The 3 alpine lakes of Kolsai promise clear, shimmering blue waters surrounded by peaceful conifer forests. Coming from smog-covered Almaty, it’s an oxygen bonanza. The weird but wonderful sunken forest of Lake Kaindy is a natural in front of the camera.
It’s a perfect package – no wonder the lakes have become something of a tourist magnet.
Important update: bring your passport! A new police checkpoint has been installed before the village of Saty in April 2019. Foreigners without passports will be sent back unless they pay a big bribe. Photocopies are not accepted! Reports welcome in the forum.
Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes fit perfectly within a loop of Almaty Region that takes in Charyn Canyon, Altyn Emel and possibly the Assy Plateau. Or alternatively, as a stopover on the road to Karakol in Kyrgyzstan, or Khorgos on the Chinese border.
We do not recommend visiting the Kolsai Lakes as a stand-alone trip from Almaty. It is still a considerable drive, and there is plenty of natural beauty closer to Almaty, for instance in the Ili-Alatau park or the Turgen Gorge. Connect it at a minimum with a good look around Charyn Canyon, and preferably with a few more sights on the way.
Experience tells us travelers enjoy this much more.
Kolsai and Kaindy are located about 300 km east of Almaty, in the Tien Shan mountains not far from the border with Kyrgyzstan.
The village of Saty is the gateway to the lakes; Kolsai is 15 km southwest from Saty, Kaindy Lake is 15 km southeast. Previously a typical Kazakh village with a lot of horses and sheep, most money these days comes from tourism, and all houses in the village have been converted to guesthouses.
The nearby village of Kurmety is another option for accommodation.
The road these days is paved all the way to Saty. Almaty-Saty takes about 5 hours by car.
When to go
Some might say overtourism is too strong a word for the weekend crowds on Kolsai and Kaindy, but we are putting out a warning here anyway. During the summer months, do not come on the weekend if you would like to savour some peace and quiet.
We estimate 750 to 1000 local tourists visit Kolsai on an average weekend in June, July and August. With limited room on the trails and at the shore, that’s a lot.
During the week, there won’t be more than a few dozen other tourists, and going for a hike and sitting by the shore is enjoyable.
The lakes are located between 1700 m and 2500 m altitude. Outside the 4 summer months, the weather is cold. Weekend crowds will have disappeared, but wear something extra. Tours are available from May to October, accommodation will be harder to find outside of these months.
In September, the weather is still nice but the kids went back to school, so it’s less busy. Probably the best month if you still plan to go in the weekend, especially since the trees will have donned their autumn colours.
How to visit
From Saty or Kurmety, you will still need to drive 20 minutes to the first lake. A checkpoint marks the start of the nature reserve. You need to pay 750 tenge entrance fee per person here, and an extra 1000 tenge for a car.
From the 1st lake, a 3-hour hike over 9 km takes you up to the 2nd lake at 2250 m. Locals call it Mynzhylky (1000 horses).
The trail is easy to follow, but if you are not fit, you might want to consider a horseback ride. Renting a horse for a return trip from lake 1 to lake 2 will cost 8000 tenge.
The 3rd lake, a strenuous additional 6 km up to 2650 m, is out of bounds for now. The Kazakh security services judge it as too close to the border.
Although Kazakhstan has become more tourism-friendly in recent years, they still have a long way to go.
A 4th lake exists as well, on the other side of the Sary-Bulak Pass (3278 m). That pass marks the border with Kyrgyzstan and, for now, cross-border hikes are not legal. Once they are (lobbying is in progress), this will become a top trekking route.
In 1911, an earthquake triggered a large landslide, resulting in a natural dam. The glacier melt could no longer flow out, and a lake was formed. The old forest of Shrenk spruce trees sunk into the new lake.
Above water, the sunken trees appear as large masts from lost ghost ships, eery reflections in the water. But underwater, the needles of the Shrenk spruce still remain on the trees, even 100 years later. Because of the clear mountain water, you can see deep into the depths of the lake.
Perfect selfie spot.
Hiking and horseback riding off-the-beaten track
A quiet trek connects Kolsai-2 with Kaindy. We are not entirely certain if border guards will stop you on this route. They shouldn’t, but, we cannot state it with certainty. There is no real trail here so be prepared for a tough trek involving bushwhacking.
Another option would be to hike from Kolsai to Assy Plateau and down to Turgen Gorge. Takes around 4-5 days. Again, no designated trails and some bushwacking and stream crossing involved. For people who know how to read a map.
For an off-the-beaten track horse riding tour, see the tours section below.
Trout fishing and saumal cures
The Kolsai lakes offer excellent trout fishing in winter. The local species is rainbow trout.
Saumal is fresh horse milk, before it gets turned into its fermented cousin kymys. Local pensioners enjoy a cure where they drink a big bowl 5 times a day. Supposed to be very healthy. Just ask around, most people still have horses so it should not be a problem to secure a steady milk supply.
