Continuing off the previous post, Almaty is not only a beautiful city but also a great base for day trips! Within just an hour or 2 you might find yourself in a desert canyon or a snowcapped mountain. Here are 3 day trips I did from Almaty, to Charyn/Sharyn Canyon, to Medeu and Chimbulak/Shymbulak, and one to Big Almaty Lake and the First Presidential Park.
1. Day trip to Charyn/ Sharyn Canyon and Bartogay Lake
With the snow-capped mountains surrounding Almaty, it was hard to imagine that in just a 3 hour ride I’d find myself in the middle of the desert, much less in a spectacular canyon that is said to be as impressive as the Grand Canyon (though smaller)! I had never been to the Grand Canyon so I can’t compare, but having been to the desert canyons in Jordan, Charyn Canyon still blew my mind.
How to get from Almaty to Charyn/ Sharyn Canyon
Charyn Canyon was probably the trickiest to plan out of the 3 day trips I did. There was no public transport from Almaty and the usual way of getting here was by hired cars, which can be expensive. From the Visit Almaty office, I found out it was possible to join the tour buses that depart every Sunday for 6000KZT. Back at the Dostyk Hostel the ever helpful Gulnaz said that such tours can go for as low as 4500KZT. In the end as we were late in confirming we forked out 5000KZT per person for the tour, which was in Russian.
For non Russian speakers reserving tickets can be difficult so it’ll be best if your accommodation can help to make the arrangements over the phone. Payment had to be done to confirm the booking and has to be made through some machine available at convenience stores. This is where staying at a really friendly hostel (like Dostyk Hostel) helps! Gulnaz helped to make the calls and a long term guest helped with making the payment for me and 2 other friends.
I think the company we went with in the end was called Kaztour.asia. There were other buses that day waiting at the parking lot beside Alatau Metro Station Exit 1. Got there at 7.30am (a little late, usual me) and soon we were on our way out of the city.
The alternative route from Karakol to Charyn Canyon then Almaty
Looking at the map this may look like a sensible option than going by the beaten path back to Bishkek, then Almaty, then Charyn. Another friend I met in Karakol while trekking did Charyn Canyon directly from Karakol. It is a more complicated route having to look for drivers willing to take you to the other border (Kakara/ Kegen) which can cost a bit, then coupled with multiple taxi rides and/ hitchhiking to get to Charyn Canyon and finally to Almaty. My friend’s driver didn’t manage to cross the border due to some complications and my friend had to go through more trouble than expected but did eventually visit Charyn Canyon and made it to Almaty though much later than expected. An option for the truly adventurous!
On the road from Almaty to Charyn Canyon
Almaty is situated on a very flat plain surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks, and the road to Charyn Canyon wasted no time in making that point felt. As the buildings in the city slowly spread out and disappeared, vast endless fields stretch along the road. They seemed to only end at the foot of the mountains.
And then, almost abruptly, the mountains and grassy fields disappeared. All was barren. Actually prior to researching my trip to Kazakhstan this was my impression of what Kazakhstan was.
The bus went off road and after some bumping up and down the bus was filled with fine sand dust floating around. Everyone rushed to get out when the bus stopped. I looked around and was confused at first, unable to spot any feature beyond the endless sand. Then I saw it: on one side, a huge slit in the ground that stretched far into the distance. Here’s the tour group descending the hole in the ground.
Charyn/ Sharyn Canyon
We arrived around 11.30am and had about 2-3 hours to walk down to the river, have a break, then walk back the same way to the bus. My friends and I (from various countries, none speaking Russian) wandered off on our own. It was magical.
We got in at the shallow end of the canyon. The canyon got deeper and more dramatic as we got further in. There is only one way through the canyon so it is impossible to get lost.
At the end of the canyon trail is a couple of guesthouses and a river. The shady areas beside the river was great for chilling and having your lunch break. Lunch was not included in the tour but we were prepared, with cookies and sandwiches.
While the tour group had gotten spread out over canyon, everyone ended up at the river and after ample time to rest and refuel, our guide gave a signal that it was about time to start heading back. By then dark clouds started to gather. The canyon looked like a totally different place with that change in weather.
We barely made it out of the canyon when the drizzling started, which felt like hail in the strong wind. It took some time before everyone was back in the bus. Around 2.30pm with the headcount done it was another bumpy, dusty ride back to the main road, and on our way to Bartogay Lake.
We didn’t expect this as part of the itinerary, but it was a nice stop on the way back to Almaty. Bartogay Lake is actually a man made reservoir, completed in 1983. Far from the city and industries, the landscape and waters looked pristine. There was no one else at the lake except for the tour group.
