While Almaty is a charming city in itself, the untamed nature that surrounds it is so beautiful it would be a shame not to explore. One thing I can say about Kazakhstan is that the postcard perfect scenery often looks exactly like it does in the pictures. I was not disappointed once. Here are five must-do side trips from Almaty that are so jaw-droppingly gorgeous you’ll fall in love with Kazakhstan and our home planet all over again.
1. Big Almaty Lake
The closest and quickest to reach side trip from Almaty on this list is Big Almaty Lake. Just 15 km south of Almaty, it is totally worth the hour’s drive. Located at a height of around 2500 m in Ile-Alatau National Park, you’ll find a large portion of the drive is consumed by the narrow winding road up the mountain. Some travel blogs report that the park sometimes imposes passport checks and entrance fees, but when we went (in May) it was all smooth sailing.
The scenery that awaits at the top is more than rewarding. However, due to the altitude it can be rather chilly up there, so make sure you bring a jacket.
As the lake is a major source of drinking water for the city, swimming or going near the water is prohibited. You can only observe it from the road or nearby rocks. A panoramic view of the lake makes for better shots anyway.
2. Charyn Canyon
Described as the “Grand Canyon of Central Asia”, Charyn Canyon has a reputation of being just as impressive. Located around 200 km east of Almaty and very close to the border with China, the scale of the rift is absolutely huge and impossible to cover in its entirety. The canyon itself is actually made up of numerous smaller canyons, each affording stunning views of diverse rock formations. The most iconic and frequently visited canyon by far is the Valley of Castles. Other canyons include the Temirlik Canyon, the Yellow Canyon, the Red Canyon, the Black Canyon, and the Bestamak Canyon.
We only had time to check out the Valley of Castles and the Black Canyon, both of which were awe-inspiringly beautiful. At the top of Valley of Castles there is a parking lot where gale-like winds came frighteningly close to knocking me off my feet. From there, there are two paths that lead down to the road that cuts through the towering rocks. One path has stairs, the other is more adventurous and full of slippery pebbles. Take your pick.
Down between the rocks, you can follow the road and admire God’s handiwork to your heart’s content. Locals recommend walking the few kilometres until you reach Charyn River and yurts. If you feel too tired to walk back, marshrutka-style buggies will drive you back to the bottom of the path for an arbitrary fee. We jumped in on the buggy ride of a group of waiting Russian men and saw that the driver charged them 2000 tenge each. However, for some reason (maybe because we were women?) we managed to get off paying only 1000 tenge each. Moments earlier, a taxi had quoted us 500 tenge each for four persons…Not sure how it works, but I suspect they are just setting whatever price they like and you can probably negotiate.
Like most testaments to the grandness of nature, the history of Charyn Canyon stretches back millions upon millions of years. Volcanic lava rocks make up the bottom layer, with different stages of sediment and debris stacked on top. Throw in a million years of wind and water chipping mercilessly away and you have the multilayered masterpieces we see today.
3. Tamgaly Petroglyphs
Not to be confused with the Buddhist carving site Tamgaly Tas, the Tamgaly Petroglyphs, which were recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, are a different set of some 5000 carvings located around 150 km from Almaty. These carvings have been around since the Bronze Age, and mostly feature animals, depictions of pastoral life and legendary figures such as the sun god. Although there are six sets of carvings in the park, only five were accessible when I went. In addition, you can only climb up to the rocks from the second set onwards.
The park warns that there can be spiders, scorpions and snakes, so I recommend long pants and solid shoes. But don’t worry, I didn’t actually see any venomous creepy crawlies; only annoying flies and the occasional bug. Up near the rock faces, you can run your fingers over the millennia-old carvings as you survey the rugged landscape of Tamgaly.
Rounding up the tourist path are also a number of burial grounds. Although the bodies are no longer present there, you can still see the size and structure of the graves.
Depending on how fast you move and how much you like history, the whole Tamgaly petroglyphs course can easily be completed in under two hours. Note that you are not allowed to walk around by yourself – a guide from the park has to accompany you. If you have a private guide they can take you instead, but they must first notify and receive “instruction” from the staff before proceeding.
Still fairly off the radar in comparison to BAL and Charyn, we had the park entirely to ourselves for the better part of our visit before a tour bus rocked up. There is an entry fee of 1500 tenge per person for foreigners. I saw my local guide get a fairly discounted price, so it may be possible to negotiate. As of May 2019, the road leading up the petroglyphs is still full of potholes. Our driver was swerving past them at 120 km/hour, so it was an exhilarating drive to say the least.
4. Kolsai and Kaindy Lakes
One of the more touristy side trips from Almaty, Kolsai Lakes National Park consists of two alpine lakes at Kolsai and the scenic “sunken forest” Kaindy Lake. In order to get to lakes, you will need to enter Saty Village, where your passport will be checked. When we asked our guides why this was so, he cited a recent incident where some foreigners had entered the village and went straight through the mountains to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan without anyone noticing. The village is very close to the border, and most travellers, like ourselves, elect to spend the night at a guesthouse in Saty when exploring the lakes.
There are two Kolsai lakes accessible by tourists – one is easily reached from the parking lot, the other is located at 2250 m above sea level and requires a hike of several hours. There are actually two more lakes at even higher altitudes, but Caravanistan reports they are deemed too close to the Kyrgyzstan border and therefore currently out of bounds.
For the average tourist and light hikers, just walking around the idyllic settings of the first lake will give you plenty of nice photographs and a delicious dose of clean forest air. You may even be able to spot some wildlife – we were curiously watched by a cute white and brown squirrel.
The other lake called Kaindy is located on the other side of Saty Village, so unless you plan to hike through the mountains, you will need to get back in the car for an off-road drive. The story behind Kaindy Lake is an earthquake in 1911 which triggered a landslide and created natural dam. Mountain river water filled the gorge and the lake was born. It is now famous for the partially-submerged dead tree trunks which stick straight up from the turquoise water. It actually reminds me a little of Shirogane Blue Pond in Biei, Hokkaido.
From the parking lot, the tourist path to the lake is a slight downhill walk which takes around 20 minutes. There are other hiking paths in the forest surrounding the lake for those with more time.
5. Altyn Emel National Park
I always save the best for last. While all the side trips from Almaty listed above blew me away with their astounding scenery, Altyn Emel was simply out of this world. Located more than 200 km away from Almaty with unpaved roads galore, this spot is better visited over 2-days or combined in a multi-day tour.
Altyn Emel is especially famous for the Singing Sand Dunes. And they really do sing. I was a little dubious I would get to hear them, as the wind conditions etc. have to be just right. But we were actually able to help create the conditions ourselves. After laboriously hiking up the steepest dune to get a spectacular view of the surroundings, we slid down the side to get down. As we pushed waves of sand downwards with the motion, it created a snowball effect and together with the strong wind produced a deep sound that sounded eerily like a UFO landing. It was so beautiful it gave us chills. Totally worth the mounds of sand in our shoes, clothes and ears.
In addition to the Singing Sand Dunes, the park is also home to bizarre moon-like landscapes that need to be seen to be believed. The Aktau and Katutau mountain ranges are incredible. I’m not a geologist by any means, by even I was captivated by the otherworldly shapes and patterns on the rocks and mountain faces. You can climb up the small mounds and hills to really get up close and personal, and even look towards the border to China and Kyrgyzstan. Best of all, there are so few tourists here that it’s really like exploring another planet.
Whether you’re looking for mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, desert landscapes or even ancient history, Kazakhstan has something for everyone! I can personally recommend all of these side trips from Almaty. Get out of the city and explore. You won’t regret it.