5 days in Kazakhstan: an itinerary for nature lovers

Kazakhstan was one of the first countries that I visited in Central Asia, and it was the photos of my friend that inspired me to go there in the first place. An offbeat country that doesn’t get a lot of […] The post 5 days in Kazakhstan: an itinerary for nature lovers appeared first on Hopping Feet.

5 days in Kazakhstan: an itinerary for nature lovers
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Kazakhstan was one of the first countries that I visited in Central Asia, and it was the photos of my friend that inspired me to go there in the first place. An offbeat country that doesn’t get a lot of tourists except those from India (thanks to visa free entry for Indians) and the UAE (thanks to excellent flight connectivity through budget airlines such as flydubai and WizzAir, most visitors land up in Almaty and take day trips to the different destinations from there. However, nature lovers as we are, my boyfriend and I decided to rent a car and go on a little road trip by ourselves. My 5 days in Kazakhstan were full of beautiful hikes, stunning lakes, remarkable (diverse) landscapes and an immersion into their culture by staying in local bnbs in the smaller cities rather than restricting ourselves to the big ones.

While I may say this in almost all my blogs, 5 days aren’t enough in Kazakhstan because of how big and diverse the country is. However, given that travelling is my passion and not full-time career, I need to make my trips short, and thus my itineraries are action-packed, combining the key highlights, augmented by some unconventional locations and experiences. If you’re into hiking and a nature enthusiast, you are bound to fall in love with Kazakhstan.

What to expect in Kazakhstan

The first thing I advise you to do as soon as you land in Kazakhstan is get a local sim card with data as I always find this extremely useful in any foreign country, and it’s not expensive to do it in Kazakhstan. The second thing to do is carry some USD with you and exchange it at the airport for the local currency – Kazakhstan Tenge (KZT). Finally, download the app Yandex Go, which is their local Uber, as it offers extremely cheap and reliable taxi rides in the major areas. Yandex Go was gold for us, especially during the first couple of days when we were in Almaty, without a car.

Most taxi drivers, however, don’t speak English so its best also to have google translate handy to be able to effectively communicate with them. However, it was not hard at all as the communication required as minimal – the taxi drivers were very efficient in finding our pickup location on the app and drive us to the destination without any issues. Having said that, google translate can come in handy throughout the country, because as you move out of Almaty and to the smaller cities, lesser and lesser people speak English.

While Kazakhstan can be covered through organized tours and day trips from Almaty, that’s not how I usually travel in a country, so we decided to explore by ourselves, and I don’t regret it one bit! However, it can be hard – especially because a lot of things aren’t very ‘organized’. For example, we were told at our hotel reception in Almaty that the Big Almaty Lake was closed to visitors for the last few years. We tried to research about it online and found several different reviews and information- some saying it was closed while others saying it was accessible both by foot if one was willing to hike the 8kms from the road closure point. There was no way to find the truth except going there – and we found out that several unofficial ‘taxis’ were operating (charging a bomb, of course) from the road closure point to the lake, which had special approvals to go all the way. This information was not available anywhere, not even on the tourist website, which was clear that it wasn’t official but there were limited taxis that were allowed to go inside, making it clear that there was some unofficial ‘set up’.

In general, we felt that the attitude of wanting to fleece us, find ways of making extra money, looking for opportunities to overcharge, etc was very common in Kazakhstan, which is why we had to be always cautious. Tourist scams are rampant, and this makes it important to research, look for reliable resources/ companies, etc while planning your travel to Kazakhstan.

Lastly, if you’re visiting Kazakhstan in spring/ summer or autumn months, do not miss out on the experience of staying in a Yurt. However, be prepared for using toilets that are just wooden elevated platforms with no proper flushes / wash basins, which means you’ll be doing your business in a small wooden cabin, squatting, and washing your hands with water provided in a jug. At least the yurts provide toilet paper! Not meant for those with mobility issues or too much love for convenience and low appetite for adventure.

