Lake Alakol, halfway between Ust-Kamenogorsk and Almaty, has become a holiday destination for Kazakhs since the 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan temporarily closed off the beaches of Issyk-Kul for foreigners.
Where Alakol once catered to health enthusiasts and returning cosmonauts, these days it’s all about grilled meat, both on the beach and on the menu.
Overlanders interested in having a little beach holiday can have a good time by breaking their journey to the Chinese border, or between Ust-Kamenogorsk and Almaty, on the southern shore. Camping near the shore away from the tourist villages is a quieter option for those who would like to appreciate nature instead of swilling beer on a beach canape.
For expats in Almaty or Astana looking for something different: Alakol is unlikely to be your thing, and an expat salary can buy better experiences elsewhere. Accommodation options vary from homestays where your neighbour is a cow, to hotels with decent standards. For slightly more money you can go to Turkey, though.
The northern shore of Lake Alakol is known as the healthy one. The water is famous for its mineral content, and curative mud attracts psoriasis patients. Located an hour away a sanatorium with hot water springs.
In its glory years the sanatorium treated cosmonauts recently returned from space, but nowadays its raison d’être seems to be mostly pensioners and their grandkids.
Most importantly though, the town of Zharbulak, where the tourist activity takes place on the northern shore, is overcrowded and dirty, and water scooters make swimming unpleasant. Kazakh food is the only food. The road to Zharbulak is terrible.
The southern shore is a more pleasant experience. Apparently, there are no health benefits to swimming here besides the most obvious ones, but there are less people, the vibe is more relaxed and the beach is cleaner.
There is nothing to do besides laying on the beach, going for a swim and watching the cows come home in the evening, but if you have a good cook at your homestay or hotel, you can enjoy yourself here chilling with a beer on the sand for a day or 2.
The main village on the southern shore is called Koktuma. The road going here is brand new, all the way up to the Chinese border. A basic guest house with full board costs around 3000 tenge per person per day. More expensive options are available.
Getting there and away
Be aware that the season is very short: the water is really only warm in July. In August it’s already getting chilly again.
In season, buses go directly from Ayagoz and Semey to the tourist villages near the northern shore. From the south, you can find buses going from Almaty and Taldykorgan to Koktuma, as well as an overnight train.
It’s best to have your own transport though.