Alakol is an inland saltwater lake on the border of the Almaty and Eastern Kazakhstan regions. Contemporary research has shown that the natural concentrations of salt, bromine, and fluorine in these waters have medicinal properties for calming and strengthening immunity, and mud from the lakebed provides numerous health benefits as well. Because of this, during the Soviet Era the health resort Barlyk-Arasan was one of the primary rehabilitation centers for cosmonauts returning from space. Portions of the lake, including three of its major islands, are protected wildlife areas, and with around 300 different species, this unique place is something of a Silk Road for birds, and a mecca for birdwatchers and ornithologists from around the world.
Altyn Emel is one of Kazakhstan’s National Parks, located in the Ili River Valley in the Almaty region. Formally established in 1996, the park is a focal point for eco-tourism and the conservation of rare and endangered species, and has several notable archeological and cultural sites. Chief among these conservation efforts are the restoration of the Przewalski’s horse, one of the last true wild horses, to its native habitat.
Other highlights of the park include the 3-kilometer long Singing Dune, canyons cutting through the chalky Aktau mountains, and the colorful volcanic Katutau hills.
The Singing Dune is 150-meter high, 3-kilometer long sand dune within Altyn Emel National Park. The dune has been formed by wind blowing light sand from the banks of the Ili River to the Greater and Lesser Kalkans mountain ranges, where it settles to form this famous site. The dune is said to “sing” because of the amazing, organ-like sound that ranges from a squawk to a roar and is created by the shifting and friction of sand grains against each other. One fascinating detail of this dune is that it does not move within the valley, but for several millennia has been located in the same place and with the same form. From the southwest, the slope is invariably smooth; from the northeast, it has several ridges with gentle slopes. According to legend, the dune is a sleeping devil who lies in rest, and the sound is his groaning any time someone tries to raise him from his slumber.
The Aktau Mountains are one of the most popular attractions of Altyn Emel National Park. Although these mountains are named for their primarily whitish coloring, in certain parts they reveal a wide range of shades and colors. At around 400 million years old, they are a unique geological formation explored by only a small circle of paleontologists from around the world.
Among the chalky hills of the Aktau mountains today you can find ancient fossils of plants and animals, showing the richness of the history of our planet. It is believed that the Aktau mountains formed from currents shifting layers on top of each other under the Tethys Sea during the Mesozoic era. These ancient mountains are interesting not only to scientists and researchers, but also to tourists—their beautiful colors can range from burgundy to green or bright red to whitish blue. It is impossible to leave here without spectacular photographs.
The Arba Winery is a local winery located on 200 hectares of fertile land near Karakemer village. The winery grounds have vines from past and present, as well as on-site production of a wide variety of excellent wines. Ten years of experience and extensive agricultural testing has led to the use of the grapes best suited for this region: Gevurztraminer, Terbash, Aligote, Rkatsiteli, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Saperavi and Karaburnu. Although wines made from these locally-grown grapes can be purchased in the city, the atmosphere and experience of this winery is not to be missed. Wine is always better at the winery—and nothing rounds out the experience like a stroll through the vineyards, a tour of the production area, and a well-paired meal with dishes that suit the grapes.
The Assy Plateau is a traditional summer pasture (dzhailau) located 2,700 meters above sea level in the Ile-Alatau National Park. The dzhailau is renowned for its fresh mountain air, healing mountain herbs, and unique flora and fauna. This area has both the legendary edelweiss and mossy spruce, and also shows traces of ancient nomadic and sedentary cultures dating back to at least 5000 years. The Assy Plateau additionally boasts one of the largest telescopes and astronomical observatories in the world. Hiking, mushroom hunting, and taking things slowly are some of the most enjoyable aspects of this place.
Inland lake Balkhash is known for its dual nature—half is freshwater, and half brackish, and it is the second largest semi-saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea. Against the majestic backdrop of surrounding steppes and desert, locals and visitors alike call prime holiday spot the “sea” from May to September. In addition to its wild beaches, composition of colors and water, and hot desert sun, Balkhash also boasts over 120 species of birds and fauna, including 12 internationally listed threatened species including the Dalmatian Pelican, Whooper Swan, and White Tailed Eagle. Fishermen also enjoy sport fishing here, as the lake boasts 20 types of commercial fish.
Basecamp Bayankol is located in the immediate vicinity of the Marble Wall among the meadows at the headwaters of the Bayankol River. Although the easiest way to the basecamp is by helicopter, it is also accessible by walking trail through the gorge. The basecamp boasts beautiful views of the snow wall along the Saryjas ridge, and from the Marble Wall to Semenov Peak.