Best time to visit Kazakhstan

The best time to visit Kazakhstan is either May – June or September – October, if you wish to avoid extremities of the weather. We visited in April, and it was still cold, and Almaty Lake was completely frozen! It was an amazing experience nevertheless, as I had never seen a frozen lake covered with a white blanket of snow before this. Another thing was that most yurts were still closed and when we did stay in one of the few that were open, the camp was totally empty (we were the only ones there) and the nights got extremely cold – we needed to have the stove on in our yurt all night and keep fuelling it with wood to keep it burning.

The first few days in Kazakhstan for us in April were harsh in terms of the weather, but as the time passed and we got closer to the end of the month, it began to get warmer and more manageable.

Driving in Kazakhstan

Driving in Kazakhstan is absolutely recommended, and it is not hard at all! Its not a pleasure to drive within Almaty city, so we rented the car only on the day we were to leave Almaty and head to the outskirts. There were several local companies that were renting cars but after a lot of research, price comparisons etc, we realized that most local companies were charging extra for taking the car outside Almaty, and the prices which would seem low initially, would just add up after you discussed your itinerary with them. Thus, we decided to rent our car through a global, reliable brand – Avis. We paid about $192 for 4 days rental excluding insurance, which I prefer to buy through a third-party company, rentalcover.com.

Jaw-dropping scenery when driving in Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, you drive on the right side of the road. We read a lot of blogs where we were warned about the police stopping tourists for small things, only to get a good amount of bribe out of them. Keeping this in mind, we made sure to follow all the rules of driving, speed limits etc, despite observing the locals not following most of the rules. While I usually recommend doing what the locals do, here, given the specificities of the country and the situation, I recommend following the rules and not the locals!

Thankfully, we did not come across any such situation where we had to deal with the corruption of the police. The locals aren’t the best drivers on the road, but they’re not the worst either (remember, I have driven in India and the drivers on the roads in Delhi set the bar low haha). All in all, the driving experience in Kazakhstan was pretty good, and I wouldn’t change that decision even in hindsight.

5 days in Kazakhstan

Day 1: Almaty

We arrived at 5.30 am in Almaty so we had the full day to explore the city. We started by heading to the famous (but overrated, in my opinion) Kok Tobe Hill through the cable car/ gondola. To be honest, I was quite disappointed with this place. The views aren’t that great, and there’s a few activities once you go up such as a little zoo, a few games, an amusement park, some viewing platforms, couple of (pricey) restaurants/ cafes, and souvenir shops. The best activity here for me was the mountain coaster and grabbing a hot wine (considering the cold spring temperatures) with a view in one of the restaurant’s terraces. I couldn’t spend more than 1.5 hours strolling here, I was bored!

We decided to come down and head towards Zenkov’s Cathedral & Panfilov Park. On our way, we crossed the famous Dostik Avenue, lined with several bars, restaurants, and shops. Our hotel was on this street itself, which was a great place to stay, thanks to the amazing nightlife and weekend vibe here. Located in the middle of the green, well-groomed park, Zenkov’s Cathedral is a distinct architectural monument that is an orthodox church. While we didn’t get an opportunity to go inside the cathedral, just the bright yellow exteriors forming the backdrop to the hordes of pigeons crowding the entrance were a sight to watch. We spent an hour strolling the park and enjoying the peaceful, serene surroundings.

From here, we headed towards Botanical Garden through Republic Square. We found a very nice, cozy restaurant near the Republic Square called Leo’s café restaurant where we sat for some drinks & lunch. I highly recommend this place for the food as well as ambience. The Republic Square is one of the main squares in Almaty, offering a beautiful and open space with the monument of independence, the presidential residence, and some other key places of interest nearby. After a quick photo here, we proceeded towards the Botanical Gardens.

Unfortunately, on the day we visited, the gardens were shut due to some event. We were a little disappointed as we were excited to visit this place and stroll in this famous botanical garden which is home to live exhibition of different species of plants, some very rare, from not only Kazakhstan but also Russia, the Caucasus, East Asia and North America.

