Charyn Canyon, although completely unknown in the west, is probably the biggest attraction of Almaty region and maybe the whole country of Kazakhstan. It is way smaller than its famous counterpart – the Grand Canyon, however this fact doesn’t make it a less exciting place to visit. The canyon is located where two huge climate zones clash - between the barren Altyn Emel desert and the massive, lush green Tien Shan mountain range. From the red rocky cliffs of the canyon, you can spot the snow-covered peaks in the distance.
How to get to Charyn Canyon
Charyn Canyon is Almaty’s most popular destination, so unlike other places in Kazakhstan (for example Altyn Emel National Park), it is pretty easy to organize a day trip in the city of Almaty. Kazakhstan is not too popular as a tourist destination, so bear in mind that Almaty does not have too many tourist offices.
Try the one in the modern Dostyk district – it’s called “Center Smart Tourism” and it’s located in the Dostyk Hotel Hall in 36 Kurmangazy street. For more information, take a look here.
To get to Charyn Canyon, the drive takes 3h 30m from Almaty, one way.
Because we didn’t have too much time in Kazakhstan and it’s nearly impossible to travel by public transport across the desert, we had arranged a tour beforehand. Thanks to this, we had a chance to visit all the places we wanted during the limited period of the time we had to spend there. We asked to sleep at budget local guest houses, it brought the price down and let us get to know the culture as well as beautiful villages from the local point of view. It was an amazing experience which I will soon describe in the post about Kolsai Lakes.
I would recommend that you visit as many places around Almaty as possible – do not limit yourself only to Charyn Canyon. The nearby places are so diverse that it’s hard to believe – from sand dunes and colourful mountains in Altyn Emel National Park to turquoise lakes in the Alpine-like mountains of Tien Shan.
On the way to Charyn Canyon
We visited Charyn Canyon after doing some hikes in the Kolsai lakes area where we had seen probably the most unique lake in the world – Kaindy lake which was formed by a massive earthquake followed by a landslide. The landslide blocked the flow of the river and as a result, the part of the forest has been flooded. Now, bare trunks of trees stick out from the surface creating an original landscape.
You’d be surprised how vast the desert areas are – separated only by seemingly endless mountainous chains in the distance. You can easily feel what the word “space” really means here. You would also be amazed at how quickly the desert ends and pine trees virtually start appearing out of nowhere.
Visiting Charyn Canyon
Having left Kaindy Lakes National Park, it was pretty quick to get to the canyon. Although in the morning we woke up in the forest and admired landscapes just like in Swiss Alps, around noon we already walked the red-golden “valley of castles” in between the barren, red rocks of Charyn canyon.
Charyn Canyon was shaped by the seemingly small and quiet Charyn river and rock formations start way before the actual canyon. You can admire golden rocks, endless planes and the cliffs along the river for miles.
I might be repetitive and I may say the same thing again, but if this place was somewhere in Europe, it would be swarmed by tourists from all over the world. Here, in Kazakhstan, we met 2 or 3 small groups of visitors – all of them from Asia or former USSR zone.
This adds a sense of tranquility to the grandeur of the whole area – you can connect with nature the way it should be. That’s why we just love off the beaten path places. It’s amazing to enjoy them for what they really are – without numerous stands with plastic souvenirs or annoying con artists trying to trick naive tourists.
The Charyn Canyon trail
At the entrance of the canyon, there’s a little path which you can follow, among what’s called “the valley of the castles” due to amazing rock formations on both sides. Here, you can feel like in one of those “wild west” films – the scenery is almost the same.
It’s also a great place to take some awesome photos – with the whole canyon in the background. Even though Charyn canyon is considered small, you will still be amazed at the sheer size of it. And the tourist route which is around 3-4 km long is only a small section of the entire gorge.
After admiring the beautiful canyon, we reached the Charyn river and a small tourist village with yurts that can be rented by visitors. Now you know for sure that you’re actually in Asia, not in the US. There were a few restaurants around but they were completely empty - the bar tenders must have been bored to death. We were the only group that enjoyed a pint of beer in such an eerie and unreal scenery. Maybe because it was the second half of September and the weather started to get colder – on top of the canyon we had experienced the windiest conditions ever.
That’s why I would recommend that you visit the canyon in the spring/summer – winter is probably not the best time, although during sunny weather, the canyon must look amazing covered with a blanket snow.
As I mentioned before, don’t miss the nearby places – especially Kaindy/Kolsai Lakes which are located quite close to the Charyn. If you want to spend a few more days, do go and visit the Altyn Emel National Park – it’s breathtaking! For more info and photos about all those places, click on the articles in the “Related Posts” section below.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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