There are a number of good day trip and short excursions that can be taken from Almaty. There are some wonderful places just a short drive away. In Almaty Nature Reserve, you can find 22 species of animals and 28 kinds of plants from the Red book of Kazakhstan. The reserve has a museum with flora and the fauna displays.
Popular destinations include the 2,800-meter-high Tien Shan Observatory and Sheber Aul artisan village, set up for master craftsmen and artists from all over Kazakhstan. Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake (16 kilometers from Almaty) is a beautiful mile-long, 2,500-meter-high lake reached by a five hour hike. Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake Area lies in the gorge west of the Malaya Almatinka Gorge, Medeu and Chimbulak. There are number of treks in this area including ones that traverse the Zailiy Alatau to Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The region is also famous for its koumiss.
Malaya Almatinka Gorge (accessible from Medeu and Chimbulak) is the main trekking area near Almaty. Almost half the 40 or so hikes in Hiker’s Guide to Almaty are found here. As a rule the further up the gorge you go the more beautiful the scenery is. The hikes range from a few hours to a few days. For details check Hikers Guide to Almaty and the Lonely Planet guide. A guide and/or god map is often necessary. Watch out for avalanches in the spring. The huge dam-like structure between Medeu and Chimbulak was constructed to halt avalanches and mudslides.
Altyn Adam (in the suburb of Issyk, 50 kilometers from Almaty) features sites connected to the saks cultures in Kazakhstan — archaeological monuments, barrows, and burial grounds. Among them is the Issyksky barrow – a tumulus and burial ground in the Almaty area.
Turgen Gorge (90 kilometers from Almaty) is situated in Ile-Alatau National Park.. The gorge is well-known for its hot springs, waterfalls, pine forests, alpine meadows and Chin-Turgen mossy spruces. Among the historic monuments are Saki and Usun burial, dating from 500 to 300 B.C. There are seven waterfalls, the largest of which are Bear Waterfall (30 meters high) and Bozgul Waterfall. “Botan” is situated at the confluence of the Turgen, Kishi-Turgenev and Asa rivers. There is a trout farm in the gorge, below the rest house "Sinegorye". Many tourist catch fish for their dinner.
On the Almaty-Bishkek Road, the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) reports: “Formerly, the road was in poor condition, but has been upgraded to international standards. Secondary roads to surrounding areas are being upgraded. Traffic levels and road fatalities have increased since the upgrading. Road fatalities are up almost 300 percent. Speeding and improved opportunities to pass are leading factors road fatalities. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2008: PDF]
“Twenty-five percent of traffic is international, consisting mostly of agricultural and industrial goods. Border control facilities and border crossing procedures are being upgraded, including the Akhzhol-Chu Border crossing. Wait times at the border crossing are still lengthy.The road is main land-link between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic. It is part of the Silk Road and European route 40. Crosses the border at Korday (Georgievka border crossing) and continues to Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic.
On the section of the Almaty-Bishkek Road through Kurdai Pass, ASIRT reports, “The road was narrow, steep and winding and frequently closed due to road crashes, especially in winter. Improvements include reducing road gradients and adding dedicated climbing lanes for heavy goods vehicles.”
Medeo Skating Rink
Medeo (southeastern outskirts of Almaty, 20 kilometers for the city center) contains one the world’s largest outdoor speed-skating rinks. It was where the Soviet speed skaters, including some Olympic medalists, used to train. The rink also hosts the Voice of Asia Song Festival. In August. The town of Medeo (also spelled Medeu) is a bit run down.
Medeo Skating Rink (southeastern outskirts of Almaty, 20 kilometers for the city center) is the highest mountainous sport complex in the world. It is located in a gorge at an altitude of 1691 meters above the sea level. The mild climate of the natural boundary, an optimum level of the solar radiation, low atmospheric pressure, calm, pure mountain water and air all contribute to the excellent conditions here that have produced such great sports results. More than 120 world records have been set here.
