More than Steppe: Hiking Kazakhstan’s Nature Areas

By Alex Lee

DSC_0126Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries in the world and has an abundance of beautiful nature areas that you don’t have to be an extreme sports advocate to enjoy. There are rolling hills, picturesque canyons and a plethora of lakes that are easily accessible from major cities that require little more athleticism that a walk in the woods. So over the next few pages, we’ll look at some of the most beautiful hikes visitors and locals can take to get a sense of the country’s natural beauty.

Burabai
Some of the country’s most beautiful and easily accessible hiking can be found in the Burabai area. Burabai is the name of a village and recreation area about two and a half hours’ drive outside of the capital city Astana. It is likely your best bet for going on a nature hike as it is not only one of the country’s most beautiful areas but also offers an abundance of hotels and resorts.
The Burabai area is referred to as the “Pearl of Kazakhstan” and is rich with lakes, forests and hundreds of animal species. Thousands of tourists come for the region’s fresh air, lake swims, boat tours and to hike its wooded trails and semi-mountainous terrain. In fact, Burabai’s pine and birch trees are believed to have medicinal properties that can help cure a host of ailments. But even if you’re not in need of healing, Burabai is a great place to get out in nature and get the blood pumping.

Hiking Burabai
As you drive through the main road of Burabai village, you’ll come to a gate, which begins the Burabai “Kurortnaya” or resort area. It is there that you will pay $1.5 and enter the official Burabai recreation area. There are many trails throughout the area that are moderate and don’t require a guide. And they’re all located just off the park’s main road. Once you arrive in the recreation area, you can ditch your car and walk up the main road to see most of the park’s natural wonders within eight kilometres. You can also rent a bike or hire a taxi driver at many of the area’s hotels to show you the sights. But you’ll want to bring a Russian dictionary or a Russian speaking friend as few taxi drivers speak English. Most locals vacationing there can also tell you where to go and what to see.EDGE_TheGreatEscape_BorovoeV_01

Once inside the recreation area, as you follow the main road, you’ll see a few beaches beside Burabai Lake where you can stop for a swim or to rest in the shade. About 3.5 kilometers into the recreation area is a beach where you can rent boats and view the unique rock formation about 300 meters offshore known as Zhumbaktas (Riddle Rock). You can also use the boats to reach the rock and climb around for a while. Immediately, across the road from where you rent the boats, you’ll find the trailhead for Okzhetpes Mountain. It’s a quick climb to the top where you’ll find the location from which most of the picturesque photos of Burabai are taken.

After taking your keepsake pictures, continue along the main road and you’ll come to a beach on a second lake, Chebachie Lake. Chebachie Lake is incredibly picturesque and puts to rest the myth that Kazakhstan is just empty steppe. The lake offers numerous easy-to-follow trails around its parameter that offer long-range views of the shimmering water and the pine woods-filled mountains that surround it. Keep an eye out for official lookout points along the trails that offer the best views. After checking out the lake, head back to the main road where you’ll continue for another 5 km before coming to the Abylai Khan Valley, and its revered rock outcrop where the 18th Century ruler Abylai Khan is believed to have pondered the politics of the day. It is rumored that if you walk around the rock seven times and make a wish, that wish will come true. And, if you are really athletic and adventurous, you can continue to Kokshetau Mountain, which is the tallest mountain in the region. You don’t want to climb Kokshetau alone, so see our sidebar story on hiking Kokshetau Mountain.

Climbing Kokshetau Mountain
Burabai’s Kokshetau Mountain is 947 meters above sea level and the tallest mountain in the region. As such, it provides some of the best views of Burabai and the surrounding area. But it’s also a challenging climb and shouldn’t be tried alone. Guides can be arranged through most hotels and usually charge around $4 to lead you up the mountain. You’ll need to be in shape. The climb is challenging and, at times, gets extreme with no clear trail. The hike up the mountain takes about two hours and the hike down roughly half that time. Be sure to bring some water and snacks as there are none along the trail. But you’ll be rewarded along the way with sights of unique rock outcroppings, steep slopes, and if you are lucky, a little wildlife.

Once on top of Kokshetau Mountain, the view opens up and you can see the entire region, including Burabai Lake, Shchuchye Lake, the Okzhetpes Mountain, Zhumbaktas Rock, the Abylai Khan Valley, and Chebachie lake. So if you’re feeling adventurous and want to see the best of what Burabai has to offer, hire a guide, bring some hiking boots and head up Kokshetau Mountain.

Spend the Weekend

Burabai is one of Kazakhstan’s most well developed resort areas and you’ll have no shortage of hotels and resorts to choose from in the recreation area. Prices range from below $50 for a basic room up to a few hundred dollars for a luxury suite with a lake view and balcony. Visit www.burabai.net for a list of hotel options.

shutterstock_18064645borovoyHiking Bayanaul

Another great place to get out in nature just a few hours’ drive from Astana is the Bayanaul National Park. Bayanaul National Park is located in the small village of Bayanaul about 340 km east of the capital and is a picture-perfect collection of shimmering lakes, natural springs, forest-filled mountains and unique caves. The best way to hike Bayanaul park is with a hiking guide, which you can arrange by contacting tour companies, such as Silk Road Adventures at 8 (7182) 622 691 / www.silkroadadventures.net or 5 Zvezd (5 Star) Travel at turkomp_5zvezd@mail.ru.

