The region of Almaty is named after Kazakhstan’s biggest, most vibrant and most pleasant city, the former capital Almaty. The city is a great base to sample some of the magnificent landscapes in the surrounding area. There is really a lot to do.
One moment you are looking down a tremendous crack in the earth, the next you are on a steppe safari tracing wild donkeys and shifting sand dunes. Some truly unique stuff is on offer, besides the usual kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, history-hunting, 4WD-ing, paragliding, skiing, ice skating, mountain climbing, bouldering, fishing, picknicking, gambling, desert camping, beach bumming, bird watching and botanizing.
Although some of the following places can be reached by public transport, like elsewhere in Kazakhstan, you will need your own transport or the help of a tour operator to reach the most interesting spots.
You can combine most of the sights below in a loop that will take you 1 or 2 weeks, depending on your traveling style. See the itinerary here.
Before we forget: the city of Almaty itself is an obvious highlight: a pleasant place to get acquainted with the country before tackling the rest of the region.
160 km east of Almaty lies Charyn canyon, a spectacular break in the landscape. A must for many visitors to Almaty. We recommend you do it in 2 or 3 days to sample some of the other canyons beyond the main Valley of Castles.
Altyn Emel National Park: it’s like going on safari. Nature lovers have to visit. It is the best place in Kazakhstan to see some rare hoofed animals like wild ass, bukhara deer or gazelle. The Aktau and Katutau mountains are a geologist’s dream. Also: ancient trees, hot springs and singing sand dunes.
3 mountain lakes and 1 sunken forest, that’s the Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy. If you need that sense of total peace and relaxation, come here. The locals have a good homestay programme going. They are real Kazakhs; they’ll make sure you get the best out of your stay.
Near the city
South of town
At a mere 20-minute bus ride from the center, the beautiful Ile-Alatau National Park overlooks Almaty with disregard. You can still see the city, and the brown smog hovering over the skyscrapers, but only to the incongruous tune of bird flutter. High-altitude skating rink Medeu, ski resort Shymbulak, and the shimmering Big Almaty Lake are the 3 starting points to explore the mountains beyond. Hikes range from easy-going afternoon walks to 4-5 day strenuous hikes.
East of town
70 km east of Almaty, the pristine Turgen gorge and Assy plateau do not feature large in traditional guidebooks. Too bad: hikers, mountainbikers, walkers, 4WD enthusiasts and rafters can all enjoy this place. Take your time.
Continue east for another 60 km and you will stumble upon Esik Lake. It’s also a beautiful place, but it appeals mostly to locals looking for a weekend getaway. It shouldn’t be your first choice.
North of town
Kapchagai Lake is Almaty’s beach resort. It’s also a designated gambling zone with a slew of casinos lining the highway. If you are not the type, turn left instead, and go off-road to find Buddhist images carved in rock, and a strange film set on the Ili river.
If you like the look of the Ili river: fishing or kayaking is a thing to do.
West of town
For another spiritual day trip, try Tamgaly. More than 4000 years of history is scattered over the rocks in this UNESCO Heritage site, in the shape of petroglyphs of various eras. On the way back, you can pass by Ungirtas, a site of New Age shamanism.
Ushkonyr, just beyond the suburb of Kaskelen, is not only known as the birthplace of the one and only president Kazakhstan has ever known. It is also a great place for paragliding. By the way, Kaskelen also has some nice day hikes if you have done everything else.
In the far eastern corner of the province, where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China meet, stands Khan Tengri at 7010 m. It is usually approached from Kyrgyzstan’s Inylchek glacier, but you can try from the Kazakh side as well. The area leading up to it is called Bayankol. It is a huge outdoor playground for DIY adventurers, and you can now visit without the need of a permit.
Close to the border with China lies another mountain range, the Dzhungarian Alatau. Most will be satisfied with the mountains around Almaty, but if you want it a bit wilder, this is the place for you. Tekeli and Qapal are the usual entry points. In the back yards of Sarkand and Lepsy, though, wild apple trees with sublime genomes grow, seducing botanists regardless of gender.
If you are going to China, you can stop over in Zharkent for its curious mosque. If you are taking the more northerly exit to China, you can pass by Lake Alakol for a little beach holiday.
Balkhash Lake is one of the fishing spots in Kazakhstan (also mosquito heaven). In spring and autumn, millions of birds gather on the lake during the big migration to and from Siberia, making it an unmissable place for birdlovers as well. To get there, you need to cross the Taukum desert. If you never make it to Western Kazakhstan, this is your desert. Nearby, Bakanas is the site of the Earth’s most northerly rice cultivation.
- The South: Medieval mausoleums, and national parks sheltering tulips, birds, mountains and bears
- The North: Kazakhstan’s brash new capital stands in stark contrast to modest Altai
- The West: Oil towns and stark desert landscapes, this is a geologist’s dream
- The Center: Remote steppe oddities of niche interest