A long, stretched-out town 300 km northeast of Almaty, Tekeli is the gateway town to the Dzhungarian mountains. For the vast majority of tourists, the Trans-Ili Alatau range above Almaty is fun, beautiful and adventurous enough to never come here. Only if you need it wilder, or you are completely done with Almaty, you should come here.
Dominated by a zinc factory that has just started operating again after lying dormant for a long time after the fall of the Soviet Union, Tekeli is rising from its ashes after a period of neglect. It’s looking nice again, quiet and clean, and alcoholic bums are no longer a feature of street life.
During WW2, 1 in 3 Soviet bullets fired at a German came from Tekeli, and it was a closed city. You can retrace some of that industrial heritage along endless Kunaev street (at 33 km it is apparently the longest street in the FSU). If Soviet history sounds boring, you can go swimming in the natural pool built along the river in the center of town.
Hiking, skiing and enduro (mountain) biking
The main reason to come of course, are the mountains beyond. It is wild: bears roam in places tourists don’t come, and a snow leopard has been sighted in winter by an adventurous friend of ours.
DIY: at the moment, mostly for experienced outdoors people. You can find hot springs, old mines, and a big waterfall (more on that below). Be ready to be out of reach for a minimum of 3 days to make a loop that is worthwhile. Hiking maps circulate in the Couchsurfing community of Tekeli and Taldy Kurgan. Bring your camping gear and canned veggies, and off you go!
Organized: we have a cool Dzhungar Alatau trekking tour that takes in some truly wild parts of the area, including glaciers, moraine lakes and the stunning Kora Gorge.
Skiing is a possibility in the Dzhungarian Alatau. 2 small ski bases are placed in the hills, and a snowcat service exists, but snow can be an issue. Rather than alpine skiing, I would say ski touring and cross-country skiing is interesting here.
If you have a motorised enduro bike, you are going to love it here. No pesky hikers, just steep dirt roads, forest, valleys and little brooks to motor through.
As a mountain biker, it can be fun here too, but it is seriously tough going. Only for well-trained cyclists. See for instance this report (RU).
Burhan Bulak waterfall
A big 40 m waterfall, Burhan Bulak is a favourite for picnics and should be avoided on a weekend if you don’t like crowds. It’s a beautiful place, though. The road to Burhan Bulak from Tekeli has been blocked for cars since 2012 and you now need to enter the valley via the town of Qapal, reached by a turn-off 30 km beyond Taldy Kurgan.
Of course, you can still hike there from Tekeli. Or cycle (but, as mentioned before: it’s very tough).