the mine

Sergei's son, Ivan, and the impressive ventilation for the mine. Things may look basic, but they take things seriously, especially with mine ventilation.

And, at the bottom, we see traces of what we came for. Dioptase.

Dioptase in the wall

More dioptase

Close-up of some dioptase in-situ.

As the day grew on we had to make a decision - do we head back tonight, or do we stay until morning? It wasn't a hard choice, but we had to phone to let others know of our change of plans. Mobile phone signal was available on top of a nearby hill. So we set off on a little walk into the steppe. One of the mine's "guard dogs" decided to come with us for the walk. The dogs feed themselves by hunting on the steppe. When they're satisfied they often bring "gifts" of mice and other small animals back to the mine.

Walking on the steppe

On our quick walk we found several mushrooms.


And an adder found us. Luckily he was almost as scared of us as we were of him, and quickly disappeared.


Safely back to the mine after our snake encounter, we had a wander around. Here is a pile of dioptase specimens. These pieces are destined to be used in the extension of the living quarters - walls will be made with dioptase-rich rock!

Building material

A closer look at the dioptase-bearing rock. None of this is fantastic material, but all of these pieces are far richer than the best dioptase I have ever found in Arizona (my only other dioptase-collecting experience).

Dioptase rock

In fact, dioptase is everywhere here. You see tiny green crystals in the mud, you see rocks coated with green crystals everywhere.

Just lying on the path

We looked at some of the excavations in the open cut pit. Here my wife Katya is looking at a specimen with Sergei.

The open pit

Material in the pit

It takes me very little time to find a piece with some reasonably large crystals.

My preciousss

Not a spectacular piece, some damage, but crystals up to 1cm of dioptase. Collecting my own dioptase crystals of this size has been a dream for many, many years. Of course, it needs a trim too.

Close-up of my specimen

Sergei and Katya in the pit

But time is not on our side, and soon we have to stop collecting as the sun goes down.

Sunset over Altyn Tyube

The team gather by the entrance to the living quarters discussing plans for the evening. A group of hunters/trappers also use this as a base to hunt marmot. Coincidentally, we had very tasty fresh Russian meat dumplings that evening.

Discussing dinner. "What meat is this?" isn't the best question to ask.

As night fell, I began to regret not bringing my tripod. Then I remembered the telescope. Could the tripod for that have a standard fitting that would fit my camera? Yes, of course it does! So, I tried some night photos.

Nighttime over Altyn Tyube. Check out the meteor running from the top left corner.

At 18 kilometers from the nearest road, and with not a single light to be seen in any direction it is a truly wonderful place for those interested in the stars, or in night photography.

Another shot of the sky over the camp.

More stars at night.

Finally time to sleep for a 6am departure. We awake to sunrise over the steppe.

Sunrise over the steppe.

Our friendly guard dog says goodbye


And off over the steppe we drive.

Goodbye Altyn Tyube

I can safely say this has been the most incredible locality I have ever visited. Next time I hope to stay for several days!

Would you like to visit this amazing locality? We will be arranging one or more trips for small groups (5-6 people per trip) over the next year - if you're interested in visiting this amazing place and digging your own dioptase please contact me!

Article has been viewed at least 8932 times.


It looks like you and Katya had a wonderful time in Kazakhstan. as much as I enjoyed seeing all that dioptase, I liked your snake and stars photo the most, the snake I am pretty sure is a Steppe adder, Vipera renardi, as opposed to the adder we have here in the UK which is Vipera berus. I thought the milky way looked quite impresive from the New forest but out in the steppe it is just breathtaking! Thank you for this excellent article.

Jason Evans
4th Aug 2013 4:10pm
Fascinating report, Jolyon, and wonderful nighttime sky photos!

Woody Thompson
4th Aug 2013 4:49pm
Thank you, Jolyon, for this fantastic article. I always enjoy reading about and seeing photos of exotic places I will never visit. It's rare to see a starry sky with a visible milky way. And, that lonely pooch dog looks as if he wants some permanent friends.

Joseph Polityka
4th Aug 2013 6:10pm
Very interesting.

John Montgomery
4th Aug 2013 6:33pm
Thank you for taking the time to write up that incredible trip

John M Stolz
4th Aug 2013 6:41pm
J & K

Thank you so much for sharing

Cheers Keith

Keith Compton
5th Aug 2013 1:10pm
Katya and Jolyon,

Many thanks, it's great to travel to far flung locales from the comfort of my living room. The night sky photos are great, the adder, not so much. Looking forward to reading more about the trip.


Paul Siegel
6th Aug 2013 12:35am
Brilliant, Jol! I'm quite jealous.

Alfredo Petrov
14th Aug 2013 10:03pm
Great article Jolyon, thanks for documenting your visit to this incredible site. I recall a forum posting with questions on it sometime back, and it is nice to have more information. I would love to go on a trip to a remote region like this someday to observe/collect. I can only hope I get the opportunity at some point in my life. Until that time, I live vicariously through reports like this.

Scott Sadlocha
16th Aug 2013 6:23pm
There is a vacancy in the September SMLS lecture programme - can I sign you up for this story? Am I right in remembering that this is the land of Katya's forefathers? Trevor.

Trevor Devon
30th Sep 2013 10:16pm
DEar Jolyon and Katyan Thanks from Hobart for this report in August 2017. Am preparing a talk on copper minerals in my collection for our annual Mineral Society Seminar in south Australia. I often spend time with Sergi in Tucson as we both trade at Inn Suites and it was great to see him in his own mine environment. Dehne

Dehne McLaughlin
25th Aug 2017 12:11pm

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