The Almaty region, also known as Almaty Oblast, is surrounding the city of Almaty (the historical capital). That region is characterized by amazingly diverse landscapes, including mountains, steppes, and lakes, making it a paradise for nature lovers and photographers.
As the region shares borders with Kyrgyzstan and China, it is surrounded by impressive mountain chains like the Tian Shan Mountain range.
Visiting Almaty Oblast in Kazakhstan is not always easy logistics-wise with some challenging roads and very remote places that require some camping effort to be at the “right place right time”. But efforts will be with no doubt rewarded by the amazing nature around …
Gorgeous areas like the Mars-like landscapes in Altyn Emel National Park …
Charyn Canyon National Park, often referred to as the “Grand Canyon’s little brother…
Kaindy Lake “Sunken Forest” stunning and unique natural attraction formed because of an earthquake …
Kolsai Lakes, a series of three mountain lakes located in the northern Tien Shan mountains….
Lake Tuzkol is a bitter-salty lake known for being one of the world’s saltiest water bodies with views over Khan Tengri Peak, the 7010 m high tri-border point between China, Kirghizstan, and Kazakhstan….
And so much more …
Below is a (clearly non-exhaustive) list of landmarks not to miss in that amazing part of the world…
Altyn Emel National Park is a vast and diverse protected area situated in the Ili River Valley within the Almaty Region of Kazakhstan. It is approximately 150 kilometers north of Almaty, the largest city in the country.
The national park covers an expansive area of about 4,600 square kilometers, making it one of the largest national parks in Kazakhstan.
Altyn Emel is characterized by diverse landscapes, including vast steppes, sand dunes, mountains, and river valleys.
The unique combination of ecosystems contributes to the park’s ecological significance and attracts nature enthusiasts, hikers, photographers, and those seeking to explore the unique landscapes of Central Asia
Here are some of the main landmarks in the park
Singing Dune (Boszhira)
The Singing Dune, also known as the “Barkhan” or “Boszhira,” is one of the most famous natural attractions within Altyn Emel National Park.
The Singing Dune is a massive dune that can reach heights of up to 150 meters (492 feet).
What makes it unique is the phenomenon known as “singing” or “humming.” Under certain weather conditions, particularly when the sand is dry and the wind is blowing, the dune emits a distinctive sound resembling a low-frequency humming or singing noise.
The Singing Dune is formed by the accumulation of sand carried by the wind from the Ili River. The unique shape and composition of the sand contribute to the phenomenon of the sound it produces.
Visitors to the Singing Dune can climb to the top (tough 😢) to enjoy stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes, including the vast steppes and the nearby Aktau and Katutau Mountains.
The Singing Dune is accessible by unpaved road from the entrance of the Park. The best to be able to enjoy the best light is to camp within the park (if not, very far to reach). In that case, you‘ll get rewarded with that wonder for yourself on a glorious sunrise moment😂
Take the time to explore several dunes for incredible views and memories…
The Katutau Mountains, also known as the “Katutau Hills,” are a range of colorful and unique mountains.
The mountains are composed of sedimentary rocks that have undergone geological processes over millions of years. The striking colors of the rocks are due to the presence of different minerals and elements.
The landscape of the Katutau Mountains is semi-desert, and the unique geological features make it a fascinating destination for nature lovers, geologists, and photographers.
The Aktau Mountains are a geological wonder and, in my view, the jewel of Altyn Emel National Park
The access “road” is already a dream for photography.
The Aktau Mountains are known for their striking and unique rock formations.
The rocks in this area are predominantly white or light-colored, which contributes to the name “Aktau,” which means “white” in Kazakh.
The Katutau Mountains are known for their vibrant and varied colors and the Aktau Mountains white or pale rock formations add to the diversity of landscapes within Altyn Emel National Park.
The geological formations in the Aktau Mountains date back millions of years and have been shaped by various natural processes, including of course erosion.
The result is a landscape featuring dramatic and incredible cliffs, canyons, and unique rock structures.
If you are ready to sacrifice comfort to be able to be at the right place / right time, it is possible to camp in the heart of the park. You’ll get rewarded by stunning nature evening and morning with almost nobody …
If you schedule your visit for days with high Milky Way visibility (no moon), you can have another blast during the night 😂.
I stop there as I have a hundred+ images of that world-class area, one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen around the globe 🤩
The Zharkent Old Mosque in the town of Zharkent in the Panfilov District is an interesting short stop if you exit Altyn Emel National Park by the eastern side. The mosque is known for its unique and distinctive architecture, blending traditional Islamic design elements with Central Asian and Chinese influence.
It was constructed in 1892 during the rule of the Qing Dynasty in China. The mosque served as a place of worship for the Dungan people, also known as the Hui people, a Chinese-speaking Muslim minority.
Tamgaly-Tas, IIi River
If you enter or exit Altyn Emel National Park from the western side, the 17th century Petroglyphs of Tamgaly Tas – “open-air temple”- are worth a quick stop as well. The rock paintings of Tibetan iconography and inscriptions are situated 120 km North of Almaty (Kapchagai district), on the right Bank of the Ili River.
