Altay Region (including part of East Kazakhstan) is a mountainous area in central Asia where Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together. Situated between the Gobi Desert and the Siberian Plain, it is regarded as the homeland of the of the Mongolians, Turks, Koreans, Hungarians and Parzyrks (famous well-preserved 4,000-year-old Parzyrk mummies have been found here). Ural-Altaic languages are named after the region. Ancient petroglyphs found in the area are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altay.

The Altay (also spelled Altai) region is one of the wildest and most interesting parts of southern Russia. It is a varied region with forest, steppes, wild river, lakes, deserts, snow capped mountain and abundant wildlife. On windward sides of the mountains are some of the wettest places in southern Russia, with glaciers, streams and numerous lakes. On the leeward side are some the driest areas. The most important rivers are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma. In lowland areas where the soils are accommodating there is some farmland. Otherwise most of the landscape comprised of steppes and meadows, some of which are used for grazing animals.

Natural vegetation in the region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altay snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.

Many foreigners and Russians come to the area to trek, white water raft and hunt. Most do so as part of organized tours that are arranged abroad or in Novosibirsk but is also possible to travel around independently picking up guides in the cities or the outdoor areas.

Altay Border Permit

If you are not a Kazakh citizen, you need a permit to visit the area in Kazakh Altay close to the border with China and Russia. Since 2018, the border area permit is no longer needed for the whole northern part of Kazakh Altai, including Katon Karagai, Ridder, West-Altay Nature Reserve. Kiin Kerish is also possible to visit without permit. Only the Kurchum region, Markakol Lake and the Austrian Road, Berel and the Valley of Tsars, Rakhmanov Springs and Belukha still require a border permit. [Source:Caravanistan

Understand that in Altai, there is very little public transport, almost no one speaks English and tourism is in its infancy. You either need to take a tour, or be completely self-sufficient. If you don't want to book anything (hotels, taxis, tours) but have a lot of questions regarding your trip plan, the tour operator can help with a paid consultation. ($20) You don't need a local guide, but you are responsible for following the route that you specified in the application.

Here are the rules: 1) From the start of your application, it takes 10 business days; 2) The permit is valid for the dates specified in the application.; 3) You need to pick it up yourself in Oskemen 4) Price is $50; 5) Caravanistan can help fill out the forms and submit the paper. See the link above.

Oskemen: Gateway to the Altay

Oskemen (300 kilometers southeast of Semey) is the jumping off point for trips to the Altay Region. It is home to 320,000 people and where you have to wait for permits to visit the Altay region, which can up to 10 days. Situated on the Ulba and Irtysh Rivers, it is a relatively prosperous town with revenues generated by the mining of copper, lead, silver and zinc in the area. Worth checking out are the old buildings around Kirova Park, the Ethnographic Museum and History Museum.

Oskemen is the Kazakh language name. The Russian name is Ust-Kamenogorsk in Russian. The city lies in the foothills of Rudny Altay mountains and sprawls out over an area of 540 square kilometers.

Oskemen city was founded as a Russian fort in 1720. Oskemen later became a center of trade with Mongolia and China and the gateway to the mineral wealth of the Rudny Altay mountains. Oskemen city is now Kazakhstan major center of nonferrous metallurgy (lead, zinc, titanium, and magnesium) with important associated research institutes and laboratories.

Other industries of Oskemen city include food processing and machine building. Oskemen city is also an important transport junction. There are teacher-training, construction and road-building institutes, as well as various technical colleges in Oskemen city of Kazakhstan. A large hydroelectric station lies upstream on Irtysh river.


Bukhtarma about 100 kilometers away from Oskemen ) is a popular tourism destination in East Kazakhstan, known for its beautiful landscapes and picturesque mountains, rivers and lakes. Many holiday villages and resort bases are situated on the shores of Bukhtarma reservoir, which was created during the construction of Bukhtarma Hydro-Electric power station and is one of the largest artificial water reservoirs of the world. The Left (South) shore of Bukhtarma reservoir is convenient for beach tourism and the right (North) shore is good for active holidays

Holiday villages and resort hotels of Bukhtarma reservoir are situated in 80-150 kilometers distance from Oskemen, capital city of East Kazakshtan region, on the ‘left’ and ‘right’ shores of the reservoir. From Astana In order to...

Getting to Bukhtarma: In order to travel to Bukhtarma one should get to Oskemen first, Kazakhstan airlines offer many flights to Oskemen. Oskemen can also be easily reached by train or bus from other cities. There is a regular bus to Novaya Bukhtarma from Oskemen Bus Station (Abay ave. 1). From Oskemen, there is a regular ‘Zaschita-Zyryanovsk’ train from Zaschita Station in Oskemen to Bukhtarma reservoir. The nearest railway station to the reservoir is Novaya Bukhtarma, which is located on ‘right shore’ (North shore) of the reservoir. Also a bus can be taken from Oskemen Bus Station in order to travel to Novaya Bukhtarma.It is easy to get from Novaya Bukhtarma to any holiday village or resort hotel on Bukhtarma shores by a taxi or using a ferry-boat, if a hotel is on the ‘left shore’ of the reservoir.

