It was Kazakhstan that was meant to be the end of my journey after climbing high altitudes in Kyrgyzstan. After spending remote stretches among herders, it felt good to be in Almaty closer to sea level and be among modern dwellings (for a while!), sip on some lattes and take in the green spaces located in every nook and cranny of Almaty.
The Big Almaty Lake required two stops on my itinerary — one was a scenic drive up to the lake in Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, which is just 15 km south from the center of Almaty in Kazakhstan and the other option was to hike the Big Almaty Peak which I chose to do on my last day in Kazakhstan.
I chose to do both simply because the lake looked breathtaking and as days passed walking around in the city centre, I could see the Big Almaty Peak glittering at the end of the street shaped like a rock pyramid beckoning me to climb this.
Big Almaty Lake: A Road Trip To Trans-Ili Alatau National Park
Seated at the foyer of the hostel, I was greeted by a bunch of people who made plans to visit the Big Almaty Lake. The next day, we booked a Yandex taxi for 3000 Tenge, equivalent of $9-$10 to take us to the Big Almaty Lake.
Located at an altitude of 2,511m on the upper side of the Almaty canyon, the lake is a major source of drinking water for the region. Like the vast majority of lakes in the Tien Shan mountains, the lake appeared as a result from number of earthquakes. There are three main peaks which can be seen from the end of the dam: the Councils Peak (4317 m), Ozerny Peak (4110 m) , Tourist Peak (3954 m). I am not sure if any of these peaks are possible to hike, except for the Tourist Peak.
Everyone raved about the lake and how spectacularly blue it was, however what really gripped me was the lush landscapes and how Kazakhstan was blessed to have a national park rich in abundance of notable bird species and ancient fir trees and stunning Siberian pine trees. There was an article in The New York Times written 20 years ago where it mentioned that the park unfortunately used to draw more poachers than tourists. It states that many people in Central Asia are cash-strapped and poaching, subsistence ranching and small-scale logging in these fertile enclaves are matters of survival for many of them.
It is definitely a land of beauty and hardship. It was a weekday and we saw minimal people visiting the lake. It may not be the case over the weekend I was told. All of us — some from Italy, Philippines, Australia and Germany here equally bewildered and drawn to how little foreigners there were except for Korean Kazakhs and a bunch of us.
Travellers are not allowed to visit the base of the lake as they would like to keep it as pristine as possible, however, there was no sign indicating so and we were not aware until we were told to go back by the park ranger and his blaring amplifiers.
The park is home to snow leopards, Central Asian lynx, Tian Shan brown bears, Siberian ibexes, bearded vultures and golden eagles. The park also grows apple trees which bears a lot of importance to the origins of where ‘Almaty’ comes from. Almaty’s former name, Alma-Ata, means “father of apples,” and the town is proud of its heritage.
Throughout my time here, while wandering through the shrubs, and gazing into the wide-open lake, it felt surreal to know that I was witnessing a lake this magnificent and being in a place with boundless beauty. Since it was so easily accessible, I asked locals if they knew about the stunning places that surround Kazakhstan — and many said that it was the younger generation who is keen to explore and open up places to tourism but the government is slow and hasn’t made tourism a priority in oil-rich Kazakhstan.
Big Almaty Peak: The Half-Day Trek To Kazakhstan’s Pyramid Mountain
I ended up going back to Big Almaty Lake in mid-September. It was my last hike before I kissed this region goodbye but not permanently as it is almost impossible to travel everywhere in Kazakhstan in a month. A youth-organised adventure hiking and travel group called Steppe Spirit were planning on heading towards Big Almaty Peak for around 7,000 tenge (16USD).
It was the perfect drive going up all the way to the Big Almaty Lake and passing it again — the views in mid-September were different. There were snow-capped peaks and the lake shone in the morning sunlight. The surroundings were great for bird-watching as we drove up on a tourist bus. The drive was about 2 hours long and because it was stunningly beautiful, I wished I was cycling instead of being barricaded in a bus.
