Written by 5:05 pm Central Asia, Kazakhstan

The endless charm of Charyn canyon

Charyn canyon, Almaty

“Today, you are about to witness the incredible diversity of Kazakhstan’s landscape’ our guide Syrym enthusiastically announced, as we set off on the second leg of our tour. After exploring the enchanting alpine lakes of Kaindy and Kolsai on the first day, a new adventure awaited us. Our destination for the day was the remarkable Charyn Canyon. The Charyn canyon is touted as the second-largest canyon globally, following the Grand Canyon in the USA. “It’s a whole new terrain, but I’m confident you’ll be mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the canyon,” Syrym declared with contagious excitement.

In the Saty village, Almaty
Waking up to these scenes in the Saty village

We started early from the Saty village. We made a stop at the village store to get our lunch boxes packed, and then started off our journey towards the Charyn canyons.

As the terrain transformed

As we traversed the vast, endlessly flat steppe of the country, the terrain underwent a captivating transformation every few minutes. The towering mountains gracefully yielded to expansive steppes, occasionally interrupted by dramatic deep gorges. The sprawling flat plains offered glimpses into the rural life of Kazakhstan, and introduced us to Kazakhstan’s favorite residents – wild horses.

Wild horses in Kazakhstan
Our first introduction to the favorite residents of Kazakhstan

The Charyn Canyon consists of five different canyons: the Valley of Castles, the Temirlik Canyon, the Yellow Canyon, the Red Canyon and the Bestamak Canyon. And each of them offers a unique perspective and breath-taking imagery.

Steeped in local legends, these canyons are believed to be haunted by spirits who resent disturbances from the living. People believed that it was a place haunted by spirits who didn’t like to be disturbed by the living. To keep people away, these evil spirits drove animals to the cliffs, and forced them to jump down on anyone walking through the canyon. Another legend says that witches flew there late at night, luring travelers on the rocks so they could push them off the cliffs.

The gorges of Charyn canyon
The canyons offer a unique perspective and breath-taking imagery

The first stop

We were certainly going though the most intriguing sceneries of Kazakhstan. A brief pause in our travels, yet one that left a lasting impression as we gazed into the depths of a yawning gorge. Peering down into the abyss of the narrow valley, a shiver of anticipation ran down my spine. The sheer depth of the gorge was both thrilling and unnerving, yet it stirred within me a sense of exhilaration.

We stayed there for sometime before making a move to the yellow canyon. However, it was here, amidst the golden hues of the landscape; that I encountered a moment I had longed for—a moment that will remain as the essence of my journey to Kazakhstan. Here I got a chance to hold the steppe eagle on my hand. With bated breath, I seized the opportunity at a tip of 2000 tenge.

The Charyn canyon of Kazakhstan
The canyons are steeped in local legends, and are believed to be haunted by spirits who resent disturbances from the living
Steppe eagle in the canyons of Kazakhstan
Can never forget this moment – being so close to a bird so magnificent

As the magnificent bird perched upon my outstretched arm, I was overcome with a profound sense of awe and reverence. To be in such close proximity to this magnificent creature, to feel its power and grace; was a truly humbling experience. I felt a deep connection with nature at that moment: something exhilarating, something beyond the ordinary.

Descent into the Valley of castles

We moved from there, and in another 30 minutes we were at our final destination – the valley of castles. “Descend into the valley of castles for an experience like never before,” announced Syrym, as our group started climbing down the gorge. Awestruck, I descended into the Valley of Castles, moving closer to this amazing draw of nature with every step.

Charyn canyon, Almaty
The first descent into the valley of castles

Make your way down the gorge and trek along strange rock formations and multi-colored rock layers, formed during millions of years. Over millions of years, the swift Charyn (Sharyn) River has carved a truly spectacular 150m- to 300m-deep canyon into the otherwise flat steppe. Time played its role, and weathered this into some weird and colourful rock formations.

As I strolled down the 3-kilometre dusty trail flanked by endless canyons, it reminded me of the numerous pictures I have seen of Petra. Those pictures fed the imagination, conjuring up a sense of wonder, adventure and anticipation. The more I looked around at the rocks, the more I wondered how apt the name ‘The Valley of Castles’ was. It seemed nature had been carving the rocks for eons into fancy fairy-tale forms of ancient castles. I imagined those childhood fairy tales fitting into those ocher rocks.

Marshrutka in the Charyn canyon
This imagery of marshrutkas in the Valley of castles

The canyon’s fantastic rocky remains have been carved by the relentless interplay of wind, sun, and rushing water. Each hue adorning the canyon walls tells a story of its own. At the base of the canyon lie the ancient dark rocks, forged from volcanic lava eons ago. The dark rocks were, perhaps, the silent witness to the earliest chapters of the region’s geological tale. The layers above this darker rock, are characterized by hues of reddish gravel. These are much younger and were deposited when the river raged through the higher levels of the canyon. Venturing beyond the canyon’s rugged contours is a cloak of grey gravel. This was deposited by the rivers that once meandered through these gorges, and dust blown in by ancient winds.

It’s a 2.5 kilometer long walk down the gorge, among the finely carved rocks, that looked like whimsical faces staring at you. The winding path, led us to the tranquil banks of the Charyn River. After such a long walk, it seemed a haven of life-giving coolness.  Right by the water there are small charming poplar groves. Beneath the whispering leaves of these trees, we found solace and serenity, to have our lunch. The Charyn River became not just a stop along our journey, but a cherished memory.

Walk through the canyon to the Charyn river
It was a long, delightful walk on the canyon floor
Charyn canyon_Kaleidoscope
The ocher rocks of the canyon did remind me of Petra

Some more moments by the river to soak in the serenity of the place, and we made our way back to the bus. As the evening sun bathed these geological wonders in a warm orange glow, their beauty became even more breath-taking, and kept us in a click frenzy mode. Each twist and turn of the trail unveiled a new spectacle, inviting us to pause and marvel at the intricate patterns and hues etched into the rock.

It indeed proved a life changing moment, as Syrym has said in the beginning. I feel I probably had whispered ‘once is not enough for this place’ as we disembarked from the bus in Almaty.

And to the Charyn river
And the long walk brought us to this slice of heaven – the Charyn River

Planning to the Charyn canyon

The easiest way to get to the Charyn canyon 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 catalogue on their Whats App 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 fee.

You can also book a cab to the Charyn canyon, and do a day tour.

There is no direct public transport to the place. Another way is to take a shared taxi or rented car. The main road is a hot 10k walk away from the entrance to The Valley of the Castles. You can take a shared taxi to the canyon. If you share a taxi, make sure they are coming back or staying in the area so you are able to get back. Kokpek and Kegan are the nearest villages to the canyon and if you end up hitchhiking it’s a good place to head to then continue to Almaty.

Entrance fee to Charyn Canyon

The entrance to the Valley of the Castles is 727 tenge and if you wanted to camp in the canyon that would cost 350 tenge extra.

Stay at the Charyn canyon: There is an option to stay at the canyon. There’s an eco-park by the River Charyn at the base of the canyon which provides yurt, bungalow or camping accommodation.

  • YURTS has a mattress on the floor and costs 40,000T ($120) for the whole yurt and accommodates 8 people.
  • BUNGALOWS are basic wooden cabins beside the river with beds, a light, and a small balcony area and cost 14,000T ($42) for a two-person bungalow or 20,000T ($60) to sleep three.
  • CAMPING is the cheapest option – it’s free providing you have your own gear! You’ll find a cleared, open space by the river which is the designated spot.
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