We start our trip from Almaty - it's a great place to begin a big road trip, also good stop for those who already traveling for a while in this region. It is one of the biggest and developed cities in Kazakhstan with population about 2 millions. Usually if you’re buying a tour from a tour company they pick you up at the hotel and drop you off also there. A lot of tourists have tempting desire to rent a car - which I would not advise at all. Firstly, you don't know road rules of Kazakhstan, for example, it's very easy to break speed limit at some places and I don't think that conversations with road police could add any joy to your trip. Secondly, poor condition of our roads – you don’t want to ruin a rented car, right? Actually not a lot of local companies give cars for driving outside of city for rent - they are simply afraid for its condition. So, as you understood, its really worth to hire local driver and ideally have an English-speaking guide or at least a translator - any of them will make your life much easier and your trip more pleasant.
So, you have a car, experienced driver and knowledgeable guide? Great, let's go then!
Altyn Emel National Park.
In three hours from Almaty, with amazingly good roads (remember it, it will be the best roads), you will reach Altyn Emel. On the way you will pass Kapchagai - center of gambling industry, all casinos of Southern Kazakhstan are located in this little town. Also this place is known for artificial Kapchagai lake - last huge Soviet project on territory of Kazakhstan, biggest hydroelectric station of the region. At summertime it is a one of the most popular leisure places for locals.
So after three hours of pleasant drive you will enter Altyn Emel gorge - the natural boundary of Altyn Emel National Park from north-west. The gorge is very picturesque and deserve a photostop on the way. After the gorge you will see a vast valley and it will be quite obvious that you are in largest national park of Kazakhstan. The area is 4600 square kilometers; stretches along the northeastern side of the Карshagay Reservoir and the north bank of the lie River before it flows into the reservoir.
Some rest and tasty lunch after long driving – sounds like a nice idea! That's why we are heading to Bashi village - main village, located on the territory of national park. There is a decent village hotel, with comfortable rooms. Level of comfort depends on type of the room: standard rooms with bed, shower and toilet are for common use; semi-lux rooms with shower and toilet inside; luxe rooms with big double bed, shower & toilet inside. Also it is possible to stay at the home of the inspector at Shygan cordon, in the middle of the park, so if you wake up early (5-6 am), there is a big possibility to see kulans! Toilet and shower shared.
So after hearty lunch at the hotel cafe and some rest you are ready to see first wonder of the Altyn Emel - Singing Dune! It's always better to go there in late afternoon - when it's not so hot.
Located in 80 km or 2 hours from Bashi village, the dune pops up unexpectedly in the steppe. Basically there are two sand dune with height 120 m and length 2 km. It is surrounded by Ili River in the south, Ulken Kalkan in the east and Kishi Kalkan in the west. Its most famous feature is ability to emit a low, vibrating rumble when the sand moves. Some people say that it is similar to the sound of aircraft engine. But you have to be really lucky to hear it's singing - only if the weather suitably windy and dry, then there is a some possibility to hear it. But there is a one hint - sit at the top of the dune, take hands of your friends and move down all together simultaneously! At some time you will feel vibration and indescribable sound from the depth of the dune. And then all the silly legends are suddenly takes real shapes! May be it is a Genghis khan burrowed somewhere under this sand, and his great spirit is not happy that you disturbing him in such disrespectful way!
On the way back you will stop near Oshaktas stones - three mysterious stones in the middle of the steppe, it's clear that they were brought here by our ancestors but why? Scientists don't know exact reason, one of the theories is that it was a signal place for fire when enemy is coming, so the smoke is going up and all other tribes see that danger is near.
For today that's enough sights to see, so we go back to the hotel to have a dinner and good sleep before second day of exploring Altyn Emel.
Aktau & Katutau mountains.
Hearty village breakfast and you are ready to explore the rest of Altyn Emel! For picnic it's better to take some snacks but for real (& late) lunch it worth to come back to the hotel.
So, we are leaving Bashi village and driving firstly to Katutau mountains.
The name of Katutau can be translated as dead, dark, grim, empty. There are no trees, just some strongest desert plant that survived in place where there is no layer of fertile soil. Only mountain goats find these places quite suitable for their life.
At the past ancient times big volcanoes (as Vesuvius and Etna in Europe or Avachinski at Kamchatka) were active here. All rocks have volcanic origin. Have a walk in this impressive remains of past volcanic activity! But be careful: snakes and spiders also do like these places!
Unique paleontological museum under the open sky – Aktau limestone mountains. It is one of the most interesting & spectacular objects in AE NP. Highest peak – 876 m. Millions years ago there was a huge Ili lake ( the size of Balkhash lake), frequent rains and mudflows were washing down soil from surrounding mountains. Here, at the bottom transferred and deposited clay acquired a different shade of red, white and yellow due to the formation of iron oxides in them. Such type of sedimentation indicates a calm tectonic regime of the region in the conditions of the hot tropical climate of the savannah. The waters of the Ili Lake, as a result of the ascent of its eastern part, were drained through the Kapchagai Gorge to Balkhash Lake. Bottom sediments were carried down by water or blown by wind. As a result of erosion not high mountains were formed. Aktau mountains is one of the biggest paleontological sites with deposition from Kainozoi era, from which four are depositions of different age with bones, starting from Eocene (around 50 mln years ago) until modern times and one is with plants' prints.
