Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries in the world. In this travel guide, you can read about some of the top things to see and to do in the Southeastern part of the country.
Since I’ve spent most of the past few years exploring Eastern Asia and Europe I have to admit that before traveling to Central Asia I really didn’t know what to expect. I have a big passion for geography but Central Asia was like a big question mark for me. Honestly, all those countries ending with -stan can be quite confusing.
So I was more than happy to travel to Southeast Kazakhstan and Northeast Kyrgyzstan to discover some of the incredible places that these two countries have to offer. Hopefully, in the future, I’d be able to explore the other “stan” countries because I have to admit that I loved what I experienced: great food, incredible landscapes (a real paradise for the photographers), and very interesting cultures in both countries.
During this trip, I only had the chance to see a small part of Kazakhstan but considering the Goliath size of the country, it was a big enough portion to appreciate what it has to offer to both first-time tourists and those who come back after several times.
Last but not least Kazakhstan is the most developed of the Central Asian countries so it’s a good starting point for a trip in this part of the world especially if it’s your first time. It’s also well connected to other countries like Kyrgyzstan and you might want to consider including these two countries on the same itinerary.
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, the world’s ninth biggest country by size and it is more than twice the size of the other Central Asian states combined.
Before writing about some of the Top things to do and to see in Southeast Kazakhstan let’s address some of the most common questions for those who don’t know much about this country.
Is Kazakhstan safe for tourists?
This is a common question when people think about visiting a place they are not very familiar with. Though Kazakhstan doesn’t have the same low crime rates as Taiwan, it’s considered a safe country. It’s quite common to meet solo female backpackers and people, generally speaking, are friendly.
Obviously, caution is needed especially in bigger cities, but I never felt unsafe even though I was always traveling with my expensive photography gear.
When is the best time to visit Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is not renowned for good weather. Winters are extremely cold and summers can be very hot especially at lower altitudes. The best months are from May to the beginning of October, especially if you are planning to hike and camp in the steppe.
How is the Visa situation in Kazakhstan?
Citizens of all European Union countries, plus Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Uzbekistan may enter Kazakhstan visa-free for up to 30 days. If you have a passport from a different country you can find more info on this page.
Is it possible to explore Kazakhstan without a tour guide?
Yes absolutely, but keep in mind that some places are so remote that it’s not possible to visit them without a 4WD car and unless you are a very skilled driver (or have plenty of time to hike) it’s much better to ask a tour company to provide a car and a driver.
Another problem that I noticed is that most of the remote villages where you can actually stay with some local families have a very poor internet connection (or no internet at all). So their apartment is not listed on any website. I’ve seen some incredibly cool yurts that are simply not possible to book in advance if you are a foreigner. With a tour operator, you can find the best and most isolated places, and stay there for a couple of nights, something that will not be possible if you organize everything by yourself.
So my suggestion is to actually arrange the easiest part of the trip by yourself and then rely on some local tour agency for the coolest and most isolated places. My trip was arranged by Ak-Sai Travel, a tour operator specializing in Central Asia and it was perfect. Keep in mind that very few people can speak English. Russian is the most common language there so an English-speaking guide is quite handy. You can customize your tour and they will provide a driver and a guide that will take you everywhere you want.
Why are places spelled in so many different ways in Kazakhstan?
One thing I noticed during this trip is that quite often the name of the places are spelled differently. One of the main reasons is that Kazakhstan is switching from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet (Uzbekistan has already done so) and it will take until 2025 to complete the switch. Even the name of the country will change from Kazakhstan to Qazaqstan.
Why are they doing it? There are many reasons but as BBC put it very well: “The hope is that Latin letters will make it easier to push for modernization in a global and digital world.” Given that Russian is the country’s second official language, signs and official documents will remain bilingual: both in Kazakh (with Latin letters) and in Russian (with the Cyrillic alphabet). If you want to learn more about this topic don’t miss the BBC article.
Top things to do in Southeast Kazakhstan
If you click the picture above you’ll be redirected to Google Maps containing the main places you should visit in this part of the country.
