We left the Charyn Canyon when the sun was already setting over the orange-red cliffs of the canyon, intensifying the colors even more. That night, we planned to stay in Saty, a small village close to Kolsai Lakes National Park. The drive there took us through a steppe plain of rare beauty. In the distance, mountains rose on both sides, and the Charyn river cut a deep gorge through the flat valley. That vast and empty landscape, painted crimson in the late evening light, cast a spell on me and although there was nothing to look at, no objects, no people or animals, it was impossible for me to avert my eyes from the mystic beauty of that land.
The guesthouse in Saty was a family house at the edge of the village. The accommodation was simple but the family’s hospitality and generosity great. We were given a room in the small house, whereas the bathroom was outside in a small shed guarded by a cow. This meant that we got to see the first rays of sun in the morning, painting the fields and haystacks in a fine golden light.
The family’s life seemed to take place mostly outside: The terrace/porch/living room was where we ate and where visits were welcomed. The kitchen was a in a small room in a corner of the porch but with no direct connection to the house. Two long tables served as a place to prepare food and enjoy the meals and a samovar was always on the table and always filled with tea. Next to the house stood a large yurt for special celebrations.
Thanks to Hossam’s interest in the various musical instruments lying on the sofas, the second night some of the family members dressed up in traditional clothes and played Kazakh songs just for us. The mother was a terrific dombra player and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the concert.
The next day we visited the Kolsay and Kaindy lakes, with a detour into a valley in between. Kazakhstan is not only huge but there’s also so much to see that the days will invariably be too short to do and see everything you want. The sights might not always be obvious, in fact, usually the attractions might not have a name and much less a sign or even a mark on the map. It’s the whole of the landscape and the fact that there’s so much to discover if you’re willing to just go without a plan and see where a road, or a barely visible trail (or even an imaginary road) will lead you.
The deep blue-green first Kolsai lake is probably one of the more touristy places in the country but still far from crowded, at least when we visited. It’s possible to rent horses and boats or you can just take a stroll along the lake. There are three Kolsai lakes and it’s possible to hike to the other two (if you have enough time and good equipment). At the end of the first lake is a beautiful spot to pitch a tent next to the lake and spend the night there.
Kaindy lake frequently features on pictures of Kazakhstan: the dead trees standing in the beautifully colored lake makes it a very unique sight. Some sources say that the waters of the lake are deadly and nothing can survive there. This is not true; in fact, it’s a popular trout fishing and ice diving spot in winter. The peaceful lake surrounded by mountains was formed in the 19th century when, after an earthquake, a landslide blocked off the valley which then filled with water. Ever since that event, the trees have been standing in the lake, conserved by the cold water. However, after more than a hundred years, they’re now slowly rotting and some have fallen down already.
Getting there is an adventure in itself. The road is at times so bad that it’s easier to drive in the river than on the actual road. But those who eventually get there are rewarded with the amazing and unique place lake Kaindy is.
On the way to the Kyrgyz border, we drove through seemingly endless steppes; a landscape so vast and awe-inspiring like I had never seen before. Occasionally, cattle, sheep and horses, as well as yurts, dot the landscape, and there are a few small, and very remote villages. Streams cut green lines across the otherwise mainly brown and ochre landscape and where there is a little bit of water, trees grow. Otherwise, it’s just bushes and grass.
Near the border, there’s Lake Tuskol, a large salt lake. On a clear day, it’s possible to see beautifully shaped but evasive mount Tengri from there. You’d probably have to set up camp at the lake for an indefinite time for a chance to see it. The lake and its surroundings with the snow capped mountains in the background are beautiful nevertheless. The lake is not only near the Kyrgyz, but also near the Chinese border. Therefore, it might be necessary to have a permit to visit it, though that’s unclear and we didn’t have one. There’s no control post or gate anywhere on the road from Kegen, but in case you’d get controlled, they might ask for a permit.
But don’t let that deter you from going there. Even on a grey day, the landscape is spectacular. If you love landscapes and huge, wide, vast spaces of beautiful, fascinating nothingness, Central Asia is your place. For me, it was landscape paradise.