Karkara Kegen border crossing

Border crossing: Karkara, Kyrgyzstan to Kegen, Kazakhstan.

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The Kegen border crossing from Kyrgyzstan is a good way to get from Karakol to Almaty. Information you will find online about the border crossing confirms that it isn’t an easy crossing to do by public transport. However, by taxi or with a driver, we can confirm that the border crossing at Karkara Valley is actually quite straightforward. And hey, we even did it with kids in tow!

Like any overland border crossing, it does require some forward planning. And in this case, it also costs more to do due to the geographical position. (Trust me, we travel on a budget and always opt for public transport if we can. We backpack all over with our kids but our style of travel doesn’t normally include hiring a driver). But, if you are up for a beautiful adventure through remote valleys and vistas, and have time on your hands; the Kegen border crossing is for you.

The following is our guide on how to make the border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. It’s beautiful, and worth it for the adventure alone. Heres what you need to know.

About the border towns

Karakol is one of the larger cities in Kyrgyzstan. It’s popular with travellers as a good place to be based for hiking and trekking in the surrounding mountains. And by bus or shared taxi, it’s only about six hours drive from the capital, Bishkek.

On the other side of the border, Kegen is the first major town. (If you could call Kegen, ‘major’). There isn’t a lot to it, and it isn’t a place to stop and stay for particular sights of Kazakhstan. But it serves as a first border town, and is on the way to the famous Charyn Canyon and the capital, Almaty.

Peak hour traffic at a gas station in Kyrgyzstan.

Things to know

Before we start with this list; a little disclosure first. And not the kind about affiliates with Amazon. I’m talking about us personally. You remember that we are from a small island nation (New Zealand. Google it) so overland border crossings are non-existent there for us. Hence, the details on making this crossing are going right back to the basics. (And did I mention we crossed the border with our barefoot little travellers in tow?!).

  • The best time of year to cross: The Kegen border crossing isn’t open all year round. It typically opens surrounding the summer season, operating from approximately mid-May to end of October.
  • Border opening times: The border is open from 8:00am until 6:00pm daily during summer.
  • Exchanging money: There are no facilities for changing money at the border. From the Kyrgyzstan side, you need to change money in Karakol before leaving for the border.
  • Visas at the border: If you are travelling as a citizen from one of the visa-free countries for Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan then the Kegen border crossing is straightforward. E-visas are not accepted at this border point, so definitely check ahead before you go. Check the Kazakhstan visa requirements here.
  • Come prepared with supplies: Snacks, water and whatever you think you will need for a couple of days. Supplies and shops are limited and basic in Kegen and virtually non-existent from Karakol onwards. Make sure you have planned ahead and are carrying at least a few snacks to tide you over.
Exchanging tenge in karakul before making the Kegen border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan.
Ready with tenge we exchanged for som in Karakol.

Getting from Karakol to the Kegen border crossing

Google Maps shows the drive from Karakol to the border as just under two hours. And that’s about right. Once we were out of Karakol we only passed on tiny village on the way to the border checkpoint (closer to the border than Karakol).

In theory, there is one other option for getting from Karakol to Almaty that is possible by public transport. But, there’s a major glitch with that option. The bus takes 11 hours from Karakol, returning to Bishkek to cross over the border at Kordai. That’s nowhere near Karakol!

The best option? You will need a taxi to the border. If you are travelling alone you can ask around in Karakol, and it could be possible to hitch or share a ride with other travellers. Or, if you are travelling with kids or want the easiest option as we did. A taxi seems to be the way to go.

The drive is beautiful through the Karkara Valley to the border. As with lots of Kyrgyz scenery, the mountains are vast and scenery is rugged and stunning. Nearing the border, the road follows the Karkara River with serves as a sort of natural border between the Kazak and Kyrgyz side. We stocked up on picnic supplies at the Karakol market and found a spot beside the river to stop on our way.

Valleys for miles on theKyrgyz side of the Kegen border crossing.
Valleys for miles on theKyrgyz side of the Kegen border crossing.

Getting from the border to Kegen

The distance from the border checkpoint to the next town on the Kazakh side isn’t so far. It takes about 40 minutes to reach Kegen. The drive is straightforward, and leaves the border checkpoint behind on a long, straight road that at the time of our crossing, was all under construction. The town of Kegen was a welcomed sight after a long morning. Border crossings are always exhausting, even when it all goes according to plan. So a pot of hot tea in Kegen at a little roadside cafe was the perfect finish.

Kegen town main road. Crossing the Kegen border crossing from Karakol to Kegen.
The main street of Kegen from the first cafe we found.

The border crossing

As far as checkpoints go, this one is pretty remote. The last few kilometres of road leading up to it are barren, potholed, bumpy and isolated. There isn’t another building in site.

The checkpoint itself however is fairly straightforward. (Well, if you don’t mind the unmissable camouflage-painted bunker shelters in place for the guards). We drove in and gave our passports to the first checkpoint through the window of our vehicle. We were waved forward to the next point and instructed by our driver to get out of the car and take our passports to the immigration officers. Immigration is a small building to the right hand side of the crossing, with two windows for immigration counters.

Our driver got out of the car as well and had his passport checked, while the van was driven up on hoists. The kids watched fascinated while the guards check all over the van; inside, on top and underneath.

We were waved on through and rejoined our driver at the other side and off we went. I am still not sure why it cost him a packet of cigarettes as well. But regardless, the crossing was smooth. And yup, the kids walked across with bare feet.

Driving distances from the border

The following drive times are approximate and what it took us by van with a driver. Driving anywhere in Asia is an adventure unto its own. Always allow extra time as part of your plan!

  • Karakol to the border checkpoint: 2 hours
  • Border checkpoint to Kegen: 40 minutes
  • Kegen to Almaty: 4 hours

Where we stayed

In Karakol, Jamilya Eje’s Guesthouse was a great find. We stayed four nights, relaxing in between our Kyrgyzstan tour and starting our next leg over the border to Kazakhstan. The quadruple room is a decent size with a double bed and two single beds. Cost: USD $55 per night. Dinner is available in the restaurant room most nights. Breakfast is included. The guesthouse is in walking distance of playgrounds in Karakol and the main Karakol Bazaar.

On the Kazakh side, from the border crossing we headed for the town of Saty. Our driver had rung ahead and booked a room for us in a guesthouse in Saty, but when we got there it was fully booked. Accommodation options are scarce in the smaller villages near the border, but we did find a second option. We drove by two guesthouses (to be fair, I couldn’t even recognise them outwardly as guesthouses) and ended up with a room at the third. Do pay attention to this part of your planning so you don’t end up without a bed, but don’t panic. People are friendly, albeit shy, but happy to help.

Our verdict

The Kegen border crossing itself is pretty easy. Logistically and geographically it takes a bit of forward planning but don’t be put off by that. Namely the challenge is all in how to get to the border. Once you are there, it’s a remote but straightforward crossing to make.

Freedom! Celebrating with a stretch of the legs in Kazakhstan.

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