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Kolsay Lakes

The Kungey Alatau range is centred on a ridge running east to west, which lies on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, south and east of the Zailysky Alatau. The most picturesque spot in the Kungey Alatau is a group of three mountain lakes which lie between northern spurs of the range.

Many of those who trek to Issyk Kul choose to start in the valley of the interconnected Kolsay lakes, partly because of its great natural beauty, but also because it leads over the relatively easy Sarybulak Pass. However, whether you are heading over the pass or simply visiting the lakes before returning to Almaty, several days should be set aside to fully appreciate what the lakes have to offer.

Situated in the northern branches of the Kungey Alatau range, this valley in the upper reaches of the River Shelek can be easily reached on foot from the village of Saty. A bus from Almaty to Saty runs once a day, taking six hours to complete the journey.

To get to this place, the Kolsai Lakes, head east from Almaty on the road to Kegen. Just before reaching the Charyn River, turn right on a road passing through the local administrative capital of Zhalanash, and then the village of Saty (the closest place to the lakes served by public transport from Almaty). Beyond Saty, you are charged a park fee to proceed further. Some 295km from Almaty, at a height of some 1,700m above sea level, you reach the lower Kolsai Lake, which is also rather prosaically known as Kolsai 1.

The lakes are in idyllic locations amidst evergreen-covered slopes. The two lower lakes offer fine trout fishing. From Kolsai 1, it is a hike or ride of around 9km to Kolsai 2, the largest and some argue most beautiful of the three, which sits at an altitude of 2,250m.

А hike of a couple of kilometres between these lakes and you'll quickly find yourself virtually alone with nature and a plentiful choice of prime camping grounds next to sweet, babbling brooks. About 10 kilometres and 450 metres in altitude brings you to the equally beautiful second Kolsay Lake-the track along the stream to get there is renowned among mushroom gatherers and trout fishermen. In a side branch of the valley are some stables where you can get a snack of kefir and kumis.

From the middle lake to the smaller and highest of the lakes Verkhny (Upper) Kolsay lake at 2800m, the ice-cold water of which hints at the proximity of the nearby glaciers and where the forests give way to alpine grasslands, is about 4km and three hours’ walking. If you want to camp here, make sure you are prepared for night temperatures below zero. It is not recommended to stay here off-season, from September to June. The third Kolsay Lake is situated at 2,670 metres, but in spite of that, there is still lavish vegetation. The tree line is at 2,800 metres, beyond which you enter wonderful meadows filled with gentian, edelweiss, yellow poppy and calendula, willowherb and lady's mantel.

Before some travel agencies offer treks from the Kolsai Lakes across the Sarybulak Pass, at 3,270m on the border with Kyrgyzstan, and from there down to Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. This was the shortest and probably the easiest (though this is relative) of the several trekking routes over the Tian Shan to Issyk Kul. But it’s no longer permitted to hike south from the upper lake over the Sarybulak Pass to Kyrgyzstan, thanks to the closure of the ‘green border’ between the two countries; camping has been forbidden since 2008, in accordance with the area's new status as a national park.  And as long as camping is impossible, you cannot trek to Issyk Kul, since the trip cannot be done without an overnight stop.

Another attractive mountain lake on the northern slopes of the Kungey Alatau lies to the east of the Kolsai Lakes.

The geologically very young Lake Kayindy was only formed in 1887, the result of an avalanche after a tremendous earthquake. The valley was blocked and the Kayindy River gradually swelled into a lake. The pressure of so much water broke part of the natural barrier 50 years later, and today the lake is somewhat smaller. What sets this lake apart from the many other picturesque bodies of water in this region are the drowned fir trees of the original valley floor, whose tops stick out of the water like the masts of a fleet of ancient shipwrecks.

Lake Kayindy is situated in a valley east of the first Kolsay Lake. It can be reached from the road to Kolsay Lake by turning left about one kilometre before Saty, next to the cemetery, and from there along a track which leads to the picturesque river valley of around nine kilometres before the nature reserve's checkpoint appears, requiring small entrance fee; you then continue for another four kilometres down to the lake-a 4WD is preferable for this track if you're not hiking, but walking is by far the nicest way to get here; the track is not difficult; the distance from Saty is only 15 kilometres and the difference in altitude only 600 metres.

Kayindy means "place of birches", and the lake is known for a large wood of these attractive trees that you must pass through shortly before reaching the lake, and which is unexpected at this altitude.

Getting There & Away - A minibus to Saty (eight hours) normally leaves Almaty’s Sayakhat bus station at or soon after 7am. Alternatively, take one to Zhalanash and find a ride for the 25km to Saty. Many people visit the lakes on two-night tours: an economical option is weekend bus trips. The first night is in the bus, travelling from Almaty.