Deserts have long been landscapes of revelation where so much space and vastness are bound to heighten clarity of the mind, often missed by the white noise of everyday life. I came to Kyrgyzstan searching for this but did not know what to expect about Kazakhstan — from its modern metropolis to unknown routes often leading to the steppes with no hint of yurts or the nomadic life.
Visiting the Charyn Canyon national park, rightly tagged as Kazakhstan’s Grand Canyon and even possibly the second largest Canyon after the US, I was intrigued about this place. Not because of the hype or popularity — but more so the history behind this. I marvelled at how years ago the lake shrank and what came about was the Charyn river running through the sedimentary rocks that are over a 12 million years old.
The canyon follows the Charyn river for about 80 kilometres and can even attain a depth of up to 300 metres. How crazy is that? At some point, I imagined what it would be like to be James Franco or the real life survivalist Aron Ralston being stuck at a canyon as vast as this under a major rock. The featureless plains from red to brown, and a golden hue screamed heat, humidity and harshness. It was decided that if I want to bask in the glory of Kazakhstan’s Grand Canyon, it had to be at sunset or sunrise.
Most people visit the Charyn Canyon on a day trip from Almaty where they combine their sights with the Kaindy & Kolsai Lakes and Altyn Emel National Park. However, I did not want to just do a tour, but I wanted to do a bit of stargazing underneath these rocks and boulders. This was when I stumbled across a local organisation who often organises hiking or adventurous tours during the weekend with locals for a local price. I went with Steppe Spirit who offered an amazing trip for some overnight camping — minus the tent; but filled with music, bonfires and the stars that glitter across the sky. It costs approximately 7,000 tenge (16 USD) including meals which usually consists of Plov (a rice dish which is cooked in a broth with meat, spices and vegetables).
A Road Trip Of Sorts
We headed out at about 2.00pm where it would take us around 3-4 hours over a distance of 219km to reach the Charyn Canyon. During this journey, we saw the wide empty barren lands. During the soviet times, the emptiness of the lands were associated for different reasons; some claim the emptiness were shown to highlight the vast terrains that Kazakhs own and some who had lived off these arid grasslands by moving through them following herds that grazed on a carpets of grasses and plants.
It is hard to imagine the restlessness of the state during those times and unsettled sedentary farmers while settling nomads. This explains why the semi-nomadic community is not as large in Kazakhstan nowadays; it consists mostly of individual livestock owners, and their assistants (mostly shepherds). Some of them may still adhere to traditions of it in the Asy plateau.
During the bus ride, with only a handful of foreigners, we ended up playing some games to get to know the person seated next to us. I was seated next to Aida, one of the community lead in Steppe Spirit and how she gave up her dull Computer Science & Mathematics desk job for a life of adventure in the mountains.
Not long after we arrived in the middle of nowhere, in Charyn Canyon. With some stones and rocks a DIY sign and a half-board placement of Charyn Canyon and coffee-coloured rocks, we knew we had arrived. It can be deceivingly unimpressive at the beginning but once you take your walk further ahead, it gets interesting.
Treading Through Kazakhstan’s Grand Canyon
We were dropped at the entrance of the canyon to the Valley of the Castles after paying the entrance fee of 750Tenge ($2). We spent some time walking around the canyon with different viewpoints as we took in the golden hues of the last evening sun. The silence was calming and it was nice to slowly take in the views and wonder what lies beyond this horizon.
I even heard that the inaccessibility of this canyon at one time provided a safe haven for a rare ash tree that survived the Ice Age and is now grown in some areas. It was hard to find any greens or shrubs and mind-boggingly hard to imagine what Winter looks like in this Canyon. Would the Charyn river freeze over and be walkable? Maybe I should visit Kazakhstan in Winter next to see if the conditions are stone cold like Siberia.
We could see a snake-like trail as we looked over the ravine. I was meant to cycle through these forlorn landscapes from Kyrgyzstan if I hadn’t injured my knee or had a series of misadventures. Things don’t ever go to plan if you are in Central Asia. But the rendezvous and spontaneity is what makes it exciting. On this trip out here in the Canyon, I am accompanied by zesty young Kazakhs, Rinat, a local photographer and two Afghan-Germans who were spending a 5-week educational scholarship in Tajikistan to study Asian Tajik studies. It was heartwarming to know about Susan and Amran’s journey and their feelings as they visit places to trace their ancestry and heritage.