In recent years the functions of skating rink have considerably increased. Bandy and hockey are played at te rink. It tournaments and competitions for soccer (football), volleyball, basketball and track and field. There are facilities for fighters and boxers. Near the ice stadium there is a swimming pool as well as restaurants and cafes.
Shymbulak Ski Resort
Shymbulak (16 kilometers from Almaty) is one of Central Asia’s premier ski resorts. Located at an elevation of 2,300 meters, it has a vertical drop of 900 meters and surprisingly good facilities. There are a variety of trails that can met the needs of skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. New lifts were installed in 1998. Lifts tickets and ski rentals are relatively inexpensive.
Shymbulak Ski Resort is located in the Ile Alatau. It is famous for its pleasant climate with many sunny days, persistent snow coverage and the magnificent views. Shymbulak (also spelled Chimbulak) is covered by snow from December to April. There is a ski school as well as hotels, restaurants, a bowling alley and saunas. Also near by is a children’s playground with the baby-lift for the smallest ones.
There are groomed trails for skiers and jumps for snowboarders. One chair lift takes skiers to Talgar Pass (3163 meters above the sea level). Only professional skiers ski here, because of the steepness of the slopes. Alpinists start climbing from the pass to the tops of mountains in the area.
Almaty Nature Reserve
Almaty Nature Reserve (near the village of Talgar, 50 kilometers east of Almaty) is an animal reserves set up for snow leopards, goitered gazelles and big-horn wild sheep. It covers 750 square kilometers and is the home of 4,979-meter-high Mt. Talgar, the highest mountain in the Zailiy Alatau. In reserve territory there are 22 kinds of animals and 28 kinds of plants from the Red book of Kazakhstan. The reserve has a museum in which has displays on flora and the fauna in the reserve.
The Almaty reserve has changed its territory and location several times. The modern reserve located in the territory of the Issyk and Talgar watershed was founded in 1964. The Zailiy Alatau range is located in the North of the Tien Shan.The central part of the Zailiy Alatau is the home of Talgar peak (4979 meters), the highest point of the Talgar plexus of mountains. One peculiarity of the Talgar and Issyk rivers is they are shallow but are so fast-flowing and turbulent they grind away surrounding rocks and wash away huge boulders.
The rivers have their sources in glaciers and many flow into lakes. The largest lake in the reserve, Lake Muzkol, is located on the upper river of the Issyk at the height of 3,600 meters. Lake of Akkol is another relatively large lake. Among the largest glaciers in the reserve are glaciers five-kilometer-long of Shokalsky and 12-kilometer-long Korzhenevsky (12km). There are also a lot of hot springs, especially around the Talgar and Issyk rivers.
The reserve is mainly occupied by mountain-forest and steppe landscapes. Among the forest trees are birch, quaking asp and wild apple tree grow that are scattered along the mountain slopes. One can also find Alpine meadows here. The steppe areas are mainly covered with grasses and bushes.
Lakes Near Almaty
Big Almaty Lake (28.5 kilometers south of Almaty) is located in the Ile-Alatau National Park. The lake covers 1.12 square kilometers and has an average depth of 25 meters. The Big Almatinka River flows into the lake, which is surrounded by mountains from all sides. Near the lake there are three major peaks belonging to the Kazakh part of Tien Shan: Soviets Peak (elevation 4,317 meters), Lake Peak (4110 meters) and Tourist Peak (3,954 meters). The Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory and the cosmic ray research station are located nearby.
The east branch of the Big Almaty canyon, spreading to the south from Almaty, leads the to Big Almaty lake. It is surrounded by mountains covered with the coniferous woods of Zailijsky Alatau, and sits at a height of about 2,500 meters above sea level. This lake was formed about 10,000 thousand years when an earthquake causes rock to fall, blocking a river. Big Almaty Lake is the starting point for hikes through the of Northern Tien Shan and Issyk-Kul lake coast. It is quite popular among Almaty residents.