Almaty Botanical Gardens

Recommended hotel to stay in a great location in Almaty: Kazakhstan Express

Day 2: Day trip to Big Almaty Lake & Alma-Arasan Hot Springs

You could start your car rental from this day as well since the destinations you will cover are at least 1 hour away from Almaty and while there’s connectivity through buses & taxies (Yandex Go), driving will make it a lot more convenient and time saving.

When we travelled in May 2023, we were very confused about whether the Big Almaty Lake was accessible or not because when we checked into our hotel, the staff informed us that the lake had been shut for almost 3 years after some major landslides, for refurbishment and reconstruction of the roads. However, we read a lot of mixed reviews online where bloggers wrote about having been to the lake as recent as early 2023 but only on foot, which meant they hiked about 16 kms return journey. As the Big Almaty Lake is about 1-hour drive away from Almaty City, we didn’t want to take a chance and land up only to be thoroughly disappointed. But looking at the photos of the lake, I wasn’t ready to miss out on it either, so we took a chance!

We booked ourselves a taxi on Yandex Go to the location which is the beginning of the trailhead to Big Almaty Lake. The first taxi driver picked us up but then told us that the access to the lake was closed so he refused to take us. This was an even bigger disappointment. Nevertheless, we booked another taxi on Yandex, and this time, we finally made it to Ayusai Visitors Center, which is where the road closure to the lake starts. You can also choose to take a bus if you don’t wish to take the taxi. Bus no. 28 from President’s Park will get you to Kokshoky Village from where you’ll have to look for mini-vans that will offer to take you to the visitors’ center or even the lake itself.

From the visitor’s center, we discovered that here are 3 options to get to the lake:

  • Hike (almost 16 kms return journey)
  • Take a ‘government tourist approved’ taxi, which are the only ones that are allowed to carry any visitors up to the lake. However, they charge about 30,000 Tenge ($70) per car, so the bigger the group, the more cost effective it is for you. Unfortunately, we were only 2 people, and we couldn’t find more people to share a car with us. If you’re travelling during peak tourist season (summer months), you’re likely to find more visitors to share the taxi with you.
  • Reserve your lunch at Alpine Rose Hotel, which happens to be the only hotel inside the cordoned off area and request them to arrange for a pickup for you. This isn’t free of charge either, but we paid half the price ($35) for the return pick and drop. From the hotel, the lake is only 4kms away, so much easier to walk!

Should you plan to walk to the lake, the road is paved, and the trail is marked so it is quite an easy (but long) hike. What we were not prepared for when we arrived is to see the entire lake covered with a white blanket of snow! Nevertheless, it was totally worth the effort it took to get there as the scenery was stunning! There are no restaurants or cafes on site here so make sure to carry your own water / drinks / snacks when you go. We spent an hour just taking photos and walking around the lake.

From here, we were back at the Ayusai Visitors Center around 4 pm so we decided to head to Alma-Arasan Hot Springs, which are only 15 min by taxi/ car. Why we chose these hot springs was because they seemed to be a local favourite – and quite an offbeat experience as it wasn’t commercialized at all, and in the middle of beautiful forests, next to a river. Most tourists prefer going to Chunja Hot Springs which are more commercialized, crowded and developed but that would lack the experience that a rudimentary, secluded place would provide and for adventurous people like me, that’s a clear hook!

There is a small amount of walking required to get from the car park to the springs, through an unpaved path that has been laid in the forest, equipped with pedestrian bridges, steps and railings. At about 700 meters (10-15 min of walk) from the parking lot, up the Prokhodnoye gorge on the right bank of the river, you will come across 4 bathing tubs filled with the thermal spring waters, showers & changing cabins. Keep about 1.5 hours for the whole experience.

In the evening, head back to Almaty. You can enjoy the nightlife and have a nice dinner at Dostyk Avenue.

Day 3: Lake Issyk & Turgen

While many people prefer to do Lake Issyk and Turgen Gorge as a daytrip from Almaty, I recommend checking out from your Almaty Hotel and heading for the road-trip, to spend the night in a yurt in the middle of the mountains. Start your day 3 in your 5-day Kazakhstan itinerary with a visit to Lake Issyk, which is located about 2 hours away from Almaty. A 5-minute walk on a paved road from the car park will lead you to this yet another spectacular blue water lake in the middle of the mountains. While there are toilets at the location, there are no restaurants or cafes here so make sure to carry your own water / drinks / snacks. The only kiosks offering some water and snacks are located at the car park.

