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Published: November 28th 2019
The blog title was the response of the Kazakh Tourism Minister when asked what he thought about Borat. I’m not sure if Borat actually did much for tourism in Kazakhstan but he doesn’t need to as the country is great.
I thought I would like Almaty, and I did. I think I once considered it as a place to move to back in my English teaching days. Any city so close to massive mountains is always going to be appealing. In addition, there are plenty of pedestrianised streets, numerous tree-filled parks, a wealth of theatres (akin to many former Soviet cities), but best of all you can take a city bus into the Altai Mountains in under half an hour. I would be very fit if I lived here.
Our Central Asia trip would involve a lot of hiking, much of which would be multi-day and at altitude when we crossed into Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, while in Almaty we thought we should take advantage of the mountain proximity and get in an “easy” acclimatisation hike. Thankfully, there are numerous blogs by people who have lived in Almaty with suggested hikes from the city. We picked one
that was rated medium. In our experience of utilising travel blogs for planning hikes, medium actually means fairly easy and an 8-hour hike will take 5. Not so this time.
We got off the bus at about 1600 m and immediately started climbing. There would be little ease in the gradient until we got to the top of Tri Brata about 4 hours later. From there we had a more gradual climb along the ridge to the top of Pik Kumbel at 3220 m. The horizontal distance was only about 5 km but the vertical distance felt about the same. We definitely knew about the altitude as I could feel my heart pounding and I was quickly out of breath. However, I knew it was the altitude rather than fitness because within 10 seconds of pausing, breathing and heart would be back to normal.
The views were nice on the way up; behind us looking over Almaty and ahead to the mountains we would climb. Then at the top the clouds came in and we couldn’t see a thing. Apparently, there is a wonderful view of some 5000 m snowy Altai Mountains that we couldn’t see at all.
Reminded me of uranium rods in a nuclear reactor. Thankfully, I've never been in a nuclear reactor.
Worse still, we couldn’t see the path down. We searched around for a bit but eventually gave up and retraced our steps. Going down was probably worse as it was too steep just to take it easy but you had to concentrate on each step.
All the rest of our hikes during the 5 weeks in Central Asia seemed to be much easier than internet research and fellow travellers suggested, therefore, I guess this first one was an effective if not a particularly enjoyable acclimatisation hike.
Research before we arrived in Kazakhstan suggested that many of the national parks could only be entered on tours with guides. This was quite off-putting. We thought we’d figure it out on arrival and it turned out that the research had been pretty accurate. Public transport isn’t great so the national parks that can be accessed without guides require getting taxis for the day. If there are four of you this might be a decent option but it is still costly.
A conversation in broken Russian, broken English and a lot of sign language with our hotel receptionist about getting to Kolsai Lakes – we’d seen a photo on
It was a beautiful spot.
the hotel wall and they looked lovely – resulted in her sticking a mobile phone in my hand and suddenly I was talking to a travel company. They had a 2-day trip going the following day that also took in Kaindy Lake and Charyn Canyon. A bit of Googling and those places looked nice too. All food and accommodation was included and the price was already lower than the amount I’d intended to haggle down to. We signed up.
A van arrived early next morning. We were seven; a Kazakh driver, a Kazakh guide, an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mongolian, and us two from Yorkshire and Poland. Turns out they had all been reluctant to book a tour too but had also discovered it was the most reasonable and simplest option.
First stop after a few hours of driving was Charyn Canyon, which took us back to last year’s trip to the canyons of Utah and Arizona. It was a hot and dusty hike down and into the canyon, which, despite being of a scale incomparable to places like Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Fish River Canyon, it was a thoroughly pleasant miniature version of those
sandstone and conglomerate gashes in the earth. The river at the bottom at the yurt camp provided a very welcome dip but I’m glad we hadn’t chosen to stay overnight there as you would quickly run out of things to do; there didn’t seem to be much of a network of paths other than those we were on.
Next stop later that afternoon, after an awful bumpy drive along an endless dirt road up a side valley, was Lake Kaindy; well first it was to a muddy car park. The scenery had gradually changed from the semi-desert of Charyn Canyon to lush green hills and forests with bigger rocky mountains rising up behind. A short hike took us through this forest to a great view point of Lake Kaindy below. An earthquake in 1911 caused a landslide that blocked the gorge thus forming the lake. The gin-clear water, backdrop of steep rocky forested mountains, but especially the partially drowned spruce stands, together create a quite magical place. Although, slightly less romantically, I did think the silvery trunks poking up from the crystal clear depths looked like uranium rods in a nuclear reactor.
After the necessary 5
minutes spent trying to throw stones into the lake from our high view point, we descended to the stream at the upper end of the lake and paddled in for a closer look. Coming directly from the snows of the higher peaks, hence the clarity of the water, the stream was unfathomably cold. At least you didn’t feel the sharp pebbles digging into your feet because they were completely numb in seconds.
Accommodation that night was in a rustic but lovely guesthouse in Saty. As much of the delicious local bread – a highlight of Central Asia – as you could eat.
A fairly early breakfast and we had a short drive to Lower Kolsai Lake from where we would hike along it then up to the middle Kolsai Lake. Again we were nervous that being on a tour meant the hike would be short and easy. Not so. It was pleasantly strenuous(ish), initially with great views down to Kolsai Lake then fairly steeply up through really nice forest. The path follows a lovely stream rushing over and through huge moss-covered boulders. For most of the hike we had a huge local dog for
company and we (and it) were kept going with a plastic bag full of miniature Mars bars carried by Bolat our guide.
You emerge from the forest at the outlet of the middle Kolsai Lake where a lot of huge logs are jammed – it seems like you’ve entered the home of some massive beavers. This lake is beautiful. It was a hot sunny day and the water was blue and glistening. It is surrounded by forest and high mountains; the highest ridge at the back about 8 km away being the border with Kyrgyzstan. Apparently, you used to be able to do fantastic multiday hikes in these parts weaving in between the two countries but paranoid officials have put a stop to it (though surely there are no border police up there). There is a nice beach on which to have lunch and the brave can have a swim. I could have stayed there all day, or better still, camped overnight as it would be a stunning place to wake up. It’s appreciated all the more because it does take a bit of effort to get there.
Remember I said it was a hot sunny day? On
Between Kolsai Lakes
Thankfully, the hike did require a bit of effort.
the way down a few clouds appeared and the sky quickly turned black then it started to hail. Pea-sized balls of ice had us sheltering under trees. Only the two of us had been sensible enough to bring raincoats so the rest of the group were soon freezing. But it stopped as quickly as it started and the sun came back out by the time we got to the van for the drive to Almaty; where we celebrated Eraldo’s birthday in a Scottish pub that served pies and ale.
And that was it for our time in Kazakhstan. Next day we got a marshrutka over the border to Bishkek due to the promise of more easily and independently accessible mountains in Kyrgyzstan. I did like Kazakhstan and I’d like to return. The country is massive (the 9th biggest in the world) so despite there being a lot of emptiness there’s a lot more to see than just the southeast corner that we were in. It also, perhaps just to me and hopefully not just because of Borat, has a certain randomness to it that I always appreciate when choosing where to travel. It kept popping into my
It is a nice hike to reach the lake.
head while I was there: “You are hiking in mountains in Kazakhstan! Did you ever think you’d do that? What are you doing here?”
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