As tourism in Almaty Region has grown, the need for curation and recommendation has grown to choose from the large amount of offers.
We work with Asya and Alexey to offer high-quality private tours, and with Almaty Tours for scheduled group tours. Both have been reliable partners for us since 2013.
With time constraints, we recommend 3 days to take in Kolsai, Kaindy and Charyn.
- Private tour to Kolsai, Kaindy and Charyn (3 days)
- Scheduled group tour to Kolsai & Kaindy (3 days)
- Off-the-beaten Horse trek around lakes starting in Kurmety village
If you have more time to enjoy Southern Kazakhstan’s landscapes, add Altyn Emel
- Scheduled group tour of Almaty Region (5 days)
- 7-day RING tour of Almaty region
- 9-day Almaty +: desserts to glaciers
Or create your own adventure. There is plenty more to see in Almaty Region and all our programs are customisable at no extra cost.
Most accommodation is open between May and October. There is no online booking available yet. Best to just come and decide on the spot based on availability.
Saty and Kurmety
Perfectly situated between Kolsai and Kaindy, Saty is the best option to stay overnight. Plenty of options here, almost everyone is hosting tourists in season. Prices start at 3000 tenge for bed and breakfast. Add another 1000 tenge for dinnner.
Kurmety is a bit further down the road, with similar guesthouse options. You recommendations are welcome in the Saty forum thread.
At the first Kolsai Lake
The pricey Jipek Joly hotel messes up the view on the lake’s shore. Nice view from the dining room, but it isn’t the best option regardless of the price.
Yurt stays overlooking the lake cost 7,000 tenge per person without food, 10,000 tenge with 3 meals. The yurts above the parking lot are half price. Basic facilities.
The shore of the second lake is the main camp spot. There are no restrictions on camping, so you can also set up elsewhere, as long as you do not go past the second lake. You are supposed to pay a camping fee at the park entrance, but you can lie and not pay if that is your style – you are not checked.
There is little in the way of food outside of the homestays, so bring plenty of supplies. Remember you are at 2300 m so bring a warm sleeping bag.
How to get to Kolsai Lakes from Almaty
The road to Kolsai is paved, but the road to Kaindy Lake is not: you will need a car with high clearance. A 4WD is preferred but not necessary.
For offroaders: the road from Kegen via Shirganak, Taldy and Kensu is terrible. Be sure you know how to get out of trouble if you attempt it.
However, the road east from Bartogai reservoir across Assy Plateau to Turgen Gorge also needs a good jeep, but is definitely doable. Recommended.
More info at self-driving in Kazakhstan.
Budget travelers without their own wheels don’t have it easy in Kazakhstan. The size of the country makes it difficult to do things quickly and cheaply.
If you are lucky, you can get from Almaty to Saty in 5-6 hours using shared taxis and hitched rides. Perhaps there is even a direct marshrutka.
If you are not lucky, it will take you longer.
Ah, the vaunted Saty marshrutka!
Yes, it does exist, although it might not run every day. If you have hopes of catching it, know that it starts collecting passengers from 6 am at Sayakhat bus station (5 hr, 2500 tenge). It leaves Saty at 5 am.
From Saty you will still need to find a ride for the final 15 km to the Kolsai Lakes. Don’t get out at the entrance gate, it is still 8 km from there.
If the Saty marshrutka did not happen, you can try to find a taxi willing to drive straight to Saty, but more likely you will need to get onto some form of transport to Kegen and jump out at the turnoff to Zhalanash. Come to Sayakhat bus station early and aim for 3000 tenge for a seat.
From there it’s another 68 km to Saty, and another 15 km to the lakes. Kolsai Lakes is a popular tourist destination and drivers might ask for a ridiculous amount of money.
A more generous villager might not take you along either: some locals have become weary of foreigners due to a stream of begpackers. So you need to be a bit lucky to catch rides quickly for a reasonable price.
El Cheapo local tours
If all of the above sounds like too much hassle, you can take a local weekend tour in summer. It will only set you back 10 000 to 15 000 tenge all-in, but there are 2 big downsides: you are there with 1000 other people, and the overnight bus ride sucks. And all communication is in Russian, of course.
Here is how it works.
You leave on Friday night in a 50-seater bus that still remembers when the Berlin Wall came down. You arrive on Saturday morning together with 10-15 other buses at the lake, and set out for the hike to Mynzhylky.
In the evening, you come down and stay overnight at Saty. The next morning you visit Kaindy Lake. When returning to Almaty, the bus might still stop over at Charyn Canyon. You arrive back home late on Sunday evening.
It’s not an experience we would recommend, but it’s cheap and you get to see it all, so if it floats your boat, you can find offers on Chocolife. Trips are run by different companies, but the idea (and the state of the bus) is the same.
Q&A and trip reports
All questions, trip reports and recommendations are welcome in our Kolsai and Kaindy forum thread.