- Ryan Kretch
If you followed the advice of the Digital Nomad's Guide to Almaty, Kazakhstan, and are headed to Almaty, or just headed to the Kaz on vacation, we recommended that some weekends you get out and explore the gorgeous nature that the country has to offer. Just outside of Almaty, you can experience outrageously different topography from some of the world's biggest canyons (Charyn Canyon), to emerald green flat plains, to snow-capped mountains and sapphire blue lakes (Kolsai Lakes). The Kazakhstan tourist attractions are plentiful just outside the city, and contrary to other touristy places, no really not filled with people, as tourism in Kazakhstan is not as developed as other countries around the world.
So here is an idea for a three day (two night) road-trip you can take from Almaty, along with safety tips, car rental tips, and just general enjoyment tips. As this is all based on our personal experience, feel free to tweak it to your liking and timings.
You can get a little inspiration from this video from our Kazakhstani road trip:
Firstly, how to take a road-trip in Kazakhstan?
How to rent a car in Almaty: Car rental company options in Almaty
If you google "rent a car in Almaty" or go to typical third-party sites like Rentalcars.com, there are very little offerings (from Avis and/or Hertz) and they tend to be more expensive than renting in other places.
We recommend checking out some of the local offerings before going this route, although it is a good last resort if you cannot find anything. That being said, try to have an idea of your dates a bit more in advanced, as we literally tried to book cars a few days before our road-trip and the pickings were slim.
Option 1: Vladex Car Rental
We contacted this company first based on a recommendation from another blogger, Isle of Nomads and a nice guy called Nick contacted us almost immediately mentioning he did not have cars for the dates we wanted. We are recommending this option, because it seems to have a good track record, and communication can be done entirely in English, which isn't possible with the other local options, except through translating apps.
After this failed attempt, I started contacting a lot of random companies (with high ratings on Google) through WhatsApp, which seems to be the way to go for most services in Kazakhstan.
Option 2: Na-Prokat
I finally found one that was professional and even had a WhatsApp business account. While we communicated in Russian translations through WhatsApp, the agent was super helpful and gave me a few options of what I could rent. Also, it was about half the price overall from what I was seeing at Hertz and Avis. Eventually, I booked a Chevrolet Cobalt without any kind of deposit needed until the day I went and picked up the car.
When we went to pick up the car, we spoke to the agent (using Google Translate Speaking functionality 🤣). The car was in wonderful condition, spotless, and with a full tank of gas.
Overall, we paid 15,000 Tenge per day (or 45,000 for 3 days), a 30,000 driving out-of-Almaty fee (this is normal, since we wouldn't be driving in some of the best conditions sometimes), and 30,000 for a deposit.
The company had very clear conditions and set a very high bar on quality, even asking us to clean the car before returning it (they will recommend a place to do this, and it is all part of the experience 🤣).
The one thing I didn't like was that we had to chase him a bit for the deposit after we returned the car. He mentioned originally it would take 5 days, but after 10 days or so, I started pinging him on WhatsApp and soon after the money was back in my account.
So I would still vouch for Option 1, but Option 2 is not far behind, except for the hassle of only communicating in Russian, having to return the car cleaned, and pushing a bit to get the deposit back, but that is Kazakhstan for you.
- The whole trip was do-able in our Chevy Cobalt on less than one tank of gas, and filling up only cost around 17 euros (at the time of writing this)
Should I rent a 4x4 when doing a road-trip in Kazakhstan?
If you follow this guide, you shouldn't really need a 4x4 when traveling in Kazakhstan. The road infrastructure has definitely improved in the last years and aside from a few bumps here and there on side streets, we definitely got by without it.
The only place that needed a 4x4 on this trip would have been the route to Lake Kaindy from Saty village, but there are plenty of places in town to hire someone to drive you up there, making it not super necessary. On the other hand, the roads to Kolsai Lake and Charyn Canyon are paved and ready for your non 4x4 vehicles 😁.
As of 2023, the conditions of the roads needed for this trip are very good
Kazakhstan travel safety (on the road)
Some travel safety tips:
- I read plenty of blog posts warning people about regular police stops, often leading to bribes being paid. I have to say that we did not get pulled over once. Maybe we were lucky, or maybe we were well enough behaved for the police, but either way, I would take those other posts with a grain of salt and not let it scare you from road-tripping around this beautiful country.
- People also complain about the driving standards in Kazakhstan. However, it wasn't as bad as some people described. Maybe in Almaty, drivers can be a bit aggressive and annoying especially in traffic, but outside the city, you won't experience this (there are very few cars in such a small country anyway 🤣). Maybe choose times to avoid traffic going in and out of the city.
