“Almaty region is truly exceptional,” remarked our guide, Syrym, as we embarked on a two-day odyssey through the Almaty region to explore the untamed beauty of Kazakhstan. “It’s the sole place in the country where, within a few hours of driving, you can witness desert dunes, Alpine lakes, grand canyons, mountain ridges, and expansive steppes, all without leaving the region.”
Our journey commenced at 8:00 pm, departing from the lively streets of Almaty. Accompanied by sixty fellow travelers from various corners of the globe, we boarded our tour bus, eager for a splendid weekend immersed in the rural landscapes of Kazakhstan. Our quest? To discover the lake-dotted steppe, traverse new hiking trails, and relish the genuine hospitality awaiting us in a village guesthouse.
Our ultimate destination was Saty village, cradled within the enchanting Tien Shan mountains and serving as the gateway to the mesmerizing Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes. The allure of a tranquil retreat amidst the pristine beauty of Kazakhstan’s landscapes, made us decide to favor embarking on this journey.
The approximately four-hour drive from Almaty to Saty village hinted at our arrival well past midnight. Undeterred, fuelled by the anticipation of what lay ahead, we pressed on. Following a sumptuous Kazakh dinner, we were fully prepared for the adventure against the silhouette of the rugged Tien Shan peaks—a spectacle that surely would have been a visual feast for the senses had it unfolded during the daylight hours.
Just as our excitement was reaching its pinnacle, Syrym, our guide for the two-day tour, delivered a reality check with his candid revelation. “Since you are the last ones to arrive, we only have the last seats left for you,” he quipped. A collective glance exchanged between us resulted in wry smiles as if silently acknowledging the age-old adage, ‘no pains, no gains.’ And so, our journey began on a slightly somber note!
My first impression of the Saty village
Thanks to the impeccable road infrastructure of Kazakhstan, the journey was smooth and painless. Perhaps due to the smooth ride or our engrossing conversations, interspersed with munching on Kazakh snacks, we hardly realized how swiftly we had arrived at Saty. Glancing out of the window, the first thing that caught my attention was the meticulously laid, all-weather metalled village road, adorned with walking pavements on both sides. The initial impressions spoke volumes about the thoughtful planning of the village. Syrym enlightened us about the unique hospitality arrangement in Saty—villagers opening their homes to accommodate travelers. We were soon guided by him to our respective homestay, ready to immerse in our village stay.
Our accommodation was simple and unassuming, offering double rooms at a slightly higher rate and dormitories. The facilities included a single washroom with an open pit arrangement—no frills, no bathroom luxuries. However, it was the kind of arrangement one could easily adapt to. When you embark on a journey to achieve something greater and novel, such minor inconveniences fade into insignificance.
That night we slept with thoughts of our tranquil escape to the lakes the next day.
The morning started on a high note, with the first taste of the village hospitality. Spread out on the table awaited a modest yet affectionately prepared breakfast. There was rice porridge, locally baked biscuits, Kazaki bread, and a generously sized cup of tea. A contented smile adorned my face as I marveled at the huge tea cup. Perhaps, Kazakhs share a profound love for tea akin to that of Indians.
Off to the sunken forests in the Kaindy Lake
After having breathed in the beautiful scenery of the Saty village, we set off on a marshrutka to our first destination – Kaindy Lake. My anticipation to witness Kaindy Lake had been growing, fueled by the captivating tales I had heard about it. Lake Kaindy formed naturally in 1911 in the northern Tien Shan mountains after an earthquake caused an enormous landslide. The earth’s movement led to the creation of a natural dam, subsequently giving rise to the breathtaking Kaindy Lake.
The journey to the lake proved to be quite tumultuous, yet undeniably magnificent. We traversed through the Saty Gorge, the Chilik Valley, and the Kaindy Gorge. The best way to spend away time was to fixate on the scenery unfolding outside the window.
Upon reaching the lake entrance, various options awaited us – a mountain trail ascent, a horseback ride, or another marshrutka journey to the lake itself. We chose to hike to capture the inviting landscape. As we stood in the presence of Kaindy Lake, it became evident why bloggers and travel influencers expressed such fervor about it. The lake bewitches with its initial gaze. And that long journey you have taken to be here seems all worth it.
Take the time to immerse yourself in the enchanting surroundings of Kaindy, fittingly known as ‘the lake of sunken forests.’ The lake is perched above a spruce forest, leading to some bizarre but inviting scenery. Today the spruce forest beneath the lake is dead, but their top halves stand above water as some giant ship masts or spears. The otherworldly ambiance becomes even more pronounced during winter when fog blankets the water or the lake freezes. The dead spruce forest emerging out of a lake casts a ghostly look.