Ak-Baur: Ancient Astronomic Complex

Ak-Baur (38 kilometers from Oskemen city at the top of Ak-Baur stream behind Leninka township) is an ancient astronomic laboratory made of granite plates with an image of the Great Bear constellation and sun dial markings. Nearby there is a grotto in granite massive, with symbols and signs on its surface, which some say describes the moment when spaceship landed at this place. Stone steps, leading to grotto are also connected with cosmological system of symbols. Some say the steps are a stairway to a higher world. There are many crosses among the symbols — they are signs of the Sun.

Scientists believe the site is a celestial map. One of the cliffs has artificial holes. If we will fill one of them with water, when the Sun rises on the day vernal equinox its rays are reflected to a higher hole. There is a big stone near the cliff. It has also holes, about the if made for billiard balls possibly used sacrifices or making metals. Ore bullions have been found which have the shapes are the same as of holes. Also remnants blast-furnace are found there, some of them are small with room for or three inside; others are much larger.

Several hundred meters away from there are petroglyphs, with images of local animals: Siberian stags, wild mountain goats. Some scientists believe Ak-Baur is a unique complex meant to pass on informational. There poles that clearly mark seasonal phenomena. The best days to visit this unique place are March 20-22 or September 20-22 — the days of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

Altay Mountains in Kazakhstan

Destinations in Altay Mountains in Kazakhstan include Rachamanov’s Springs, a wilderness retreat run by a mining company, and Markakol Nature Reserve, centered around 24-mile-long Lake Markakol Some places in the Altay region require a special permit, which may about 10 days to get in the police office in Oskemen..

The southwestern tip of the Altay territory is located in East of Kazakhstan. Based on topographic features the Kazakh Altay, it is divided into three regions — the Southern Altay, Rudny Altay and Kalba Range.

The Southern Altay embraces in Kazakhstan, Russia and China. The western part of the Southern Altay that lies in Kazakhstan. The Aqaba and Bukhtarma Rivers, tributaries of the Irtysh River, originate here. The highest points of the western part of the Southern Altay Mountains are Krutinka (3276.9 meters) and Altykyz (2906.6 meters). The highest mountain passes here are Shagandaba (2638.4 meters), Green (2952 meters), Krymza (2836.0 meters) and Ugulgun (2897.1 meters).

Rudny Altay is situated in the southwestern part of the Altay Mountains. It consists of the Ulba (2300 meters), Ivanovo (2775 meters), Ubinsky (2100 meters) mountain ranges. About than 200 million years ago these mountains were part of a sea. Deposits of minerals such as copper, zinc, tin, lead, silver, gold and others have been found in the of Rudny Altay.

The Ridge Kalba is also located in the southwestern part of the Altay Mountains. It is about 400 kilometers long. The height of these mountains varies from 450 to 1500 meters. The highest point of the Ridge Kalba is Saryshoky (1606 meters). On the west side, the ridge gradually decreases and merges with the Saryarka steppe. Deposits of gold and polymetallic ores have been discovered in the mountains of the Ridge Kalba.

West Altay State Reserve is located in Kazakhstan part of Altay mountains and embraces Lineisky, Holzun, Koksinsky and Ivanovsky ranges in the headstreams of White and Black Uba a Barsuk, inflow of the river of Turgusun. There are 14 small glaciers in the headstreams of White Uba. Above the timberline there are small mountain lakes of glacial origin and marshes originating the stream. The most famous place in the reserve is the so-called “Black knot”, where Koksuisky, Ivanovsky and Holzun ranges intersect. At the spot they come together is a “Stone fairy”. widely known among tourists.

Belukha Mountain

Belukha Mountain is the highest mountains in the Altay region and Siberia at 4,506 meters in height – is located at the border between Kazakhstan and Russia, it has two peaks in the form of an irregular pyramids, The height of the eastern summit of the mountain is 4506 meters; the western summit is 4435 meters high. The slopes of the Belukha have 169 glaciers. The largest of these are: Glacier Sapozhnikov, which covers 13. 2 square kilometers. Greater and Lesser Berel glaciers are 12.5 and 8.9 square kilometers, respectively. The Kucherla, Akkem and Idygem Rivers originate from the glaciers on the slopes of mountains. Lynxes, snow leopards, Siberian ibexes are occasionally encountered at Belukha Mountain. The following bird species inhabits in the region: white and tundra partridge, Alpine daw, chough, Himalayan Accentor.