Can I take public transportation instead to get to Kolsai Lakes and Charyn Canyon?
There are definitely ways of doing this, that involve taking mini-buses, walking and hitchhiking, but because of our work schedule, this would have been a bit tough, so we will steer clear of this. Instead, we can link to other blogs if you have that added level of adventure (and time) on your side:
- How to get to Charyn Canyon by public transportation
- How to get to Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy by public transportation
We totally recommend getting a car if possible, as it gives you free rein of where you can go, but it definitely is the priciest option.
What should I bring?
For us, the major essentials were:
- Cash - you may be able to pay everywhere with card or Apple Pay in Almaty, but that convenience stops just outside the city limits. You will need cash to get around, and unfortunately there are like 0 ATMs anywhere. Don't be like us and make sure you take more cash than you think is necessary 🤣.
- Big water bottle - you can get this along the way or in Saty, for example, but it was always good to have in our car and something we would bring into our guest house rooms with us
- Warm clothes - the weather can be a bit unpredictable in the different topographies of South-Eastern Kazakhstan, so pack more clothes than less
3 Day Kazakhstan Road-trip Itinerary: Kolsai Lakes, Kaindy Lake, Charyn Canyon
This is a road-trip of the ultimate places to visit in Kazakhstan, or more rightfully so around Almaty, since it is a massive country.
Day 1, Night 1: Almaty to Kaindy Lake to Karabulak
Try to leave Almaty in the morning (contrary to what we did, leaving in the early afternoon). The drive is a nice, smooth highway ride that gets more scenic as the journey goes on. You will see signs for Charyn Canyon, but we will leave this until the last day, so you can pass on by without any FOMO for now.
Some scenic views of canyons on the way to Karabulak
Continue on to Kaindy Lake (this should take about 4 hours from Almaty or so). The road for Kaindy Lake is located right before the village of Saty. As mentioned earlier, you will need some kind of 4x4 for this part of the journey, but at either end of Saty there are also places where you can park your car and then hire a much more equipped vehicle with a driver to bring you up to the lake. Hopefully this road will be paved in the future, but for now it's a bumpy adventure ride.
Kaindy Lake, also known as the "Lake of Fallen Trees", is a natural wonder that emerged quite unexpectedly. Its origin can be traced back to a massive earthquake that struck the region in 1911. This seismic event, measuring around 7.7 on the Richter scale, caused a massive landslide in the surrounding mountains. The landslide blocked the gorge and resulted in the formation of a natural dam that impounded the gorge stream.
At the lake, feel free to spend as much or as little time as you want. I felt it is more of a photo spot than for hiking, so you can go there for just a bit of time if it is getting to be late afternoon.
Accommodation in Lake Kaindy, Kolsai Lakes, Charyn Canyon
After getting back from Lake Kaindy, you can choose to stay in the village of Saty, but we recommend backtracking on the road you came a few minutes and staying in Karabulak. For us, Saty felt a bit like this fabricated town with tons of guest houses merely for the purpose of having tourists, but it didn't have such a vibe in our opinion.
However, in Karabulak, the vibe is much more local with more village life than guest houses. As you wander around the village, you can see herding happening all around the surrounding hills, and the scenery is spectacular.
Where we stayed:
- Lyuba's Guest House - Super kind family, nice home-cooked Kazakh meals, but definitely primitive in terms of restroom facilities. We paid 6,500 per person per night (which included dinner and breakfast)
The family who helped us find another guest house in Karabulak ❤️
Karabulak is a gorgeous little village, with sexy sunsets,
...with rolling hills
...and plenty of sheep
- So, how do you get a place in Karabulak (or Saty)? Online booking platforms are a bit limited, with just a few places in Saty making it on Booking.com. We found it easiest to just pick a guest house on Google Maps in Karabulak and go there and ask. The first place we went to was at capacity, but the lady was super kind and called around until someone else mentioned they had space. Booking.com seemed to have a bit more of up-level accommodations, so give it a look if you are looking for something more comfortable.
- You can expect the guesthouses to be pretty basic. In our place, the toilet was a hole in the ground in an outhouse and showering with hot water required some preparations from the owners and an extra fee. I think we stayed in one of the more basics of places, but just beware that you may not be staying at the Ritz while out here.
- As mentioned, our stay came with dinner and breakfast the following day, so make sure you work this into the pricing as there isn't so much in terms of food or restaurants around the area. Each meal was a pretty big spread of breads and pastries, as well as a main dish or two that they prepare from scratch. We weren't crazy about the food (we were spoiled rotten by Georgian food in Almaty), but it was certainly caloric and good for the outdoor activities that would ensue.