We lingered by the lake for nearly an hour, soaking in the mesmerizing atmosphere, before retracing our steps back to Saty village for lunch at our homestay. In the lunch, Manti, or as I say Kazakh answer to Chinese dumplings awaited us, albeit larger and more filling. Along with that, we had some bread, a soupy meat dish, and a serving of creamy mashed potatoes.
Kolsai Lake: The pearl of the Tien Shan
Not gonna lie but our schedule was quite packed. Some rest after lunch, and we again set off for another expedition. This time to the Kolsai Lake. The lakes are hardly 10 kilometers from the Saty village.
Often nicknamed the ‘Pearls of the Tien Shan’, the Kolsai Lakes National Park is unquestionably one of Central Asia’s best-kept secrets. And no wonder, they are a popular stop for travelers visiting Almaty. Three lakes form Kolsai Lake – Upper, Middle, and Lower Kolsai lakes which are located at 1870, 2250, and 2650 meters above sea level.
Whether you choose to explore in the morning or during the afternoon, do take a walk around the clear blue waters of the first Kolsai Lake. You can also go boating at the lake, or take a hike to the second Kolsai Lake. However, hiking to the third Kolsai Lake is restricted, as it sits on the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Start the hike by tracing the dusty path that winds over the slope on the right-hand side of the lake. You will find yourself among lush alpine forests punctuated by several stunning vantage points along the way. The hike may take two to three hours.
Boating on the first Kolsai Lake provides you with a unique perspective of both the first Kolsai Lake and the surrounding peaks of the Tien Shan Mountain range. We spent several hours taking in the view, both from the boat and the verdant trails we traversed while hiking. And never realized how soon evening crept in, and it was time for us to return to the Saty village.
We were to depart the next morning, and in a bid to gather everyone for one last memorable moment, our tour guides orchestrated a delightful bonfire in the night. But before that, we were to head to our homestay for dinner. The evening’s fare was unassuming yet satisfying – a medley of beans, a savory meat dish, boiled potatoes, and freshly baked bread. Simple but hearty.
In the quietude of the night, around 10 PM, our bus arrived to ferry us to the eagerly anticipated bonfire. The surroundings were cloaked in darkness, providing the perfect canvas for a breathtaking celestial display. As I looked up, it felt as though an entire gallery of stars had unveiled itself, a thought seldom entertained in the bustling urban jungles we call home.
The warmth of the bonfire, along with the lively games, vibrant music, and dance, served as a perfect conclusion to our inaugural day and set the stage for the adventures awaiting us on the second day of our trip. It was a stage for camaraderie and celebration.
Planning to the Kaindy and Kolsai lakes
How to go: The easiest way to get to the Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy would be by booking a tour. Most tours offer a combination of visiting the lakes with Charyn Canyon and even Altyn Emel National Park, which I’d highly recommend!
We booked our two-day tour through Wanderlust Tours (+7 776 647 4646). You can check their catalog on their WhatsApp address. The total cost (in Nov 2023) was 33000 tenge per person. There are one-day tours too which may cost 17000 – 20000 tenge per person.
This cost covers bus travel, stay in Saty village, breakfast for two days, lunch and dinner, and all the entrance fees.
Traveling via public transport is difficult as there is no direct bus to Saty village. The nearest stop is Kogen, from where one can hitchhike to Saty village. Although you will easily get a place to stay in the village, and also some transport to take you to the lakes.
Stay at the Kolsai Lake: There are two accommodation options available near the Kolsai Lakes. You can stay at the yurt camp situated close to the first lake for 7000 tenge per person (breakfast included). Alternatively, you can opt for one of the several homestays and guesthouses in Saty, the nearest village to the lakes. It’s important to note that there are no restaurants or convenience stores in the vicinity of Kolsai 1, so it’s advisable to bring an ample supply of food. Certain homestays may provide lunch and dinner for an additional fee of 1000 tenge per meal.
Camping at the Kolsai Lake: If you plan to camp at any of the three lakes, there’s an additional fee upon entering the park. Prices may vary, but typically it’s around 350 tenge per tent per night. Remember to hold onto your receipt in case a ranger asks for it at the campground. During the busy summer months, when tourism peaks, rangers will direct you to designated camping areas, as you won’t be the only camper there.
You can camp anywhere near the Kaindy lake. Do brace yourself for the cold nights at the lakes. There are only a few convenience stores in the nearby village of Saty, so bring enough food and water with you for the amount of time you’re going to spend near the lakes.