We spent an hour here just taking photos, walking around the lake, and sunbathing. Due to the altitude of this lake (vs Big Almaty Lake), it is usually not frozen during the spring season, so we were lucky to finally see the azure, blue waters. From here, we left for Turgen Gorge, which was a 1-hour drive from the lake. Once you arrive at the visitors’ center at Turgen, you will park your car here and then choose between any of the hiking trails available. We decided to go for the one to Bear Waterfall, but some other options were Kairak Waterfall (which was closed during spring season) & Asy Turgen Observatory. The easy 30-min hike to the waterfall through the forest trail is much recommended.

As a wine lover, I really wanted to visit a winery in Kazakhstan (yes, they do their own wines and they’re pretty good, even though they aren’t very popular!). One of the biggest and known wineries in the country is Turgen Wines. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet in spring when we visited but were expecting to be fully functional for operating vineyards &wine tasting tours in summer (starting July). If you’re visiting during the tourist season, book yourself a 2.5-tour here: https://turgenwines.kz/excursion/

While we missed the wine tasting tour, we managed to buy some of their wines in Almaty before flying out at the end of our trip and they’re quite nice (and cheap!).

We ended the evening at our Yurt. Staying in a yurt in Kazakhstan is highly recommended! Unfortunately, when we visited in the spring season, most of the yurt camps were still closed or in the process of setting up for the summer season. We managed to find one camp that was operating, and we happened to be the only guests staying there that night! The yurt was expensive (since they had to operate the entire camp only for us) but the service and the overall experience was excellent! The weather was still a bit too cold to be sleeping in tents, but the staff set up a heater in our room with lots of coal to keep us warm in the night.

Suggested accommodation (in a yurt) in Turgen: Юрта 6-канатная

Day 4: Charyn Canyon

We decided to keep this day a little light so we can enjoy a relaxed morning in the gorgeous valley before heading out. The horses, dogs and kittens at the yurt camp kept us company while we had our coffee, and then we checked out to head towards Charyn Canyon, which was about 2.5 hours away from our Yurt.

A unique place and a lesser dramatic but nevertheless spectacular version of The Grand Canyon in the US, Charyn Canyon is filled with heavenly landscapes and golden-brown cliffs that form a natural gorge. At the Charyn Canyon, you have several options from the car park in terms of how you wish to experience this area. A café is located right at the car park where you could recharge before heading into the gorge.

Charyn Canyon view from the top

For those who wish to walk less, can just experience the canyon from up above, which offers staggeringly beautiful views from a vantage point. Several observation areas located on the edge of the cliffs offer incomparable views. But the more adventurous can choose to walk down to the gorge all the way to the Charyn river, the deepest river in the Northern Tien Mountains. This is what is referred as the hike to the Valley of the Castles – a 1-hour walk to the river amidst these bizarre-shaped rocks, lush trees, and vegetation. A flight of steps will take you down into the canyon and from here, you can also choose to pay and board a taxi that will transport you to the river and back, should you not be in a mood to walk. Nevertheless, if you’re in decent shape, I highly recommend walking. Try and make it here early morning to avoid crowds and the incessant heat of the summer. Even in the spring season, it got warm in the afternoons and while they’ve made several shared resting areas, walking under the sun can become quite difficult and unbearable. Having said that, it’s a fairly easy walk without much inclination, as long as you’re wearing good shoes and carrying lots of water and probably some energy bars.

In the evening, we headed to Saty, a village that formed the base for our visit to two excellent (and my favourite lakes) in Kazakhstan. On the way, we crossed what’s known as the Aktogay Canyon and stopped for some amazing photos.

