The first impression people have of Kazakhstan is usually of endless steppe and deserts. While not totally false, Kazakhstan also has its share of stunning landscapes. The southeast region of Kazakhstan is full of natural formations, with mountains, lakes and rivers waiting to be discovered. In this article, I will be introducing Charyn Canyon and the Kolsai lakes. Both places have amazing nature, and are located less than 150km from Almaty. As such, they make great day-trips from the beautiful city of Almaty!
Stretching for more than 100 kilometres, the Charyn Canyon is Kazakhstan’s take of the Grand Canyon. Walking through the canyon is a feast for the eyes, as the reddish cliffs glow in the warm sunset hues. While you stroll through the meandering trails at the bottom of the canyon, you cannot help but notice the various rock formations that resemble animals. One of the peaks looked like a camel and another looked like the Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.
Once you are done walking along the bottom of the canyon, head back up and walk along the top. Everything looks different from above, and you can feel the magnificence of the canyon. If you are not afraid of heights, you can walk along the narrow trails that lead to the little cliffs sticking out of the canyon. From there, you can see the entire valley, the cliff formations and the bare desert-like landscape above the canyon.
Sunset and sunrise are the best times to visit Charyn Canyon. I recommend visiting it in the evening, staying the night and watching sunrise the next day. There are many beautiful spots for camping or you could also stay at the eco-resort at the bottom of the canyon. The colours of the canyon really come out during these times, and the entire area looks like a magical fairyland. At sunset, the different shades of red and brown become very distinct and the canyon looks as if it is on fire.
Apart from the main touristic part of the Charyn Canyon, there are many other smaller, but equally amazing stretches of the canyon. If you have a car, you can easily visit all of them in a day. If not, you might have to hike to these secluded spots or pray that someone comes along in a car so that you can hitchhike!
The Kolsai Lakes is a series of three lakes close to the Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan borders. The first Kolsai Lake is accessible by motor vehicles, but the second and third lakes can only be accessed by foot or on horses. These lakes are extremely isolated, far from any signs of civilisation nor pollution. As such, the turquoise water is pristine, fresh and portable. The lakes are a great place to relax, have a barbecue and spend a day basking in beautiful nature.
From the first Kolsai lake, it is a three hour uphill hike to the second Kolsai lake. You will walk around the first lake from a vantage point, which allows you to see the entire lake in a single frame. The first lake is gorgeous from above and you will also pass a small lagoon at the far end of the lake. If you are not a big fan of hiking, I suggest just walking this short section of the trail!
After passing the first lake, you will walk in the forest to reach the second lake. There are a few shelters along the way just in case you need to rest or have a snack. As soon as you emerge from the forest cover, you will see the second Kolsai lake. The first impression is stunning: calm waters, peace, towering mountains and just pure nature. There are no shops, no concrete and no cars. Only you and nature.
Take some time to soak in the amazing views. Sit among the flowers by the shore or walk alongside the horses. Pitch a tent and camp for the night if possible. Sunset and sunrise are stunning: the colour of the water changes as the sun rises and falls, from a clear azul to turquoise and even emerald green. You can also walk around the circumference of the lake to see it from various perspectives.
When I visited the lakes, the third lake was closed due to border sensitivities. However, I heard that the lake is stunning! If you are lucky, you might be able to see it for yourself. Getting to the lakes is a challenge though! You will need to hire a car, join a tour or take multiple public buses and hitchhike. I recommend signing up for one of the many day tours from Almaty.
How much time do I need?
Two days each at the Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes are sufficient to thoroughly take in the views. It takes about 2.5 hours to reach the Charyn Canyon from Almaty and an additional 1.5 hours to get to the Kolsai lakes. Many tour groups combine both places as they are close to each other.
If you have the chance to visit Almaty in Kazakhstan, do also check out the Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes. Apart from these places, there are many more things you can do in and around Almaty. You can easily combine nature, history, city-life and culture in just one trip in and around Almaty.
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