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Five wilderness day trips from Almaty

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A pleasant, leafy city that would seem more at home in central Europe than Central Asia, Almaty is stocked with museums, cafes and nightlife. But Kazakhstan’s second city (and its former capital) is also a great base from which to explore the country’s wild southern landscapes. The city itself is a manageable size, and on its doorstep are numerous natural attractions.

View of Almaty with red-roofed houses and snow-capped mountains in the distance The mountains and deserts of Kazakhstan's southern wilderness is right on Almaty's doorstep © Aureliy / ShutterstockThe mountains and deserts of Kazakhstan’s southern wilderness are right on Almaty’s doorstep © Aureliy / Shutterstock

Red-rock canyons. Snowy mountains. Waterfalls and turquoise lakes. Kazakhstan’s most accessible natural attractions can be visited in just a few hours by bus or car, and in any season, on day trips from Almaty.

Explore the country’s vast landscapes by day and still make it back in time for the city’s nightlife to start heating up – if you can drag yourself away from the wilderness.

Red rock formations form a large canyon with desert mountains in the distance © Vera Larina / ShutterstockCharyn Canyon’s lunar landscapes © Vera Larina / Shutterstock

Charyn Canyon

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Grand Canyon’s Little Brother’, the desertified Charyn Canyon is among the most popular day trips from Almaty. The easily-accessible ‘Valley of Castles’ has stark landscapes and striking rock formations, for which the area is named, and at the end of a short hike the ice-cold and deep-blue Charyn River provides an additional layer of contrast to this striking change of scenery from the city’s busy streets. Difficult access on public transport makes a bus tour the easiest option for the more than 400-km return day trip, but intrepid travellers can also stick around a few days to camp in the canyon and explore parallel valleys that are only accessible on foot or by 4WD.

Ak-Sai’s small Russian Orthodox monastery after the first winter snow © Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

Ak-Sai Valley

Less popular but no less worthwhile, and much closer to Almaty, Ak-Sai Valley just southwest of the city presents serene landscapes with a holy bent. Sitting atop a tree-lined path that follows the contours of the Ak-Sai River far below is a wooden Russian Orthodox monastery and small monastic community. Stroll up a gentle trail through pine forests and past holy symbols carved into stone to reach the small monastery nestled in a copse of trees. A quiet cap to a laid-back hike on most days, 11 August each year sees masses ascending to the monastery to commemorate the deaths of two monks. It is because of their passing that the building is said to have mysteriously appeared. The valley is around an easy half hour by car or hired transport from Almaty, but homestays in villages at the foot of the valley make overnights possible as well.

A shallow, white-water river flows through a desert valley with trees in autumn colour © Yuri Turkov / ShutterstockHiking amongst rivers and waterfalls in the easily-accessible Turgen Gorge © Yuri Turkov / Shutterstock

Ile-Alatau National Park

The vast Ile-Alatau National Park starts just 40km from Almaty, but covers over 2000 sq km of mountainous terrain along the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Various valleys and trekking routes make it possible to visit for anything from a few hours to a few weeks, but among the most spectacular for a quick visit is the Turgen Gorge. Around 70km from Almaty, fewer travellers make it here, but the longer drive is made worthwhile by a pleasant trek up a waterfall-studded valley. Three of these falls are most popular with short-term visitors, particularly the impressive 55m Buzgul Falls, but a total of seven along the valley’s trail system make for pleasant multi-day hikes or decent trail biking for the more adventurous. Getting to Turgen via public transport means hitch a portion of the journey (which we don’t recommend), so for a quick one-day visit, travellers should hire private transport in Almaty.

A turquoise lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains and blue sky © Aureliy / ShutterstockBig Almaty Lake: best viewed from above © Aureliy / Shutterstock

Big Almaty Lake

Big Almaty Lake, part of Ile-Alatau National Park, sees plenty of visitors – and for good reason. Surrounded by sharp peaks and pine forests, the lake presents a postcard idyll and the location just 15km south of central Almaty is easy to reach by car or even hiking (or, for most international visitors, a combination of the two) in one day. Proximity to the Kyrgyz border and status as a protected reservoir make the lake itself off-limits to visitors, but gazing down from a roadside viewpoint is a popular pastime and, particularly on summer weekends, it can be a great place to make friends with local visitors. It’s easy enough to hike up from the GIS-1 bus stop (accessible on Almaty’s public transit system), but most daytrippers will take a taxi up to the point past GIS-2, from which a large water pipe (carrying water from the reservoir down to the city) crosses the road.

Skiers and snowboarders coasting down a snowy piste with blue sky in the background at Chimbulak Ski Resort near Almaty © Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetSkiers and snowboarders hit the slopes of Chimbulak in winter © Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

Medeu & Chimbulak

Almaty’s winter day trip of choice is to the twin winter resort of Medeu & Chimbulak. The most accessible part of Ile-Alatau National Park, they can be reached easily on public transportation from central Almaty. Giant Medeu Ice Rink was in the Soviet era, considered one of the best in the world. Though it no longer hosts many official events, the rink remains one of the most popular winter outings for Almaty locals. Travellers can join in skating with views of snowy peaks and soundtracked by Russian and Kazakh pop tunes. Medeu is also the easiest day trip out of Almaty, accessible by public bus from the city centre.

Beyond Medeu, a long windy road and a gentle swaying cable car rise to Chimbulak Ski Resort, widely considered the best in Central Asia. A sometimes-destination for hiking in the summer months, winter sees the area swarmed with skiers and snow enthusiasts. For slope-shredding travellers the appeal is obvious, of course, but the resort’s base carries a carnival-like feel, with happy families and amusement rides scattered around the valley. Plenty of non-skiers take the lift up to Talgar Pass (3163m) for a snowy winter panorama of the Tien Shan range.

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