Kolsai National Park is the ultimate haven for nature lovers, so trekking by the Kolsai Lakes is not to be missed. The three lakes are nestled in emerald green forests below the stunning background of the soaring and snow-capped Tien Shan mountains. The long journey to visit this beautiful Almaty region becomes worth it when you step of the bus, take your first lungful of Kazakh country air and feel the peace settle into your soul.
Lake Kolsai is on the mountainous border between Kazakhstan and Krygzystan and is 300km away from the nearest city of Almaty. Along with Charyn Canyon and Lake Kaindy, Lake Kolsai is one of the most popular places to visit for those staying in Almaty and the surrounding area.
The lakes were created by glacier melt water creating reservoirs on the valley floor and are known as ‘The Pearls of Northern Tien Shan’. Lush spruce trees and alpine meadows line the edges of the mirror like waters of Lakes 1 and 2. On a sunny day the dramatic mountains which slope sharply upwards into the sky are reflected in the crystal clear water. It’s truly beautiful. Hiking, taking a boat onto the lakes and horse riding are all wonderful ways of experiencing all that Kolsai Lakes have to offer.
The trek to the Kolsai Lake 2 and back down is a steep journey up and the round trip is around 18km taking around 6 hours. Having done this trek twice in June and July, the weather was varied on each. The first trek started off with beautiful sunshine and on the way down the thunder cracked through the skies with random hail falling from the sky. Whilst this cleared, the descent was made much harder with the deep muddy paths – pack a poncho just in case. The second time, we were blessed with sunshine all the way!
Lake 1 is 1km long, 400 metres wide and between 70 and 80 metres deep depending on how much rain has fallen. Visitors to Kolsai will find human as well as natural history here. A keen observer will see white buildings nestled into the hillside. These belonged to the Communist leaders of Kazakhstan.
Lake 2 is much higher up at an altitude of 2250m and there is the potential that the thinner air may make you slightly breathless as you stride through the forests and meadows full of wildflowers and berries towards it from Lake 1. In winter Lake 2 is inaccessible due to heavy snows but in spring and summer tourists can enjoy a strenuous but gorgeous uphill hike of 8km to arrive at the pretty campsite on the banks of Lake 2 with rosy cheeks, muddy boots and a memory bank full of the beautiful countryside you’ve seen. Be careful on the logs across to the picnic spot by Kolsai Lake 2, I had a situation where my friend slipped and I had to jump in to save her in the deceivingly strong current, and believe me, that water is super cold!
Lake 2 and 3 are both very close to the border with Krygzystan so keep your passport with you at all times. Border guards are a constant presence in this area and special permits are needed to walk higher into the mountains.
Lake 3 is the smallest of the Kolsai Lakes and is at 2750m. The spruce forests thin out up here and are replaced by edelweiss studded grassy banks. Lake 3 is an oasis of tranquillity and peace as few visitors make it this far into the mountains. Camping at Lake 2 and hiking through the morning makes the trip longer than most plan for. If you do have a couple of days to spare, I’m told it’s absolutely worth the extra effort. Eagles and falcons can be seen dancing and swooping on the air and you might spot a bear paw print or two. If you’re tempted to dip a toe in the lake be careful though! It might look beautiful with sunlight sparkling but it’s so cold at 2 degrees that even fish can’t survive.
The adventurous traveller can extend their trip by riding horses up and over the Tien Shan into Krysgystan to visit Issykul lake. Issykul is the world’s second largest alpine lake at a staggering 170km long and 70km across. It’s name translates into ‘Hot Lake’ as the vast depth, low salt levels and thermal activity mean that even during extreme winters the water doesn’t freeze.
If you plan ahead, a swim in the vivid blue water of Issykul will wash off the dust and dirt of your recent five hour trail over the mountain passes which have brought you to an altitude of 3230 metres.
What you need to know about Kolsai Lakes
Getting to Almaty – We flew to Almaty with Fly Dubai from Dubai but many other airlines fly to this airport such as KLM, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines.
Getting from Almaty to Saty – Take the metro to Raimbek Batyr metro station. Go to the corner of Pushkin Street and Raimbek Batyr Avenue where there will be a shared taxi to Kegan (look for cars in the back right corner of the first lot (not the lot where the marshrutkas are leaving from). A shared taxi to Saty should take around 4 hours from Almaty and cost around 1000-1500 tenge per person. It will be quicker if you take another taxi from Kegan to Saty village.
Getting from Saty Village to the Kolsai Lakes – From Saty village where we stayed, you will hire taxis from there at around 1000 Tenge, it’s takes around 20 minutes.
Entrance free to Lake Kolsai – You will pay 550 tenge per person and 500 tenge for the bus, there are varying prices according to the vehicle you’re in.
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