I had fallen asleep on the way to Bartogay Lake and the landscape looked so dreamy when the bus stopped, I wasn’t sure if I was still asleep or awake. It was a wonderful dream to walk around in though.
We arrived back in Almaty around 8.30pm. Near where the bus stopped (Alatau Metro Station) I had dinner at Kaganat, a canteen chain where it is possible to get slightly more affordable meals (though it depends on what items you select). With that, another item off my bucket list and another amazing day trip done!
Charyn/ Sharyn Canyon Tour information
If you’re unable to speak Russian or get someone to help you to make the arrangements an option is to book these from the Visit Almaty office, but the cost is on the higher side.
Time: Sundays, leaving at 7.30am from Alatau Metro Station and returning around 9.00pm
Things to prepare:
- Lunch and snacks (sandwiches, energy bars, cookies, etc)
- Comfortable hiking attire
- Things to keep you occupied for the hours on the road between attractions
2. Day trip to Medeu and Shymbulak/Chimbulak
On the other end of the scale of things, my second day trip was all the way up to the snow-capped peaks just south of Almaty, to the famous high altitude skating rink at Medeu and all the way up the ski slopes of Shymbulak. Though built for winter sports, these destinations are nice to visit in summer too. The cable car stops higher up Shymbulak are excellent picnic spots in sunny weather.
How to get from Almaty to Medeu/ Shymbulak/ Chimbulak
I was fortunate to be able to make this trip with friends I made on the road, one of whom had couchsurfed and whose host had offered to join and drove us there. Without a car, getting to the base station should be manageable too, as bus service 12 departs from near Hotel Kazakhstan (a prominent landmark in Almaty) and should get you to Medeu in less than an hour for 150 KZT.
Medeu skating rink is a short walk to the base station of the cable car up Shymbulak, and from the base station there are 3 stations to the top. You’ll have to change cable cars at each station but all can be done through a single ticket purchased at the base station.
Medeu is situated 1691m above sea level and is considered the “world’s high mountain largest skating-rink”. It was one of the venues of the 2011 Asian Winter Games. When we visited in summer there was hardly anyone else at the rink (duh) but it was open (free) and we could have a look inside and imagine all the action that might happen in winter.
Visiting Medeu Skating Rink during skating season (seems to be open/ free to all outside skating season)
Operating hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00am to 4.00pm, 6.00pm to 11.00pm
- Adults: 1800 KZT
- 13 to 23 years old: 800 KZT
- 7 to 12 years old: 500 KZT
- Under 7, disabled and pensioners: Free
- 2 hours skates rental, size 33 and under: 500 KZT
- 2 hours skates rental, size 34 and over: 1000 KZT
After that quick look inside Medeu we went over to the cable car station and got our tickets (3500 KZT for a round trip all the way to the highest station and back). It is possible to get tickets just to the middle stations for less, or even not get tickets and hike all the way up. Not in the mood for another 1500m ascent on foot, we got our tickets and were soon soaring towards the clouds.
Dropping low over streams and trees, almost touching them, then pulling up just at the right moment towards the next pole.
After about 25 minutes we arrived at the first station of Shymbulak at 2260m above sea level. It was a little bit more crowded here and kinda had that touristy vibe. It had that look I’d expect of a Swiss ski resort and for a moment I forgot I was in Central Asia. Prices of snacks here though not as much as in Europe, are somewhat reminiscent (relative to those in the city).
20th Prop Station
The next stage was much quick, around 10 minutes, and took us to 2860m above sea level. The area was smaller here, but there were also less people. It was at just the right height to enjoy views over the city with comfortable summer temperatures. Don’t let all the green hills and blue skies mislead about the temperature though, there were still remaining ice patches here in June. Nonetheless given the nice conditions there were groups who had picnics here.
With a more chill atmosphere here and perfect temperatures we spent more time here than at the previous station.
Talgar Pass Station
The last stage was the quickest, and in less than 10 minutes we were at an altitude of 3200m, at the top of Shymbulak Ski Resort. Here, just above the clouds, the landscape looked vastly different.
There were some benches here so we decided to have our picnic. It was windy though and made keeping things down a little tricky. It was quite an experience having a picnic at 3200m surrounded by tall, snow covered mountains yet not being in any real outdoor gear.
The skies weren’t as blue by the time we were done with our picnic so it was time to get going. Here’s one of the hillside houses on the way down Shymbulak back to Medeu.
