The Pearl Of Tien Shan - Kazakhstan
Welcome to our beautiful August getaway to the 9th largest country in the world.
Much like Kyrgyzstan, this country is filled with dazzling lakes, gorgeous hiking opportunities & plenty of rustic adventures. The best part? No visa requirement any more - the visa is FREE and on arrival for Indian passport holders.
This was a trip I had planned to do with Kyrgyzstan but the visa was complication and border closures, it didn't happen. Determined to make it work this time around, we picked up exactly where we left off last time around.
Day wise itinerary:
Day 1: Land. Charyn Canyon hike, stay at Almaty
Day 2: Kaindy Lake Hike
Day 3: Kolsay Lake 1 & 2 Hike
Day 4: Almaty city
At the time of writing this, there are no more COVID protocols in place. You maybe asked a vaccine certificate, but we weren't. Keep it on hand anyway.
Flights, Visa and Immigration (if traveling with an Indian passport)
We flew directly with Fly Dubai - it was short and just 4 hours.
Visa is on arrival for Indian passport holders. It was also free of charge. They only asked us how long were we there for. Quick in and out at immigration.
Solo traveling in Kazak
It is definitely a great place to go solo traveling. Even in the short time we were there, people were very friendly. It also felt safer than many other places we have been to around the world. As always, use common sense and be vigilant. You will be fine.
Best time to visit
They say summer months but trust me, you don't want to do these long hikes in the hear. August & September is best; the hike trails and roads are accessible but it’s not very uncomfortable.
Language and People
Just like in the other stans, the number of people speaking English outside the city is very limited. You will definitely need a guide to get around the villages where you will likely be hiking.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel Insurance is highly recommended - we have our own, but if you are looking for one try World Nomad. Carry local currency for small purchases and tipping.
Renting a jeep vs. choosing a guide
You can always rent a jeep and go wild camping here. This country boasts of mindboggling landscapes meant for camping. However, unless you have at least a month, I would not recommend this. The roads are rough and wind up long mountains. It isn't always safe to be stuck out in the wild wild east if you don't speak Russian or the local language.
Since our trip was going to be shorter, I decided to find a great local guide as always. For this trip, I went with StanTours. David, the owner, had great recommendations for us once I told him my itinerary. He took care of all the local arrangements and everything was smooth. You can certainly refer my name if you happen to get in touch with him.
How expensive is Kazakhstan?
It is very similar to the other stans in that it is a pocket-friendly destination. Although during my initial research last year, it did feel more expensive than Kyrgyzstan; probably because fewer tourists head here than the Uzbek or Kyrgyzstan.
How long to spend here?
You can spend months. Being one of the largest countries, there is no shortage of activities here. Our trip focused on the diverse Southeast where we hiked on three different landscapes from alpines lakes to the desert.
We struggled for food. Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, the villages here are less used to tourists, so the food wasn't always veggie-friendly. You will have a lot of warm chai and fresh fruits though.
Where we stayed
Since we were only staying in the city for one night, we stayed at the centrally located Ambassador hotel in Almaty. Most of the places were just a 20-25 minute walk from the hotel. So many great restaurants around as well.
Charyn Canyon, aptly named the mini grand canyon, this place was a full day activity. We visited at around 10 a.m. on a weekend and it was still empty.
The landscape bears a striking resemblance to the West coast USA but the comparison ends there. There was not another soul around.
What was also amazing is that the colors of the rock changes on every bend - from bright red to maroon to almost a mossy greenish black towards the end. Each time I tried to take a photo, it turned out different. Once at the shorter upper loop, you will be gifted with unobstructed views of Tien Shan as well. Well worth making a day of it and doing both loops.
The end of the lower loop leads to a supremely picturesque river. It feels SO good to soak your tired feet after a walk in the heat. I highly recommend going all the way to the river, if you can make it there and back.
- Go as early as possible to avoid the heat. Carry lots of sun protection + water
- There are two loops - upper and lower. Lower one is longer at 3kms one way but at the end of it, you arrive at a gorgeous flowing river overlooking the canyons. Recommend doing both.
- There is a small entrance fee to go here.
- You can do it as a day trip from Almaty + save money by joining a group tour.
The drive up to Kaindy Lake is a dream.
After a long drive through the countryside, we finally arrived at the Kaindy lake, one of the most unique lakes in the world, one with an unusual sunken forest.
It is said that after a massive earthquake in 1911, a landslide occurred which led to the valley being flooded by surreal turquoise blue glacial water. Apart from the brilliant pristine emerald color of the lake, the coolest thing about the Kaindy Lake is the trees popping out of the frigid waters!
Here are my TOP tips to visit Lake Kaindy:
- it is a long drive from Almaty to the lake, so make the most of it and combine it with Kolsai Lake
- you CAN drive here but the roads aren’t the best, plus Kazakhstan is a lot more expensive that Kyrgyzstan to rent cars. Best to go with a local guide.
- visit later in the afternoon for this amazing water color under the golden light of the sun!
- carry your passport as there will be check points; there is also a small entrance fee of around 750KZT ($2)
For a better and much closer view of the lake, take a detour from the entrance and hike up.
We spent the night in Saty village. Our guide arranged for it, it was definitely like the homestays in Kyrgyzstan - just basic facilities... but the fresh vegan momo that the chef made for us for dinner was delicious. We woke up to a picturesque sunrise, fueled up for the long day ahead and started our drive towards the “pearl of Northern Tien Shan mountains” - Kolsai Lake.
This is one of the most beautiful lakes in Kazakhstan - part of the triangle in the Southeast region of the country. As we hiked around the lake, the beauty of the alpine & spruce trees reflected on the blue lake was a sight to behold.
The untouched wilderness of Southeast Kazak is unbelievable. It has everything from red canyons to green valleys to blue lakes. It is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy places without crowds. The Kolsai lake you see here actually has three lakes (of which two are accessible).
Here are my TOP tips to visit this incredible wonder of Kazakhstan:
- it is better to combine Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes across two days. Stay at the SATY village overnight.
- the Kolsai lake is at 1000m while the second one is 2500m. 9kms one way, this hike is long; plan for a long 9-10 hour if you don’t wish to camp.
- Plan ahead and pack enough food, there won’t be much to pick up in the village.
- You will need to be fit to finish this hike on foot. We also saw a few people ride horses all the way to the top. That is an easier option, if you don’t mind long horse rides on hills with steep inclines.
- you can hitchhike from Almaty as public transportation isn’t reliable; but best to go with a local guide who knows the rough roads.
As you hike through the winding forest, being surrounded by spruce trees, alpine meadows, mountain pastures and butterflies, you will forget the struggle.
We drove back late at night to Almaty. Crashed and woke up very late next day.
As a city, Almaty was really pretty with European vibes, People singing on the roads, lots of food trucks, colorful gardens. It was way better than Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan with Russian influence on the architecture.
We didn't have any agenda, so we just walked around for hours people watching and soaking up the beautiful Fall colors.
There are so many gardens here too.. perfect to chill the entire day. It was a relaxing end to an adventure packed trip.
No matter what kind of traveler you are, there is something for you here. A historic city, breathtaking glacier lakes, awe-inspiring treks overlooking the Tien Shan mountains, mind boggling canyons. All of it an affordable cost.
The stans are one of the most underrated regions of the world. If you are an adventurous backpacker who loves to head to authentic destinations minus the maddening tourist crowds, add this one to your list.
The endless wonders of this world & the diversity it holds, constantly blows my mind. What a privilege it is to explore all of these wonders.
Travel Tip: if you have the time, you can easily combine Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan on a two to three week trip to focus on unique aspects of each country.
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