According to the legend of Buddhists, on the top of Belukha Mountain there is sky-high country of the gods — Shambala, where the great Gautama Buddha began his march to India. According to another legend, Belukha is "the navel of the earth". It is claimed that on the top of the mountain there is invisible energy bridge that connects one of the symbols of Altay directly with the cosmos. According to these beliefs, anyone that can make it to the top of Belukha Mountain will receive good health and spiritual blessings. Christians call the mountain Belovodye.

The climate in this area is severe. Even in the summer, temperature at the top of the mountain often falls to — 20 C. There are lots of ancient burial mounds in the area. So-called king’s burial places have been found at the foothills. They are dated back to 3-2 centuries A.D. A lot of mountain climbers from all over the world come to visit the mountain annually. Combination of different conditions: steep relief, different shapes of ice make it possible to climb at a variety of levels

Golden Mountains of Altai in Russia are a UNESCO World Heritage Site According to UNESCO: “The Altai mountains in southern Siberia form the major mountain range in the western Siberia biogeographic region and provide the source of its greatest rivers – the Ob and the Irtysh. Three separate areas are inscribed: Altaisky Zapovednik and a buffer zone around Lake Teletskoye; Katunsky Zapovednik and a buffer zone around Mount Belukha; and the Ukok Quiet Zone on the Ukok plateau. The total area covers 1,611,457 hectares. The region represents the most complete sequence of altitudinal vegetation zones in central Siberia, from steppe, forest-steppe, mixed forest, subalpine vegetation to alpine vegetation. The site is also an important habitat for endangered animal species such as the snow leopard. [Source: UNESCO]

Markakol Lake and Nature Reserve

Markakol Lake and Nature Reserve (300 kilometers southeast of Oskemen is one of the most beautiful lakes in Kazakhstan and is called a pearl of this region. The lake is surrounded by Kurchum Mountains to the North and the Azutau Mountains to the South. Markakol is one of the largest lakes in Altay: 38 kilometers long, and 19 kilometers wide at its widest point. The Area of the lake is 455 square kilometers. The average depth is 14 meters. About 70 rivers flow into Markokol lake, but only one river flows out: the Kaldzhir, a tributary of the Irtysh River.

The Lake Markakol is located at of 1447 meters above sea level. Water in Markakol Lake is clean. Uskuch, a fish in the salmon fish family, can be found only in this lake only. Eel and, grayling are also encountered in the reserve. The best season for fishermen is in late autumn and early winter. The land surrounding the lake is as beautiful as the lake itself. The pride of Markakol Nature Reserve is not only the lake, but also its taiga forests, clear mountain rivers and shimmering springs. Picturesque mountain slopes are decorated with thick fir-trees. Amazing panorama of Sarymsakty Mountain chain with snow on the top can be seen in Northern sides.

Approaching Markakol Lake, you will come to Urunkhanka village, located on the shore of the lake. The first inhabitants settled here a long time ago. Some families are even considered to be descendants of Estonian immigrants. Small log-houses are built all over the village. Tourists can stay in guest houses as well as in nomadic yurts.

Flora and fauna of the region is rich and varied. Subalpine meadows are rich in different herbs, rare medical plants (rhodiola rosea and carthamoid rhapontic, bergenia and others). Markakol Nature Reserve is home to about 900 varieties of plants. Among the rare ones the Red Book are Siberian fawn lily, Altaic rhubarb, sweet locoweed, tulip and Steppe peony. As for fauna, there are four types of reptiles, two types of amphibians, 255 species of birds and 58 species of mammals. Among the animals listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan are black stork, osprey golden eagle, blue-grey crane and snow leopard.

The nearest Railway Station is Zyryanovsk. The last 60 kilometers to the park is on a gravel road, which can only be driven at speeds of 10 to 30 kilometers per hour speed. The territory, including Markakol Nature Reserve and Katon-Karagay State National Nature Park located not far from here were created as key areal of GEF, UNDP, WWF, NABU and GTZ International programmes for conservation of Altai-Sayan biologically varied ecological region. The forest forests abound with game birds such as hazel-grouses, black grouses, capercaillies and partridges. However, in order to hunt and fish in these places you will have to have a special permit, as since 1976, the lake and its surroundings are part of the protected zone.

Katon-Karagay National Park

Katon-Karagay National Park (500 kilometers southeast of Oskemen) is the largest national park in Kazakhstan. Situated on the slopes of the Southern Altai mountains, the park is located with Katon Karagaj district which borders the Republic of Altay in Russia to the north and northeast and China to the southeast. A rich diversity of flora and fauna, as well as preserved species, included in the Kazakhstan Red Book, are concentrated here.