Shymbulak/ Chimbulak Cable Car Information
- Base Station to Intersection Station (“Gondola”/ “Medeu – Shymbulak”)
- Operating hours: 10:00am to 7:00pm
- Intersection Station to 20th Prop Station (“Combi 1”)
- Operating hours: 10:00am to 6:00pm
- 20th Prop Station to Talgar Pass Station (“Combi 2”)
- Operating hours: 10:00am to 5:30pm
- Adult: 1500 KZT one way, 2500 KZT round trip
- Under 10 years old (Peak), 5 to 23 years old (off peak), Pensioners off peak: 1000 KZT one way, 1500 KZT round trip
- Under 5, disabled: Free on weekdays
Gondola + Combi 1 + Combi 2 (all the way from Medeu to the top of Shymbulak)
- Adult: 3500 KZT round trip
- Under 10 years old (Peak), 5 to 23 years old (off peak), Pensioners off peak: 2000 KZT round trip
- Under 5, disabled: Free on weekdays
Combi 1 + Combi 2
- Adult: 3200 KZT round trip
- Under 10 years old (Peak), 5 to 23 years old (off peak), Pensioners off peak: 1500 KZT round trip
- Under 5, disabled: Free on weekdays
3. Day trip to Big Almaty Lake and First President’s Park
My final day trip, on the day of my flight back to Singapore, was to Big Almaty Lake. There are many nice lakes around Almaty but having gotten a little tired from 2 weeks on the road I picked the most popular option as it was the easiest to arrange, and I would also be certain of being able to make it back in time for the flight.
How to get from Almaty to Big Almaty Lake
By public transport, bus 28 from the First President’s Park at the southwest corner of Almaty will get you closer to the lake, but there is still a couple of kilometers that you’ll probably want to hitch a ride on. There are also apparently taxis from the park which will take you to the lake.
If you manage to organize a group at your accommodation it may be a better idea to call for a car to get you there for about 3500-4000 KZT one way from your hostel in Almaty. Our hostel owner Gulnaz helped us to arrange the trip (3700 KZT) and as there were 4 of us to split the bill it made the most sense. Approaching the lake there is a toll booth which I can’t remember the fee, probably around 1500 KZT in addition to the taxi fare.
Big Almaty Lake
The road goes by some distance above the lake. From the car park it is possible to walk down all the way to the shores of the lake.
The edge of the lake was perfect for some quiet contemplation. There weren’t many other people when we arrived except for what seemed to be local tourists and some hikers. It was beautiful.
Later, as we were preparing to leave, more and more visitors arrived. Still a lovely place, but maybe just a tiny bit less serene. As the weather changed the color of the lake appeared to change too. It was magical to witness the change before our eyes.
Getting to First President’s Park from Big Almaty Lake
On the way back it may be possible to hitchhike back down, but we paid a driver an amount (can’t remember but it may be 500 or 1000 KZT) to get us to where the bus service 28 ends. From there we took the bus 28 to First President’s Park for 150 KZT and that’s in Almaty already so it is easy to get around using the 2GIS app.
First President’s Park
On the southwestern edge of Almaty city is a relatively new park, the First President’s Park, dedicated to the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. It is a big, pretty park, possibly not worth a visit on its own but a perfect stop on the way to Big Almaty Lake or back from it. Entrance to the park is free.
Could there be a better backdrop to the fountains and gardens at the First President’s Park?
Being the First President’s Park, there had to be a statue of the first president, who is also the current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Given how pretty the park was it was unsurprising to see a wedding shoot taking place when we visited. It seemed to be the theme in this region though, having wedding shoots in parks. I saw wedding shoots taking place in almost every park I visited, in Kyrgyzstan and in Almaty (Gorky Park and 28 Panfilov Heroes Park).
We didn’t go too far deep inside the park as we were getting hungry.
Roughly 20 minutes away on foot we found a huge mall (Mega Center Almaty) with all sorts of international food. Having all been traveling for some time (out of the 4 of us I had spent the least time on the road at 2 weeks, the rest had spent months), this was just what we needed. It was also my last day of my first Central Asia experience so I enjoyed the time catching up with my newfound friends, before it was time to go home and get back to work again.
This wraps up my day trips in Almaty, my posts in Almaty, and my first and short adventure in Central Asia to Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek and Karakol) and Kazakhstan (Almaty). Central Asia definitely did not disappoint and I was blown away by not only the scenery and nature but also the people of Central Asia, their warmth and friendliness from the cities to deep in the mountains. Though there’s so much that I had seen in the 2 weeks, it has made me aware how barely I had scratched the surface to this very interesting region of the world. Hope to be back some day to meet old friends and forge new adventures!