Last Updated on December 28, 2023
A road trip may never be comfortable, yet the experience is always unforgettable. Nevertheless, road tripping south-eastern Kazakhstan is the definition of a true adventure. Freezing nights in the desert, camping in the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan and waking up to a bear (?) sniffing our tent – this is only the short summary of 5 days on the road.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan covers millions of square kilometers which makes it hard to see it all. One of the most fascinating regions is the south-eastern province of Almaty – a region that is so much more than the “land of steppes”, as Kazakhstan is often referred to.
It is home to snow-capped mountains featuring the rare snow leopard, Eurasian brown bears roaming the lush green forests and the golden eagle which can be found in the mountains as well as in the endless deserts, sand dunes and ancient canyons of Almaty.
In September this year we embarked on an unforgettable 5-day road trip and wild camped surrounded by the most incredible nature of Kazakhstan.
Day 1: From Almaty to Lake Issyk
It might have seemed like a regular Thursday morning when we woke up in the heart of Almaty, the former capital and biggest city of Kazakhstan. Yet we knew that one of our greatest adventures was about to begin.
Our car was ready at 12pm and after a smooth pick up, we immediately drove a few streets further to pick up our camping gear. Then it was time to stock up with food since there were no restaurants or shops for the next days.
After what seemed like forever, we were finally ready to leave the city behind us. The street led us to the small city Есік (70km east of Almaty) – the gateway to our camping spot of the night. And as the sun set, we reached the alpine lake Issyk.
It was formed around 8.000 to 10.000 years ago when a mountain collapse formed a natural dam of 300m. During the Soviet Union, the people recognized the lakes touristy potential and built a resort including a hotel and a restaurant. However, it was completely destroyed when a mudflow broke loose from Zharsai Mountain in 1963. Not only did it ruin the lake – it’s now twice smaller than the original one – but also took the lives of over 2000 people. Nowadays it’s a beautiful lake attracting many locals once again.
When we arrived, we encountered two local rangers who showed us the perfect camping spot closer to the lake. Unexpectedly, we reached it only through a dirt road, which was perhaps not the best decision for our 2-wheel car.
We took a small walk around the lake to admire the last sun rays, then set our tent and prepared a hot dinner. Once the sun was gone, it was freezing cold, and we couldn’t wait to warm up in our sleeping bags in the tent. The night was not really better, but the excitement to watch sunrise the next morning made us almost forget about it.
Day 2: A storm in the Charyn Canyon
Our Almaty Adventure Takes an Unexpected Turn
We woke up early to the disappointment that it was raining and no sun in sight. In addition, I suffered from a migraine attack and puked right outside the tent. And when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I heard some slow and heavy steps approaching. I quickly woke up my boyfriend and asked him to listen. The animal was already really close, and we could hear it breathing and making its specific sounds.
Slowly it came closer and closer and was suddenly right in front of the tent smelling my puke. We even saw its shadow. At that moment we were absolutely scared to death, shaking in the tent and trying to stay as quiet as possible.
We knew that there are brown bears in the mountains of Almaty, but usually they are shy, and the lake is much visited during the day. Could it really be a bear in front of the tent?
At some point the animal was gone – luckily – and we sprinted to our car. After some more waiting time and checking the area, there was no more animal in sight, and we felt safe enough to come outside to prepare breakfast.
Even though the animal, of which we will never know what it really was, had disappeared, we wanted to leave the place as soon as possible. So, we packed our things and went back to the parking lot from where we felt save to visit the lake again. The rain had created a mystical atmosphere, and the clouds were hanging deep in the mountains.
Then it was time to leave since it was still freezing cold. But once we reached the car, we had the second shock of the day, and it was not even 9am. The right front wheel looked a bit flatter than the others. Worried that we could already have a flat tire after not even 24h with the car, we went back to the city Есік to get it checked.
It was still pouring rain and we were completely soaked after going from one gas station to another. Finally, we found a car repair shop and after some language barriers they took a look at the car. Even though they stated that everything was fine, I was not convinced since they never checked the air in the wheel but instead many other things. On the other hand, I’m not a mechanic, after all, so we trusted them as the experts and moved on with our road trip.
Wild Camping by the Charyn River: A Rewarding End to a Challenging Day
The next stop and place for the night was the Charyn Canyon National Park. It was founded in 2004 and consists of five canyons with the Valley of Castles being the most famous one. While the national park features a great number of rare animals, it also contains the world’s largest population of Sogdian ash trees.
Unlike other canyons that I have visited in the past, this one was 200m deep instead of high, which meant we first had to climb down to actually walk through it. Once we got outside the car to prepare our 3km hike through the Valley of Castles, we were literally blown away from the strong wind gusts of 50km/h. It seemed impossible to build a tent or cook like that.
