How to get to Altyn-Emel National Park
On a map, Altyn-Emel National Park doesn’t seem to be far away from Almaty. It’s about 260 km – a 4 hours drive – from the city.
It’s possible to go with a tour operator but having your own wheels is always great. A 4×4 is not essential but definitely the better option as the road in the national park is unpaved and not very well maintained.
The park office is in the small village of Kalinino or Basshi (Басши). There, you have to check in and pay the small admission fee which is the same for foreigners as for locals. Several places offer accommodation in the village and it’s certainly a good idea to stay two days, or even more, in the park.
What to See in Altyn-Emel National Park
There’s a lot see in the national park: There are the Aktau and Katutau mountains, two mountain ranges with stunningly colored hills, from white to blue to red and yellow. Then there’s the Singing Sand Dune, petroglyphs at Terekty and ancient burial mounds at Besshatyr . There’s also interesting flora and quite a lot of wildlife. However, given the size of the park, it’s not easy to spot animals. We saw some lizards but none of the wild donkeys or deer that inhabit the park.
After checking in at the National Park office, you drive on on the now unpaved road until the colored mountain ranges appear on the horizon. The Katutau mountains are less colorful but just as good for hiking and exploring as the Aktau mountains.
Exploring the Aktau Mountains
At the foot of the hills, there’s a parking lot with a few pick nick tables where you can leave your car and start the hike. There are no marked trails so you just go and find your own way. The hardest part is to decide where to start and where to stop. The landscape is just too amazing and you want to go everywhere: to see the mountains from far away and take in the desert plains down below, climb to the top of that high mountain to get a panoramic view from the range, venture inside that canyon that leads into the mountains,… Everyone points into a different direction and wants to take a different path first.
The possibilities are endless and area is way too big to see everything in one day. But wherever you go and from whatever perspective you look at these otherworldly mountains and the landscape, you will be amazed. For us, this was likely the most beautiful place we visited in Kazakhstan.
The park is enormous and it’s mostly desert, with very few trees. At the end of August, it’s still very hot so bring a hat and enough (!!) water. The village is far away and the small shop we went to on our way back didn’t have any water, just soft drinks.
The Singing Sand Dune
In another sector of the Altyn-Emel National Park is the Singing Dune, a 120 meters high dune in a place where there’s otherwise little sand. That in itself makes this dune quite unique but, as its name suggests, it also emits a sound, or that’s what people say. I’m sure it does, though it didn’t sing when we were there. It had rained recently, and the sand was still a bit wet, which was probably the reason for its silence. Climbing the dune was still great fun, despite the strong winds. From the top, you can see the surrounding mountains and a river in the distance, the water glittering in the sunlight.
On the drive back to Almaty, one of the car’s tires burst. We weren’t able to get the spare wheel off because one screw was so rusty that it was impossible to loosen so we had to call for help. We got back to the hotel at about 1.30 pm, hungry and tired but also happy and fulfilled by what we had seen that day.
The Charyn Canyon
The Charyn Canyon is one of the best known tourist attractions in Kazakhstan thanks to its proximity (only about 200 km) to Almaty. If we’d have gone there before the Aktau Mountains, I guess we’d have been more impressed. However, the colorful Aktau mountains kind of loomed over the canyon and dwarfed it in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, the Charyn Canyon is impressive, especially seen from above: a canyon, 90 km in length, carved into the steppe plains. However, we didn’t have much time to marvel at the canyon as we were there late and the sinking sun was already painting the stones a deep orange.
Walking in the Canyon
It used to be possible to drive down into the canyon but that’s not allowed anymore (which is good). If you can’t find the official trail down (in case there is one), you’ll have to more or less slide down the gravel until you reach the trail that leads through the canyon. The trail goes all the way to the river and the idyllically located bungalows next to it. There’s a taxi driving back and forth through the canyon, a Soviet style gray mini bus, indestructible and probably unchallenged by the terrain.
Walking the length of the canyon and marvelling at the wonderful rock formations, the deep red rocks and the huge walls on both sides is amazing. However, we think taking in the canyon from the top, from the rim of the canyon, is even more impressive. It gives you a feeling for the greatness of this gorge and the forces it took to carve it into the earth’s surface. The golden evening light is of course best, but the sun sets quickly and there’s not much time to find the perfect spot and take pictures.
As with Altyn-Emel National Park, this place is enormous. If you have time, you can easily spend two days exploring the canyon and the area. It’s possible to camp there or to stay in the bungalows by the river. That place looked very pretty but be aware that it gets cold at night, even in late August.