Kazakhstan: Crossing the border with (barefoot) kids…

Why Kazakshtan?

Entering Kazakhstan completed a dream circuit of three Stans for us. We wanted to visit Kolsai Lake and Charyn Canyon, and had read it was possible to enter Kazakhstan overland via a small border crossing in the corner of Kyrgyzstan. In theory, that plan would work well for us, as we intended to find a driver and make a loop around the north of Kyrgyzstan; now, the challenge would be to find a driver that could take us over the border into Kazakhstan…

And we did! The border crossing into the far corner of Kazakhstan makes for a story on its own, but Oscar walked across the border amongst it all with bare feet; in true kiwi-kid-style!

A few hours inland from the Kegen Border crossing.

What we loved in Kazakhstan…

Exploring Almaty was lots of fun.

It somehow mixes a modern vibe in with a Soviet era feel, where on some streets you have old markets and bazaars, and other streets you could be in a modern city anywhere in the world (perhaps in the post-Soviet world!).

 Zenkov Cathedral (The Ascension Cathedral) is a wooden Russian Orthodox cathedral located in Panfilov Park in Almaty.
The Green Bazaar;  two-level market in Almaty with all the flavours of Central Asia.
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen in east-central Almaty.

But first, we had spent a few days making our way to Almaty, with a few stops on our way…

Trying a minced meat samsa from a roadside restaurant in Saty.

We had come with the goal of seeing Kolsai Lake as a first stop on entering Kazakhstan, and the Saty region was beautiful! A different kind of Central Asian mountain vibes and small villages.

Nothing quite prepared us for the stunning sight of Kolsai Lake itself; it kind of appears out in the middle of nowhere!

One downside to such a beautiful lake however, was that it was of course a huge tourist attraction. We were blown away by the beautiful scenery, but honestly underwhelmed by the sight itself, simply due to the numbers of tourists making their way down to the lakeside in hoards. We hadn’t expected or even considered that the location (within a days drive of Almaty) would make it such an attraction for domestic tourism. Beautiful; but after being spoilt with lone yurts and herders at remote lakes in Kyrgyzstan on our way, we didn’t stay long. Instead, heading back out into the hills to find a good picnic spot elsewhere.

We were intrigued to see Charyn Canyon, and weren’t disappointed by its grandeur.

The scale of the canyon is hard to describe, but it can be seen quite clearly on Google Maps!

One challenge in Kazakhstan?

Figuring out shops and restaurants! The architecture right across the villages and cities that we saw, is so strongly Soviet in style that a lot of the shops and restaurants still maintain the boundary military style fencing and boards and bars on windows. There isn’t a lot of signage, and what signage there is is written in Kazakh and Russian without many pictures for clues!

A decent sized small supermarket in Almaty

Where to stay

  • Saty: Guesthouse found in village on outskirts of Saty
  • Shelek: Guesthouse en route between Charyn and Almaty
  • Almaty: World Travelers Hostel

We only had a week in total in Kazakhstan, but enjoyed the varied towns and villages we passed through and stayed in. We didn’t have accommodation planned for the first two nights, but found guesthouses in Saty and Shelek (actually stopping on our way back towards Almaty). The villages near the border crossing in Kegen were fairly remote and options for accommodation definitely limited.

In Saty, the guesthouse we were planning on staying at was full, and we had to drive for another half hour to find the next village (after a couple of stops at random looking guesthouses… including one yurt-style that only had one very open/old long drop for a bathroom!) but we ended up finding a small family run homestay right next to a beautiful mosque, surrounded by Kazakh mountains.

A glass of kumiss (a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk).

AND they served us up a delicious dinner including homemade dumplings, AND kumiss…

Homemade manti (steamed dumplings).

In Almaty we enjoyed our stay at World Travellers Hostel. It was hard to find, but the post-Soviet style of shop fronts makes it hard to recognise a lot of services in Almaty! The hostel itself had a big size family room, with bunk beds and a double bed, and a clean shared bathroom.

Our guesthouse near Saty.

Getting around

We walked around Almaty for the time we were there. We didn’t have a SIM card so couldn’t use online taxi services like Uber, but our hostel hosts ordered a taxi online for us to get to the airport on leaving, and also one day we headed out to try and find a post office! We couldn’t find a taxi/figure out which cars were taxi’s to get one back, so ended up walking a few km’s back to our hostel each time. (The latest update sounds like Uber no longer works in Almaty, but their partner Yandex Taxi is an option).

If you are entering Kazakhstan overland your best plan is to find a driver! We had a fantastic driver called Vitali, who we found via a Kyrgyzstan Travel Company “Kyrgyz Tourism” in Bishkek.

A picnic spot on our way to the border crossing at Kegen.

If we went again we would…

We would love to explore more of Kazakhstan! There is such a focus on the mountainous regions of Kazakhstan (which is HUGE by the way!) that we would definitely want to explore Astana or other areas.

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