Home Destinations Unforgettable day trips from Almaty, Kazakhstan you’ll want to take

Unforgettable day trips from Almaty, Kazakhstan you’ll want to take

by Jan Schroder
path through valley of castles in Charyn Canyon

I really enjoyed being in Almaty, but after several days in a big city, I’m ready to get out and explore the outdoors. Not in a sleeping in a tent kind of way, but in a hike through nature then get back into air conditioning way.

Luckily, we took several day trips from Almaty that transported me to stunning canyons, gorgeous lakes, a huge resort and an ethno village where I learned about the lifestyle of the nomads in Kazakhstan. I also learned I won’t be ordering fermented horse milk as a beverage of choice anywhere.

The #1 reason tourists visit Kazakhstan is because of nature, and after visiting these sites, I can see why. The scenery is simply stunning and so different than what I’m used to in the South where I live.

The easiest way to go on day trips from Almaty would be with a group tour and TripAdvisor offers several one- and two-day trips.

Read our related story on this fascinating country: “Amazing things to do in Almaty, Kazakhstan.”

Charyn Canyon National Park

visitors center at Charyn Canyon
We drove through miles of flat empty farmland before coming to this beautiful visitors center at Charyn Canyon.

Charyn Canyon, about a three-hour drive east from Kazakhstan, was a highlight of the trip for me. It’s known as the little brother of the Grand Canyon, although the deepest point here is about 427 feet as opposed to the Grand Canyon, which is 6,000 feet at its deepest point. The canyon was carved by a river, starting about 12 million years ago and runs about 50 miles in length.

After a brief stop at the beautiful visitor’s center, we walked around the rim of the canyon to get a good view from above of the layers and layers of rock formations. Then we headed down a long staircase before arriving at a gently sloping path through the Valley of the Castles to the Charyn River.

staircase into charyn canyon
The long staircase leading to the path inside Charyn Canyon.

The landscape here is stunning and oh so different than the rolling tree-filled hills of my native Georgia. I kept stopping to take photos, fascinated by the towering rock formations.

Although it was a beautiful day, there weren’t many other people in the canyon. One woman from Russia started chatting to us when she heard us speaking English. She told us she had come there on a vacation with her mother, who didn’t want to fly. So, they had ridden a train for 36 hours.

charyn river in charyn canyon
Charyn River looks tame but no swimming is allowed as it’s considered dangerous.

We made it to the Charyn River, which looked fairly tame but is dangerous and swimming is not allowed. Our plan had been to take the “taxi” back to the top, a pickup truck with eight seats in the back.

After seeing a line of about 60 people waiting for it, we knew there was only one way back. Funny how hills seem much steeper when you’re heading up, but it only took about 40 minutes, plus the 200+ stairs at the end.

Black Canyon

view of Black Canyon
A stop at Black Canyon gave us another glimpse of the power of the Charyn River.

Located about 35 minutes from Charyn Canyon, Black Canyon is worth a quick stop. There are no facilities there so you won’t be tempted by any gift shops, although it looked like something was under construction.

Like Charyn Canyon, Black Canyon was also formed by the Charyn River. I carefully walked about the rim in different areas for views of the river far, far below. I am not afraid of heights but have a healthy respect for them and prefer to keep my distance around edges with crumbling rocks.

Kolsai  Lakes

Kolsai Lakes in Kazakhstan, one of the day trips from Almaty
Kolsai Lakes has three lakes at varying elevations. (Photo by Vlad Panov/Unsplash)

A series of three lakes at different elevations, the upper, middle and lower, Kolsai Lakes are located on the north slope of Tien Shan mountains. We took a short walk down a trail to the first lake, stopping halfway down to admire the gorgeous blue water with a reflection of the mountains.

There’s a path around the lake so we took a hike through the woods, eventually coming to a clearing where you can rent boats and people can also put on a heavy native costume and have their photo taken with a bird, seemingly a popular activity in Kazakhstan. The second lake is about a 2.5-hour hike so we turned back to head to our next destination.

On the return walk, the path was more heavily traveled. Many people said hello to us in English, or shook our hands as we passed, once again demonstrating that Kazakh hospitality.

Kaindy Lake

Kaindy Lake
I loved how serene and other-worldy Kaindy Lake looked.

About 30 minutes from Kolsai Lakes, Kaindy Lake is not easy to get to. We stopped at Saty, a small village, piled into a van and set off on a dusty road with potholes that looked large enough to swallow a VW Beetle. Once again, I gave thanks that I don’t have an issue with car sickness as this seemed to be a recipe for an upset stomach.

Once we (finally!) got to the entrance, we found we could walk down to the lake or go on horseback. I walked down a steep wooded path, so steep I took baby steps at the end so I wouldn’t fall and headed to a small path on the right, away from the more traveled path on the left. It was crowded in the small clearings where it was safe to stand, but I could manage clear views of what looks like a sunken forest of birch trees, which is how the lake got its name. The reflections of the trees on the water gave it a kind of an other-worldly feeling.

I was headed over to the larger side of the lake when a couple let me pass over a log bridge before them. I said, “Thank you,” and their eyes lit up. They wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there. Once again, speaking English here attracted attention, smiles and welcome greetings.

I had learned a few Kazak words, but it seemed a benefit here to speak English as it led to several interactions with locals.

people at Kaindy Lake
Despite the difficulty of getting there, Kaindy Lake is a popular destination for locals and tourists.

The other part of the lake was much larger and more crowded. I saw several people wrapping themselves in the blue-and-yellow flag of Kazakhstan, another popular tourist activity.