However, we had no other choice because hotels were miles away and the overpriced yurts next to the visitor center were definitely not in our budget. As we hiked down, a truck stopped us and offered to take us almost all the way through the valley until we reached a film cast (?) in the middle of the canyon. We hiked the last few meters until we finally arrived at the Charyn River which sculpted the Canyon 12 million years ago. And to our surprise the wind was gone.
The tent was built within minutes, and we soon fell asleep. It had been a crazy day.
Day 3: Alton Emel Nationalpark – Aktau Mountains
Breakfast Bandits in the Charyn Canyon
When we woke up the next morning the sun was finally shining again, and we explored the valley. After a perfect start in the day, we wanted to prepare our breakfast and approached the table. But unfortunately, our food was gone.
We found leftovers of bananas and packages as well as our destroyed bags in which we had stored the food. That could only mean one thing – another animal had been there. Luckily also this time it seemed to have left already. Later we found out that white foxes live in the Canyon, so probably they were the thieves.
With empty bellies we packed our things and began hiking back up the 3km. Definitely not recommended without breakfast. During the way we were able to admire the beautiful rock formations and once we were on top, we went to different viewpoints.
On top we also finally had the chance to get breakfast in the restaurant of the visitor center and also spotted a cute sleepy cat.
Altyn-Emel’s Aktau Mountains: A Journey Through Geological History
Around noon we went back on the road to make it all the way to the Altyn-Emel National Park. On the way we stopped at some incredible rock formations that were just next to the road. No sign or people in sight, which is absolutely unbelievable considering its rare color combinations and beauty.
In the late afternoon we reached the village Basshi to get our permits for the park. To be prepared, this time we also asked the woman working there if there are any wild animals close to our sleeping spot. And of course, she answered that there is a wolf living somewhere there.
After what we went through the past 2 days, we only thought “at least no bear” and embarked on the 2h ride through the desert. As the sun began to set, we spotted the beautiful Aktau mountains (white mountains in Kazakh) in the distance. They are a unique geological formation formed over 400 million years ago and are the bottom of a dried-up ancient ocean. Due to volcanic activity the rocks were formed in incredible shapes and colors such as green, red, blue and white.
Filled with excitement we immediately started exploring the area and were happy to see only one other couple that had decided to camp there.
After a nice warm dinner, we went to bed early to wake up for sunrise the next day.
Day 3: Altyn Emil Nationalpark – the Singing Dune
Sunrise Bliss and Road Trip Realities
The alarm went off at 5:30 am and we were ready to explore more of the Aktau mountains. Slowly the sun broke through the clouds, and we spent the next 2 hours wandering around and just admiring the beautiful nature around us, that we had all to ourselves.
After breakfast we packed our tent and drove back to Basshi to renew our permit. Then we took the opposite direction as one day before to visit the second highlight of the national park.
At the permit checkpoint, which was also next to the house of the guard, we took a break to have lunch. After some time, the guard looked at our car and told us that there is something wrong. Surprise, we had a flat tire.
And since the wheel looked the same as day one when we already suspected it and a little worse each day, it’s quite sure to say that we had it the entire time. The guys from the repair shop failed completely at their job and we basically drove hundreds of kilometers with a flat tire. So lucky we made it safely everywhere!
The Sound of Nature: Almaty’s Singing Dune
It was already late afternoon, but that didn’t stop us from taking the dirt road for another hour to reach the so-called singing dune. You wonder why? When its sand moves the grains rub against each other which results in a very deep sound. This rare natural wonder is happening in several sand dunes around the world, but the sound is always very specific and differs to the size of the dune.
Remarkedly this singing dune never changes its shape or location due to the special wind rose which keeps it stable.
Once we arrived, we immediately started climbing up and it was indeed very exhausting because it was so steep. However, it was all worth it, because the view on top was amazing and the best part was running all the way down and listening to the incredible sound.
Incredibly happy about the turn of events we drove back to the check point to set our tent for the night and were rewarded with one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Then we spent the whole evening cooking with the company of a very clingy and hungry cat that needed to be taken care of.
Day 5: Taking the Road back to Almaty
Our last day of the road trip started with a nice breakfast and with watching the local shepherds and their sheep passing by. We enjoyed a slow morning after all the craziness the past days and slowly packed everything to start heading back to Almaty.
The original plan was to visit the Petroglyphs of Tamgaly-Tas with rock paintings of Tibetan iconography. Sadly we were too tired and underestimated the distance, so we skipped it and came back to Almaty directly.
This road trip was our absolute favorite part of visiting Kazakhstan and a true adventure. There were so many beautiful and diverse landscapes paired with so many unexpected little adventures (even though they might have been scary or annoying at some point). A recommendation to everyone who visits Almaty or wants to travel to Kazakhstan.