I’m meeting up with the Madventures Silk Road tour in Almaty, Kazakhstan – but decided to arrive a few days early to explore the surroundings. A quick internet search revealed a wealth of hiking/nature opportunities around Kazakhstan’s old capital (the capital was moved to Astana in 1998), but the one that really caught my eye was Lake Kaindy. With its turquoise waters and drowned spruce trees – it was a little different – and so I set my heart on seeing it.
I ran up against the usual issue where a minimum of 4 people is required for a tour to run, so ended up signing up for the 3-day Kolsai Lakes, Kaindy Lake and Charyn Canyon tour offered by Almaty Tours. By some miracle, they had a departure scheduled for 17-19 April – perfect timing for me – and they assured me it would run no matter how many people they had. It was pricey, but it was the only way I was going to get there.
I was met at the Almaty Backpackers Hostel by Emil, my guide, at 7am and it turns out that I’m the only one on the tour! Emil is 23 with a degree in public relations, is actually from Kyrgyzstan, speaks excellent English and is a very friendly and talkative young man. We got along well right from the beginning.
In case your Central Asian geography is hazy, Kazakhstan is a very big country! In fact, it is the 9th biggest country in the world! Given this, and the fact that many of the roads are in quite bad shape, it takes a long time to get to locations that look relatively close together on the map. I’m Australian. I should be familiar with this idea. But somehow it always comes as a surprise in another country.
So, it took us almost 5 hours to reach the Kazakhstani portion of the Tian Shan Mountains and the village of Saty, where we based ourselves for the next 2 days. Ironicially, the slowest part of the trip was along the perfect dual-carriageway highway leading out of Almaty, which, for some inexplicable reason, had a speed limit of 50 km/hr! The most interesting part of the drive was the last hour or so – where we passed through a grassy region with farmers on horseback tending their herds. Like in Mongolia, there are no fences here, but unlike Mongolia, the Kazakhs are settled in farms and no longer lead a nomadic lifestyle. This is a result of the Russians who, in the 1930s, created cooperative farms across Kazakhstan and converted the population to a more settled way of life.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by the family that runs the guesthouse where we would be staying. Essentially, I have a room in the home of a local Kazakh family, and they feed us whatever they will eat themselves (normal Kazakh food) while we are here. For lunch this consisted of Plov – a staple dish in Kazakhstan made from rice, carrot, meat (in this case mutton) and herbs – they are particularly fond of dill. Quite heavy food (lots of carbs!), but very tasty!
This was served with pickled cabbage, biscuits, sweets, and an enormous basket of bread and Baursak (fried dough).
All washed down with as much tea as you can drink. In this case, we had tea with milk, though it is also very common to have tea with lemon.
I also learned that there is a whole ritual around the tea. In particular, to be hospitable, the lady of the house must sit with the guests and serve the tea for them.
Tea is served in bowls with the milk added in first, followed by the brewed tea, followed by more boiling water. The bowl is only ½ filled – if it is filled completely, it means that your host is trying to get rid of you and it is time for you to leave!
You finish your bowl of tea, and then hand it back to the host to refill to ½ way. Repeat this until you’ve had enough, which you indicate by placing your bowl down on the table and covering the top with your hand. It feels very strange to be waited on in this way, but an interesting custom.
After lunch, we transferred into an old Russian van for the trip up to Lake Kaindy.
We ran into another couple of Russian tourists who joined us on our excursion, managed to overcome a bit of an obstacle blocking the road, and spent the next 40 minutes crawling up a very bad 4WD-only road. You have to give it to these old Russian-made vans!
From where we left the van, it was another 1.5km walk uphill to reach the lake. But, despite the crap weather we had, it was amazing!
It is only a small lake that was formed in 1911 when a powerful earthquake triggered a landslide, forming a natural dam. As the water rose, it flooded the spruce trees which are now a bleached and eerie feature of the lake.
From the lake’s edge, we headed up to get a more eagle-eye view, traipsing through the last of the winter snow.
Again, just a spectacular place – both the lake and the surrounding mountains.
And from this vantage point, you can see a very cool thing – the water in the lake is so cold that it has perfectly preserved the needles of the spruce trees below the waterline! Even more than 100 years later, they are clearly visible in the beautifully transparent water.
Totally worth it to get up to the lake – though would have been nice to have about another hour there just to sit and contemplate the view.
Then it was back to the guesthouse – and for dinner we had more tea, more bread and Baursak, and Manty – dumplings filled with meat, potatoes and herbs (dill, again). Not quite as tasty as the Plov at lunch, but definitely filling!
Oh, and just for fun: Turns out Emil is a keen photographer (though is saving up for a decent camera) – love this “supermodel shot” he took of me 😊