Recommended bed & breakfast homestay in Saty: Kolsay Aisha

Day 5: Lake Kaindy & Kolsai Lakes

While many people choose to spend the whole day in exploring Kolsai Lakes by hiking to the ones that are at a higher altitude, we were a bit short on time, so we chose to explore just the one Kolsai Lake that’s close to the car park and easily walkable. Our accommodation was outside the Kolsai Lakes National Park but there are several options (including yurt camps) that are inside the national park. There is a charge to enter the national park depending on how long you’re planning on spending there (1 day vs more). A 15-min drive took us to this deep blue lake nestled in a gorgeous forested mountainous area with the backdrop of the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains. Once you park the car, you need to walk down a few steps to the lake, but you can also have a quick meal or drink at the restaurant above which has a viewing platform as well as a terrace offering stunning views of the lake.

You can choose to walk on the wooden platform along the lake on either side or take a horse if you’re too tired or not in the mood for a walk. In either case, you’ll be rewarded with remarkable, unparalleled views of this stunning landscape. This lake is called Kolsai 1, and there are 2 more lakes that one can choose to hike to from here. The trek to Kolsai Lake 2 and back down is a steep journey up and the round trip is around 18km, taking around 6 hours. While we skipped it, we saw several people doing it. Lake 3 is even further up ahead and on the border with Kyrgyzstan so one often gets asked for their passports by the border guards, so if you plan to go all the way, don’t forget to carry your passport with you!

Kolsai Lakes

We spent about 3-4 hours in this area walking along the lake and having a nice picnic at one of the boating spots. After this, we headed back to our accommodation, from where the kind owner had arranged for a vehicle to take us to Kaindy Lake. It is not possible to drive to Kaindy Lake (as of May 2023) because the road is extremely unpaved, stoney and even passes through a river in a couple of places. Only 4WD vehicles are equipped to take this journey and many local operators are happy to offer their minivan services to take tourists to the lake. It costs about 15,000 Tenge for an entire minivan which can accommodate about 8-10 people so once again, if you’re in a group, it’s more cost effective. We tried to find other tourists to come along with us but couldn’t, so it turned out to be an expensive trip for the 2 of us. Nevertheless, totally worth it!

Remember, there is a moderate hike involved in getting to the lakes. The minivan will take you to a specific spot from where you need to walk uphill (or take a horse) to a specific point from where you will be rewarded with striking views of Lake Kaindy. Thereafter, you’ll have to walk downhill to the lake itself. This was my favourite lake in Kazakhstan due to the unbelievable green color of the crystal-clear waters of the lake, as well as the uniqueness that came from a sunken forest in the lake! Formed in the early 1900s due to an earthquake that submerged an existing forest, the most incredible thing is how the sunken trees are still preserved! This is due to the extremely low temperate of the water which helped in their preservation. Once you’re next to the lake, you can walk along the hiking path next to it to enjoy the views from different angles.

At the end of the evening, you can return either to spend the night at Saty or Almaty, which is about 3.5 hours away. This is the end to your 5-day Kazakhstan itinerary.

Suggested hotel to stay in Kazakhstan in the city center: Renion Zyliha Hotel Other things you can do in Kazakhstan, if you have more time:

  • Chunja Hot Springs near Charyn Canyon

If you wish to visit a thermal spring pool which is more commercial & developed, like Széchenyi Baths in Budapest, or the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, then head to Chunja Hot Springs which are close to Charyn Canyon. Many resorts offer thermal spring pools, and you just need to choose one that is to your liking.

  • Hiking / cable car in Medeu and Shymbulak (Chimbulak)

Very close to Almaty, we were pondering between Kok Tobe Hill and the cable car from Medeu to Shymbulak ski resort and ended up choosing the former. However, if you have some time, it is said that the views from the latter are way more stunning. Medeu is famous for it’s world renowned skating rink and from here, you can board the gondola/ cable car to the ski resort Shymbulak.

  • Altyn-Emel & Singing Sand Dunes

I live in a city in the middle of the desert (Dubai) so I wasn’t really interested in seeing anymore sand dunes which is why I planned to not include this location in my 5-day Kazakhstan itinerary. However, located in Altyn Emel national park, about 250 kms north of Almaty, is this unique landscape with massive sand dunes that one can climb up.


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