Issyk Lake (70 kilometers from Almaty) is located in Issyk gorge on the northern slope of Trans-Ili Alatau in Kazakhstan. Situated at an altitude of 1,756 meters above sea level, the lake was created by a landslide. The average annual temperature of water in the lake ranges averages degrees C. In 1963, the mudflow is almost completely destroyed the lake and and the nearby town. In the beginning of the 21st century scientists managed to restore the three quarters of the original volume of the lake.
Lake Kapshaghay (60 kilometers north of Almaty) is a 100-kilometer-long reservoir created by a dam on the Ili River. It is a popular recreation area and retreat. Many residents of Almaty have dachas here. It is possible to travel the 280-mile distance between Lake Kapshaghay and Lake Balkash by kayak or canoe. Some tour companies in Almaty offer trips on the river and lake that often includes a stop at Tamgaly Ravine, which contains 1,000 ancient rock paintings.
Boralday Necropolis (northwestern Almaty) is burial mound area dating to the 5th to 3rd centuries B.C. situated between the Big Almatinka river in the east and Boralday in the west and is near the village of Boralday. The site is one of the largest ancient burial grounds in Kazakhstan and is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: There are dozens of barrows among which the biggest barrow is 20 meters high with a diameter 150 meters. There are 52 earthen barrows. The diameter of barrows varies from three to 150 meters; the height of barrows varies from 0.1 to 14 meters. Forming groups, they are stretched as a chain from north to the south. The southern group of a burial ground has large barrows; the northern group, smaller ones. Barrow No. 16 contains the remains of stone altars around and a stone obelisk with the image of a scene of torment executed in animal style. The southwest and western part of a plateau has a third and fourth groups of barrows that are small in size. [Source: UNESCO]
The length of a burial ground is three kilometers; its width is 800 meters. Fir the most part at the burial ground, there are no modern buildings here. It is a rare case. The Borolday burial ground is lucky — it is surrounded by ravines and a canyon of a channel of the Big Almatinka River. Each big barrow of a burial ground represents the architectural construction and each barrow is an original architectural ensemble. Parts of the barrows are built using difficult construction techniques for making embankments and tombs, ring stone calculations from vertical stones-menhirs, stone rings round barrows, places of funeral feasts — cult feasts, altars. All territory of the necropolis is “an ancient picture” representations of the Universe, and the place of human within it, venues of rituals and the religious ceremonies connected with a cult of ancestors, calendar cycles, and celebrations of Nauryz, autumn, summer and winter festivals.”
Talgar Medieval Settlement
Talgar ancient settlement (25 kilometers to the east of Almaty) is a monument: settlement of medieval Talhir that dates to the 8th century to the beginning of the 13th century. It is situated at the foot of Zailiyskoe Ala Tau, in the outskirts of Talgar city and is part of The Silk Road in Kazakhstan, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The central part of the ancient settlement has a square section surrounded by fortifications with some remains of towers. The wall now looks like a slide down bank with a height of three up to five meters, with hilly towers at the corners and around the perimeter. An ancient build-up can be noticed around the central part. It is preserved best in the southern part. The total area of the ancient city was 28 hectares. [Source: UNESCO]
“Talgar for sure corresponds to Talhir which is mentioned in anonymous Persian geographical writing of the end of 10th century, called “Hudud al-Alem”. “Its citizens are warlike, brave and valorous”, — mentioned the medieval geographer. The excavations have been conducted in this place for about 50 years with intervals. It was studied by such archaeologists as I.I. Kopylov, T.V. Savelyeva. The ancient settlement was included into the “Cultural Heritage of Kazakhstan” program. During numerous excavations the topography and development of Talgar was investigated, as well as its fortification. Rural houses in the central part and outside its boundaries have been explored. The street network, rural equipping such as water supply system and local canalization were revealed.
