About 4 times the size of Hong Kong, the Altyn Emel national park is Kazakhstan’s safari destination. It is home to a number of unique landscapes, from relic forests to otherworldly mountains. There is history as well, with ancient burial mounds and petroglyphs to seek out. Most importantly, a number of rare hoofed mammals live here. You might spot them.
Just 260 km north of Almaty, Altyn Emel is one of the most accessible places to experience a piece of the great under-discovered Kazakh wilds.
Destinations inside Altyn-Emel
Aktau and Katutau mountain range
The Aktau hills are otherworldly. Bands of white, red and orange run horizontally across the range with striking effect. Known as a unique paleontological deposit, 56 species of Early Miocene flora like pine, spruce, birch, alder, oak, walnut, chestnut, linden, frame, pistachio, ailanthus have been discovered here, as well as remains of ancient animals like crocodiles, turtles and giant rhinos with an estimated age of 25-30 million years.
The Katutau hills are less spectacular, but certainly just as interesting. Blueish gray and brown sediments are dissected by sharp canyons about 40 km away from Basshi. It’s quiet and beautiful here, and it is a good place to see the elusive arkhars. Past the village of Araltobe is a place called Kosbastau. There’s a hot water spring with radon in it, and a very large tree that is purportedly more than 700 years old. It definitely looks old.
To see all the sights on this route, you need at least 8 hours, and a jeep-style car is preferred as the track is worse than others in the park.
Singing sand dune
The singing sand dune, popping up unexpectedly in the steppe, emits a low, vibrating rumble when the sand moves. It’s 80km or 2 hours drive from Basshi. It’s a beautiful place, regardless of the music, and you can stay the night camping in nearby Mynbulak where the ranger lives if you don’t want to stay in the guesthouse in Basshi.
Terekty petroglyphs and Besshatyr
The Iron Age sights of Altyn Emel need to be approached from the west rather than from Basshi, and you will need to get your permit from the park’s representative in Almaty in advance to be let in here.
Terekty is a petroglyph site. There are many stone carvings spread out over the area, most of them in the shape of ibex, arkhar and deer. Besshatyr is the site of about 30 kurgans, ritual burial mounds for important warriors and leaders from previous civilizations.
The Kyzylauz canyon is another pretty place with good wildlife spotting possibilities, but you will need to ask for special permission. In general, we have had more sightings of animals on the Besshatyr route than on the main route via Basshi.
Turanga is an endangered species of poplar tree that is endemic to the steppes of Kazakhstan. The turanga forests provide oases of green in the semi-arid, treeless steppes, and are home to many species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds and insects. They can be found along the Ili river and around the different springs in the park.
A small museum is dedicated to Chokhan Valikhanov, the great Kazakh explorer and ethnographer. It is on the road to Basshi in the village of Valikhanov, where he has his final resting place. It is Russian- and Kazakh-language only and we are not certain about the opening hours, so this is more for the dedicated Kazakhstan-expert rather than the first-time tourist.
Flora and fauna
Not counting insects and fish, at least 260 different animals live in Altyn Emel. There are endangered amphibians like the Siberian toad and rare and endangered birds like black stork and imperial eagle. Of 78 species of mammals, 11 are recorded in the Red Book of Kazakhstan: stone marten, polecat, otter, manul (wild cat), wild ass, gazelle, argali, Asian barbastelle bat, Bukhara deer, lynx and Tien Shan brown bear.
Kulan, goitered gazelle, przewalski horse and Bukhara deer are all endangered animals and Altyn Emel is one of the few places on earth where you can witness these animals in their natural habitat.
There is a nursery for przewalski horses near the Singing Sand Dune you can visit.
That doesn’t mean you will necessarily see them. It’s good to be pessimistic to avoid disappointment. Take binoculars, as most sightings will be from a distance.
If you are really keen on seeing the animals, question your tour guide in advance on what sightings are possible, how you can increase your chances of seeing wildlife, and what is rather unlikely to happen.
