Mention Lake Balkhash in a crowded bar in Almaty, and you will get a number of different reactions.
The majority will say it’s a mosquito-infested hell-hole. The people with a 4WD will speak highly of the landscape and the potential for “wild travel.” The guys in camouflage will say the fish is huge. A lone environmentalist will talk about an Aral Sea waiting to happen.
On the town of Balkhash, opinions will be unanimous. It’s true, Balkhash is another one of those mono-industry towns set up in Soviet times that has struggled to find its footing post-independence. If you are with your own transport en route to Nur-Sultan, Almaty or Shymkent, the oasis of Bektau-Ata is a more scenic place to stop for the night than the city of Balkhash.
However, if you are interested in the daily life of people in provincial Kazakhstan outside of those boomtowns, then Balkhash is right for you.
The lake of Balkhash has an enormous importance in regulating the climate of Central Asia. The lake is shrinking, in the same way the Aral Sea did several decades ago. The causes are pollution from mining and industry, damming from the Kapchagay reservoir, and most importantly, an increase of water use from China, where the Ili river that feeds the lake originates.
When the lake will disappear, it will be a greater disaster than the disappearance of the Aral Sea, because the Almaty and Xinjiang regions are much more densely populated.
Beaches and swimming
Similar to Kapchagay, it gets very hot in summer and you can easily get burned. There is often little shade to be found near the lake, so be sure to bring your own. Unlike some of the other lakes in the neighbourhood (notably Issyk-Kul and Alakol), the waters of Balkhash do warm up in summer. The swimming season begins in mid-June and ends in September.
Bare-bones beach resorts have sprung up in the villages near Balkhash for people coming from the north, and near Lepsy for people coming from the south. The formerly closed town of Priozersk also has a beach.
120 species of birds pass by Lake Balkhash each year. April and September, when the migration to and from Siberia occurs, is the best time. Nearby Topar and Taukum deserts are also interesting for birders. Find more details in this birding report (in French).
Nearby, Bakanas is the site of the Earth’s most northerly rice cultivation.
Fishing is important to the economy of many of the villages around the lake. Pollution, decline in water level and water quality, damaging fishing techniques, overfishing and loss of shore forests have all contributed to a decline in the size and number of fish.
That doesn’t mean fishing has stopped. Some big specimens of catfish are still caught occasionally. The fishing bases and tour companies are primarily based around Karaoy (Gmaps).
Windsurfing and kitesurfing
Edgekz has a good article on surfing in Kazakhstan. A few quotes.
On windsurfing: Balkhash is Lichman’s favorite. “It is quite large, and the wind and nature make nice, dynamic scenery… The thermal wind blows from noon to sunset, plus other winds that come from air traffic and weather changes.”
In Kazakhstan, however, the best windsurfing doesn’t always coincide with the most developed areas. You have to be a romantic, Lichman says, and “not be in love with comfort.”
And on kitesurfing: “The wind at Balkhash is generally present and steady, though there are also calm days. Even though it hurts to travel 300-400 kilometers only to find total calm, the trips are stunning when the steppe is blossoming.”
Cold War remnants
If the Cold War tickles your fancy, the coastal town of Priozersk, once a top-secret military base for rocket tests, is the place to be.
Remote even by Kazakh standards, Balkhash acts as a center for those unfortunate enough to live in even more distant towns. Your pity is envoked at the sight of a place like Akshatau, 35 km away from the nearest water source.
The city beach is popular with Russians in summer, perhaps en route to Issyk-Kul. There is lots of rubbish lying around, but the beach still manages to charge an 800 tenge entrance fee. The sight of a smoking zinc processing plant across from the lake does not encourage.
The town centre features wide-open streets where taxis outnumber all other road users. It does make it cheap to get around. The main streets are clean though, and you could almost feel optimistic walking along Lenin street. You can find some interesting architecture from the 40s and 50s, and mosaics that have disappeared in the modernisation drive of cities like Almaty and Nur-Sultan.
If copper extraction is your thing, we can recommend the House of Culture of Metalworkers, where Lenin crosses Valikhanov street. It houses a small history museum chronicling the story of the copper plant of Balkhash.
There are various ways to reach Lake Balkhash. From Almaty, Lepsy is the closest, from Karaganda, Balkhash city. Birders should head for Aksuyek, fishermen for Karaoi.
Despite several visits, we haven’t found any place that we would be happy to recommend. But more places are coming online each year, so perhaps there is a good apartment or dacha waiting for you.
All your questions and reports are welcome in the Balkhash forum Q&A.