Kazakhstan Part 3 – Charyn Canyon

Series Links:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 2- Almaty

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 5-Altyn Emel

Part 6- Homecoming

As promised in part 2, here’s the story of our adventures out on the mountains and steppes of Kazakhstan. Our first trip was to Charyn Canyon, a 90 km canyon just outside Almaty (bear in mind that in a country this big, ‘just outside’ means driving for 5 hours or longer. I had fun telling some Kazakhs that my own home country can be comfortably walked around in less time than that. The outskirts of Almaty are dominated by huge markets and ramshackle shopping centres that go on for several blocks in every direction we can see, with throngs of people going in and out and queuing for buses Even the majestic emptiness of a flat expanse of steppe under a brilliant blue sky can become tedious scenery when you’re in a car for that long. My better half has the enviable talent of being able to sleep soundly in a moving vehicle, which I’ve always found difficult. I kept my eyes open and spotted some small cairns which were indicators of the graves of Scythian warriors, muslim cemeteries that looked like miniature cities in the distance, with their domes, nomadic herders with sheep, goats, or horses, and the occasional decaying soviet statue or ruined outpost. My nerdy imagination conjured phantoms of Mad Max style post-apocalyptic raiders. The roadside villages we passed on this trip and others were fascinating, though and made me wish we’d been able to stop longer at them and get a feel for what life was like for Kazakhs out in the country. As it was, we stopped only long enough to use the rudimentary lavatory services and buy some fruits and the best meat-and-onion pastries ever. Life in these villages seemed somewhat chaotic, with animals, children and small fires going unattended, some people working at the stalls but plenty of others just relaxing in the hot weather. I was reminded once more of Mad Max when we passed through one small settlement, where some creative youths passed us on a 2 horse-drawn chariot, the carriage of which was made from welded car parts!

Charyn canyon itself is really quite something:

the descent begins

the descent begins


Ahead a glimpse of civilisation as the first bin is spotted

Ahead a glimpse of civilisation as the first bin is spotted


the road warrior

the road warrior

Along the way, we found a few critters hopping around burrows at the foot of the canyon walls



author shown here for scale

author shown here for scale


Despite being in one of the more famous tourist attractions in the region, we hardly saw another soul along the long trek down the canyon (about 1.5-2hrs to get from the hiker’s entrance to the river at its end). At one point, I saw a photo shoot a model in Native American costume and a single photographer, evidently trying to pass Charyn off as the Grand Canyon. Later, we ran into a small group of Chinese tourists, whose guide had lived in Kazakhstan and spoke perfect US-style English. We chatted for a while and learned that we were really close to the border with China and Mongolia, and that it was considered good luck in China to have your photo taken with a western European person (and I thought they had just found me really charming).

Chinese fellow travellers

Chinese fellow travellers




one of the ‘castles’ of Charyn

There’s a tiny ‘eco-village’ at the end of the hikers trails, where they’ve set up some bungalows and yurts by the side of a river. There we met a group of Australian retirees who were travelling from East to West, all the way to Portugal, still in the early stages of their journey. It’s an inspiring goal, and I can only hope that in my 60s I’ll be similarly undaunted by such feats myself.


wild horses on the other side

wild horses on the other side





couple selfie

couple selfie



The Charyn trek is hard going in the hot weather, and wasteland warrior fantasies aside, I really regretted bringing my leather jacket. Still wasn’t tired enough to nap on the way back though, and managed to snap some passing cattle in the evening.



This post was originally intended to have more words and less pictures, and include more locations but honestly, Charyn was just too photogenic and it was hard not to upload damn near every single photo. It’s also far from the only sweet spot of unspoilt nature we managed to reach on this trip, but since pictures tell a thousand words, I’m way over my limit and you’ll need to wait til the next instalment, which I promise will follow shortly.


~ by theserpentscircle on June 7, 2016.

2 Responses to “Kazakhstan Part 3 – Charyn Canyon”

  1. […] Part 3- Charyn […]

  2. […] After a few days in Almaty we were itching to get out in the nature. We spent an evening on the high hill of Kok Tobe, where there was a permanent funfair and a few shops and cafes for the entertainment of families and youngsters. We watched the sun set over the stark and majestic mountains that proudly proclaim themselves to the local urbanites on a daily basis, and I felt envious of the residents, having such beautiful and dramatic scenery so easily accessible to those living in the big city. I only hope that the dynamism and enthusiasm for petrol and urban development in modern Kazakhstan is matched with careful conservation so that future generations can continue to benefit. We had made big plans to head out to some key natural spots far from the city, but we were going to start a little closer to our base. We take on the mountains, steppes and desert in part 3. […]

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