Most guided hikes of the park begin at the Zhayau Musa Monument near Zhasybai Lake. The monument is a statue of the Kazakh poet and composer of the same name who lived at the turn of the 20th century. In short order, you will be in the heart of nature and a sometimes tricky hike. “As you go along, watch for the moving unstable rocks, don’t step on those to avoid rockfalls, and hold the branches so they don’t hit the person following you behind,” local guide Marina Karimova advised EdgeKz. Karimova, 39, has been working as a guide in Bayanaul for 20 years. The tour also takes you along fire roads cut into the forest from which you can see black alder woods, which are among Kazakhstan’s protected tree species. As you hike upward, you’ll follow clear streams which will make you think you’ve discovered gold as their creek beds sparkle with yellow. But, it’s not gold. It’s just the beautiful – but not overly valuable – cooper pyrites mineral, which is common to the area. The streams’ waters, however, are considered extremely healthy and many bring empty bottles to fill and take home. As you hike, you’ll also see the “Witches Gorge” which includes unique overhanging rocks.

As you near the top of your hike, you’ll come through the black alder woods to a meadow from which you can scramble up a final climb for a view of Akbet Mountain. Akbet is the tallest peak in the Bayanaul National Park at 1026 meters. The hike then descends back down along a trail via the Echo Valley from which you can glimpse the tops of the black alder forests. The hike takes about 1.5 hours and is 3.5 km in total.

While in Bayanaul National Park, you’ll also want to explore Aulietas Cave, which is believed to hold sacred rocks. “Autlietas” means “Sacred Rock” in Kazakh and legend has it that if you make a wish, touch the cave’s rocks and walk away without looking back, the wish will come true. And those in great shape can ask their guide to lead them up the 3.5-hour climb to the top of Akbet Mountain. The climb is very challenging but from the top you can see the region’s three main lakes: Zhasybai, Sabyndy Kol, and Lake Toraigyr where the famous Kazakh poet Toraigyrov was buried. You can also see the three unique rock outcroppings of Saimantas, Naizatas and Kempirtas.

Sleeping in Bayanaul

Bayanaul’s tourist infrastructure is not nearly as developed as Burabai’s. In fact, ten years ago you would have been able to find little more than basic huts to stay in. But Bayanaul’s popularity and tourist infrastructure has developed as more and more Astana residents seek out new nature holidays. Today, you can rent a nice modern cottage for about $10 to $45 per night. Higher-end accommodations, such as the Sultan Cottages (+7 (7812) 56 69 14, +7 (7812) 33 63 61) range from $135 to $150 for suites with basic amenities. You can also bring a tent or arrange with your guide to rent a tent and sleep in the nature area for about $10 per night.

Experiencing the Charyn Canyon

And for a complete change of pace from the rich forests of Burabai and Bayanaul, and for those staying in Kazakhstan’s financial center Almaty, a unique nature experience can be found by hiking the trails of Charyn Canyon.

Charyn Canyon is located 200 kilometres southeast of Almaty, and is often considered Kazakhstan’s version of the United States’ Grand Canyon. The canyon is part of the Charyn National Park and stretches for roughly 154 kilometres along the Charyn River, for which it is named, and reaches a depth of 150 to 300 metres. In addition to its stunning rock walls which change color with the movement of the sun, you’ll also want to check out a small area of the canyon known locally as the “Valley of Castles”. The area received that name because many of its rock formations look like miniature castles or fortresses. And about 15 kilometres into the canyon is the Sogdian Ash Tree Grove. Sogdian ash trees are unique in that they only grow near rivers and have very strong immune systems. Scientists believe this group of trees has been around since the last ice age.
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Hiking in the canyon is allowed and the terrain is not difficult to navigate. But you don’t want to hike without a guide as it’s easy to get lost in the canyon’s many small valleys. Guides can be found in Almaty and contact information is provided at the end of this story. Usually hikers wind their way down the canyon to the river, roam around a bit and hike back out in one day. The canyon is also extremely hot in the summer and cold in the winter and there’ no tourist infrastructure immediately available. So you want to dress appropriately and bring everything you’ll need. Hiking the canyon is most recommended in the fall or spring.

To Charyn and Back

The canyon doesn’t offer any hotels and guides recommend you don’t spend the night camping in this wild, deserted area. The best way to see the canyon is to hire a guide out of Almaty and complete the hike and the return trip in a single 13-15 hour day. Numerous tour companies, such as Asia Travel (www.asiatravel.com) and AdvanTour (www.advantour.com) can make all the arrangements. For those who want to travel in luxury, you can also helicopter your way to the canyon. For more information on helicopter tours, contact DIMAL Kazakhstan Travel Agency at +7 (705) 167 91 94 or +7 (727) 327 46 24.

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