Kazakhstan has excellent whitewater rafting and kayaking opportunities in the Altai range in the northeast and the Tien Shan mountains in the southeast, as well as some more relaxed paddling opportunities on its large lakes and slow-flowing steppe rivers.
Whitewater rafting and kayaking
By far the easiest way to go kayaking in Kazakhstan is to organise things with a knowledgeable tour operator. If you want to go kayaking independently, be very prepared.
The Altai has about 20 rivers suitable for kayaking. This is terrain for experienced kayakers with no fear of difficulty ranges from Grade III to VI. The rivers are short and steep. You can only spend a few days on each river, so a car shuttling you back and forth is a good idea. The Altai mountains are a remote, sparsely populated place with little infrastructure. If you plan on organising your trip independently, stock plenty of food and other necessities, since there is little opportunity for you to stock up on the way.
Rivers in the Altai range: Chulyshman, Argut, Bashkaus, Kurkure, Chulcha, Chuya, Karagem, Katun, Shayla, Sumulta, Kadrin, Pyzha, Chebdar, Big Chili, Right Gromotukha, Left Gromotukha, Gromotukha, Kaljir.
The Tien Shan range is located mostly in Kyrgyzstan, but outliers reach over the border into Kazakhstan and China. Close to Almaty, Charyn and Chilik offer the most kayaking potential in the Kazakh Tien Shan.
Near Shymkent in the South, the Aksu river is interesting for whitewater enthousiasts. Like in the Altai, these rivers are not so long, with only a few days kayaking or rafting potential. The difficulty level lies between Grade III and V – not for beginners! And just like in the Altai range, if you are going independently, be sure to be fully selfsufficient; this is a remote place.
Located in East-Kazakhstan, the Dzungarski Alatau mountains are little visited due to their proximity to China; a special permit is needed to visit this area. For those with the time and inclination to visit, it can however be a very rewarding trip. The two main rivers for paddling are Koksu and Lepsy.
If you want to know more about the exact paddling conditions on these rivers, visit KayakUSSR’s excellent guide to Central Asian whitewater rivers.
Numerous opportunities exist in Kazakhstan for leisurely kayaking through beautiful scenery. The most spectacular of these is Charyn river. Although certain rapids here are very dangerous, for the most part this is a quiet, flat stream with some amazing scenery, and it is one of Kazakhstan’s top tourist attractions.
The Ili river, and especially the part between Kapchagai reservoir and Balkhash lake is the other main river for easy-going kayaking. The scenery is steppe lands, punctuated by forests, opening up in a delta near Balkhash.
Karatal is a lesser known steppe stream that flows through the desert and is bordered by woodland, ending in Lake Balkhash. No tour operators are providing services on this river, but this shouldn’t stop the real explorer interested in seeing a slice of unmoderated, pure Kazakhstan.
Turgen is a river close to Almaty that offers easy rafting opportunities, and several tour operators organise 1- or 2-day tours on a stretch of the river.
Large popular lakes such as Alakol, Borovoye and Kapchagai are popular destinations for Kazakh holidaymakers. You can find people renting out kayaks here as well if you feel you’ve had enough of drinking beer and eating shashlik.