20 December 2017
When we spoke to locals in Astana about visiting Borovoe (officially now named Burabay though absolutely no one seems to call it that), they would, quite visibly, swoon.
Misty eyes, hands over heart, sometimes a little sigh.
To our great amusement a mere mention of the place elicited this response with several people and so we came to what we thought was the only reasonable conclusion – this lake district tucked away in the northern countryside of Kazakhstan was bound to be some kind of Eden.
As we trundled into town though in our clanking marshrutka after yet another hair-raising ride, Eden was not exactly the word that sprang to mind.
Music blared from every car window and shop front competing for attention, pop-up cocktail bars lined the streets intermingled with a thick smoke that billowed from shashlyk stands, and as we stumbled down to the foreshore hoping for some respite, we found a charming combination of newly pink, inebriated Russians and a backing track of Despacito playing on repeat.
Though the small town left us rather perplexed, as we explored deeper into Burabay National Park we discovered there’s plenty to enjoy in this little oasis in the rolling steppe.
The steep contours of rock, each with a legend to its name, that rise from a blanket of pine trees make for decent hiking with stunning views over the lakes, while wandering further out of town will lead to empty patches of shaded beach for those looking to relax.
Though many people love Borovoe, we maintain it’s a bit of an odd place – like a Kazakh version of a Mediterranean party town that is at odds with the beautiful nature on its doorstep.
If you’re in Astana though, the park is well worth a visit, even if just for a day-trip. These are our top things to do in Borovoe for your visit.
There are a number of tours touted around town offering horse riding trips through the countryside, rock climbing excursions and boat trips across the lake. Most are guided in Russian only.
For those looking to explore independently, here are a few ways to occupy your time.
Though the crowds concentrated around town left us a little unconvinced about Borovoe, the further away we got, the more we understood those misty eyed folk in Astana.
A beautiful path runs between the trees along the northern bank of the lake, and it’s best explored by bike, even though some genius decided it would be a good idea to add a few steps along the cycle path. You can also ride on the road though there’s no shoulder and cars aren’t particularly considerate of cyclists.
It’s around 4km to the Blue Bay and less than 2km further to the main parking area.
Bikes can be hired all around town, including along the main road, near the bus station, the main corridor leading to the waterfront and along the lakeside trail.
We weren’t offered helmets or locks so you’ll need to find someone to watch your bike if you choose to go hiking. We left ours with the police officers manning the parking area, though there is also a yurt camp and a restaurant there which may be happy to mind them as well.
The going rate seems to be around 500₸ ($1.50) per hour or 2,000₸ ($6) per day, though you can bring this down with some gentle haggling, especially if you’re renting for the day.
One thing we loved about Borovoe were the many oddly shaped rock formations and mountains to jump between, scramble on and climb.
They’re not high (elevation reaches just 900m) but they sure are steep and give beautiful views over the lakes of the region. A number of peaks are accessible around the lake and we opted for Starshaya Sestra.
From the gold eagle-topped monument behind the large parking area, take the path to the right for a steep scramble uphill to the spectacular panorama. It took us just half an hour to reach the top.
Bokshetau on the opposite side of the bay is a slightly easier option.
Being the world’s largest landlocked country, Borovoe is probably the closest many people from northern Kazakhstan have come to the beach, and so, they’ve adapted the narrow strip of sand into exactly the kind of beach they want – the ultimate kitch party spot.
The beaches in town are largely privatised requiring payment for entry (around 500₸/$1.50). They’re loud with beats blaring throughout the day, are littered with beach chairs and gazebos and get surprisingly crowded even mid-week in summer.
Though this seemed like heaven for many locals and vacationing Russians, this wasn’t really our thing.
We found far prettier and more peaceful stretches of sand and rock further around the bay where pine trees provided shade, sunbathing couples sprawled out lazily and we could enjoy the quiet without fighting for space. The water also provided a beautiful respite from the heat.
Once you’ve nestled into the perfect patch of beach or stretched out on an oversized boulder by the water, sit tight for the light to fade away.
Surrounded by mountains, it’s not long before the lake is plunged into shadow, but soon enough the sky will blaze red bathing the landscapes in a deep and vibrant glow.
There’s also a small rocky outcrop to the right of town that provides a good sunset perch from up high.
Being thrust into the bustle of what we had expected to be a sleepy lakeside town meant we were a little thrown off when it came to finding accommodation, and in very un-Sandy Feet-style, we walked into the first place we saw and took it.
The basic wooden cabin we ended up in was nothing special and at 7,000₸ ($21) it was the most expensive accommodation we had in Kazakhstan, but for the two nights we were there, it was perfectly fine. Plus, the owner was so thrilled at the novelty of having a pair of non-Kazakhs or Russians that she took excellent care of us.
There are several much nicer looking hotels and guesthouses in town along the main road, though they are quite a bit more expensive. Some guesthouses can be booked online – check for reservations here – others you may need to call ahead or just show up. On summer weekends when the town gets a little crowded, it may be best to book in advance.
We ate both nights at an open-air beer hall-style restaurant and what seemed to be the most popular place in town.
Neither of us took note of the restaurant’s name but you’ll find it along the main street between Cafe Alina (Кафе Алина) and the bazaar serving up the best plov we’ve had yet, tasty shashlyk and a selection of fresh salads among other things. There’s no English menu but if you’re familiar with a few of the Kazakh staples, you should be fine.
Waffles, ice creams and pastries are also sold at stalls lining the main road if you have a hankering for something sweet.
For breakfast, we discovered most places don’t seem to open until close to eleven, or they’d open for coffee but not food. The cafe at the back of the bus station serves up a cheap and decent breakfast from relatively early if you’re looking to make an early start.
For self-caterers, there are some basic shops in town, but if you plan to cook all your meals you may be better off bringing supplies from Astana.
From Astana, marshrutkas leave from near the bus station beside the big red ‘Doner’ sign for around 2,000₸ ($6) per person. To return, just hang around the bus station in Borovoe – plenty of people queue up to leave in the mornings and into the day. It’s about a three-hour drive each way.
If you only wish to pop in for the day, several hostels in Astana run day trips to Borovoe as well.