From this camp it is possible to hike to several little-known peaks: Kazakhstan Peak (5,741m), Bayankol Peak (5,841m), Semenov Peak (5,816), Karlytau Peak (5,540m), Pogranichnik Peak (5,2,58m), Peak Eleven (5,437m), and the Marble Wall, one of the most stunning peaks of the Tien Shan range at 6,400 meters. It is possible to visit the camp without going further (the trail is not exceedingly difficult and travels over relatively flat snowy slopes and scree fields), which allows visitors to wander the alpine meadows and enjoy the majestic surroundings. In clear weather, this area offers excellent views of Khan-Tengri Peak (7,010).
Big Almaty Lake is one of the city of Almaty’s primary natural attractions. Located at 2,500 meters only 15 kilometers outside the city limits, getting to the lake is relatively easy by hike or vehicle. Like any mountain lake, Big Almaty Lake is relatively small; it is 40 meters deep, 1.6 kilometers long, 1 kilometer at its widest, and the coastline only 3 kilometers in its entirety. Swimming and bathing is forbidden, but also mostly impossible—water temperatures generally do not exceed 8 degrees Celsius. Drive or hike here to see the reflections of snowy peaks of Tourist Peak (3,954m), Ozerny Peak (4,110m), and Soviets Peak (4,317m) on these fresh alpine waters.
Charyn Canyon is one of Kazakhstan’s great natural wonders. Located about four hours’ drive from Almaty (195km), the canyon rises above the banks of the 154-kilometer Charyn river. Charyn is often compared to the American Grand Canyon, and some trees here such as the Sogdian Ash are similar to species found only in Charyn’s North American counterpart. Since 1964, the Sogdian ash grove has been declared a natural monument.
One of the most famous and frequently visited sites in Charyn canyon is the Valley of Castles, a 2-kilometer stretch where visitors take the majority of their pictures. Other notable spots are the Dragon’s Gorge, Witch’s Nest, and the Stone Bag, which, if you believe the legends, is inhabited by spirits. In terms of travel, passage through the Witch’s Nest can be quite difficult, as the road narrows, the canyon walls seem black, and the wind can produce a frightening rumble.
Chundza is a village in the Almaty region 243 kilometers from Almaty and known for its radon hot springs. The water sources of Chundzha differ in chemical composition and vary from 37 to 50 degrees Celsius.
Bathing in hot springs has been recommended for various diseases and as a preventative measure—radon baths are especially useful for skin diseases, arthrosis, bone issues, osteochondrosis, fractures, gastrointestinal tract disorders, heart attacks, reproductive system issues, and problems of the nervous system. Baths normalize the metabolism, stabilize cholesterol levels, improve insulin and sugar in the blood, and improve the work of adrenal glands and the heart. As radon baths do have some contraindications, consultation with a doctor before visiting is a must.
Recently-formed, but already popular, Kaindy Lake is 130 kilometers from Almaty in the Kolsai Lakes area (with which it is often confused). This lake was formed just over a century ago when a strong earthquake caused a landslide that blocked the gorge and allowed cold mountain water to accumulate in this area. Fir trees that grew at that time remain standing, with those that are immersed in water still showing needles and bark, while those above lifeless trunks pointing up at the sky.
This lake is popular with divers (where else can you swim among spruce branches?) and regular tourists—Kaindy is an ideal spot for picnics, light hikes, and photography, as the turquoise water with surreal black trunks against the mountain backdrop is extremely photogenic.
Kok-Zhailau is a tract of territory in the Ile-Alatau National Park located only 10 kilometers from the city of Almaty. Because of this proximity, it is an ideal place for hiking, mountain biking, and horse riding. This area is habitat to a wide range of insects, birds, and animals, including endangered species. The traces of one of these, the Snow Leopard, can be found in the area and is the symbol of the city.
A trip to Kok-Zhailau is not necessarily easy, as the climb is long and difficult in sections. Visitors should prepare for a longer and more intensive hike, which terminates at a waterfall or at Kumbel Peak (an option for experienced hikers).
The Dzhungarian Alatau is 450-kilometer long mountain range within the system of ranges that comprise the Tien Shan on the border of Kazakhstan and China. The largest ridges of the Dzhungarian Alatau rise above 4,000 meters; crowned Semenov-Tien-Shansky Peak (4,622m) in the north and Panfilov Peak (4,370m) in the south. This range has more than 700 glaciers covering an area of about 1,000 square kilometers, which feed the rivers of the Semirechye region.
In the east of this range, one finds the Dzungar Gates, a major passage of the Silk Road and the entry point for many invasions of Kazakhstan and Central Asia throughout history. This region is dotted with archeological sites including burial mounds and the remains of ancient settlements.
