Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon is a spectacular sight set to a backdrop of flat steppelands near Almaty. The multi-colored gorges display millions of years of history, and are a great place for rafting, hiking, climbing or nature appreciation.
The tourist’s canyon
The Valley of Castles is where all tourists are herded to, and rightly so. It has a peculiar bright red color and its rock formations resemble castles. It’s spectacular during the day and at night, under a star-lit sky. Only a few hours drive from Almaty, I can recommend it to anyone.
The explosion of tourist interest in the place has put a lot of pressure on the natural environment, though. Locals litter, are loud and fire up the shashlik stoves, all of which is unappreciated by the natural fauna and flora. So take care if you go, and try to go outside of the weekend for the most pleasurable experience.
Also note that the gorge gets extremely hot in summer, and at times it’s extremely windy there as well.
Rafting Charyn Canyon
There are some seriously dangerous Class VI rapids on Charyn river, but if you want to go rafting and don’t have any experience, some tour companies organise rafting trips in Charyn canyon in between those rapids. Pretty flat, with beautiful scenery, a bit of adventure and activity and a fun day out of town. In summer, the water heats up to about 20°C, so you can actually swim there! If you are experienced and interested in fierce independent kayaking, check KayakUSSR for all the info.
Charyn Canyon tours
Almost all tour agencies in Almaty run tours to Charyn Canyon. Prices revolve around 65 – 150 USD for a day trip with English speaking guide, private transport & lunch box.
Multi day tour to Five canyons of Zhetisu including Charyn.
Accommodation and camping
The Charyn Canyon hotel has luckily not materialised yet, so it is still the domain of the camper here. There is plenty of space for wild camping, so just pitch your tent and watch the stars.
Geology, biology and history
The history of Charyn canyon stretches back 12 million years, when the river started slowly eroding the stone around it. The multi-coloured geology that you can see now is the result of different stages of sediment deposition. Dark rocks at the bottom are volcanic lava rocks. On top of those, the red cliffs of the Valley of Castles came from debris flows. The plains around Charyn are covered with grey gravel and dust which were transported there by the strong winds in the area.
Downstream of the Valley of Castles is a leftover of a vast prehistoric forest of Sogdian Ash. The Sogdian Ash is a rare, endangered tree and Charyn is one of two places where it still grows in large numbers. The area is specially protected and act as a kind of oasis in the harsh environment for wildlife such as lizards, snakes, groundhogs, steppe hares and foxes.
The Charyn river is also home to a fish endemic to the region called the naked osman.
How to get there
From Almaty, follow the main road in the direction of Chilik. After you pass Chilik, keep going on the road towards Kegen / Narynkol and after 190km from Almaty, turn left to the off road car trail at the sign saying Charyn Conservatory. From there, it’s still 9km to the canyon. You will be paying a small fee at the entrance.
From the parking area, 2 paths descend into the canyon. The one starting 1 km north from the parking is steeper, but more spectacular.
To reach the Sogdian Ash forest, turn left towards Zhonzy and Zharkent a few kilometers past the town of Kokpek (it’s before you reach the canyon).