On the way there, you can also have a quick look at the sand dunes near Kapshagay Reservoir, an artificial lake created by the damming of the Ili River.
Lake Tuzkol is a bitter-salty lake known for being one of the world’s saltiest water bodies.
Its name, Salt Lake (from the Kazakh words «Tuz» meaning salt, and «kol» meaning lake), accurately reflects its high salt content. Lake Tuzkol and its salinity level varies seasonally, reaching up to 300 grams of salt per liter at times, making it comparable to the Dead Sea in Israel and the Great Salt Lake in the US.
Tuzkol is situated at an elevation of 1950 meters (6400 ft) above sea level and has a shallow depth of only 3 meters (10 ft).
The lake is surrounded by the picturesque Tien Shan Mountain range on one side and the expansive steppe on the other.
On clear days, if you’re lucky enough the towering peaks of Khan Tengri and Pobeda (Jengish Chokusu) can be seen from its shores. It is then in my pov one of the most beautiful photo spots in the region.
The Khan Tengri is a mountain of the Tian Shan Mountain range. It is on the China—Kyrgyzstan—Kazakhstan tripoint, east of Lake Issyk Kul. Its elevation rises to 7,010 m (22,999 ft).
Tuzkol Lake is situated in a relatively remote area, and reaching the lake involves traveling through challenging terrains. Like for some of the other places mentioned, sacrificing comfort for camping to be at the right place / right time is a good choice to enjoy the magic of the place 😂
Here as well, scheduling your visit for periods with high Milky Way visibility (no moon) opens opportunities for landscapes from another world.
Like most huge mountain chains, this allows you to be there early morning and maximize the chances for clear views.
Ok, I stop there but such a place 😊🤩….
The road between Tuzkol Lake and Saty (lakes area)
The road toward Tuzkol Lake from Kegen offers stunning views of the steppe and the Tian Shan Mountains
There are as well along the road many traditional graveyards at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains
The landscapes are stunning in those areas, moving from desert to mountains.
And many horses of course😊 …
Charyn Canyon National Park is another spectacular natural attraction in southeastern Kazakhstan, near the border with China.
You’ll find below information about the “main“ Canyon as well as several tributaries or parts that are less famous but worth a visit.
Main Charyn Canyon area
The canyon is part of the Charyn River, a tributary of the Ili River. It is approximately 200 kilometers east of Almaty,
The canyon is a geological marvel formed over millions of years by the erosion of the Charyn River. It features unique rock formations, cliffs, and deep gorges, creating a stunning and diverse landscape.
The canyon is quite expansive, stretching for about 80 kilometers in length. It is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon’s little brother” due to its geological similarities with the Grand Canyon in the United States.
Charyn Canyon is known for its breathtaking panoramic views, especially during sunrise and sunset when the sunlight enhances the colors of the rock formations.
That dramatic landscape attracts nature enthusiasts, hikers, and photographers, without being crowded like the US version 😊.
This is another place where a starry night visit is a must….
The good news is if you (like me) camp only by necessity, there are glamping bungalows available in the heart of the park 😊. That allows enjoying mother nature’s wonders during twilight time.
Like the Grand Canyon, there are many trails on the ridge as well as the possibility to go down in the famous “valley of castles” (the road on the picture below). From a photography p.o.v., the high points may offer more opportunities.
As I mentioned for Aktau mountains above, the Akmaty region, and in particular Charyn Canyon landscapes are world-class level 🤩
Around the “main” canyon, there are several tributaries or parts that are worth a visit. Below are some of the landmarks to explore (non-exhaustive 😊)
Temirlik Canyon & North Part of Charyn Canyon
This amazing canyon is formed by the Temirlik River, the right tributary of the Charyn River.
Here as well, the big mountain chains are never too far (with a tele zoom 😊)
Like everywhere in the region, keep looking around for interesting views 😊
Slightly south of the junction between Temerikcanyon and the Charyn River (north of the “main” Charyin area), there is a nice area to explore
It is possible (and recommended) to go down (with a 4-wheel drive car) to hike aside the river
The Temirlik River carries its waters under the canopy of numerous trees. If you are there during autumn, this is a gorgeous blend of colors.
The river is a popular spot for locals to come for a picnic or spend the day near the fresh water.
Bestamak Canyon, also called Small Charyn Canyon is located in the dry channel of Bestamak, on the territory of the Charyns Natural Park, on the right bank of the Charyn River
The 8 kilometers long canyon is located between the left bank of the Temirlik River and the eastern slopes of the Katu Mountains
Being a natural channel for rainfall, the canyon winds its way through collapsing rocks and eventually connects with the main canyon of the Charyn River.
That place is famous for its abundance of various towers and sculptures. Those bizarre shapes are (obviously) formed from wind and atmospheric precipitation.
Bestamak is translated as “five isthmuses”. Throughout its length, Bestamak changes its appearance several times: classical Charyn views alternate with narrow passages.
