Kazakhstan you mighty beast. How swiftly have you won over my heart!
Right after arriving in Almaty, I contacted my hostel staff and asked them to help me book a tour to the Kolsai Lakes. I had been looking in to going there independently for a long time, but in the end it seemed too much of a hassle. I suppose it involves taking a marschrutka for the first part and then hitch the rest of the (very unpaved and pretty deserted) way. Since I don’t hitch hike alone and Western travellers are so incredibly thin on the ground in Kazakhstan, I decided not to waste time looking for crazy souls who would like to join my quest and instead paid a shit-load of money for a two day tour. The itinerary looked good though: it took in all the sights I wanted to see and included a home stay in one of the mountain villages. My signing up was a solid decision indeed.
First of all, I got to share the car with a lovely British couple: Laura and Mike. Our driver was a very laid back, friendly man who never ever rushed us at all. The only downside was he didn’t speak English and wasn’t at all informed on the places we visited. That resulted in a lot of Google translate and excursions that consistently started with the poor man typing a time on his phone and pointing in the direction of a path saying “you walk”. We never truly knew what kind of hike we were up for and sometimes didn’t even know where we were going, but I suppose it added a drop of adventure to the experience.
About 1,5 hours out of Almaty the landscape completely started to change. The houses, gas stations and crossroads disappeared and the car got swallowed up by a vast and endless landscape. The plains were like desert; flat all the way to the horizon. They were filled with occasional herds of wild horses, cows and sometimes a shepherd or sheep. Out of nowhere gorgeous appeared, with roaring rivers beneath, and in the far distance the snow clad peaks of high mountains rose up like giants of a different world. It was amazing. So many times I tried to take pictures through the cracked and dirty windows of our car, but usually they failed. In retrospect I regret not having asked the driver to pull over, but then again: from the moment I saw this natural scenery I knew I’d come back to Kazakhstan. I knew I’d have to get myself a car, a driver and a tent and just venture out on my own, into the wild west of this vast and untameable country.
Back there in the desert, a piece of my hearth has torn of and stayed. It has found a new kind of infinity. A new kind of roaming freedom. And it has loved it with all its might.
In to the wild: Charyn canyon
Our first stop on the tour was the breathtaking Charyn canyon: a gorge hidden in a stretch of death-valley like nothingness. It appears out of nowhere, and is filled with red brown colours, chipmunk like creatures and contrasting views of the hazy mountains behind.
We started off by walking down the canyon, as our driver had pointed that way saying we got three hours to get back to the car. Turned out the path led to a river filled with crystal clear water. It also led through beautiful rock scenery and absolute quiet. It wasn’t until we climbed back up to the rim that other cars started to arrive. All morning, we had had the park to ourselves.
By the river we opened up our little plastic lunch boxes, kindly prepared by the tour company and containing a sandwich that had actual vegetables (pretty rare in Kazakhstan), two boiled potatoes, two boiled eggs and a candy bar. It was such a simple meal, but accompanied by the gently sound of the water and the occasional singing of an unknown bird, it tasted wonderfully.
After fuelling up, we made our way out of the canyon again. Once again, the vastness of the landscape astounded me. I knew it was there, waiting for us – we had just spend 3 hours driving through it. And still my brain seemed unable to comprehend such vastness while embraced by the rocky walls below. It’s seems memory is not big enough to contain so much space, so much earth, so much world in just one place.
Needless to say, I enjoyed our hike along the rim even more than the stroll in the valley. We were surprised by a harsh, cold wind that we hadn’t noticed while sheltered by the rocks, but that didn’t kill the fun.
I loved the colour variations between the different types of stone, vegetation and scenery. I loved the smell of cold air and dusty sand. And I loved the little animals running around constantly, curiously checking on the new arrivals. I’m pretty sure they, too, would have asked us where we were from and if we had children, if they had been able to.