There were no such monuments at Charyn Canyon, just the geological formations which pleased us enormously. We weren’t camera-toting consumers of packaged sights, but rather travellers not looking for a tour but just an experience with like-minded individuals and locals, and that felt great to know that there was no cut-off time.
A Walk To The Eco-Park (4km)
As we sat down and waited, the sky and the rocks had a magnificent glow of gold, orange, and blue woven together as the sun settled in the evening sky. It was beautiful to see this conjuring of dust and light in the far ends of Kazakhstan.
Before we lose all light, we made our way down following this steep path. The walk to the river is about 4km and takes about an hour. Our stop for the night would be at the eco-park where there are a couple of yurts and a wooden bungalow for those who would like to camp beside the river. Since it was night time, we did not get to see the river but could hear the powerful rage of it as we neared closer to the eco-park.
It is not recommended to swim in the river as it is incredibly rapid and probably a better idea to go river rafting when the time is right. We walked and walked endlessly into the silence of the nighr until we reached the eco-park.
Bon-fires were set up and conversations and dinner flowed through combined with sing-alongs, dancing and a whole lot of fun. As it was nearing 10pm, I ventured off with Rinat to capture the milk way. It was stunningly beautiful to be greeted by constellations and thousands of stars. I tried opening my star map and gave up half way to look at the stars with my naked eye in humbling awe.
It brought back the same emotions and feelings of my trek in India where it was my first time camping underneath the stars in frigid temperatures. In that moment, there are no birds and shushing of leaves just the wind blowing intensely and the stars above me. In the city, I rarely look up and if I do it is always towards the tall buildings and cubicles where people are typing away, but over here somehow the nakedness of the sky and glittery nights exudes a calming and positive energy.
We left at 2am and we were too exhausted to care about the canyon but it was nice to look up and lose our bearings every now and then.
How To Get To Charyn Canyon From Almaty?
There are a couple of ways to get to Charyn Canyon and it is not always easy and straightforward. Picking the best time to go during sunset or sunrise may not always be according to your schedule, but either ways here are some of the best ways to get to Charyn Canyon from Almaty.
Geting to Charyn Canyon by public transport / hitchhiking
This is probably not the most straightforward route towards Charyn Canyon. Simply because it is positioned right in the middle of no where making it really hard to even hitchhike. You can take a bus to Sayahat Station to go to Saty. We took this route when we were leaving to Kolsai Lakes & Kaindy and truthfully there was no such bus when we arrived at 6am. Instead after asking around, we finally found a shared taxi / bus of sorts to take us to Saty.
From Saty you could hitchhike to the Charyn Canyon but getting back would be difficult and you might need to walk quite a bit. However, I met two Spanish girls and even a Korean guy who was doing this and he did mentioned it took them hours before they found any transport to go back.
Take The Shared Taxi
From Almaty’s Sayakhat bus station, you may take a shared taxi to Kegen in the morning and ask him to drop you off at the intersection with Charyn Canyon. It is another 10km walk or you could always hitchhike or ask him the driver to wait for you if you’re paying for the whole taxi.
Join A Tour (Just Like What I did!)
I did a tour with Steppe Spirit and it didn’t feel like a tour more like a fun excursion with young 20 somethings. If you don’t mind them speaking Kazakh and joining in their fun and games with young-ish people, then you’ll be in for some fun. They do organise quite a number of treks and tours so it’ll be great to join them on atleast one of their outings.
If you want a premium tour with hot springs and with accommodation taken care for you, you can check out the guys at Eco-Park.
Where To Stay In Charyn Canyon?
Staying in Saty Village
The closest place to stay if you’re coming via shared taxi or independent transport is in the Saty Village. You may stay in Guest House Arcabay-Karligash, TauHouse or Saty. The rooms are really basic and it is enough for a short stay and overnighter before you explore other places.
Staying in The Eco-Park at Charyn Canyon
If you are not going on a day tour and do not want to camp next to the river and prefer to stay there, you can stay at the eco-park with a few basic facilities. This site by Eco-Park even have couple of tours and bungalows by the river making it pretty convenient to stay there. You may contact them and pay about 16000 Tenge ($38) for two people at a wooden bungalow.
You can even camp on your own at Charyn Canyon for free or stay at the yurts which costs around 45,000Tenge ($107) for the whole yurt which accommodates up to 10 people. Since facilities are pretty simple, I would recommend bringing along your own portable filter like the Sawyer Mini Water Filter and a thermos for those basic nights.
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