Surrounded by mountains and giant Tien Shan firs, Big Almaty Lake is a scenic place. It’s worth a drive, and it looks like in the pictures. You can definitely enjoy the atmosphere up here, as long as you remember a few basic pointers left out of most travel guides.
Also note that Big Almaty Lake has been the subject of turf wars within the Kazakh elite. No guns are being drawn, but it means the situation is always changing depending on who gets the upper hand. Sometimes, the lake is free to visit, at other times, access is restricted and entrance fees are raised. Please let us know your BAL experience on the forum to keep everyone up to date,.
When to go
Avoid weekends at all cost. The proximity of Big Almaty Lake to the city and the perfectly maintained road towards the lake mean it has become a very popular place for locals to pick-nick and show off their cars. Summers are busiest. The best time to visit are May – June, when the road is clear but the lake is still a frozen beauty and the mountain freshness is incomparable, and September – October, when glacier melts turn the water a dazzling turquoise.
What not to do
Border guards take their job seriously here. You cannot approach the lake, only see it from the road. You cannot camp near the lake. In any case, take your passport with you, as a passport check is likely.
Should I hike here?
Hiking up to the lake is pretty boring, as you are following the road for the longest time, and the scenery is very average. It’s also really far away, to make it back in 1 day (you cannot camp at the top) is tough. I don’t advise it. From the lake, there are some great hikes to be made to different peaks and glaciers. You now need several permits for these, which can be obtained at the Migration Police (OVIR). I have no experience with getting the permits, because I don’t want to spend time at OVIR, but from what I gather from tour companies, I don’t advise it. There are other wonderful hikes to be made in the Ili-Alatau near Almaty without permits. See hiking around Almaty for suggestions and directions.
If you do want to get to the lake under your own steam, cycling is an option if you are fit enough: the elevation level is no joke. It’s a beautiful ride up, the tarmac is perfect, and it’s 30 km downhill if you make it to the top.
You can no longer sleep over at the observatory.
On the corner of Al-Farabi and Navoi streets, next to the President’s Park is the bus stop for bus 28 that drives every 30 minutes all the way up Dulati street (also called Almarasan). Last stop is just beyond the entrance to the park. Taxis ply the same routes, expect to pay around 5-10 times more per seat. If you drive yourself, you will need to pay a 200 tenge entry fee per person at the entrance to the park.
From the entrance to the park, you will need to hitch a ride if you want to get up to the lake. Not so easy if you are going outside of the peak times. A taxi up to the lake will be upwards of 2000 tenge. Alternatively, you can join a tour which takes in a few other sights and allows some hiking around the area.