I had no clue whether this hike was easy or difficult, but after hiking it, I am convinced that it was not exactly a cakewalk. The top of Big Almaty Peak is at an elevation of 3,681 meters above sea level. There’s a lot of loose rocks assembled leading up to the pyramid, making it hard if you don’t have a hiking pole to check if there are no crevasses as you head up. I had an injured knee and going on all fours were a challenge but not so much for spirited Kazakhs who wore fashion boots with zero grips and profile and yet they were able to climb mountains after mountains every weekend.
After all, they were staying true to their origins. The word Kazakh comes from an old Turkic word that is loosely translated as adventurer, free-rider or outlaw. They learned to ride, before they learned to walk — and if they had to walk, I was convinced that they’ll probably carry the same speed as a rider.
As we passed the starting point of the trek, the Cosmo Station appeared in the horizon. We didn’t get to go to the Cosmo station as it was abandoned and apparently houses some of the oldest telescopes and other scientific missions in Kazakhstan. We were passing the Cosmodrome to head towards the most accessible part, the Southern Ridge.
Before we began hiking, the folks at Steppe Spirit made it mandatory for us to break into a 10 minute aerobic session to warm-up and loosen up. The hours of driving made our legs jelly and it was utterly funny to have us do this routine which felt very similar to being part of a Korean-pop group.
We began moving upwards and I momentarily paused to take in the surroundings and pristine white mountains. I can’t believe how whitewashed the landscapes were and never knew the steppes that most of us know about in Kazakhstan were completely varied — the switch between dry arid landscapes to the Tien-Shan mountains is a reminder of the precise location of where Kazakhstan is. It felt like we were treading past the world’s best secret mountains in a remote place.
We inched forward making our way up loose gravel and stones until there were some scrubby vegetation with a wide open plateau where the steepest part of the pyramid where the route to the top remain visible behind us. This remained the toughest part and we stopped every now and then; perplexed at how effortlessly the rest of the locals were ascending without any slip-ups. Will I be back in one piece to catch my flight tonight? - I wondered as I climbed further with painstaking difficulty and a busted knee.
After an hour or so of scrambling, we finally made it to the top and I could spot a speck of blue in the center - the Big Almaty Lake. I stood silent and still, trying to pause time and soak in this spectacular view that could rival the Himalayas and Nepal’s Tilicho Lake. Solitude and distance had brought me to Kazakhstan, but their landscapes and Soviet history intrigued me.
I sat at a jagged edge in the corner trying to stay still with very limited space at the top of the peak. I scanned the heavens above and the blue sky and cold winds soothed me. It was a fitting end to my trip here; no matter how unfit or injured I am, silly me always wants this piece of delight in summitting a mountain. The jubilation and sense of elation does not end there; it acts as a multiplier and memories of these carry on with me for a lifetime.
Descending the mountain was obviously tough, I wobbled and flexed to keep a steady pace. When I finally reached down, it felt good to just lay down and soak in the last of the sunshine. I took a break and ate my snickers bar, some trail nuts and water.
How To Get To Big Almaty Lake & Peak?
To get to Big Almaty Lake, the easiest way is to download the Yandex app. It is affordable and will only set you back by 3000 Tenge ($10) which can be easily be split with other people. For a return trip, you could book a big car and ask the driver to wait for you — the price will most likely be double. Or you could do like what we did, hitchhike. However, during the weekday it may be tough to secure a ride due to minimal traffic.
If you want to go on a trek, I would recommend Steppe Spirit and CampIt.KZ — just message the admins on Instagram and ask for their schedule. There’s a trek or activity almost every week and it is easier to go with them as you get to pay the local fee and are able to meet young Kazakhs who are often eager to meet travellers so they can practice their English.
The best time to visit the lake is in May and June or September and October. Avoid weekends if you’re just visiting the lake, as the place is overrun with people.
Where To Stay In Almaty?
Choosing where to stay in Almaty is pretty important as it could be a setting point for meeting other travellers who probably want to do what you’re doing. I stayed in Alma Cinema Hostel and it was easily one of the best and unique spaces to stay with breakfast included. I also stayed here partly because the room had an AC. I heard some hostels do not have that option so it’ll be worth checking out to ensure your room is not cramped and if it has some ventilation.
Guest Houses / Hotels
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