Flora of the national park includes 1500 species of plants, including 22 rare and endangered species. Tulips, saxaul, tomyris and wormwood are the typical plants of this region that every visitor will enjoy on a visit to the national park. Spring sees a profusion of wildflowers briefly blooming.
The recent discovery of tourism in Kazakhstan has brought forth an explosion of guides and drivers offering their services in Altyn Emel. Sadly, the explosion has only been in quantity, not quality. We have whittled the overflow down to 2 offers: Asya and Alexey for private tours, scheduled departures with Dina’s company.
- Private tour: 2 days in Altyn Emel with Asya and Alexey
- Scheduled departures: 2 day group tour to Altyn Emel with Dina. Full comfort with professional English speaking guide.
We also offer Altyn Emel as part of a bigger loop around Almaty Region.
- 5-day Scheduled Golden ring of Zhetisu tour
- 3-day Safari to Besshatyr petroglyphs and Altyn Emel
- 7-day RING tour of Almaty region
- 9-day Almaty +: desserts to glaciers
Or you can write to us with your ideas for a tailor-made adventure.
Entrance and prices
Altyn Emel is divided in an eastern and a western section, with a specially protected reserve in the centre through which visitors are not allowed to pass. In practice, this means there are 2 separate itineraries: the main itinerary to be approached from Basshi, and a separate itinerary to be approached from the west.
Basshi is the village that holds the park’s headquarters, and it is the gateway to the eastern attractions: Aktau, Katutau and the Singing Sand Dune.
The western part of the national park is best approached directly from Almaty; you will need to make payments in advance since you won’t pass through the visitor’s office in Basshi. Contact the office at 8 705 610 25 11 in Almaty, or visit their office on Bogenbai Batyr 132, corner with Panfilov street, office N305 for more information and to arrange travel plans.
Entrance is now set at 1027 tenge, both for foreigners and Kazakhs. As a foreigner, you will likely be assigned a guide when you are in the reserve: cost is 600 tenge per person. The park rangers earn a paltry salary, they are assigned to your car to get them some money in tips.
There are 5 different guesthouses spread out over Altyn Emel national park. Prices are in the 2500 to 5000 tenge range. Rooms are basic. Breakfast is an extra 500 tenge and usually consists of 1 fried egg, a sliced tomato and cucumber, some egg and sausage, tea and bread.
Contact the park office for more information and bookings, or call / WhatsApp the number associated with the guesthouses marked on Google Maps.
You can also camp for free inside the reserve on 4 designated spots.
- Shygan, near Basshi (Gmaps)
- Mynbulak (near the Singing sand dune (Gmaps) – the second pin, rangers’ farm
- Kosbastau, or the 700-year-old willow tree (Gmaps)
- Aktau mountains, near the rest area: no water here
- On the Besshatyr route, on the Kapchagay shore
How to get there
With your own wheels, count 4-5 hours from Almaty to Basshi. For Besshatyr, the turn-off is at Shengeldy, not long after the bridge over Kapchagay. Beware that there are many sharp stones on the Besshatyr route, so a punctured car tire is a possibility.
If you are cycling, you do not need a guide. You just pay the entrance fee and nothing else. You can camp near the ranger station inside the park at no extra cost. However, you are only allowed to cycle to the Singing Dune and back.
Be aware that it is a tough 300 km cycle along a badly corrugated road you will need to complete in 2 days, with no shade along the way. We believe there are better cycle routes in Kazakhstan.
A possible 2-3 day itinerary would see you arrive in Basshi in the afternoon, and visit the singing sand dune. Overnight, and visit the Aktau and Katatau mountains. Return to Almaty or continue towards Charyn and Kolsai, with a possible sidetrip to the petroglyphs and Besshatyr on the western side of the park.
Map of Altyn Emel
The blue line leads to the Aktau and Katutau hills and the 700-year-old tree. The red line leads to Terekty petroglyphs and Besshatyr. The green line goes to the singing sand dune.
Your questions and updates about travel to Altyn Emel are welcome in the forum Q&A.