A thousand colours: Kaindy lake
Our second stop of the day was a place called Kaindy lake (however when the tour company explained the itinerary to me on the phone, I had understood Candy lake and I like that name better). It’s a tiny little basin of water enclosed by a couple of mountains, and from the moment we turned off the main road, it still took us over an hour to get there. The road isn’t really a road, and our van (although spacious) wasn’t a Range Rover. Whenever we were able to drive 20km/h for a couple of seconds, it felt like we were making huge progress. Most of the time we hobbled through the potholes at the staggering speed of 10 or 15km/h, and at times we even had to drive through low rivers in order to reach our destination. But we made it there, without the front window cracking any further.
However small the lake, and however the lack of walking trails around it, it was definitely worth the drive. There is something magical about it – due to the dozens of dead, “mummified” trees standing in the water and the eerie reflections of their trunks in the oddly coloured basin. It where the colours of the scenery, without a doubt, that made the visit worthwhile.
Beer and campfires: a night at the homestay
By the time we drove back to the “main road”, and on to the village where we would be sleeping, darkness had started to fall. We arrived just in time to see the little town, and the house we would be sleeping, in a glow of fleeting daylight. When we climbed out of the car we were greeted by a couple of men drinking beer around a camp fire on the porch and – needless to say – we were very up for exactly that. So instead of showering, unpacking some stuff or making beds, we hurried through the village in search of a shop that could sell us some.
The “shop” was actually a tiny, wooded house on the outskirts of town. It looked out over a surprisingly beautiful mosque and was bathing in the silver light of the full moon by the time we arrived. A golden aura beamed out from the single window and wide open door, while inside an old but friendly babushka was waiting for the freshly dropped off tourists. I guess the word goes around quickly in places like this, and no sales person – not even a babushka – would close her shop right when a new load of thirsty people from the far abroad has set foot in town.
We stocked up on a load of beer, ready to hand them out to our driver and the other guests in the house. We also stocked up on emergency Snickers, since we had quite a hike planned for the next day, and nobody could explain to us whether or not any food would be provided.
We needn’t have worried though, since food at the homestay came in abundance.
After enjoying the beers by the campfire, we cradled up in front of the old iron stove in the dining room, waiting for dinner to arrive. There was a nice bunch of guests waiting with us: a lovely girl from Malaysia and a group of hikers from Prague. The Malaysian girl warned us: tomorrow’s hike would be dreadful. Even though apparently only 16km long (8km one way), it had taken her ten hours to complete and she was exhausted. Mike, Laura and I looked at each other with a bit of doubt in our eyes. There was only a 500m elevation gain to be conquered, and we were rather sure we’d be fine.
Dinner consisted of home-made manti filled with delicious lamb meat, a pickled carrot salad that was heavenly in its simplicity, fresh bread and home-made jams. Our well filled day, tired legs, the heat of the iron stove and the many cups of tea that were offered, all contributed to the fact that we had a very early, very deep sleep. Covered under a ton of blankets I drifted away and dreamed of riding horses through the Kazakh plains. Then, at 5:45, all our alarms rang simultaneously. Time for breakfast!
Into the mud: Kolsai lakes
Breakfast was a simple omelette with sausage and, again, litres of tea. Ever since our arrival in the house, the local men and drivers had been insisting Mike sat at the head of the table, calling him “boss” all the time. I don’t know if it is tradition to have the male guest sitting at the head of the table, or if they just thought it was a good joke (after all Mike had walked in like a real pimp, surrounded by a “harem” of five women), but they kept it going consistently.
“Boss, let’s go”, our driver ordered and so we got up and into the car. It was very cold outside, about 4°C, and up by the first lake (another bumpy ride over very unkept roads) it felt even colder. The hills were clad in a sticky fog that stopped all sunlight from coming through, and the ground was muddy but luckily frozen.
The solid soil and the fact that the path wasn’t very steep, made the first part of the hike surprisingly easy. The trail went up and down around the first Kolsai lake, then bend around the water for a moment before heading into the hills and forests. So far so good. We remembered the Malaysian girl from the night before and had a little conversation on how she had been clearly exaggerating when she told us there’d be “mud” and “clambering over rocks” and “dying a little”. If walking over loose stones qualified as “rock climbing” then yes, we had been doing a lot of it. “Perhaps Malaysia is like Korea,” we joked, “where everybody dresses up in full gear for the shortest of hikes and they feel adventures if they’ve had to climb over a tree trunk once”.