700 year Willow tree.
On the way back you will visit another wonder of Altyn Emel - enormously huge willow tree with branches backed on big supports. Legend says that this tree saw Genghis khan and his soldiers, who rested under this tree, who knows? Anyway it is a really good place to have a rest after active walk at Katutau and Aktau mountains under the hot desert sun.
Rest of the day can be spent at the hotel with late lunch and late dinner or it's also possible to drive this day (after late lunch) to Chunja hot springs which is located in 3-4 hours from Altyn Emel.
Must-have at the canyon: hat, sunscreen, water.
We are heading to one of the most spectacular places in Almaty region! Just imagine: endless steppes, high mountains somewhere at the horizon and suddenly huge crack with amazingly graphic lines of layers! Like someone opened the earth for us to see what was happening here millions and millions years ago! Actually you are staying now on the bottom of the ancient lake, that was peacefully plashing it's waves and little by little washing away soil from surrounding mountains. Sand, clay, little stones were depositing on the bottom creating new limy layers. But you also can see layers with big boulders and pebbles - result of earthquakes and mudflows. Just open your eyes, free your imagination and go! On the way to the Charyn river you will see works of three greatest architects ever - water, wind and gravitation. No one could do this work better - castles, ships, cobras, king's throne, Jesus Christ from Rio, woman waiting for ideal man - you will see all of this if your head will be up! Road from the beginning of canyon to the river' bank is 3 km, walking is easy and pleasant. There are tables at the river bank so it's nice to rest and have a little picnic. Also there is a cafe, bungalows for spending night there, toilet (not bad), and army of cats - someone brought two and they started a dynasty. If you are too lazy or too old to go back you can use services of safari car - 1000 kzt per person, they are happy to ride you to the beginning of the canyon.
So, now we are ready to do last part of our big trip – Kolsai & Kaindy lakes!
Trip takes 2 days as minimum, it is 2.5 - 3 hours from Charyn Canyon to Satty village, with amazing photo-ops on the way. Road is absolutely awful, but this year they already building new one, so let's hope that soon driving will be more pleasant. Your guest house is already waiting for you and dinner is ready. Usually it arranged from the city by your guide or driver, or you can find guest house at the village but it will be not so easy if you don’t speak Russian or Kazakh and especially if you are going there on weekend. Russian sauna is hot (after day in Charyn Canyon it is a dream place, believe me!)! Toilets at these simple homes are usually outside, and there are no showers. It is a nice way to see how people live outside of big cities. Also you can stay at Zhibek Zholy hotel with awesome view from the window (of course it is more expensive than guest house), hotel located at the shore of the first Kolsai lake. Next day you have to wake up early (around 7 am) in order to see both second Kolsai lake & Kaindy lake at one day. After breakfast your driver will bring you to the first Kolsai lake, which is absolutely stunning! Road takes around 30-40 mins. There is no car road to second lake, only little path, which will bring you to the second lake (at some places there are blue arrows on stones, so just follow them). It takes around 3-4 hours of hiking one way, so don't forget to take your snacks and water with you cause after reaching the second lake you will be very hungry! Also I would advise to take warm jacket, cause on the second lake winds are really strong and cold in any summer day, and it can even rain - weather in mountains changes very fast. Anti-ticks spray will be very useful at spring-summer season. Its better not to go to third lake because firstly it is physically hard to reach it, and secondly it is very close to border line with Kyrgyzstan, and foreign tourists need to have special pass registered in migration police (better to check it with migration police office near Nikolsky market). So after nice picnic with an unforgettable view hiking back to first lake takes again 3-4 hours, and hiking sticks here would be really helpful! Your driver usually waits you all this time and when you reach him, you drive back to the village to have a dinner and good banya (Russian sauna). On the next day after breakfast you visit last place in our list - Kaindy lake. The lake was created as the result of an enormous limestone landslide, triggered by the 1911 earthquake. The track to Lake Kaindy has many scenic views to the Saty Gorge, the Chilik Valley, and the Kaindy Gorge. Dried-out trunks of submerged Picea schrenkiana trees rise above the surface. At morning hours sky is usually clean, no clouds and sun is shining so bright. Some drivers do not agree to go there (almost no car road at all), so at this case you have to pay to local drivers for UAZik (soviet offroad car) and go with them. They drive you to parking place, and after you will go down to the lake around 30 minutes by feet. Everywhere (Charyn Canyon, Kolsay lakes, Kaindy lake) travelers will pay fee for entering National Parks. Also it is possible to go to Karkara border point after lakes if you plan to continue your trip to Kyrgyzstan.
If you are planning to come back to Almaty, then be ready for 5-hours driving to the city with optional stops on the way.
So, in these 5 days you saw semi-desserts with sand dunes, canyons with millions of years history, purest mountain lakes and sunken forests! We hope you liked it!