One of Kazakhstan’s largest lakes, Alakol, has a personality as varied as its famously multicolored waters. Around its roughly 350 kilometers of shoreline are quiet islands for birdwatchers, health resorts with curative mud and domestic beach destinations where Kazakhs from Almaty and beyond party with motorboats and jet skis against a background of dark, pebbled beaches.
Avian Silk Road
The salty Alakol Lake, which straddles Kazakhstan’s Almaty and East Kazakhstan oblasts (regions), lies on the Central Asian-Indian bird migration route and has been called a “Silk Road for birds” because of the hundreds of bird species that pass through or stop to breed during their annual migrations. According to UNESCO, 203 species of bird use the lake as a breeding habitat.
Twenty-two of these nesting species are rare and endangered and listed in the Red Books of Kazakhstan and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These include the massive Dalmatian Pelican, one of the world’s largest birds, with a length of up to six feet and a wingspan of up to 11 feet; as well as the rare Relict Gull, the Eurasian Spoonbill, the chocolatey looking Ferruginous Duck (or “fudge duck”) and even flamingos. Swans, herons, plovers and terns are some of the other species that take refuge on the lake’s shores and islands.
Recognized as a wetland of global significance for birds, the breeding wetlands of the lake were inscribed on the Ramsar Convention’s Internationally Important Wetlands List in 2009 and the entire Alakol-Sassykkol lake system was declared a UNESCO bioreserve in 2013.
The Alakol National Nature Reserve covers the Tentek River estuary and the birds’ nesting islands in the northwest quarter of the lake. “It is prohibited to enter the park; however, birds do not recognize the park borders, so you can watch them on the territory next to the park, as long as it does not harm them,” Natalya Borovaya of Veter Stranstviy Magazine told EdgeKz. Their birdwatchers have seen about 90 species of birds around the lake during the 2-3 month spring nesting period, she said. These include the Relict Gull, the Whooper Swan, the White-tailed Sea Eagle and the Demoiselle Crane.
Boat tours to the three protected bird islands can be arranged from shore, and while going ashore is forbidden, there is plenty of birdwatching and lots of photo opportunities to be had from the water.
Away from the lake itself, the surroundings are split into meadows and high, rocky plateaus called hamadas. Both are also homes to birds – the meadows to curlews, the red-eyed Common Oystercatcher and others, the hamadas largely to grouse.
The areas surrounding the lake also host two rare plant species: the yellow tulips Tulipa kolpakowskiana, or sun tulip, and Tulipa brachystemon.
These and more remote areas of the lake can be difficult to access, even for locals, Borovaya says. “There are no special eco-tours organized for birdwatchers, probably because of the remoteness of the place from the cities. It is 550 kilometers away from Almaty.”
However, Veter Stranstviy, with support from the Winds of Wandering Journal and the Pelikan family resort in Akshy Village on the lake’s southwestern shore, have now organized the second Wings of Alakol Festival, a celebration of birds, birdwatchers and culture. The festival includes a photo competition, a poetry contest, bird seminars by the staff of the Association of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, a musical program and more. The festival is held in May, a peak month for birdwatching that is still weeks away from the summer influx of tourists. And while Alakol Lake’s waters are still too chilly to swim in in May, the water in nearby Zhalanashkol Lake, known for its content of natural radon and curative mud, has usually warmed up to nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degress Celsius), warm enough for a hearty few.
The birdwatching season stretches from May to September, extending well beyond the short summer swimming season. May and June and then August and September are the quietest months, making them some of the best for catching sight of shy species.
The Alakol Lake system is known for its water as much as its birds. Called “Motley Lake” in Kazakh, the water appears to change color throughout the day, darkening from turquoise at sunrise to sky blue and navy at the end of the day. As you move north through the linked lake system that includes Sassykkol Lake, Korzhynkol Lake and Kylytuz Lake, the waters change from blues to yellows and grays as the mineral and natural radon content changes.
The northern shore of Alakol Lake’s salty, mineral-heavy waters are also believed by many Kazakhs to have healing powers. The mud and the dry steppe air are said to relieve skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, as well as respiratory diseases, arthritis and other complaints. The lake’s healing powers have been legendary for centuries, and Kazakhs will tell you that merchants and conquerors stopped at the lake to heal their wounds and take refuge from raiding and trading.
The lake’s remoteness served to keep tourists and development away until recently, but nowadays, hordes of tourists from northern and southern Kazakhstan come during the summer high season of mid-June to mid-August, and development is hurtling along. The lake’s two big beach areas are Koktuma and Akshy, which lie very close together on its southwest shore.
“Only ‘sun and surf’ tourism is developing on Alakol Lake at the moment. And only the Pelikan resort is trying to increase the duration of the open season, organizing different events in spring and fall. All other resort areas are opened only for two months, from the middle of June till the middle of august, the time when people can bathe,” said Borovaya.
That’s when the relatively developed parts of the lake, particularly its southwestern shores, become either a riotous good time or a headache. “My wife used to go there because she had relatives there, and said it was very quiet and relaxing,” Steven Hermans, who operates the Caravanistan website, told EdgeKz. “Since the troubles in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the place has boomed incredibly. The quietude is gone, nature is suffering from construction without a plan. … Motorboats and jet skis make it a loud and dangerous place. There are no lifeguards.”
On the other hand, he said, the water and the curative mud really are nice, and away from tourist centers you can see different gulls and waders. Avoid the crowds and the disco and make your own way, he suggests. “Going with your transport and staying somewhere on the lake far from others could be lovely.”
For those less interested in swimming, horseback riding tours can be arranged, and there are hiking routes in the nearby mountains. Depending on the route, you may need to get a permit from the Usharal police station to go hiking in the Dzhungarski Alatau mountain range, as the border with China runs through it. The mountains also include the Dzhungarian Gate, a valley that cuts through the rock wall and is one of the only passes through the geographic formation separating China from Central Asia. It’s an area of strong, almost constant wind, as well as a crucial conduit for cultural, trade and political exchange between East and West.
There are a few options for accommodations near the lake, from Usharal, about 40 kilometers from the Akshy beach area, to Akshy and Koktuma on the shore. Many of the accommodations there are homestays or family-run operations, but more hotels and camps are opening up.
Alakol Lake is a well-known beach holiday destination for Kazakhs, but foreigners are still rare birds here, and English is not a common means of communication. “I think it would be difficult to travel so far away for a foreigner, as there are no inhabited localities in the area,” said Borovaya. “You will need a good travel guide or to be registered in one of the resort centers located on Alakol and order different excursions from there.”
Getting There and Staying There:
Tours and accommodation within the Alakol Lake area are offered by:
Visit Kazakhstan: Visitkazakhstan.kz
Welcome to Kazakhstan: WelcometoKazakhstan.com
Mars Tour Kazakhstan, +7(727) 274-40 94, +7 702 379 81 98, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pelikan resort complex: +7 (727) 397-52-29, 397-49-32, 397-50-07, email@example.com.
Ozero Alakol, ozero-alakol.kz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Buses run to Usharal from Almaty and a train runs from Almaty to the Beskol Station 15 kilometers away. A shared taxi or private car is the most common way of getting from the town to the beach.