June 20, 2024

Discovering the Wonders of Charyn Canyon

In my previous post, I shared my experience of spending a weekend in Almaty, the former capital city of Kazakhstan. If you’re not planning to go skiing, two or three days are enough to explore the city. Almaty is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and numerous national parks are within a 3-5 hour drive. Depending on the season, you can go hiking, explore the endless steppes and azure lakes, traverse rocky deserts, or visit Charyn Canyon. I chose the latter, and it was an unforgettable adventure.

Planning the Trip

I contacted the amazing girls from Steppe Spirit and booked my trip with them. Although you can easily rent a car and drive safely, I was traveling solo and had only one day left before my flight to Morocco. Thus, I opted for the most convenient way to explore the area around Almaty.

The Journey

Kazakhstan is a vast country with excellent main roads. Charyn Canyon is located just 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Almaty, near the Chinese border. I left the hotel early in the morning and embarked on a journey to a new destination.

Steppes and Horses

Once we left the city, the landscape changed dramatically. We passed by small villages typical of any country that was part of the USSR. Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by steppes covered with fresh green grass, resembling a green carpet stretching to the beautiful Tian Shan Mountains. Suddenly, I saw a herd of horses grazing lazily in the field.

Horses are integral to the Kazakh nomadic lifestyle, serving as loyal companions, means of transportation, and even food. Horsemeat is a staple of traditional Kazakh cuisine, though I tried it once and regretted it—never again.

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The Road

As mentioned earlier, Kazakhstan’s main roads are excellent. About halfway to Charyn Canyon, you will turn from the main road onto secondary and dirt roads. There are no shops or many gas stations along the way, so bring bottled water and food. Proper restrooms are also scarce, with only booths with holes in the floor or bushes near the road.

The landscape changes every half hour, so keep your camera ready. Kazakhstan offers numerous breathtaking views.

Charyn Canyon

We continued until we reached the edge of the canyon. The sight of the magnificent, colorful rock formations and the view over the mountains left me speechless.

Unlike many national parks with strict rules, railings near the edges, and numerous guides, Charyn Canyon offers a sense of freedom. While there are basic regulations for safety, you can climb anywhere you feel confident, sit at the edge, and even fly your drone. Charyn Canyon is over 12 million years old, stretching 200 km (124 miles) long and 100-300 meters (300-900 feet) deep.

Standing at the edge of one of the rock formations, I breathed in deeply, feeling the wind in my hair and marveling at the beauty of the world. Charyn Canyon is often referred to as the Grand Canyon’s little brother, and the resemblance is undeniable.

Exploring the Canyon

I descended into the canyon via stairs and paths on less steep slopes. At the bottom, I found myself in the Valley of Castles (Dolina Zamkov) and walked toward the Charyn River, where the canyon begins. While you can drive through the canyon in a 4×4 vehicle or take an eco-taxi, walking allows you to fully experience the place.

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Legends of Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon is steeped in legends. Centuries ago, it was believed to be the gateway to the underworld, home to spirits who disliked being disturbed. According to legend, these spirits drove animals off the cliffs. Today, it’s believed that wolves were responsible.

Another mysterious area, the Witch Canyon, is said to have been visited by witches who lured travelers to the rocks and pushed them into the abyss. Even the most skeptical travelers feel a sense of tension when staying there overnight. It sounds like a perfect place for an adventurous night, doesn’t it?

Kazakh Yurts

I reached the Charyn River and found an eco-park with a restaurant, cabins, and traditional yurts. The meal selection is limited to what’s available that day, so I enjoyed a delicious pilaf (rice and meat) and achuchuk salad (tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and spices). Kazakh cuisine mainly consists of meat.

You can also rent a traditional yurt to spend the night under millions of stars. The yurt can accommodate up to 8 people and provides mattresses and blankets, offering a comfortable yet traditional camping experience.

For more details, you can read more about the traditional Kazakh yurt or book a yurt with Steppe Spirit.

Conclusion

Charyn Canyon is a breathtaking natural wonder that offers a unique blend of stunning landscapes, rich legends, and traditional Kazakh culture. Whether you’re exploring the endless steppes, descending into the canyon, or spending a night in a traditional yurt, Charyn Canyon promises an unforgettable adventure. If you find yourself in Kazakhstan, make sure to visit this incredible destination—you won’t regret it.

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