According to one survey there are over 1000 species of vascular plants, including the endangered Rhodiola rosea, rapontikum carthamoides and Altaic rhubarb. Forests occupy 34 percent of the park’s territory and consist mainly of coniferous species, which include fir, cedar, larch, birch and aspen, a large variety of shrubs and dwarf shrubs. A total of 363 species of vertebrates have been counted, including six bony fishes, two amphibians six reptiles, 284 birds and 65 mammals. Altay snowcock, black storks, gray cranes, belladonna, a burial ground, osprey, saker falcon, peregrine falcon, hawk-nosed scoter, snow leopards, stone martens, trout are included in the Red Book.

Occupying 6,435 square kilometers (2,484 square miles), Katon-Karagay National Park is mountainous and glaciated, with altitudes often reaching over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet). The Farpusnaya River runs along the west side of the par. To the south are the northern slopes of the Sarymsakty and Tarbagatai ranges of the Southern Altai Mountains. The non-forested area are covered by mountain meadows or rocky slopes and glaciers. The slopes are steep, with terrain formed by the glaciers: trough-shaped valleys, cirques, and moraines. The glacier-fed rivers are steep and fast-flowing. Kokkol Falls, at 80 meters, is the largest waterfall in the Altai Mountains.

The Park is divided into the following zones and subzones: 1) reserve area: 1,512.4 square kilometers (23,5 percent); 2) special area: 4,922.4 square kilometers (76,5 percent). Subzones include areas for recreational use, restricted economic activities, administrative and economic activities, services for visitors and tourists. The last two subzones are located in settlements outside the national park. The whole territory is divided into 30 sites to protect and restore natural systems.

Getting to Katon-Karagay: Katon-Karagay can be reached from Oskemen. Kazakhstan airline companies offer flights from Astana, Almaty and other places in Kazakhstan to Oskemen. Trains or buses also can be used to get to Oskemen. From Astana to Oskemen, the train takes about 30 while a bus takes 17 to 18 hours. From Oskemen to Katon-Karagay you can take a bus or hired car, The distance between Almaty and Oskemen is a little more than 1000 kilometers.

Alakol Lake

Alakol Lake (near the Chinese border, 650 kilometers northeast of Almaty and 600 kilometers from Semey) is the second-largest lake within Kazakhstan and the only deep-lake in the country. More than 15 tributaries flow into the lake. The main ones are: the Urzhar, Katynsu, Emelkuysa, Yrgayty, Zhamanty, Zhamanotkol and Tasty Rivers. The lake together with the lakes Sasikol, Uyaly, Zhalanashkol and other smaller lakes form Alakol lake system. Lake Alakol (including islands) covers 2,696 square kilometers and contains a water volume of 58.56 cubic kilometers. The lake is 104 kilometers long, 52 kilometers wide and has an average depth of 22 meters, with a maximum depth of 54 meters. The length of its coastline of 348 kilometers.

During the Silk Road era the lake served as a water "bowls", allowing caravans to stock up on water and refresh their animals. The lake water is slightly salty and is said to have healing qualities, preventive skin problems, joint pain and reduce women's and men's issues. The water is relatively warm in summer (average summer temperature is 26 degrees C). A distinctive feature of the lake is that the northeastern part — fed by underground salt springs — has therapeutic salty water, while in the southern part the water is fresh.

There is a group of of three islands in the central part of the lake.There are more than 60 rest houses and recreation centers on the shores Lake Alakol. Holiday villages and resort hotels near Alakol are located both on the ‘Almaty shore’ — the shore closer to Almaty (Koktuma and Akshi villages) — and on Semey shore, which is closer to Semey. The duration of the swimming season at Lake Alakol is from June to early September. Fishes such as marinka, gubach, perch and carp inhabit in the lake. About 40-a species of birds, including flamingos, nest along the shores and islands of the lake.

Alakol Nature Reserve was set up to protect nesting colonies of birds that feed on the numerous species of copepods that thrive in the lake’s unique environment. Special attention is paid to the protection of pink Dalmatian pelicans, Black-headed Gulls, spoonbills, whooper swans, Savko, Demoiselle cranes and white-tailed eagle – birds in the Red Book of Kazakhstan. There are many grebes and terns. The lake is a breeding area for relict gulls, the rarest species from Red Book of International Union of Nature Conservation. Up to 5 million birds feed and and rest at the lake during their seasonal migrations.

Getting to Alakol: Alakol Lake is located between Almaty and East Kazakhstan oblasts (regions). To get to the Almaty shore of Alakol lake you can take a train or a bus to Koktuma village (Koktuma station) or Akshi (‘13 raziezd’ station), which are the closest villages to Alakol Lake’s Almaty shore. A trip by car from Almaty to Koktuma takes about 10 hours,. Alternatively, there are direct trains from Astana to Koktuma station. To get to the Semey shore of Alakol lake the is a regular Semey-Alakol that takes about 12 hours.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website (, 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

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