Kazakhstan: Not Just Steppe – Charyn Canyon and Esik Lake

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Last Updated on 7 December 2023 by Cycloscope

Charyn Canyon

Kazakhstan is Not Just Steppe. Charyn Canyon and Esik Lake. What to see around Almaty

Among the things to do around Almaty, visiting Charyn Canyon is for sure a must, while less know about the Esik Lake. Both can be reached on a day trip from Almaty if you’re using motorized transports. By bicycle though, neither of them is so easy to reach. Another nice day trip is the Big Almaty Lake, unfortunately, we didn’t go there, but you can read more in the linked article.

We visited both in 7 days while waiting for the Chinese visa. Check out Caravanistan for more things to do and see around Almaty.

Bicycle touring from Almaty to Esik Lake

We head for Lake Esik, an alpine lake about 60 kilometers east of Almaty, at 1800msl. Before reaching the town of Esik, about ten kilometers from the lake, we stopped to visit the Esik history museum (500 tenge per person).

It’s a small but nice museum, there is a reproduction of the Golden Warrior found in one of the many Schytian tombs scattered everywhere around here, looking like simple mounds of earth.

After the village, which is quite large and with a big bazaar, we face the last kilometers to the lake, after paying the park entrance fee (350 tenge).

A beautiful road that follows a river flowing between the mountains, and finally some trees! But quite tough and steep indeed, the last 5 kilometers we must push and this takes us almost two hours.

Esik Lake – The Beauty and The Beasts

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Charyn Canyon
The Scythian Golden Warrior of Esik

Finally reaching the top of the hill, Esik Lake shows itself in all its marvels. Blue turquoise waters where the pine trees and the snow-covered peaks get mirrored. Once we get down to the lake’s shores though, we start wondering what the money of the entrance fee is used for, there is rubbish everywhere.

The question is of course rhetorical. Quite a few people here, all Kazakhs, and all of them leave their garbage behind. What is most disturbing, is that they teach to do that to the children. There was a class field trip, and the teachers explained to the kids to clear the table and then made them throw everything on the grass.

Sometimes, along the roads of Kazakhstan, we saw employees collecting bottles thrown from cars, making piles, and setting them on fire. That seems to be the best the Kazakh government is doing against the rubbish problem. Lake Esik is still gorgeous, the water is crystal clear and very cold so unfortunately no bath. It was formed 10,000 years ago, and until the ’60s was a popular tourist destination.

Then a landslide destroyed the natural dam that allowed the existence of the lake, there have been several deaths and the dropping of water has greatly reduced the size of the lake. Here you can camp freely, there are bathrooms (the usual holes in the ground) and gazebos with tables and benches. The night is cold and we sleep very little because of four or five big wild boars spilling all the garbage from the bins a couple of meters from the tent. At least they are not bears.  And then, it’s not the boar’s fault if humans have left them a banquet for free.

Getting to Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon
Wild donkeys on Esik Lake

When finally they leave is almost dawn, and instead of wild boar, there comes a family of donkeys braying. The wild ones are typical of this area. With donkeys around our tent, we get up and head towards the Charyn Canyon, downhill! We find a nice alternative route to the main road, along the Almaty Grand Canal.

It’s a very pleasant way through the fields, there are some ups and downs in the hills, but nothing heavy and worth it. Very few cars also seem to have a bike path to ourselves. In two days we get to the Canyon. The last 11km is on a gravel washboard, but flat, so not as tough as Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan.

Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon
Bicycle touring Charyn Canyon

Just past the gate where we pay the entry fee (500 Tenge again), we are faced with this astounding, unbelievable natural wonder. We haven’t seen the Grand Canyon in the US, so we can’t make comparisons, but it is stunning. And this time the money is used for maintenance.

This place is more visited by foreign tourists so park authorities are more careful. To get down to the bottom of the Charyn Canyon there is a long and steep stair. So to bring the bikes down it’s kind of a nightmare. But worth it, the path inside the canyon makes for a great ride. Following it, we arrive at the Charyn River, where the path ends. Here too, unfortunately, the water is ice cold, so no bath.

This area is equipped as a free campground, they even have recently planted small trees, that one day will be used for shade. There are a dozen tents, the campers are all Russians. Near the free camping, there is a restaurant that has normal prices despite being inside the canyon. But the Russians have boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, lots of chives, and the inevitable raw tins of patè. They are very friendly and share everything with us.

The power of cow poop

Charyn Canyon
Charyn Canyon from the top

Then, all together, at sunset, they enact a cleansing ritual. They have a small bowl with dried cow dung inside. All set fire to poop, everyone has his bowl. They say that any open flame has the power to purify for 10 kilometers from the radiation and from all that is harmful. What can I say, the big powers of cow poop.

They believe, they say it is an ancient Indian ritual, and seem very satisfied by the newly occurred purification. We sleep in the peace of the canyon, there is a bit of cloud and we can not see the stars.

Getting out from Charyn and back to Almaty

Charyn Canyon
camping inside the Charyn Canyon

The morning climb is not easy, we have to redo the path inside the canyon back to its beginning, it is all uphill now. Along the trail, we meet a lot of green pea worms with a sting back (are these the poisonous ones?). Then there are the stairs awaiting us. Bikes on shoulders, here we go.

We go back to the main road through the path to Jarkent, a longer one, about twenty kilometers. The trail is dirt for the first 12 kilometers, but not as bad as the southern one (where we came from). Much less washboard, great landscape, really alien. The last 8 km are sandy and not so pleasant.

Again we cannot see the famous little rodent of Kazakh grasslands, which everyone saw except us. Around here is full of holes, so there should be plenty, but they don’t show up. Once on the road, we hitch-hike back to Almaty (not to make the same road twice and then a third time to go to China). Just arrived on the asphalt road, we waited exactly one minute, and a truck stopped.

It’s a Kurdish guy. We load the bikes, not without hassle, behind the seat (in practice on his bed). He takes us to Almaty, pays us lunch, and buys a lot of strawberries. In short, the usual truck driver… don’t forget to hitchhike trucks in Kazakhstan, it’s the funniest thing to do here.

Charyn Canyon
The gravel road to Charyn Canyon
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