Almaty: Gateway to Kazakhstan’s Natural Wonders

ASTANA—Almaty is one of Kazakhstan’s most captivating destinations, and for good reason. Just a couple of hours of driving from the country’s greenest city takes you to diverse natural wonders, from the rocky towers of Charyn Canyon to the enchanting lakes of Kolsai and Kaindy.

Charyn River. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Charyn Canyon: the Valley of Castles

The Valley of Castles. Photo credit: The Astana Times.

Often compared to the Grand Canyon in the United States, Charyn is unique on its own. Now it is hard to imagine that this place was once completely submerged in water. Over millions of years, the combined effects of water and weathering processes on sedimentary rocks created bizarre formations such as pillars, towers, and chapels, collectively known as the Valley of Castles.

This valley stretches 2.7 kilometers, a distance that tourists can explore on foot while enjoying the stunning views. The entire canyon extends for 154 kilometers.

Among the fascinating spots within Charyn is the mysterious Witches’ Gorge, where witches, according to legends, held their sabbaths. They supposedly threw lingering tourists from the stone pillars into the abyss. However, these are merely tales, and this part of the valley is distinguished only by its black rocks.

Another interesting place, known as the Arch of Love, is tied to a legend about the clash of love and money. Visitors often make wishes as they pass under it.

Tour guides suggest the Charyn River, flowing at the canyon’s bottom, as the end point of the promenade. For a small fee, one can return on Soviet PAZ buses, though only after 11 a.m. Those who enjoy long walks can continue to explore the place further on foot. Trekking poles are advised for the unprepared, as one will have to walk a lot as the round-trip distance is nearly three kilometers.

Kolsai Lakes: the Kazakh Switzerland

Kolsai Lakes. Photo credit: The Astana Times

It is hard to believe that within another couple of hours from Charyn Canyon, the scenery completely transforms as you approach the Kolsai Lakes, often referred to as Kazakh Switzerland. The journey is awe-inspiring, with changing landscapes leading to the trio of beautiful mountain lakes.

The endpoint is simply breathtaking. The Kolsai Lakes, surrounded by steep, forested mountain slopes, form a cascade at different heights. The water, which ranges in color from deep blue to emerald, is bordered by Tien Shan spruce trees and alpine meadows.

Visitors can descend on foot, by PAZ buses, or on horseback. Along the way, there are rest stops where you can eat and catch your breath. If you are patient and make it all the way down, you can have a picnic right by the water. Though space is limited, there are also gazebos available for use.

Lake Kaindy: the Sunken Forest

To reach Lake Kaindy, visitors return from the Kolsai Lakes through the village of Saty, where PAZ buses are already awaiting. The journey to this lake is an adventure in itself, as the untouched nature presents challenges, and transport sometimes navigates directly through the water. Drivers demonstrate remarkable skills by maneuvering along the mountain slopes, so a portion of adrenaline is guaranteed.

Lake Kaindy. Photo credit: The Astana Times

If this portion is insufficient, the next stop offers smaller PAZ buses that are easier to navigate on the narrow and noticeably steeper road to Kaindy. Alternatively, you can both descend and ascend back on horseback, which is highly recommended. Admiring the views while riding a horse down the mountain slopes and along the river is one of the most unforgettable experiences.

And here tourists can expect a truly mystical sight – the Sunken Forest. Kaindy translates to birch in Kazakh, and the lake is named after the birch grove it passes through. However, Tien Shan spruce trees grow along its banks. Formed by a massive earthquake and subsequent landslide in 1911, the lake’s waters, varying in color from emerald to turquoise depending on the season, make for a mesmerizing view.

Unlike Kolsai, there are no food outlets near Lake Kaindy, but the stunning scenery is enough to make you forget about food for a while.

Almaty tour guides often suggest visiting all these places in one day, though you can travel on your own, as the signs will keep you from getting lost. Entry to national parks requires a fee; some areas may lack network coverage. Whether you are a foreign or domestic tourist, the natural diversity around Almaty will leave you in awe, whether you visit these attractions in one day or over several days.

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