It is hard to imagine Kazakhstan landscapes featuring sunken forests, lakes and the scent of pine trees and blossoming flowers in most of its unpeopled land. The panoramic shots of these places could easily been taken from an advert for the Swiss alps.
Green meadows with grazing horses, and the natural wonders of Southeast Kazakhstan make the arduous drive worth it especially if you are tired of the long steppes and dry arid land coming from Almaty or the Western side. We wanted to visit these lakes when we arrived in Kazakhstan and marvel at the geological formations that make Kaindy Lake what it is today and admire the stunning beauty of Kolsai Lake while hoping to meet locals and individuals as we made our way to Saty village.
A Kolsai Lakes & Kaindy Lakes tour from Almaty was not something that we wanted to do but we were open to options when we arrived at Saty, a small rural village surrounded by homestays in the Kungey Alatau range in the Northern Tien Shan mountains. Here is how we made our way to Saty village, Kolsai Lakes and Kaindy Lakes.
Travelling from Almaty to Saty Village
We booked a Yandex taxi to Sayakhat station and from there we were looked for a shared ride to take us to Kegen. We arrived at the station at 7am and it was a bit tricky trying to find a shared taxi who was going to Kegen as we heard nobody announcing their destination.
Since there were four of us that met at the hostel, we took a shared taxi all the way to Saty and paid approximately 2,500-3,000 tenge per person. The journey was long and took us 4 hours and 20 minutes. A lot of people often stop at the Charyn Canyon on our way back but we decided that we would consider it later if we could get transportation.
Passing through the barren grasslands, I wondered about the agriculture industry in Kazakhstan and recalled reading that the steppes were too salty and earthy for intensive farming. The harvests were often good for the first year and they continue to dwindle which was why plenty of Kazakhs had moved to cities with no yurts or farming visible in the thousands of miles that we had passed through.
Hiking to Kaindy lake, Kazakhstan’s Sunken Forest
We finally arrived in Saty and as soon as we did, we avoided the main street and decided to venture into one of the narrow lanes that we first saw in this rural township. We randomly decided to knock on someone’s house and asked them if they provided home-stay options.
A shackled house with rural dwellings, knick knacks and a cute grandpa reading the Literary Times in Russian, it felt like the wretchedness of old times was streamed into my view. The exterior of the house was marginally different on the inside; six beds put together with floral bedsheets and coloured blankets stacked together. For 4,500 tenge a night and additional 1000 tenge for dinner, we were happy to pay more to support this mother who was a janitor at the school nearby.
We stuffed our belongings and decided to head towards Kaindy lake. Out at the main street, we hitched a ride with a tanker to the beginning of the starting point of the hike. The journey is approximately 12km and if you take a car along the dirt roads, it’ll be 45 minutes long. We started out at around 1pm and thought we’ll be able to hitch a ride. We ended up not finding any transportation and hiking the entire length until the park entrance with some river crossings in between taking us about 2.5 hours.
At an altitude of 2,000m, Lake Kaindy is 400 metres long and was formed in 1911 after an earthquake triggered a limestone landslide that formed a natural dam. Trees usually rot when they are submerged for such a long time but the spruce trees have been preserved because the water is incredibly cold, atleast 6ºC in summer. It has an unusually emerald green colour because of the limestone deposits.
It is even possible to dive through here. The lake turns icy in Winter and attracts fishermen and deep sea divers. Not many people have visited the sunken forests, and it is often hard to get to and mostly popular among locals.
We spent a good two hours pottering around, taking pictures, going upwards towards the view point to get a bird’s eyeview of the lake and all the way to down for an eye-level view of this wonderful phenomenon.
Kolsai Lakes, The Pearls of The Tien Shan
We came to Kazakhstan with a blank slate and clearly got more than what we could imagine, beyond the Big Almaty Lake, the Kolsai Lake located on the north slope of Tien Shan mountains was splendidly beautiful. There are three lakes that form Kolsai Lake - Upper, Middle and Lower Kolsai lakes which are located at 1870, 2250 and 2650 meters above sea level. The lakes are about 80 metres deep that it would make it impossible to freely swim in it.
We hitchhiked our way from Saty to Kolsai Lakes early in the morning and joined a grumpy old couple who signed up for a tour and were displeased to know that they had two unwelcomed guests joining them for a ride up to the lake.
It is possible to hike to the second lake which is around 8km long and you come across beautiful pine trees and wildflowers and notice the stillness of the moment. We took a short walk to the other side and even hiked up the top next to the campsite to take in the views of Kolsai Lake. You could see the dramatic surroundings dancing in the morning light. I wondered about the animals, and rare local plants which rarely get talked about.
We don’t hear enough stories about the Marco Polo mountain goat, Turkistan lynx or the Central Asian otter. I made a mental note to go back and read about the diversity of the Stans national park and read accounts of the early explorations in these region.
If walking around for endless hours isn’t your thing, there was a boat ride available for people to enjoy the surroundings. There are even gazebo areas for you to drink tea and lazily lounge around as you bask in the morning light and witness hordes of local tourists making their way to see the lakes.
Since we have been testing our luck and relying on the good spirits of the Kazakh people, we ended up hitching a ride with a local family who had absolutely no space for us but insisted we must ride with them. They squeezed us in ala-Kazakh-family style onto the back of the car trunk.
Saty, A Rural Village With Kind Kazakhs
The unavoidable consequence of befriending local people is getting invited for lunch at the yurts in Saty. We took this as an opportunity for us to get acquainted with them. Some of them worked for big MLM companies where pictures and videos of her attending an anti-aging conference signaled their success and aspirations for wealth and stability.
The inequalities of modern city Kazakhs and rural dwellers were palpable. I took a walk around in the afternoon and saw schools kids dressed in white hairties who had just finished school and were casually strolling the streets. They stopped said “Hi” and said my name with no errors “bye Pashmina!” — my heart melted! I wanted to spend more time in Saty. That night we had a feast with our homestay owner who cooked us potato dumplings, and salad. We asked her about her job as a Janitor at the school and how she hopes for more travellers to stay at her place so life wouldn’t be so hard.
How To Get To Saty, Kolsai lakes & Kaindy Lake?
Public Transport: Take the Yandex Taxi to Sayakhat Station and book a shared taxi to Kegen or directly to Saty if there are more than 2 of you. From Saty, you can organise transporation with your homestay or hitch a ride (like what we did!)
Where To Stay in Saty, Kolsai Lakes & Kaindy Lake?
Here are some places to stay if you’d like to come in prepared.
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