Three Weeks in Central Asia (Part 4): Kazakhstan – a walk in the Valley of the Castles

Isolated, seldom visited, no crowds…. perfect.

Qazaqstan qoş keldiñiz.
Welcome back to Kazakhstan!
Day 6 of this Central Asia journey took us back into Kazakhstan but this time into the south–eastern corner where the stunning Charyn Canyon is located.

First, we had to do a land border crossing on foot. It was my first ever experience doing this, so admittedly I was both nervous and excited about how it would go. Our wonderful Kyrgyz guide Aiperi and driver dropped us off on the Kyrgyz side where we went through passport control.
We then had to wait in a line for them to open the barricade to No Man’s Land. A quick walk over to the Kazakh passport control where the stern “no photos allowed” Kazakh border force quickly warmed to us and even asked to take a selfie with one member from the group. Once we were in Kazakhstan, they made us open our bags – not 100% sure what they were looking for but we all passed no problems.

Our trip leader, Mirza, was with us the entire way to ensure it all went smoothly so we weren’t doing this completely alone. Nevertheless, it was a new experience for me. Up to this point it was also the most simplest and quickest land crossing of the trip but by no means the last. Stay tuned…

On the other side our Kazakh guide from Nur-Sultan, Gaukhar, (an Almaty local) was waiting to take us on our next adventure.

Valley of the Castles – Charyn Canyon

Our destination was Charyn Canyon. Central Asia is filled with hidden, less explored canyons like this stunning geological formation. 200 kilometres east of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty and close to the Chinese border, Charyn Canyon formed like all canyons are by the erosion causing waters of the Charyn River.

Be amazed as you’re dwarfed by nature.

At around 90km in total length, Charyn Canyon is definitely much smaller than the Grand Canyon however in the section that we went to, the Valley of the Castles, there are some stunning rock formations like nothing else I have seen.

Starting from the parking lot of this valley, there is a hike along the Valley Floor that allows you to fully immerse yourself in this natural formation. The hike starts off with a descent on very stable stairs to the floor. From there it is a 4km, relatively flat and easy hike with towering strangely shaped rock formations on either side.  There were maybe 5 other people in the whole valley when we were there, so it felt like the entire place was ours.

The walking track ends at the river with a number of picnic and quiet spots for you to soak up the scenery. There are even a number of yurts as part of an eco-resort where you can spend the night. There is a small cafe located here where you can buy some cold drinks and lunch. I can’t vouch for the quality of the food or the prices however as we brought our own picnic.

There are several ways to get back. You can walk back the exact same way, like I did. You will be going up a slight incline the entire way, though nothing too strenuous until you get to the end of the track and need to climb back up to the rim using the same stairs. We opted to climb a different route near the stairs we descended on to get one last amazing view of the Valley. Now this was a fun part! Narrow and steep crossings with no guard rails; just you, your wits and your bravery at some points.

There is also the option of driving back up in a 4WD offered by the eco-resort for a few dollars (payable in local currency). Or there are other paths you could climb up to the rim on, but these appeared to be much more difficult. They do however, offer more of a view from the rim of the canyon as you walk back to the car park.

If you’ve got time to spend in Almaty and want to see some of the interesting isolated Kazakh landscape you should definitely make a trip out here. There are several tours and guided hikes you can do from Almaty. This seems to be your best bet as the Valley is located around four hours away from the city and there was no public transport stops anywhere near the Valley. Remember to keep an eye on the weather, don’t go during extreme heat and take water with you.

Group selfie: 8 travellers; our Kazakh guide, Gaukhar in the middle and to the right Mirza our trip leader.

Have you visited this part of Kazakhstan? Or are you now planning a trip there? Let me know your thoughts below.
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