“Coin collections, ceramics and glass, crafts made of iron, copper and bronze were gathered. Special attention was paid to collection of blacksmith’s crafts made of iron – armaments, horse riding equipment, home inventory, agricultural tools, inventories for the blacksmiths themselves and other craftsmen and builders. The proposition exists that in Talgar of 11th-12th mint place was operating. Collections of imported crafts made of ceramics, bronze, copper and glass were gathered. Collections of inscriptions on ceramics, stone and metal crafts were gathered. Besides, ancient-Turkic writings, Orkhon alphabet, Chinese and Qidan writings, Arabic writings were found.”
Issyk Necropolis and the Golden Man
Issyk Necropolis (near the town of Issyk, 50 kilometers to the east of Almaty) is a burial ground dating to the 5th to 3rd centuries B.C. on the left bank of Issyk mountain river with links to the Semirechye Saks (Scythians) and Uysun peoples. It is also part of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The burial ground consists of 45 big imperial barrows in diameter from 30 to 90 meters and height from 4 to 15 meters. Most of Issyk burial grounds have stone-earth embankments. The Issyksky burial ground is similar to many similar monuments of Sak epoch. The burial ground is related to the tribal group of Semirechye Saks, which was one of the first in Kazakhstan who came to the creation of statehood. [Source: UNESCO]
“It became so well-known because of findings in one of barrows and it received the name “Barrow of Issyk”. The barrow of Issyk was located in the western half of burial ground. Its diameter is 60 meters, height is 6 meters. After pulling down of embankment two burial places have been found on depth of 1.2 meters from the stage of ancient horizon: these are central and lateral (southern).
“The central burial place has been repeatedly plundered. The lateral tomb was found to be not disturbed; remains of the buried person and buried stock have completely remained. The funeral chamber was made of processed logs of a fur-tree. Remains of the buried person were found in the northern part. There has been over 4 thousand gold subjects, an iron sword and a dagger, a bronze mirror, clay, metal and wooden vessels found in the funeral chamber. All subjects have been found in their initial position and that gave the chance to create the unique reconstruction of the clothes which have received the name “Gold man”.
“An excavation of a barrow of “Issyk” in 1969-70" found jewels tha “are the unique example of jeweler art of nomads of Semirechye and Kazakhstan. Silver cup signs testify the presence of writing among the Sak tribes. The remains of a silk fabric found in tombs testify the close commercial relations of nomads of Semirechye with China and that was mentioned by the Chinese historical sources of 4th to 3rd centuries B.C.. “
Trekking from Kazakhstan to Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan
There are two main trekking routes between southern Kazakhstan and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Each takes about five days and is difficult to negotiate without a guide or good maps and map-reading skills.
The route is between 2500-meter-high Bolshoe Almatinskoe Lake in southern Kazakhstan and Grigorievka on Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. This route crosses 3507-meter-high Ozyorny Pass on the Zailiysky Alatau and 4052-meter-high Aksu Pass on the Kungey Alatau. The trail ascends and descends between passes, ridges and rivers and passes through Chong-Kemin valley, used in the summer by yurt-dwelling herders and described as one of the loveliest spots in this region.
The second route is between Kolshoky southern Kazakhstan and Chong-Sary-Or on Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. This route crosses 3600-meter-high Almaty (Prokhodnoy) Pass on the Zailiysky Alatau and 3889-meter-high Kok-Ayryk Pass on the Kungey Alatau. The trail ascends and descends between passes, ridges and rivers and passes by lakes and summer pastures.
Ile-Alatau National Park
Ile-Alatau National Park (10 kilometers from Almaty) was created in 1996 after Kazakhstan became independent and covers about 2,000 square kilometers. It is situated in the mountains south of Almaty extending about 120 kilometers between Gorge Turgen in the east and Chemolgan River in the west. The national park is about 30 kilometers wide and borders Almaty Nature Reserve, which is located around Peak Talgar.
