The Katon Karagai valley is one of the most scenic places in Kazakhstan. This is the real Altai; real adventure; stories of drunk meetings with bears and wolves, and driving for hours without functional breaks are swapped while sampling the best kymys, meat and honey in the world.
With a new road recently put into place, it has now become easier than ever to discover some of the highlights of travel in Kazakhstan. Starting from Ust-Kamenogorsk, the road winds along the silver waves of the Bukhtarma reservoir before mounting up to a plateau populated by golden fields of sunflowers, deer, horse and bee farms.
The small regional center of Katon Karagai signals the end of the new road. From here on out, it gets bumpy.
Valley of Tsars
At Uryl, the border zone starts, and you need a permit. This is a good place to stay overnight: Isata is a friendly old man with a guesthouse, and there is another one run by Sergey who used to run a tour company and can even do vegetarian meals.
Near Berel, an artist colony has taken shape: a small community of Slavs from around the FSU are making impressive land art. At the same time, the project doubles as a center for apitherapy. If you have always felt an urge to sleep with a colony of bees buzzing under your bed, here is your chance.
A bit further on, the heart of Scythian myth-making in Kazakhstan presents itself in a wide valley of waving grass and wildflowers. Kurgans, large-scale burial mounds Scythians used to bury important members of their society, have been dug out to reveal a sophisticated Bronze Age civilisation.
Large amounts of golden artefacts have been found in the graves of princes and princesses, buried together with their horses. You can visit some of the dug-out kurgans. The museum nearby has more explanations on the Scythian civilization and their remarkable choice for a holy site.
The Austrian Road to Lake Markakol from here is closed for vehicles since the bridge collapsed in 2013. You can still walk it though, it should take 2 days.
The last 30 km of road to Rachmanov springs are Terrible. President Nazarbayev has ordered to keep the road as crap as possible to keep Rachmanov springs tourist-free. He flies in with a helicopter.
The resort here is 5-star. Since I don’t have the money to pay for it (and don’t have an Instagram account so I can invited either), this is all I can say. It is possible to visit the lake without paying for the resort, and I think you can camp on the shores, but you will not be able to enjoy the hot springs or the presidential suite.
Getting a glimpse at Belukha is the final goal for many. Just beyond Rakhmanov springs lies Kokkol. It is cold and it is real. Great for hiking and meditating on that mighty, mystical peak, Belukha. If you want to climb it, you will need another permit.