Landscapes of Southern Kazakhstan: Cosmopolitan to Canyons ⋆ Tredwell Travel

Landscapes of Southern Kazakhstan: Cosmopolitan to Canyons

Kazakhstan is an enormous country with vast areas of grassland and sandy regions spreading out across the steppe, mountains and lakes across the south and east, and the now largely dried up Aral Sea in the west. Almaty is the largest city in the country and also the main economic and cultural hub, making it the perfect location to base your holiday. With convenient links to national parks with mountains, canyons and lakes you’re sure to have a memorable time in the largest of the former Soviet Socialist Republics (picture 1).

Picture 1 – Abylai Khan Avenue, Almaty, with the mountains of Ile-Alatau NP visible in the background


Almaty is a city with an interesting and varied history reflected in the makeup of the city you can discover today. A traditional Kazakh presence is visible in the main Green Bazaar where dried fruits, spices, pickles and meat are traded every day (picture 2) as well as in the Independence Monument at the centre of Independence Square, a proud nationalist monument commemorating the separation from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

Picture 2 – Spices and herbs on offer in the Green Bazaar, Almaty

The impact of the Soviet era is still very much on display, primarily through the municipal buildings and monuments such as the City Government Building, the Abay Opera Theatre, the Memorial of Glory and the Eternal Flame (commemorating lives lost in The Great Patriotic War) and the colourful Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park (picture 3). However, there’s a western feel to many of the main streets with internationally recognisable brands and companies well represented throughout the city.

Picture 3 – Zenkov’s Catherdal in Panfilov Park

Start your day with pastries from one of the hole-in-the-wall bakeries – often a line of locals queuing up is the only indication of their presence to an inexperienced eye. Next, visit the Abilkhan Kasteev State Art Museum which contains some wonderful exhibitions ranging from Kasteev’s own work to a collection exploring traditional nomadic Kazakh culture. Ride the Kok Tobe gondola for a direct route into the foothills of the Ile-Alatau National Park, giving amazing views across the city. Inspired by Kasteev’s painting of the ice rink (picture 4), visit Medeu to place yourself amongst the skaters he depicted. The area around Almaty is one of Kazakhstan’s primary wine growing regions, a visit to Arba Winery is a perfect half day trip to escape the city. As the evening sets in, drop into a wide range of restaurants with foods from across the world before sampling more local wines in the bars along Panfilov street, cocktails in the oldest speakeasy in Central Asia, Yellow Door Bar, or the neon-lit Blue Bar for live music.

Picture 4 – Medeu Ice Rink by Abilkhan Kasteev

Charyn Canyon

The Charyn Canyon National Park, one point on the so-called “Golden Triangle”, is a magical location to visit in the southeast of Kazakhstan. The sandstone canyons and bizarre rock formations have led to comparisons to the majesty of the Grand Canyon, albeit on a smaller scale. To get the most out of your visit, stay overnight either with your own camping gear anywhere in the park, or at the eco-lodge located next to the river at the base of the Valley of Castles (picture 5).

Picture 5 – Looking down on the Valley of Castles, Charyn Canyon NP

An overnight stay allows you the possibility to explore the park more fully (picture 6) either on foot or by 4×4 if you wish to visit Temarlik and Bestamak Canyons on the other side of the Charyn river. A brand new visitor centre located next to the car park has showering facilities for those staying overnight as well as WIFI, maps, helpful staff and a café and restaurant attached to the side. The best times to walk through the Valley of Castles are the early morning or early evening as crowds are much quieter and the sunlight brings out the colours of the rock. When exploring the park on foot, take care near any cliff edges, folk tales of witches and ghosts pushing any living creatures from the edges are common!

Picture 6 – The Charyn River, Charyn Canyon NP

Kolsai Lakes

The second point of the “Golden Triangle”, the landscape of Kolsai Lakes is utterly distinct from the dry canyonlands of Charyn. For a gentle day hike, explore the path along the edge of the first lake, stopping for a packed lunch at the flat area at the far end of the lake with the towering Tien Shan mountains behind you (picture 7).

Picture 7 – Kolsai 1 viewed from the path that runs alongside, Kolsai Lakes NP

For those looking to dig deeper into the park, the hike up to Kolsai 2 is considerably more challenging, a steep climb of roughly 500 metres, but the serene scene you’re greeted with at the top makes the effort worthwhile (picture 8). Camping by the edge of the lake is permitted – ensure you have enough warm clothing as temperatures drop below freezing even as late as May. A third lake exists, even further into the park, although a permit is required to continue your hike there due to its proximity to the Kyrgyz border. To return to your vehicle, retrace your steps through the alpine forest.

Picture 8 – Kolsai 2, Kolsai Lakes NP

Altyn-Emel National Park and The Singing Dunes

Closing the “Golden Triangle”, the Singing Dunes of Altyn-Emel NP are a remarkable phenomenon to witness. With the right conditions, a sound like a pipe organ can be heard as the grains of the sand dunes are blown past each other. Aside from the magical Singing Dunes, Altyn-Emel is home to the moonscape that is the Aktau mountains, Iron Age (7th-6th Century BCE) burial mounds from nomadic steppe-dwelling groups, and many rare and endangered birds and mammals, as well as two species of wild horse native to the steppes of Central Asia.

Onward Travel

With convenient links to nearby cities and neighbouring countries, many choose to continue to explore the Central Asia region after a visit to South Kazakhstan. For those wanting more from Kazakhstan itself, reliable train services run North up to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the Kazakh capital, or West to Taraz and Shymkent, the third most populous city in Kazakhstan. Continuing on this same line will bring you to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, allowing you to explore the wonders of the ancient Silk Road. Alternatively, buses run daily between Almaty and Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, a useful link for those wishing to dig deeper into Central Asian hiking routes.

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