The landscape includes woodlands, alpine meadows, glaciers and lakes, including Big Almaty Lake. A total of 300 species of birds and animals have been recorded from the Ile-Alatau National Park. The park is home to snow leopards, Central Asian lynx, Tien Shan brown bears, Central Asian stone martens, Siberian ibexes, bearded vultures and golden eagles. Other notable bird species found in Ile-Alatau National Park include Himalayan snowcock, ibisbill, Eurasian scops owl, and Eurasian three-toed woodpecker. The park also protects specific species of deer whose antlers are believed to have medicinal properties.
Ile-Alatau National Park ranges in elevation from 600 to 5000 meters above sea level. Flora found in the park include wild apricot and apple trees, hawthorn and mountain ash. The park is located on northern slopes of Zailijsky Ala Tau just south of Almaty. More than 1200 kinds of plants have been identified and they are consistent with flora in the northern Tien Shan.
Ile-Alatau National Park was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The ridge of Trans-Ili Ala-Tau is complex and by its topology relates to the northern spur of Tien Shan. The territory is peculiar of vertical zonality or belt character of relief, that specified a wide variety of landscapes. The high-mountainous (upper) nival glacial chord encompassing paraxial part of the ridge, occupies altitudes of 3000 meters above sea level. This band is of "alpine" character, with sharp tops, steep stony declines. Northern and southern slopes of the ridge abound of incuts of glacier kars, semicircular circuses, with a diameter of several hundred meters. It is the main place of formation of glaciers. Their tongues are penetrating into spur valleys of the head rivers. The largest glaciers have length of up to 6 kilometers and area of up to 18 square kilometerss. At the whole northern macroslope of Trans-Ili Ala-Tau there are more than 300 glaciers, total area of which more than 300 square kilometers.” [Source: UNESCO]
Chuy Valley: the Cannabis Heartland of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Chuy Valley (near Almaty and embracing Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) is a France-size region that straddles the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border and is famous for it cannabis products. According to Sensi Seeds: “The putative birthplace of cannabis, Kazakhstan enjoys a vibrant culture of cultivation and use, as well as abundant wild growth of cannabis. The heartland of cannabis in Kazakhstan is the Chuy Valley; in season, locals descend on the plants at night to conduct clandestine harvests, as restrictive laws now prohibit its use...While continuing to crack down on illegal trafficking, Kazakhstani authorities are beginning to consider legitimising the domestic cannabis industry to some extent; recently, a Kazakhstani MP, Dariga Nazarbayeva (who is also the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayeva) called for vast swathes of the Chuy Valley to be leased to pharmaceutical companies for medical research and manufacture of drugs.[Source: Sesheta, August 28, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]
Names after the Chu River that flows through it, the Chuy Valley is located in north of the Tian-Shan mountains and extends from Boom Gorge in the east to Muyunkum Desert in the west. It has an area of about 32,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), and borders Kyrgyz Ala-Too in the south, and Chu-Ili mountains in the north. The warm summer and availability of drinking and irrigation water makes this area one of the most fertile and most densely populated regions of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Major towns and cities there include Bishkek, Kara-Balta, Kant, Kemin, Shopokov, Tokmok, Ivanovka The 2006 World Drug Report estimated that 4,000 square kilometers of cannabis grow wild in the Chuy Valley.
According to Sensi Seeds: “It is generally accepted that modern Chuy Valley cannabis is a hybrid with Indian and Pakistani heritage; while this input has apparently increased cannabinoid content, the original gene pool has been compromised....Inhabitants of rural Kazakhstan have utilised hemp in traditional weaving and rope-making practices for centuries apparently exist, its use is ubiquitous and socially acceptable, and in areas close to the Chuy Valley most people regularly or socially consume it....There are even a handful of Kazakhstani rap groups who regularly make Chuy Valley cannabis the focus of their lyrics. Almaty-based film director Jantik released a movie in 2009 called Shu-Chu, a story of four young friends who travel to the Chuy Valley from Almaty and become involved in the cannabis industry. Although the film was not particularly well-received, it is an interesting depiction of the cannabis industry and the culture surrounding it.” *-*
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website (visitkazakhstan.kz), Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020