An ancient Kazakh legend says a rich man named Balkhash had a daughter – beautiful Ili. Once, he held a feast and promised to give her to the winner of the groom contest as a wife. Ili, however, loved a shepherd, Karatal, and helped him win. When Balkhash chose not to give Ili to Karatal, the young lovers ran away. As the angry father couldn’t catch them, he turned the couple into rivers, then made himself as a lake between them.
This gorgeous legend tells the story of a lake and the rivers it divides. The legend is mystic, but no more so than Lake Balkhash: it is separated by a strait into two distinct parts; the western portion is fresh, the eastern half, saline.
“Travelling to the Balkhash is always very exciting, especially for foreigners, who are really astonished by the dimensions of our state. The distance we cover is equal to the length of several European states and our nature greatly changes during the flight. It means that you can see dunes in the beginning of the flight and glaciers in the end. So you cover absolutely different climatic zones during this short flight. You will never have gotten such impressions in Europe. Imagine that! One hour ago you walked on dunes and now you are staying on a glacier. It is unbelievable! Also, in the spring when tulips bloom you can see amazing views: our Kazakh steppe is red as fire and it is red from horizon to horizon. My passengers love it!” said Sky Service aircraft commander Igor Medvedev.
The travel time to Lake Balkhash is approximately six hours by car from the nearest city and tourists, 50 percent of whom are foreigners, do not want to devote 12 hours to the trip, he added. As a result, business people and top managers prefer to visit by helicopter.
“It takes only one-and-a-half hours to get to the lake and even this time is pleasurable. Conditions are very comfortable. So the time a passenger spends in a helicopter isn’t a waste of time, because it is an adventure and entertainment by itself. A helicopter gives great opportunities to see our nature at its best: pelican rookeries, dozens of different animals and birds and amazing views with a bird’s eye view,” he continued.
“We use the best models of the best helicopter producers, which are duly certified and maintained. To be exact, our helicopters are the same as at the most upscale resorts, for example, Courchevel. It means that our clients get their familiar and very comfortable conditions. They don’t need to get used, and have an air conditioning system and wonderful visibility,” said Medvedev.
Many tourists are birdwatchers and because of a great number of species in the spring, the Balkhash is a sort of paradise for them. Persian gazelles, wild boars, wolves and many Red Book animals can also be seen from the air. A trip to the Balkhash differs from many other Kazakh ventures, because tourists usually prefer to hunt and fish. The banks of the Ili and the lake are very popular places for trophy fishing for giant catfish.
Medvedev noted tourism is developing in the region. Darya Chikina, who lives with her family in Troitsk, Russia, is among those who have visited the area.
“We travelled to South Kazakhstan from Russia. The trip was amazing and took a lot of time. We passed close to the Balkhash and decided to drive to the lake and stop on its bank to have a rest. The Balkhash’s water was turquoise and clear. Our children played on the sand bank. We bought delicious smoked fish from locals. Smoked asp was especially tasty,” she said.
Chikina suggested bringing a good camera to take advantage of the lovely shots.
“The Balkhash’s fauna is really rich. We spent a couple of hours at the lake, but we saw dozens of animals and birds. I will never forget these moments!” she said. “As for me, it is a sea, not a lake, because it is really large. I really liked that the lake is deep only after you swim 50-60 metres. It is very convenient if you don’t swim well. Also, this place is perfect for ladies who like to toast on a beach.”
Ekaterinburg resident Alexey Morozov travelled to the lake on a business trip. He advised visiting in August, because the water is warm enough but there is no excessive heat.
“It is usually windy and the colour of the lake changes during a storm. As I had a business trip I had to work, but I found time for my fishing, which isn’t just a hobby for me. Fishing is my passion,” he said.
“Fishing! Fishing!!! I haven’t had such a fishing experience in my life! Two buckets of fish for two hours? No problem! I was really shocked. Once I had an opportunity to go fishing on a boat and it was is even more successful,” he said.
Morozov added he found the hotels to be reasonable and the cafes offered good meat dishes.
“If you want to save your money, you can buy foodstuffs in markets on the weekends, because traders from different regions arrive on weekends and sell foodstuffs cheaper,” he said.
Like many people who are often not impressed with the beauty close to them, Morozov noted locals aren’t excited by the lake’s advantages because they have it. To a visitor, however, it is a diamond.
Lake Balkhash is the largest body of water without an outlet after the Caspian and Aral seas. It measures 614 kilometres in length and 3.5-44 kilometres in width, with the deepest portions reaching 26 metres. Its nature is full of contrasts, such as the phenomenon of the different mineralisations connected by a narrow strait.
The water reservoirs of the Ili-Balkhash basin, including the lake, are among the most significant in terms of biodiversity and the reproduction of valuable fish species. Nearly 20 types can be found in the lake, as well as 120 kinds of birds, and 12 species included in the Red Book of threatened and endangered species are inhabitants of nearby territories. The White Swan, which today can only be found in inaccessible parts of the lake, is Balkhash’s true adornment and symbol, but pelicans are the true masters of the area.
Sky Service has operated in Almaty since 2004 and has AgustaWestland, Airbus, Bell, and Cessna helicopters and planes. Visit www.sky-service.com.kz or call +7 (727) 386-39-79 or +7 (727) 386-39-96.