Thing to see and to do in Almaty
The starting point for your trip would be the city of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and the biggest city in the country. You can find my travel guide about what you can do and see in Almaty here. Two days should be more than enough to visit Almaty which it’s also a good choice during the winter months if you like skiing. Though Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, the architecture of the city is surprisingly less soviet than other cities, like for example Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital.
Almaty is well connected with Istanbul and you can find cheap flights using a search engine like Momondo. Accommodation is not too expensive and you can find good deals on Booking.com or Agoda. One thing I noticed is that, compared to other countries in Asia, the rooms are quite small.
Getting around Almaty is quite convenient thanks to the subway and there are several pedestrians roads. It’s not my favorite city in the world but I really had a good impression. Definitely worth a visit.
Big Almaty Lake
One of the best day trips from Almaty is to Kazakhstan’s most famous lake: Big Almaty Lake. It’s only about 30 Km from the city but it takes about one hour and a half to get there.
You can either take a taxi and ask the driver to wait for you until you are done taking some pictures and walking a bit around the lake (probably the best option) or take bus number 28 from President’s park to a village called Kokshoky (it takes about half an hour to get there) and then take one of the minivans you’ll find there.
Obviously, you can also book a day tour from Almaty. You can ask for recommendations to your hotel. The best time to visit the lake is early autumn when you’ll see the best colors of the lake.
Saty is a remote village about 5 hours drive from Almaty. As far as I know, there are no buses going there so your only options would be renting a car or booking a tour.
I recommend the latter because Saty is the starting point for visiting Kaindy and Kolsay lakes and you’ll need a 4WD car to get there and a skilled driver especially if it just rained.
In Saty you can stay in one of the many guesthouses there and experience some local life. There isn’t actually much to do in the village. If you like photography you can hike the hill on the left, right before getting into the village. The view at sunset is quite beautiful.
You won’t be able to have the view you see in my pictures though, unless you have a drone (here more info about international drone regulations).
Aerial view of the mountains surrounding Saty village
Right before getting to Saty there is a checkpoint and you won’t be allowed to pass if you don’t have your passport with you (no photocopies accepted). Don’t forget it!
I recommend spending two nights in Saty. On the first day you can head to Kaindy Lake and on the second day you can head to Kolsay Lake 1 and hike to Kolsay Lake 2 then head back to Saty for the night.
Kaindy Lake is famous for its sunken forest. The lake was formed in 1911 after a powerful earthquake that created a natural dam and prevented the water from flowing down. The old forest of Shrenk spruce trees sunk into the new lake.
This is the second sunken forest I’ve seen. The first one was in Taiwan in 2015 in the central region of Nantou where a similarly powerful earthquake produced the same result, though not as spectacular.
The sunken forest in Taiwan
It takes about 45 minutes from Saty to get to Kaindy and you can hike from one end of the lake to the other in about one hour. The hike is easy and there are several spots where you can stop and take pictures of the submerged trees from different elevations. If you are feeling particularly lazy you can ride a horse instead.
You can still see the branches of the trees underwater even though more than 100 years have passed since the flooding.
After a day in Kaindy head back to Saty and go to sleep early. The hike for the following day will be very challenging…
Kolsay Lake 1 and Kolsay Lake 2
If you love hiking Kolsay Lake 1 and 2 are perfect for you. The first Kolsay lake is located about 30 minutes from Saty Village. I was honestly not ready for the hike and I must admit that it was very challenging. The elevation of the first lake is 1,818 meters and the second lake is 2,252 meters.
The trek is over 9 Km long one way. Considering that before starting the hike I actually hiked in the opposite direction to take some more pictures of the first lake I ended up walking for over 20 Km in one day. Keep in mind that most of the path is quite rough.
This being said, if you trek regularly you might find this hike not too challenging. If you don’t hike regularly, then I would consider this hike difficult.
The best option (I wish I knew it was that hard) would be getting to the second lake on a horseback and maybe coming back on foot or, even better, walking to the second lake, camping there for the night (bring your own tent) and then walking back the following day.