After walking around a bit and taking in more magnificent views, I met up with a few others of our group who had taken another path, not as steep, so I joined them. It was also the horse path, so we had to move aside a few times, but it was worth it for the much better views of the lake.

After another bumpy ride back, we had lunch in Saty, another highlight of the trip. I entered a large yurt where I saw two low tables piled with food for our group. After I saw three of my fellow writers at the table on the left, young healthy men with large appetites, I headed to the table on the right out of fear I wouldn’t be able to compete with their barsak consumption and may go hungry.

lunch in a yurt at Alban in Saty
Lunch in a yurt at Alban in Saty.

No need to worry. The delicious food kept coming and we enjoyed beshbarmak, the Kazakh national dish of meat served over noodles, served in large wood bowls.

On the drive back to Almaty, I once again noticed miles and miles of nothing but farmland, broken up by the occasional small village. We had to stop at one point for the cows and sheep to get out of the road.

beshmarmak at Alban in Saty, Kazakhstan
Because the Kazakh people were nomadic, their diet consisted of a lot of meat as they weren’t in one place long enought to grow crops. This is beshbarmak, meat over noodles that is the national dish of Kazakhstan.

As we got closer to the city, I saw dozens of large event halls on both sides of the road, seemingly on every block. Our guide, Zhadra, had told us that in Kazakhstan, “We like to make party.” I had also learned that the typical house is not large, so perhaps they make parties in these large event halls.

Travel tip: Although you could make a day trip out of going to each of these sites, if possible, I recommend spending the night so you can visit all four in two days. We spent the night in the Hotel Kolsay Grand. The rooms are basic but all you need just to rest for the night.

I did look out my window in the morning to see a small house and livestock on the hill behind me and marveled at my presence in a remote part of a country thousands of miles from home.

Huns Ethno Village

greeters in period costume at the ethno hun village, one of the day trips from Almaty
Some of our greeters at the Ethno Hun Village.

One of the most fascinating days in Kazakhstan was our visit to the Huns Ethno Village, less than an hour from Almaty, where we learned about the culture and traditions of Kazakh nomads. How long does it take to disassemble a yurt, anyway? Well, we found out.

We were greeted outside the gates by two men on horseback, soon joined by three lovely young women who greeted us by showering us with hard candy, a traditional welcome. We followed them into the village where we were offered fermented horse milk, a favorite of the Kazakhs. I took one sip of the sour concoction and that was enough for me.

performance at Ethno Hun Village, a day trip from Almaty
These people showed us the culture and traditions of the Kazakh nomads, such as playing the dombra and beating wool with sticks to remove impurities.

We watched as a girl rolled out dough, cut it into rectangles and passed it along to a man who was stirring a large boiling pot of oil to fry the dough to make the delicious barsak.

A group of the villagers sang for us and played the traditional instrument, the dombra, a long-necked musical instrument with just two strings. We were told that children in Kazakhstan learn this instrument from a young age, and that it was traditionally used to deliver news, both good and bad.

After taking off our shoes and entering a yurt, I was surprised to see it covered in heavy tapestries. The wool protects the home from sun and snow, and all the décor is handmade. The whole family lives in one yurt and when the children get married ,they build their own. Weapons and a dombra are hung on the wall in the belief they will keep you safe.

Inside a yurt a woman demonstrated how they would lay babies in these portable cradles.

The families can disassemble a yurt in 1-2 hours and would do so a few times a year.

A woman showed us the small cradle where babies would stay. No one outside the family is allowed to see the baby for 40 days, then relatives are invited. When a baby turns one, they have a large party. We had heard the same custom in Hawaii, and figured it must be due to the high infant mortality rate prior to a baby turning one.

Next up was a horse show with skilled riders going back and forth, doing tricks and wowing the crowd. We then had a delicious buffet lunch and saw a few of the yurts where you can stay.

Our last activity was archery where I worked hard to pull back that bow. I may not have gotten a bull’s eye, but I hit the target so I’m good with that.

Oi Qaragai Resort

Jan Schroder at Qi Qaragai Resort in Kazakhstan
A view from the top of the mountain at Qi-Qaragai Resort.

When you’re ready for some adventure, head to Oi-Qaragai Resort where you can get a day pass for ziplining, the aerial adventure park, rock climbing, mountain biking and horseback riding tours.

I opted for a tamer route of taking the ski lift up to the top of the mountain to enjoy gorgeous views. In the winter you can go skiing and snowboarding on the 20 ski runs. There’s also a spa housed in small yurts.

It’s less than an hour from Almaty but I highly recommend staying at Oi Qaragai if possible. It has 105 total rooms with a combination of homes, single rooms, yurts and treehouses.

ski lift down mountain at Qi Qaragai resort
The ski lift ride down the mountain had incredible views.

Our group stayed in the treehouses, which were up about 400 stairs. Lucky me got number #1313 at the very top. I was chatting with a man in the reception area who was debating about what type of room to get. I mentioned the treehouses and he said, “I am not going there even with a crane.”

A large sign on the exit of the resort read “Happiness to be together.” I can raise a glass to that.

For more on things to do in Kazakhstan, please visit Kazakhstan Travel.

This story was made possible through support provided by USAID’s Trade Central Asia activity and Kazakhstan Travel.

The Travel 100 participates in affiliate programs with various companies. We may earn a commission when you click on or make purchases via links at no additional cost to you. We only recommend products or places we love or think readers will enjoy.

– Photos and text by Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief

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