25 January 2018.
Driving through the desolate monotony of the rolling steppe, the deep amber crack of the Charyn Canyon appears as if from nowhere – a mini Grand Canyon carved through the heart of the Kazakh desert.
The craggy, time-worn cliffs tower high above the lonely dirt track that meanders through the deep chasm and blush a rich vermillion hue in the sunlight.
The Valley of Castles is certainly an apt name for such a remarkable place.
Onward beneath rocky pillars and eroded archways, the path rambles toward an oasis that sustains this network of desert ravines, a verdant tangle of deep green that clings tightly to the banks of the raging Charyn River.
Come weekends, it’s a spot that locals love!
If you’re passing through Almaty, a visit to the Charyn Canyon is a must, but as we discovered, even being one of the biggest attractions in the region, getting there isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.
Though many visitors opt for a long day-trip from Almaty, spending at least a night in the canyon is definitely worthwhile to explore a little deeper and enjoy the area away from the crowds. If you’ve come with a car of your own, well, you could very easily get stuck here for days.
In this post we cover how to get to the Charyn Canyon and where to stay overnight if you have a little extra time on your hands.
If you’re getting driven to the canyon, you’ll be dropped above the entrance to the Valley of Castles after paying the entrance fee of around 750T ($2). Walk along the rim for stunning views into the ravine, or follow the steep path downwards to enjoy the canyon from below.
The walk to the river is 4km and takes around an hour.
An eco-park sits beside the river offering yurts and wooden bungalows for the night as well as a small restaurant with a few Kazakh staples – namely shashlyk and salad. For self-caterers, the shady area beside the river is a popular picnic spot for locals.
If you are staying overnight, be sure to be out exploring during sunrise or sunset when the cliffs are streaked in gold and amber as the light melts in and out of the canyon.
It’s also important to note that while the river may look incredibly inviting on a warm summer’s day, it is very fast flowing and swimming here is not recommended.
For the return, there are a few steep trails which you can scramble up to reach the escarpment and experience a different perspective over the canyon, or simply meander back up the road to where you were dropped. The eco-park also runs regular trips in an open-air 4WD back to the parking area for just a few dollars.
Unfortunately, this is as much as most visitors will ever see of this beautiful area. For the more intrepid and those equipped with their own vehicle or are keen to set off on foot, the Valley of Castles is really just the start of what there is to see in the national park – four other little-explored canyons are waiting just nearby.
Without our own wheels, and in no rush to spend our days hiking through the desert in the sweltering summer heat, we didn’t manage to venture much further either, but this guide should be useful for those wishing to explore further afield.
If you’ve visited Almaty in summer, you’ll quickly realise this part of the world gets pretty bloody hot! Out in the desert, it only gets worse.
Luckily the day we arrived was overcast so it was particularly mild in the canyon, but having to walk a decent chunk of the way back to the main road the next morning was excruciatingly hot along the dusty road in full sun.
If you do visit in the summer months, come prepared for intense heat – bring plenty of water and sun protection, including a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves! If you’re visiting in winter you’ll have a much more comfortable experience and might even need to rug up if spending the night in the canyon.
As you may have discovered about many places in Kazakhstan, getting in and out of the Charyn Canyon National Park isn’t always easy.
On our return journey, we ended up traipsing through the desert, hot and very, very sweaty, for a good hour before we managed to get a ride. Depending on your budget and timeframe, these are the best ways to get to the Charyn Canyon.
As by far the easiest option, a private day-trip from Almaty is the one most visitors opt for. However, with close to 4 hours of driving each way, the biggest complaint is that you don’t get all that much time to spend in the actual canyon. At around $70, it’s also an exceptionally expensive day out by Kazakh standards. These tours can be booked at agencies around Almaty or online.
A more affordable option is to join the bus tour to Charyn Canyon which runs only on weekends and costs just 6,000T ($18) per person for the return trip. Your hostel should be able to arrange the trip for you.
If you’d rather visit the canyon independently and explore at your own pace, the next best option is to link up with some fellow travellers and commandeer your own taxi for the day. This is the option we took to get there and simply forfeited our seats for the return journey as we planned to spend a night in the canyon. We organised this through our hostel and paid 5,000T ($15) each which, though not the cheapest option, we felt was worth it for the convenience of being dropped right at the entrance to the canyon.
This is easily the cheapest option but also involves the most hassle and is more suited to those with no time constraints and who are happy to hike across the desert in potentially stifling conditions.
From Almaty’s Sayakhat bus station, take a taxi or marshrutka in the direction of Kegen (mornings are your best bet) and jump out at the turnoff to Charyn Canyon. We’d recommend keeping track of where you are on a map as we’ve heard of some people getting dropped at the wrong turnoff and being stuck with a farther longer walk than necessary.
From the main road, it’s an unshaded 10km walk along a sandy dirt road before reaching the Valley of Castles. From late morning as more visitors begin to arrive, you may be able to snare a lift all the way to the river.
Take your time to explore, spend the night and when you’re ready to leave, you’ll need to hike (or hitchhike) back out to the main road.
Once at the main road, simply flag down a marshrutka bound for Almaty which tend to pass around mid-morning en route from Kegen.
If you’re planning on returning back to Almaty, we’d recommend leaving as much of your luggage behind as possible.
Renting a car in Almaty isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly the best way to explore the canyons freely and venture further than just the Valley of Castles. We would highly recommend you take a sturdy 4WD as we did see one car get stuck trying to get out of the canyon, and thoroughly check your rental agreement before signing anything.
Since you’ve ventured this far from Almaty, it would be a shame to miss out on the spectacular Kolsai Lakes just a few hours away. If you’re planning to join an organised tour, many include the lakes as part of a jam-packed 3-day excursion. If you’re travelling independently, the only option to get between Charyn Canyon and the Kolsai Lakes is to hitchhike which we found surprisingly easy along this stretch.
For more on visiting this little Switzerland in south-east Kazakhstan, check out this post!
If you plan to stay the night in Charyn Canyon, you can either make use of the accommodations provided by the Eco-Park, or camp beside the river.
Facilities are basic with drop toilets (the one nearest the restaurant is by far the most tolerable) and no running water. Portable taps and basins are filled from the river which we would recommend purifying before drinking (we always carry a reusable water bottle and our SteriPen with us for exactly this!).
The restaurant mainly serves shashlyk which is a favourite among large groups of locals out for the day, but what is on offer heavily depends on what the restaurant has in stock at the time, and unsurprisingly, prices are far higher than you’ll find in Almaty. Budget travellers and non-meat-eaters will be much happier with a self-catered picnic beside the river.
Yurts. Yurts are very brightly coloured and set up traditionally with a thin mattress on the floor.
Price: 40,000T ($120) for the whole yurt which sleeps at least 8 people.
Bungalows. Basic wooden cabins beside the river with a light, simple beds and a small veranda area.
Price: 14,000T ($42) for a two-person bungalow or 20,000T ($60) to sleep three.
Tents. Camping is allowed in the cleared space beside the river and is free of charge with your own gear.
During the week when the park was not busy, we found these accommodation prices could be brought down slightly with some gentle negotiation. Bring more money than you think you’ll need in case prices have changed unexpectedly.