ALMATY (Reuters) - Prevented from travelling abroad by the pandemic, Kazakhs are flocking to the magnificent glaciers of the Tian Shan mountain range near their country's biggest city, Almaty.
"The number of tourists last year was several times bigger than in previous years, especially local tourists," says mountain guide Mikhail Kamirasov. "People can't go abroad now and they have started going to the mountains. This is literally a pilgrimage site now."
Kamirasov takes visitors to the Bogdanovich glacier 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) above sea level and featuring a bowl-shaped formation which some have used to produce otherworldly landscape photographs.
"As long as people don't leave garbage behind and use proper guides who look after nature, there should be no negative effects (on the glacier)," he said.
But safety experts say some tourists try to save money and go without guides.
"The higher influx of tourists affects their own safety because completely unprepared people have started going to the mountains now," says Viktor Blagoveshchensky, chief researcher at the Institute of Geography and Water Safety.
Kamirasov says parts of the glacier are only safe in winter.
"While it is cold and safe one can climb down here and take a picture," he says, standing in a narrow passage into a cave that has become accessible for the first time in 20 years.
"But once the spring starts this place should be avoided because the glacier moves and (the passage walls) might collapse."
The glacier is dwindling due to global warming. Kamirasov says its lowest point has retreated about 1.5 km (1 mile) since he first visited it about 30 years ago.
As glaciers melt, they leave behind lakes which can overflow and cause mudslides, a major hazard for Almaty.
But for now, city residents are rushing to visit the glacier.
"I was surprised by how many new and beautiful places I discovered during the pandemic," said tourist Gulzhan.
(Reporting by Pavel Mikheyev; Editing by Giles Elgood)