In my previous post, I wrote about spending a weekend in Almaty, the former capital city of Kazakhstan. If you are not planning to go skiing, then two or three days is enough to explore the city. Almaty is surrounded by beautiful mountains and there are many national parks within 3-5 hours drive. Depending on the season you may choose to go hiking, explore the neverending steppes and azure lakes, rocky deserts or visit Charyn Canyon. And this is what I did. Charyn Canyon is often compared to the Grand Canyon in the USA
I contacted really amazing girls from Steppe Spirit and booked my trip with them. You could easily rent a car and drive and you would be safe. But I was traveling solo and I only had one day left before my flight to Morocco, so I chose the easiest way to explore the area around Almaty.
Kazakhstan is a very big country, its main roads are great. Charyn Canyon is located just 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Almaty, close to the Chinese border. I left the hotel early in the morning and started the journey to a new destination.
Steppes and horses
Once we left the city the landscape has changed. We passed by small villages that are all very typical of any country that was a part of the USSR. Soon we left the villages behind and found ourselves surrounded by steppes covered with fresh green grass. The steppe looked like a green carpet that stretched till the beautiful Tyan Shan Mountains. And then suddenly I saw a herd of horses that were lazily grazing on the field.
A horse is a Kazakh nomad’s loyal friend, means of transportation and also food. This animal has always been a part of a nomadic lifestyle. Apart from that, horsemeat is a part of the traditional Kazakh cuisine. I tried and I really regret doing that. Never again.
As I mentioned earlier the main roads in Kazakhstan are good. Approximately on the half way through to the Charyn Canyon, you will turn from the main road and take secondary and dirt roads. You will not find shops or many gas stations on your way, so bring some bottled water and food with you. Neither you will see proper restrooms. There will be some booths with a whole in the floor or bushes near the road.
The landscape will be changing every half an hour, so prepare your cameras. Kazakhstan has so many breathtaking views.
We kept going until we saw the edge of the canyon. I came up to the edge and saw the magnificent, colorful, rock formations and the view over the mountains that left me speechless.
You probably got used to visiting national parks that have rules, railings near the edges and many guides who would tell you what you can’t do. There at Charyn Canyon, I felt free. There is a number of regulations that are basically a common sense, like you can’t make fire at certain places, etc. But in overall, this place remained true, free and authentic. Yes, you can climb anywhere as long as you are confident, and you can sit at the edge. And yes, you can fly your drone. Charyn Canyon is over 12 million years old, it’s length is 200 km (124 mi) and it is height is 100-300 meters (300-900 feet) deep.
I came up to the edge of one of the rock formations and breathed in my full lungs. I just stood there feeling the wind in my hair, looking over the endless steppe and thinking about how beautiful this world is.
Charyn Canyon is often referred to as the Grand Canyon’s little brother. Do you also think they are alike?
I came close to the edge and started going down. There are stairs but there are also paths on the less steep slopes. As I reached the bottom of the Canyon I appeared in the beautiful Valley of Castles (Dolina Zamkov) and started walking towards the Charyn River, the place where the Canyon begins. You may also drive through by your own car, but it has to be 4×4 and the driver has to be experienced. Or you may take an eco taxi. But I believe that it is not worth it, if you can walk, then walk and feel the place.
There are many legends around the Canyon. Centuries ago, it was called the gate to the bowels of the Earth, it was the place where spirits lived that didn’t like to be disturbed by ordinary mortals. Back then people believed that these evil spirits drove animals to the cliffs and forced them to jump down. Now it is believed that the wolves did that and scared the people.
Another mysterious place in Charyn Canyon is called the Witch Canyon. The legends say that late at nights witches flew there luring the travelers on the rocks and then pushed them down into the abyss. Nowadays, even the most skeptical travelers who stay there for a night feel some tension. Sounds like a perfect place to spend a night, huh?
I reached the Charyn River and saw an eco-park with a restaurant, cabins and traditional yurts. The selection of meals is limited to what’s cooked on that day, so I had a delicious pilaf (rice and meat) and achuchuk salad (tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and spices). Kazakh cuisine mainly consists of meat.
Here you can also rent a traditional yurt to spend the night under millions of stars … the true 5-million stars hotel. The yurt is good for 8 people to sleep in. There are no beds, but you will be provided with mattresses and blankets. I really loved this concept, it is similar to glamping but more traditional or camping but much more comfortable.
Read more about the traditional Kazakh yurt.
You can also book a yurt with Steppe Spirit
On the way to the Canyon, I saw young boys selling wild onion on the side of the road. They go to the mountains and collect it there.
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