The number one multi-day trek in the Zailysky Alatau just above Almaty is the hike from Shymbulak to Big Almaty Lake. Locals call it the Bolshoy Kruglosvetka, which translates as “the big trip around the world”. The small Kruglosvetka is the 1-day hike from the Kimasar valley to Shymbulak via Peak Furmanov – also really nice.
This classic trek takes 3 or 4 days. 42 kilometers long, it covers all landscapes in the Ile-Alatau National Park: lush forests, alpine meadows, glacial moraines, and a little snow.
Before you go
We recommend to wear shoes with a strong grip and to use trekking poles: some sections of trail are exposed and a lot of hiking goes over loose rock.
Watch weather reports closely and consider postponing if there will be heavy rain (complicating things for the exposed sections) or thunderstorms (complicating things for the near-4000 meter Tourist Pass).
Border zone permit
Because this route skirts the border with Kyrgyzstan, previously foreigners were not allowed to hike here without a border zone permit.
However, Kazakhstan has become more tourist-friendly in recent years and the latest report we got indicated no problems to hike here without a permit. The border zone regulations are subject to sudden change, though; we cannot guarantee it will stay like this.
Should you need a border permit, how might you obtain one? You need to ask for one at Almaty OVIR. We are looking for more reports on border permits, let us know if you needed/did not need/got one independently.
From Shymbulak, take the Combi 2 lift all the way to the top, and descend to the right of the Left Talgar ski lift. If you are on a budget, you can also hike along the ski lifts, but this will add 2 hours to your itinerary.
The trail should become apparent, passing by a small lake and then over a stream, before a steep descent guides you into to the Left Talgar River.
The Left Talgar Valley is very picturesque. While some tempting camp spots await as you meet the river, the goal today should be to go as far as possible upstream to make for an easier day 2. Camp spots are plentiful as you make your way upriver.
The trail may disappear and re-appear over the dry rocky riverbed. This will be the busiest part of the trail so expect to see other groups in the summertime.
It’s mostly easy route-finding on day 2, except for one section of scree slope that can be tricky. A cairn marks the spot to descend below the scree onto the dirt (but not all the way down to the river). Loop underneath, and scramble your way back on top of the rocks.
It may also be possible to stay high on the scree, but some particularly steep funnel crossings make this a dangerous proposition. This section of trail seems ripe for slides.
After this section, continuing upriver, the trail passes through some beautiful alpine meadows before veering right up towards the glacial moraine.
The goal today is to camp above 3600 meters (go at least this high for the best spots) at the base of Tourist Pass.
The approach to Tourist Pass will be loose rock all the way through. In addition to using the GPS tracks you can scan for cairns which will lead you the whole way to the snow slope of the pass itself.
From there, boot tracks will show you the way up and over. Try to get an early start while the snow is still firm. Although there appeared to be no evidence of previous avalanches here when we passed, perform your own assessment.
Coming down the other side will be snow-free in summer but for some patches where hikers need to cross over loose rock.
Cairns will lead you on a trail above the right bank of the river as you descend. Eventually you come to the confluence of 2 rivers. Here the trail crosses the water and turns into a road for the first time. This area would be the best camp spot for a 4-day trek. Further down the grass is taller and there are more bugs.
Further on, the road meets another confluence of 2 rivers. If you see the road fade into grass and diving into a river to continue on the other side, you’ve gone too far. You do not have to cross the river again.
What should you do?
Towards Big Almaty Lake
A number of confusing cairns are present in this area. About 100 meters before the end of the road is a white, broken trail marker pointing to the right (looking downhill). Follow the marker up and to the right here to get a view of the rock fields. From here, you can find the next marker. Scan for white trail markers, a few are dotted on the tops of these small hills.
The trail now fades as you move through the rock fields. Just continue along the right bank of the river. As you continue, the cairns and markers will become more frequent and the trail more apparent once again.
At this point, the track veers close to the river and becomes more narrow, and some sections are exposed. It’s a tricky section that could present problems after rain – your trekking poles will come in handy.
The trail will become a road again as you pass the ford (not crossing). Here is another possible camp spot but by this time it’s getting close to the end of the trail.
As the lake comes into view and the road continues, it will eventually veer disappointingly high to the right. An overgrown road turns left and stays low. The road left is a shortcut to Big Almaty Lake. ending up on the eastern side of the lake, opposite the observatory.
As you walk alongside the lake the road goes high again past some abandoned buildings and down again to the northern end.
At this point, the main road comes into view and you can continue due north to meet it. Hitching is common here so start walking down the road and wave down a car. If you are a big group, split up because drivers won’t want to deal with the impoliteness of taking only some of you.
This trek report was written by Christopher Swanicke.