The beautiful colors of Kolsay Lake 2. If you are brave you can swim but the water is very cold.
The 3rd Kolsay Lake is very close to the Kyrgyz border and foreigners are not allowed to get there. It’s another 6 Km from the second lake and the elevation is 2,650 m. I read that a 4th Kolsay lake exists as well, on the other side of the Sary-Bulak Pass (3278 m) which marks the border with Kyrgyzstan and, for now, cross-border hikes are not legal.
How to visit the Charyn Canyon
Charyn Canyon was by far the most beautiful and spectacular place I saw during my trip to Southeast Kazakhstan. Just look at these pictures:
Drone image of Charyn Canyon from Bestamak camping site.
Charyn river cutting through the Charyn canyon at sunset
Charyn Canyon (also spelled Sharyn Canyon) is part of the Charyn Canyon National Park and stretches 154km along the Charyn River. The first stop from Saty village would probably be at the Charyn Canyon point of view (Google maps coordinates: 43.269381, 78.972902). It takes about 1,5 hours to get there (again no public transport). There you can take some pictures of the Charyn river flowing through the canyon.
From this viewpoint, you have a few options. Some people decide to spend the night camping in the canyon. Others opt for the yurt resort in the canyon. You can book it directly from Booking.com. I stayed in a small camp prepared just for our group. The name of the camp is Bestamak but it’s so remote that you won’t find it on Google and the road so bad that even with a 4WD car it’s quite challenging to get there. The road itself it’s quite spectacular as you’ll have to descend into the canyon.
The road leading down to the Bestamak camping site
Aerial view of the Bestamak Canyon
In the Bestamak camping site, there isn’t much to do unless you want to use it as a base camp to hike the canyon. There is no electricity, no phone signal and unless you book a tour with a travel agency, you’ll have to bring your own food. It was great to disconnect from the world for a while but if it’s a bit too extreme for you maybe you might want to opt for the yurt camp.
Here’s an interesting fact: the longest canyon in the world was discovered only in 2013 in Greenland and is 750 km long.
After resting the whole afternoon we woke up at 2:30 am to see the sunrise in another location in the canyon called Valley of Castles (on Google it’s called Charyn Canyon View Point and you can find it at these coordinates: 43.355800, 79.056852).
It’s probably the best stop to photograph the sunrise. What do you think?
The spot where you can take the pictures it’s just perfect
And this was the end of my itinerary in Southeast Kazakhstan. From the Valley of Castles, our driver took us to Karkara to cross the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
You can find more info about Kyrgyzstan in this article. These are some of the pictures I shoot driving through Kazakhstan.
The picture above shows the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Tips for your trips in Kazakhstan
- Very few people speak English. The common language is Russian so it might be a good idea to learn a few words in Russian and download an app to translate from English to Russian
- Central Asian countries are all about meat. Don’t expect to find many vegetables. This is partially due to the harsh climate and also to the nomadic past of the people. If you are vegetarian/vegan you’ll have a hard time
- Don’t forget the sunscreen as, especially in summer if you are hiking, the sun will quickly cook your skin…
- As always, I suggest to download a VPN and using it every time you connect to public wifi. Here I explain why. I use ExpressVPN and it works great.
- It’s easy and convenient to exchange money in big cities but as soon as you adventure outside you’ll have a hard time even finding an ATM. So bring some cash with you.
- Officially Kazakh people are Muslim but after so many years under the Soviet Union, they have lost their devotion to Islam. It was actually surprising for me to talk with so many people that are officially Muslims but actually Atheists.
- Horse meat is quite common. It’s not surprising for me since in Italy we eat horse meat too but I know that for some countries it’s a no-no. Keep it in mind.
- If you need a detailed guide you can buy the Lonely Planet guide of Kazakhstan, co-written by my friend Stephen Lioy (who also traveled to Yunnan extensively)
- Outside bigger cities, the phone signal is very weak if not existent at all.
Watch the video from my trip in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 4K.
DISCLAIMER: This publication is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Fabio Nodari and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.