Travelling in Eastern Kazakhstan
What to expect when travelling in Eastern Kazakhstan
One of the most mystic and fabled region in Kazakhstan are the Altai mountains. They are located in western Kazakhstan and pass over to Russia, China and Mongolia. This area is the starting point of the distribution of the Turkic people, the location of impressive petroglyphs and enigmatic graves, home of shamanism and in general a holy area where the three biggest religions of the world come together. Some even belief that the highest mountain, the double peaked Belukha (4,506 m) at the Kazakhstan-Russia border, is the center of the universe and the entry point to another world. The area is incredibly rich in natural beauty, rare flora and fauna and historic sights. Nature lovers will be more than happy to explore the Altai mountains. Nevertheless Altai is translated “Gold mountain” in Mongolian, Kazakh and in Chinese and it is truly a golden location.
If you want to visit the Altai mountains you might need to have a border permit. It depends a bit where you are going. If you plan to visit sights beyond the town Uryl, then you should get one. Also you need it for most of the Kazakh-Chinese or Kazakh-Russian border areas. You can do it without one but on your own risk. Having troubles with the officials is surely not very pleasant. You can get the information about the permit here http://caravanistan.com/kazakhstan/altai/permit/. Get your permit early enough because it can take a couple of days/weeks to get it.
How to get there
You want to make your way to the Altai through Oskemen/Ust-Kamenogorsk. You have several options to get there. For the more expensive version, you can take the plane. There are daily flights with Air Astana from Astana or Almaty. If you prefer the cheaper option, then you can take the train, but only from Almaty which takes you around 19 hours. Besides the long hours, the trains are really comfortable and luxurious. There are different options for tickets. The most expensive ones even have an own cabin with shower and toilet. If you plan to take the car, then you can do it from Astana or Almaty. But be aware that it will take you a very long time and the roads are generally quite bad. The estimated time if you don’t have any problems with cars, traffic etc. would probably be from Astana 12 hours and from Almaty 16 hours. But that is just a wild specification. You will need to have a driver for that trip.
Öskemen is the best entry point to explore the Altai. The city itself is a working-class city with still a lot of copper and zinc industry. It is not a very pretty place but has its own charm. There is no need to stay to long but give it a day to arrive and discover. The city has still some soviet architecture to see. Especially the old tramways give you the feeling of another century. In the city center there is an interesting market with lots of different goods. For example you can find some quality hand knitted socks there. The highlights are the two parks of Öskemen. One being the Levoberezhny Park with different exhibitions. The other one is city park Park Zhastar, which is a lovely park with rose bushes and benches to pass time. If you are interested in museums then visit the history museum or/and the ethnography museum. Otherwise stroll around the riverside and look at the paris-like lock covered bridges and feel the love or have a look at the “little” Bytarek Monument.
The closer you get to the Russian border the more Russian the country gets. Most people are native Kazakhs but the culture and the language is more Russian oriented then in other parts of Kazakhstan. Anyhow either Russian or Kazakh, the people are very nice and welcoming. In the countryside most people are farmers and horsemen. Since there are not many tourists around, they are eager to meet foreigners. If you are on your own, there are not many people that speak English, so communication can be challenging.
You find quite a lot of different foods in Öskemen. You will find the local chain Pitstsa Blyuz that serve a pizza which is actually more a focaccia then a pizza but still pretty good. They also have the uighur nudle dish Lagman. If you are looking for more international food head to Kofe Blyuz for burgers or to BarBQ for Kebabs and nice salad. They even serve sushi. The street food at the markets is also very good and the cheapest option. If you like to have a nice cold beer, head to the bavarian beergarden. To stock up food for you trip head to the big supermarkets for a variety of options or buy the vegetables and fruits at the market. In the Altai area there are nearly no restaurants or shops just a few cafes, so you want to have enough food and water to be self dependent.
The closer you get to the Altai mountains the prettier the landscape gets. Meadow hills, rocky mountains and peaceful valleys alternate. Impressive are the big sunflower fields which are magnificent. When you are there in the Summer you will find alpine flowers blooming all over the place. Pristine lakes, rivers and magic forest conclude the picture. The mountains get bigger and bigger until you find yourself in a out of this world alpine landscape like the one you might have dreamed about.
The base camp
There are some options to sleep available like yurts and cabins for rent. Katon-Karagay makes the best base camp to explore the region. It is a small town with lots of wooden houses and gravel roads. Outside of town is a big tourism complex with cabins/jurts for rent.
There are many fun activities to do while you are in the Altai mountains. Of course it is a Mekka for all fans of hiking and trekking. If you are up to a more challenging thing to do then head up the bigger mountains for some mountaineering. The other big thing is horse back riding. You have hundreds of kilometre to do that and you can go where ever you want. If you are interested in the people then there is for sure an opportunity to visit some farmers and drink some Kymis with them. Otherwise just relaxe, enjoy and soak up the atmosphere of this special place.
- Here are some of the top sights that await you in the glorious Altai Mountains:
- Katon Karagay Valley with its beautiful scenery
- Cristal Lake Marakol with its beautiful shore
- The holy Belukha Mountain at the Russian border
- The Rachmanov’s springs with its sanatorium and health treatments
- The historical graves at Berel