There are thousands of places not worth visiting in Kazakhstan, but you are unlikely to ever come across them. Here we make the case to not stay overnight in the town of Zaysan. The lake has its attractions, but they are not easily uncovered.
In recent times, the town of Zaysan got rich off Chinese traders doing business in Kazakhstan. As with many of these towns, where village people suddenly find themselves to be nouveau riche without having to have worked for it, people are pretty awful.
They despise you in advance. Service is non-existent, even though prices are higher than elsewhere. There is absolutely nothing to do or see. Except for some of the worst public sculptures in Central Asia (and that is saying something).
Make sure you avoid staying here. West-Kazakhstan has 2 similar border towns we recommend you avoid: Beyneu (just boring) and Zhanaozen (actually dangerous).
Once upon a time, wild Bactrian camels and Przewalski’s horses grazed on its shores. Until around 100 years ago, tiger, kulan, saiga and dzheyran could also be found here, with herds counted in the thousands.
Although it still has a reputation amongst fishermen, Lake Zaysan is quiet now, and the only activity you are likely to see these days is of sheep and horses. The lake shores’ exotic desert landscapes are empty, but still inviting to real explorers.
To the south lie the wild mountain spurs of Manyrak and the mighty snow-covered Saur, with its 3,816-metre peak Muztau (Ice Mountain). Behind it stretches the Tarbagatay mountain range, much of which has probably never been properly explored by humans. Here argali sheep and snow leopards still find refuge.
Driving the main southern road, the mountains are far in the distance, though. It is a place for hunters. Due to its proximity to the Chinese border, you should double-check if it is ok for you to go there as a foreigner.
In any case, it is a rarely-visited area, and you will need an expeditionist’s attitude.
If you are heading to/from Ust-Kamenogorsk and have the permit, the northern road is better and quicker.
On the north shore, there are places where you could imagine yourself to be on the planet Mars. Red and yellow clay hills dominate the areas bordering the Bay of Shakelmes and in the territory of Kiin-Kerish (Flaming Rocks).
Melting water has eroded the rock into bizarre-looking and wonderfully carved formations. With a bit of imagination it’s possible to imagine an entire city spread over 300 hectares: towers, castles and yurts, all glowing in various hues. Extreme heat and a lack of water characterize this rough, fantasy landscape.
Kiin-Kerish is only accessible by jeep, either by turning right on the road from Kurshum to Buran where the branch road to Karatogay begins, and driving across the lifeless desert in the direction of Amana, or trying to make it along the lake’s shore. Whichever way you choose, a knowledgeable guide is essential.
The timing also has to be right. Kiin Kerish is inaccessible in winter and early spring, when the snow melts and all becomes mud. It quickly becomes devilishly hot and guarded by mosquitoes in summer. May and September are good moments to visit.
Camping and fishing
Zaysan lake is famous with fishermen for the huge sturgeon and fish you can catch there. It is a steppe lake, though, so if you want to fish or camp here, be prepared: there is no tree cover, and local scientists have calculated there are around 20 trillion mosquitoes living near the lake².
Camping on Zaysan Lake is an experience. From time to time at night, in the absence of human-made noise, one hears a wind-borne sound over the lake and between the mountains that is reminiscent of the humming of telegraph lines. It is to this Aeolian tune that the lake owes its Mongolian nickname of Khut-Khutu Nor (Lake of the Ringing Chimes).
However, if you want to camp by the lakeside, make sure you pitch your tent at least 20 metres from the shoreline, because at night there can often be big waves.
Note: own observations are mixed with info taken from Dagmar Schreiber’s wonderful Kazakhstan book. Thank you Dagmar!
Note 2: there are not really that many mosquitoes living on the lake. That is a joke. But still really a lot, so bring a spray.