Sitting some 80km to the northeast of Almaty, Lake Kapchagai is actually a large reservoir, 100km long and 22km wide at its widest point, formed by the damming of the Ile River in the late 1960s to provide hydro-electric power and more irrigated land. The construction of the dam has however proved harmful to Lake Balkhash, starving it of some of the Ile River waters so vital to it. Lake Kapchagai offers warm waters and sandy beaches, and has become a favoured summer weekend destination for Almaty-dwellers keen to escape the heat of the city, for whom the Kapshagay Reservoir is like the Riviera.
Located at the western end of the lake, close to the dam, the town of Kapchagai was established in 1970, accompanying the construction of the hydro-electric power station. It is a town of Soviet-era apartment blocks and green boulevards. A statue of Lenin stands in front of the building housing the town administration. Across the square is a statue of Dinmuhammed Kunaev, former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and instrumental in the decisions to build the dam and establish the town. In the rather unkempt park behind this statue is a war memorial, protected by three artillery pieces.
It takes more than an hour to reach the town of Kapshagay; pass through it, then cross the dam for 20 kilometres in the direction of Taldykorgan. Just over two kilometres after crossing a railroad, you turn right and enter the Zona otdykha. Here, a small payment gives you access to a water wonderland crowded with leisure-seeking city dwellers, where resort-style waterskiing, banana boating, swimming and beach volleyball is the order of the clay. In most places the water is rather shallow, so you have to walk far out to swim. While many visitors from Almaty come to Lake Kapchagai as a day trip, there are many holiday cottage options here, some of which are looking down at heel.
The town of Kapchagai and the area surrounding it have been targeted for major investment. Under legislation introduced in 2007, Kapchagai is one of only two places in Kazakhstan, along with Schuchinsk/Borovoye, in which casinos and other gambling establishments are now permitted. Proposals for major gambling- focused resort complexes are being drawn up. One proposal envisages the road running between Almaty and Kapchagai as the fulcrum of a ribbon development to be called G4 City. This proposes four new satellite towns: Gate City, the closest to Almaty, will focus on business and commerce; Golden City will be a gambling hub; Growing City, an industrial zone; and finally, along the banks of the lake, Green City, combining residential accommodation with parkland.
A massive, multi-million dollar Las Vegas-style entertainment complex is being developed. A swimming and leisure resort called Zhanga Ile - boasting at least 42,000 hotel rooms - is to be built on 11 million square metres on the northwest bank, and gamblers from China, Russia, India, the Arab states and Europe are expected to spend their money in this new "Kaz Vegas". (A new airport will be built to ensure their comfortable arrival.) Should these plans come to fruition, the future will see a huge urban conglomeration where at present the steppe stretches away left and right of the road.