Kazakhstan’s largest national park operates within the Dzungarian Alatau, and this is a great place to escape from civilization, enjoy wilderness in the raw, and observe unspoiled nature.
The Daulet-Beket Camel Farm is located 122 kilometers away from Almaty, surrounded by steppe. Ten years after its formation, the small farm has grown into a large livestock company of which the herd has expanded from 40 camels to 4000. In 2009, the company opened a shubat (lightly fermented camel’s milk) processing facility, and currently Daulet-Beket is the only large company in Kazakhstan named to process camel’s milk. Interesting fact: Daulet-Beket produces shubat for the entire Almaty region.
There are three farms in Daulet-Beket, all located in proximity to each other. Tours are available for the facility where camels are nursed and raised, and seeing a baby camel fed by bottle and later tasting fresh shubat on the farm grounds is an unforgettable experience. The owner of Daulet-Beket maintains that shubat is a cure for many ills—a camel absorbs the nutrients of unpretentious steppe plants, enriches it with nutrients, and the resulting milk is incredibly nutritious.
The Kolsai Lakes, or “The Pearl of The Northern Tien-Shan” are surrounded on all sides by coniferous forests and located in succession of each other from 1,818 meters (lower Lake Sata) up to 2,850 meters (Upper Kolsai) above sea level. The most picturesque is the middle lake Mynzhylgi, the largest of the three.
Fallen tree trunks stick out from under the surface of the lake, creating a natural dam. Mynzhylgi can be reached either on horseback or by hiking from Lake Saty located at the end of the road.
Like other mountain lakes, even in the summertime Kolsai lake temperatures can be very cold---on average the water will be between 6-8 degrees Celsius. They do, however, offer an incredible clarity (trout can be seen swimming below the surface) and color—shades vary from turquoise to dark blue, depending on the weather and time of day.
In Kazakh, Kok-Tobe means “green hill”—this mountain is located within the city limits at 1,130 meters above sea level. Until the middle of the last century, Kok-Tobe was known as Verigina Mountain.
The easiest way to summit Kok-Tube is by the newly-modernized cable car. Although the journey time is 6 minutes, the views are terrific and well worth the trip. The primary attraction of Kok-Tube is the 372-meter television tower, which is also the tallest building in Almaty. Not all City residents are aware that in the summer of 2004, the slope beneath Kok-Tube was reinforced with 395 concrete pilings to a depth of 24 meters in order to prevent the slope from sliding. The top of Kok-Tube provides a panoramic view of the city of Almaty and the ranges of the Zailiysky Alatau.
The Medeu sports complex is located at an altitude of 1,691 meters above sea level and is the world’s largest high-altitude complex for winter sports. The skating rink and dam above it are one of the most famous sights of Almaty, and one of the city’s most popular attractions. In winter time ice skaters enjoy the rink, in summer visitors wander among the slopes, collecting mushrooms and wild berries.
At one time, this rink held more than 200 world records, and was appropriately named the “Factory of Records”. Construction began in 1949, the first Soviet-Union-wide events were held in 1951, but the complex reached its final completed state only in the 1970s when the road was paved and the skating rink rebuilt and equipped with artificial ice. This final stage of construction, completed in a short time and with support from the entire Soviet Union, was an example of a Soviet shock construction project. Today Medeu is recognized as a great example of urban planning of the period and a facility of national architectural significance.
Shymbulak is a ski resort outside of Almaty located 2,500 meters above sea level and up the road from the Medeu Alpine Skating Rink.
Locals know that winter or summer, Shymbulak is a must for tourists to visit—it’s hard not to fall in love with the spirit of the place and its magnificent views from the very first ride on the modern cable car. One can also hike at leisure or stroll around the area, admire the view and waterfall at Talgar Pass, stop by Bar 3200 for a glass of local berry liqueur accompanied by fine music, and then head down for lunch at Snow Restaurant and consider the day a success.
At the height of the season, there is no worry about finding something to do at Shymbulak—skiing, snowboarding, and sledding opportunities provide winter entertainment for everyone. Shymbulak has trails for every style and level of expertise.
Tamgaly Tas and Tanbaly are two archeological rock art sites in close proximity to each other, but each showing rock art of differing historical, cultural, and stylistic periods. The lower Tanbala gorge offers remarkable petroglyphs depicting wars, sun-headed deities, solar signs, chariots, and sacrificial animals dating from the Bronze Age. Tamgaly-Tas offers three Buddha images (the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddha of the Infinite Light of Amitabha, and the Bodhisattva of Infinite Sympathy Avalokiteshvara). Both sites are protected by the government of Kazakhstan, and since 2004 the Tanbala Sanctuary has been a UNESCO world Heritage Site, and the Tamgaly-Tas an open-air Buddhist temple.