As soon as the Kazakh boy in my class learnt to speak some English he prefaced almost every sentence with 'in Kazakhstan...' After spending some time there I can only begin to sympathise with his frustration at trying to explain this country in only a few words. I can also see how he managed to connect Kazakhstan with almost every topic we discuss. With its huge mix of cultural influences, growing wealth and natural beauty, Kazakhstan really does have a bit of everything. And while we weren't even close to seeing it all, our latest adventure showed us a very different side of the country.
After the towering, modern buildings of Astana and the busy streets and hip coffee shops of Almaty we headed off in search of the Kolsai Lakes. Famed for their beauty, the lakes are a highlight of the Almaty region. We had high hopes for the trip and decided to do it ourselves. We read and reread Lost with Purpose's article about getting there but it wasn't far into the trip that we realised that doing it in April would be a very different experience!
If you're going in the high season (May-Sept) then use their brilliant guide. If, like us, you have restricted holiday times then here is our story and advice for getting to and enjoying the Kolsai Lakes in the off season.
We planned to take a taxi to the turn off shown on the map and then hitchhike to Saty, stay the night and then find a way out to the lakes the next morning. We wanted to stay one or two nights in the yurt camp by the first lake.
Getting to the Kolsai Lakes in the Off Season
Almaty to Saty
In the pouring rain in the car park of the Almaty Sayakhat Bus Station we negotiated a taxi. There were no other people around to arrange a shared taxi with so we ended up paying 4000 KZT (1000 KTZ ≈ €3) to be taken to the turn off from the main road, about a three-hour journey. The car broke down and after waiting an hour for the driver to attempt to get it started we switched rides. We jumped in with four old Kazakh men and a woman who delighted in showing us videos of belly dancers, we still haven't worked out the relevance.
There was some confusion about where we had agreed to be dropped. So to avoid being left in the rain on side of the highway we began some desperate negotiating involving international sign language, google map pointing and a call to someone who spoke English. For another 2000 KZT we were on our way to Dzhalanash!
From there we managed to hitchhike one town further with an old couple and their adorable grandson. We were now just 20 minutes drive from our final destination of the day, Saty. By now the sun was setting but the end was in sight so we stuck out our thumbs and within 10 minutes two local boys offered to take us for what we thought was a very cheap price.
Turns out they actually wanted 10 times the price, about what we'd paid for the last hour and a half of driving. We still haven't worked out if it was a miscommunication or if they intentionally conned us but we began the negotiation process. We offered them half the price but they weren't budging. At one point one of the boys snatched Max's phone from his hand and refused to give it back without payment.
Local villagers joined the nonsensical argument with them speaking no English and us no Kazakh. There was a translator called, threats of the police and fists waved. Max dealt with it all very calmly while I stood next to him shaking in my boots! In the end we handed over another 2000 KZT, less than what they had asked for, got the phone back and left pretty quick smart!
It was now dark and we were feeling a little shaken from our altercation. So we went to the guest house we had seen on the way into the village and asked to stay. There were surprised to have visitors so late but welcomed us, gave us warm milk and biscuits and a room for 5000 KZT (including breakfast the next day). We slept like babies.
Saty to Kolsai Lakes
The next day we got out our trusty thumbs and were up at the lakes for free in 30 minutes. This was probably a bit of luck as there was very little traffic heading up that was at this time of the year. At the entrance gate we paid 727 KZT each for entry to the national park. The woman at the gate shattered our dreams by telling us all the guest houses were closed! This meant no yurts and we would have to do the hike that day.
When we reached the little village by the lake we found one house with people inside and asked if we could leave our big pack with them while we hiked. Turns out they also had a guest room and would let us stay for 4000 KZT per person including dinner and breakfast. It wasn't a yurt but it would have to do.
Enjoying the Kolsai Lakes in the Off Season
We decided to do the hike to the second lake that day despite the less-than-ideal weather. We followed our instincts, rough google maps location and some incomprehensible Kazakh signposts through mud, ice and snow. It sounds like a movie and I honestly felt like a hobbit for most of the journey.
It was tiring but we had a lot of fun and felt pretty awesome getting to the top. It's a 9km walk from the first lake to the second and the path is often steep. Lots of the path was covered in snow and we were a little under-prepared in just our running shoes. If you're going at this time of year I would suggest hiking boots and a good rain jacket!
The second lake was almost completely frozen and there was a lot of low hanging cloud. Having seen some gorgeous pictures of the lake the views were a bit of a let down but this was definitely a case of 'it's about the journey not the destination'. There was only two other groups in the park that day so we had a lot of time just us and the forest.
Tired and muddy we made our way back down to the house, passing our host who was fishing for our dinner. We enjoyed a well-earned meal and some very disjointed attempts at conversation with our hosts and headed to bed exhausted. The next morning the sun was shining and we got some stunning views of the first lake before the clouds began to roll in.
Getting back to Almaty
Max did some negotiating to get our hosts to drive us back to Saty that morning as getting out of there otherwise would have been a bit of a mission. Tourists (if there are any) leave in the afternoon and there is very little local traffic.
From Saty it was an easy trip back to Almaty, especially compared to the way there. We got a ride with some communications workers who needed to check the phone lines in each town. One would do the checking while the other 60-year-old man stayed in the car and very proudly showed us funny meme-like images on his smart phone. We laughed appreciatively but after about the tenth image we were desperately hoping for the other man to get back.
They dropped us at our fave town of Dzhalanash and from there we tried to hitchhike but found a taxi that took us all the way to Almaty for 5000 KZT. If we'd waited a bit longer we might have saved a bit of money by finding a series of free journeys. But with the ordeal of the trip out there and our desperate need for a shower we took the easy option.
The Kolsai Lakes are incredibly beautiful and if you have the time you should definitely try to see them. Once we were safely back in Almaty we were able to laugh and reminisce about the whole experience. But there were some stressful moments and some things we wished we'd known in advance. So if you enjoyed our story and are still crazy enough to visit the Kolsai lakes in the off season here's some pointers.
- Once out of Almaty it's easy to pick up shared taxis along the main road. If you try to hitchhike most people will ask for payment.
- After the turn off hitchhiking is easier but there is much less traffic going to Saty and the lakes at this time of year.
- Make sure you negotiate the price clearly, even write it down. We had another driver try to charge us double, claiming that the price we negotiated was per person.
- Bring snacks. There's not a lot of shopping options in Saty.
- The guest houses might be closed. We were lucky the couple we stayed with were there but they might not be all year round. Most accommodation, including the yurt camp, opens in May.
- The second lake is frozen and it rains almost every day. Don't let this put you off though, the rain is mostly drizzle and the lake is still beautiful. The hike itself is a good experience.
- There are no showers and only long drop toilets at the guest houses. Take toilet paper and wet wipes.
- Start early. It ended up taking us over 7 hours from Almaty to Saty and everything took just a little bit longer than we planned for.