Day 2, Night 2: Kolsai Lakes (Kolsay Lakes) and back to Karabulak
We ultimately decided we would stay one more night in Karabulak, as we enjoyed our stay at Lyuba's and since we were the only ones, got a lot of tender care and attention. This also saves having to pack, re-pack and go find a new guesthouse, when realistically all the accommodations are centered in Karabulak or Saty.
After breakfast filled with fried dough, jams, marmalade, endless tea, and awkward conversation about how we were over 30 and not married, we got in the car and went back through Saty and up towards the first Kolsai Lake. The drive is smooth and paved. Eventually you will get to the entrance, where inconveniently, they make you get out of the car at the ticket booth while you are on the road and go buy a ticket. You will need to buy a ticket for the park (845 Tenge) and a ticket for the car (200 Tenge).
Once inside and parked, you will walk down to the first Kolsai Lake. A popular thing to do, based on other blogs, is to hike from the first Kolsai Lake to the second Kolsai Lake. That was our original plan, but because we accidentally hiked on the left side of the lake (much more strenuous) and were a little bit sick, we decided just to hike to the bottom of the first Kolsai Lake and back (on the right side).
There is even a third Kolsai Lake, but it is reportedly a bit difficult to get to due to it being close to the border of Kyrgyzstan. The three Kolsai Lakes are respectively at heights 1800, 2250 and 2700 meters above sea level.
I will pop in a link if you want to learn more about hiking to the second lake 🤣. We will try next time 😁.
If you don't make it to the second lake and have time for a late lunch, head to Fortuna Cafe back in Saty. It boasts delicious food and probably one of the few restaurants around this area.
- Bring some kind of rain gear with you, as the weather was absolutely bipolar. One moment it would be bright sun, and the next would be downpouring.
- If you are planning on going all the way to the bottom of the first lake (and maybe onward to the second lake), hike on the right side of the lake, alongside where the horses trek. The left side of the lake is strenuous more and doesn't offer as great of views, but is in the midst of the greenery. Maybe do what we did and just do a full circle around the lake.
- You can certainly camp there, as there are camping spaces. There is an extra fee for this at the entrance.
- There are a few little supermarkets in Saty (more like convenience stores), so feel free to stock up on snacks if you are going to be out at the lakes for a while.
The first Kolsai Lake with beautiful color contrasts
Gay boys at Kolsai Lakes
Obligatory tourist shots at Kolsai Lake
Day 3: Karabulak to Charyn Canyon to Almaty
After another morning of bread, jam, tea, and awkward conversation, we were out of Karabulak for good (bye bye, Lyuba ❤️) and on the way to Charyn Canyon. We couldn't quite fathom while we were driving how in the span of an hour, we were in snow-capped mountains, to green velvety plains, and finally to the monstrosity known as Charyn Canyon.
This iconic canyon is a natural marvel up there to the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, but way less known. When driving up to Charyn Canyon, you must, once again, pay a park fee of 845 Tenge and a little further on is the parking and tourist center. The construction of the tourist center is more upscale than that of Kolsai Lakes, with a fancy but affordable, Turkish style restaurant. If you have been holding off on using the toilets throughout your trip, this is your opportunity to do so, as these are the nicest you'll come across, hands down.
When you head to the trails, there are a few you can take, including the most popular, which is hiking 2.5 kilometers through the canyon, known as the Valley of Castles (Charyn Canyon is 150 to 200 meters deep at this point), or hiking on top of it (on the left side). We managed to do both of these, and there are a few other routes you can take for a different experience.
As far as Charyn Canyon accomodation or Charyn Canyon hotels go, there is not much, hence why we mentioned that you should sleep in Karabulak or Saty for the night. There used to be some kind of eco-park, but that seems closed now. I imagine accommodations around this area will develop in the years to come.
After you've had your fair share of canyons, you can head back to Almaty for the night (of course keep on going to some of the other sites, like Altyn Emel National Park) if you have the capacity and time. Wherever the heck you go in this country, it will be a hell of an adventure!
- There is not too much between Almaty and Charyn Canyon, so we don't have major recommendations there, although definitely take a look if it interests you. We did try to drive through the suburbs around Almaty on the last evening to see if we could find accommodations, but weren't inspired and desperately wanted a shower, so we headed back to Almaty a bit earlier.
- As mentioned, a lot of things are done via WhatsApp, so if you find a phone number (ex: for accommodations), try contacting them through WhatsApp if you want to arrange things earlier.