All I wanted from the trip to Kazakhstan with my kids was good company, good food, and a chance to get out into nature. Our first trip out of Almaty, to Charyn Canyon, Kolsai Lake, and Kaindy Lake more than delivered on all three.
Charyn Canyon itself is starkly beautiful in a similar way to the Grand Canyon. When you get there, you can choose an easy walk down to the river, or a much more challenging and lengthy hike. We choose the easy walk, descended the stairs, and began making our way down to the river.
We walked three kilometers of the flat and well cared for path. The girls were eager to climb run and climb rocks, and I needed to stretch my legs after several hours in the car.
At the bottom of the canyon, we met a beautiful and swift flowing river. We also head lunch, tried on some traditional Kazakh costumes, and relaxed in a yurt for a short while.
The way back was easy. We rented a “taxi” to shuttle us back to the beginning of the path, and only had to walk up the stairs again. It was a perfect and easy excursion to begin our trip to the mountains.
Kolsai Lake is about an hour from Charyn Canyon. It’s a natural lake, but a recent one, created just over a hundred years ago by an earthquake. There are three Kolsai lakes, only one of which we visited. I felt a 16km round trip hike with the kids was a bit much, just to see another beautiful lake.
Instead, we took photographs, asked fellow travelers to take photographs of us, and enjoyed the beauty of a lake that actually looked exactly as depicted on Instagram.
Guest House in Saty Village
Our tour guide arranged for us to stay in a guest house in Saty village. I’m told that it is the only hotel-like guest house in the village, and that most stays in Saty are more like home stays. The guest house’s name is “Guest House,” (but in Kazakh) and my efforts to get contact information from the staff who worked there were fruitless. It was a great place to stay, and I wish I had more information to share on how to find it.
In any case, the room was small, but spotlessly clean. The food was good. And the kitchen staff thought my efforts to get milk for my coffee in the morning were hilarious. I did eventually learn the Russian word for milk, and now, if I’m ever stuck in a tiny Russaphone village with no cell phone signal again, I’ll definitely be able to ask for milk.
In the morning, we drove back into Saty village to meet our new drivers who would take us to Kaindy Lake. We all piled into Soviet Era 4x4s without seatbelts (of course without seatbelts), and took off into the wilderness. The drive through mud, fields, and a river (yes, THROUGH a river, not OVER a river), took 45 minutes. My kids were terrified, and while I was relatively confident we’d make it to the lake in one piece, I wish I’d known what we were getting ourselves into in advance.
So it goes.
We eventually reached the parking area for the lake, ditched the cars and the drivers to wait for us in the snow (!!), and began the walk down to the valley where Kolsai Lake sits. We were three families, all of whom were unprepared for snow, cold, and miserable. The kids were shaken up from the drive, and frankly, we weren’t expecting to have to walk a few additional kilometers to the lake.
But we did.
And it was worth it. As we walked, the air grew warmer, the kids began to play again, and all of the adults cheered up.
Kaindy Lake is perfectly turquoise. The trees you see in the photos are left from when an earthquake created the lake. It was beautiful. Had I known what was waiting for us, I would have packed a picnic lunch for myself and the kids, and we would have made a morning of it and spent a couple of hours enjoying the peaceful beauty of the mountain valley.
Too soon, it was time to hike back up the mountain to the cars and make the frightening return trip to Saty Village. This time, the kids knew what to expect and weren’t so scared, and I was prepared with my camera to document the voyage.
Not confident of my ability to navigate the roads or natural areas without speaking a bit of Russian or Kazakh, I booked a guide in advance through indy-guide.com. Our guide was fine, but clearly overwhelmed, as she combined three “solo” trips into one large group. It ended up being fine, as we were all more-or-less easy going, but made for some tough moments when each family needed the flexibility they’d paid for when booking a private guide, and wasn’t able to take advantage of it (like when our kids were terrified after the drive to Kaindy Lake).
Were I to do it again, I’d just rent a car in Almaty and drive myself, then arrange the 4x4s through my guest house in Satay. Everyone I spoke to in Almaty seemed utterly shocked that I’d managed to procure a SIM card, cash, and groceries on my own in Almaty as a non-Russian speaker. Don’t let anyone fool you—it wasn’t complicated. Smile, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and make liberal use of Google Translate. Just like you would anywhere else in the world.