Karma’s a bitch.
Half an hour later, it started to hail and the road started to rise. It turned out we’d be doing a lot of the 500m ascent in just the last 2km and the weather was not in our favour. With my base layers soaked in sweat and my outer layers soaked by the cold hail, I started freezing as soon as I stopped moving. There wasn’t any time or place to sit and rest, at all. And there wasn’t any scenery to cheer me up, either.
The hike went through the forest and I’m not a forest person. There’s no broad vistas when you’re surrounded by trees. The mud, first frozen, turned into a soup of cold, slippery slime mixed with horse dung. Apparently, in summer, it’s possible to go up to the second lake on horseback but of course now there wasn’t a bloody horse to be seen.
The path became steeper still and I was confronted with just how bad my physical form has been after a month of just strolling and eating. The elevation of over 2000m might have made it harder to breath, but I won’t blame my suffering on that… Trees had fallen over and paths had become blocked. More than once we had to stumble around them in order to continue our journey. As my despair grew, I also remembered that Merle (the Dutch girl from Shymkent) had told me the second lake isn’t at all that spectacular. “It’s more about the nice hike,” she had said. “You can stroll through the forest and sit by the river in the sun. The lake itself will not impress you.”
So yeah, I basically knew I was slowly dying while walking up a lake that would be clad in grey clouds and mist. Not the kind of reward that can mentally push you up a mountain. The hailing continued. The climb became steeper still. My head went dizzy and my longs felt like they could not breath.
If some of you have read my book you’ll know that usually, I have a ton of little voices in my head. On the average hike like this, there would be one complaining about the weather, one cheering me up, one telling me to look forward to the emergency Snickers the babushka had sold me.
But while dragging myself up to lake two, there were no voices. Not one.
When you are me, that’s very concerning. My brain had switched of, my mind had gone blanc, and all I could do was drag behind Mike and Laura while gasping for breath and freezing “to death”. If it hadn’t been so cold, I would have rolled up into a ball and quit. In retrospect, of course, I am glad that wasn’t an option.
When we arrived at the lake, I was too tired to even eat the lunch pack we had been given. It was too cold for me to sit, it was too wet to enjoy the view. It was too grey for a view, anyway. We stayed for merely 20 minutes, after which I dug up my Snickers – which tasted more like one of those ice-cream candy bars since it had pretty much frozen – and stuffed it in my sorry face.
Never underestimate the power of an emergency Snickers!
My mood lifted. The voices came back. All of a sudden the view didn’t seem too bad and there was a bit of fun and challenge to be found in climbing down a slippery mud hill smothered with horse dung. The hail stopped and the descend was much easier than expected. We made it back to the cars with only a 20 minute delay (“6 Hours, walk there”, the driver had said) and were greeted by an armed soldier requesting to see our passports.
Kolsai lake 3 (even further up the hills) is close or on the Kyrgyzstan border and at the second lake, a badly translated sign warned hikers not to go there. Clearly, immigration is taken very seriously here – however no shots were fired and we were quickly allowed back to our vehicles and dry clothes.
“Boss, late!” the drivers pointed to their watches while one quickly put a porn cd-rom in his pocket. I don’t think they had minded our delay that much.
Back in the homestay, the warm carpet, smell of freshly cooked plov and big kettles of tea were like heaven.
It was past 9pm when we finally arrived back at the hostel (partly because the traffic jams in Almaty delayed us by at least an hour). Too tired to even go out, I let the reception order me a pizza and ate it dreamily while staring out the window at the white and red car lights beaming below.
If you ever go to Almaty and can’t drive or afford to rent a private car, I highly recommend signing up for one of these small scale tours to the lakes and canyon. Yes, they are very expensive, but unless you are a man or an adventurous group of people with lots of time and camping gear, I don’t recommend trying to reach these regions on your own by public transport. It’s not as easy as the travel forums make it sound, at least not outside summer on a weekday. We barely passed any cars, at all, on the 5hour drive into the countryside. So fork out a little extra, get the tour and enjoy an amazing experience. It is worth it. SO worth it.
Without a doubt, this was the highlight of my Kazakh adventure!