Only during the spring snowmelt or after heavy rainfall, stormy streams of water rush along its bottom, which over millions of years have carved a deep and very picturesque canyon in sedimentary rocks.
Due to the position of the territory of the Canyon between the Kazakh and Zhongar deserts, as well as the influence of the large mountain system of the Northern Tien-Shan a high degree of biological diversity is observed in the canyon.
If your driver and 4×4 car manage to get to the bottom (or if you walk there), you’ll eventually join the Charyn River…
South of the “main“ Charyn Canyon area, the Black Canyon is another (and again different) landscape around the Charyn River.
Of course, the autumn colors add to the charm of the area
Kaindy Lake, also known as the “Sunken Forest” or “Kaindy Blue Lake,” is a stunning and unique natural attraction located in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan.
The lake is situated in the Kungei Alatau mountain range in the eastern part of Kazakhstan, near the border with Kyrgyzstan, approximately 2 hours by car from the city of Almaty.
Kaindy Lake was formed as a result of an earthquake and a subsequent landslide that occurred in 1911. The earthquake triggered the formation of a natural dam, blocking the gorge and leading to the creation of the lake.
The most distinctive feature of Kaindy Lake is the submerged forest that is still visible underwater. The cold mountain water has preserved the trunks of the spruce trees, creating an eerie and captivating underwater forest.
The lake is often called the “Sunken Forest” due to this unique phenomenon, for the great pleasure of nature lovers and photographers.
Kaindy Lake is known for its turquoise color, which is a result of the glacial minerals in the water.
The contrast between the turquoise lake, the submerged trees, and the surrounding mountains creates a surreal and picturesque landscape.
Kaindy Lake is a unique natural wonder and it is a must-visit destination in Kazakhstan.
Saty is a small village in the Shilik Valley, 60km from Charyn Canyon, on the south side of the Kungey Alatoo mountain range marking the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The only reason that I mentioned it is that the village is situated at the foot of Kaindy and Kolsay lakes (so you may stay there to visit the lakes), and a nice spot over the Shilik River especially with autumn colors.
Kolsai Lakes are a series of three mountain lakes located in the northern Tien Shan mountains, near the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
These lakes are situated in the Kolsai Lakes National Park, which is known for its stunning alpine scenery and diverse flora and fauna.
Kolsai First Lake is called Mynzhylgy. This is the lowest lake and is easily accessible by road. Going very early morning will give you the lake for yourselves and for the stars reflecting in the water 🤩
The lake is surrounded by lush alpine meadows and coniferous forests, creating a serene environment, especially when the first light comes on the mountains.
This is another stunning place not to miss in the region.
Kolsai Second Lake (Satsylkol) and Third Lake (Tentek) require longer hikes to reach so I did not have the time to see them, so no pictures of those 😢
The Assy Plateau, also known as Assy-Turgen Plateau, is a scenic high-altitude plateau (approximately 2,500 to 3,000 meters) located in the Zhetysu region of southeastern Kazakhstan, near the border with China. The access road (4-wheel drive needed) offers beautiful landscapes, especially in autumn.
As you drive up around the Turgen river, the nature is beautiful …
And vegetation keeps changing with the elevation.
The Assy Plateau is then a huge land. Due to crap weather, and more importantly, the fact that we had to rescue a family in deep trouble (long story 😢), I, unfortunately, do not have proper pictures from that popular area 😢
Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan and was the country’s capital until 1997 when the capital was moved to Nursultan (formerly known as Astana). You’ll not visit the region for the city, but it is still worth spending a day around. Here are a few spots (clearly not an exhaustive guide at all)
Also known as the Ascension Cathedral, this Russian Orthodox cathedral was constructed entirely of wood, without the use of any nails, making it one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.
The cathedral features a distinctive combination of Russian, Byzantine, and Western architectural influences.
Completed in 1907, the cathedral was originally built as a Russian Orthodox church during the tsarist period. It served as a place of worship for the Russian Orthodox community in Almaty.
Despite the seismic activity in the region, the cathedral has withstood several earthquakes, including a major one in 1911. Its survival has earned it a reputation as one of the most earthquake-resistant buildings in the world.
The Central Mosque is known for its modern and grand architectural design. It features traditional Islamic architectural elements with a contemporary touch.
The Central Mosque is one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan and can accommodate many worshippers. It serves as a significant religious and community center for Muslims in Almaty.
Republic Square and Independence Monument
Republic Square is situated in the heart of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. It is often considered a central gathering place and a hub for various events and activities.
The Monument of Independence or the Golden Warrior Monument (on Republic Square) stands in a 91-foot-tall column.
The monument also depicts the rich history of Kazakhstan from Queen Tomiris’s time till the present modern day.
So those are a few places to see if and when you transit through Amalty to discover the natural wonders around. If you have more time, the cable car toward the television tower, the green bazaar, and the opera house are as well good places to check.
I hope my (too long) post will engage you to visit the world-class level landscapes of the Almaty region in Kazakhstan !!. Please reach out if you have questions 😊.