Lower Kolsay lake while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes

Visiting Kolsay Lakes and Kaindy Lake | A Complete Guide

If you’ve heard about the breathtaking Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes in Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan mountains, and thought of visiting but are not sure how to, or what to expect, you’ve landed in the right place.

The Kolsay lakes, also called the “Pearls of the Tian Shan”, are located in Kolsay Lakes National Park, which is about a 3-4 hour drive southeast of Almaty through some seriously beautiful landscape. Kaindy Lake, which features a rare “sunken forest”, is also located in the park, although a little farther away and with no paved roads, making getting there a little more challenging. They are, however, both worth the effort, with their remoteness just adding to their beauty.

This post reviews the options on visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes and what to expect on your journey.

Note that you will also see Kolsay spelled as Kolsai. They are the same place.

About Kolsay Lakes National Park

Kolsay Lakes National Park is located in the Küngöy Ala-Too and Trans-Ili Alatau ranges of the Tian Shan mountains. Kolsay means “valley lake” in Kazakh, as these freshwater lakes, formed by the Kolsay river, lie in an alpine valley.

There are three Kolsay Lakes (conveniently named Kolsay Lake 1, 2, and 3, or lower, middle and upper). The third lake, however, is too close to the Kyrgyzstan border, so usually off limits for security reasons.

Kaindy lake, featuring an unusual “sunken forest” of Asian pines is also located in the park, although in a more remote that’s harder to access.

Most people only visit the Kolsay lakes, but it’s honestly really worth it to visit both if you can.

View of Kolsay lower lake at Kolsay Lakes National Park
Lower Kolsai Lake

To see them both, however, you really should stay in the area at least one night. With the park about 3-4 hours from Almaty, you can see the lower Kolsay Lake for a few hours and drive back, or a hour or so at each Kolsay and Kaindy, but trust me, you will want more time.

Kolsay Lakes

The Kolsay Lakes are the closest to Almaty and Kolsay Lake 1, or the lower Kolsay Lake will be the first lake you see. It’s located a short walk downhill from the parking area, about a 500 meter descent.

Lower Kolsay lake while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Lower Kolsay Lake


Lower Kolsay Lake

Although the first lake is called the lower lake, it sits at an elevation of 5,900’ (1,800 m). The lower lake area is the most popular part of the park, used for picnics, swimming, boating, fishing, and horseback riding. On weekends in the summer, it can get busy, so try to visit during the week, or after kids are back in school (September).

The scenery is jaw dropping. It’s easy to stay here for a few hours to explore the lake areas and soak in the scenery.

You can rent boats by the dock area if you want to explore the lake, or walk to the other end of the lake (pictured below). I could see people fishing down below and people riding horses from this spot on the trail. It looked lovely, and I wanted to explore, but I also wanted to hike up to the middle lake. So many choices.

Kolsay lakes lower lake while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy lakes
Lower Kolsai Lake

Before I talk about the hike up to the middle lake, however, I want to add more about the lower lake area.

Food

As it nears lunchtime, off to the side of the lower lake area, there will probably be someone making and selling barbecue. At least there was when I was here. I stopped here after my hike up to the second lake (about 12 miles round trip), so was starving and very thankful for the delicious meal!

I was able to choose between skewers of chicken, beef, or duck, marinated in sauce, then grilled over charcoal (each different prices). Yum!

Someone will also likely have Kumys, the fermented mares milk Kyrgyz drink if you want to try it (like the guy to the left in blue below). Kyrgyz are very friendly and happy to share.

Barbecue at Kolsay lakes
Barbecue At Kolsay Lake
Traditional Yurts

There are traditional Kyrgyz yurts set up here in summer (June through September), which you can rent by the night.

Things to do in Almaty, BBQ at Kolsay Lakes National Park
Yurts, Or Ger, At Kolsay Lake

Middle Kolsay Lake

The middle Kolsay lake, a 6.25 miles (10 km) hike from the parking area, is at an elevation of 7,380’ (2,250 m). This is the most beautiful of the three Kolsay Lakes. Plus, because of the challenging hike up, there are fewer people here, making it even more special. If you can make it up here, do it.

It’s steep, but if you’re in good shape, it’s doable. Make sure, however, to have good quality hiking shoes. Poles would also be helpful as there are times you are navigating muddy, tree roots jutting out along the trail. Also, the trial gets a bit rutted from the horses trekking up and down.

After coming to the end of the lower Kolsay Lake shown in the image above, you’ll enter dense forest and see the Kolskaya River running on the left side of the trail.

You can also ride a horse up, but honestly, riding a horse up the steep path seemed much more frightening to me than trying to hike.

When you finally reach the clearing, you will be amazed by the serene beauty.

Enjoying the view while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Middle Kolsai Lake
Middle Kolsay Lake

Upper Kolsay Lake

The third Kolsay lake, or upper lake is at 8,858’ (2,700 m). It’s close to the border of Kazakhstan, so usually closed for security reasons. Do not try to hike to this lake on your own.

How Much Time To Spend At Kolsay Lakes

I suggest planning to spend most of the day in the Kolsay Lake area. This allows time to enjoy and lower area and hike up to the middle lake, or other events like boating, swimming, and horseback riding.

Kaindy Lake

Kaindy Lake is more challenging to get to as there are only dirt roads for driving through mountain passes to get there. Because of this, you need a separate day to see this area.

Even with old Soviet all terrain vehicles, we were bouncing around like ping pong balls on the way here. The ride however, was beautiful. I took the photo below from inside the vehicle.

It took us over an hour to get to the parking area from Saty village, where we stayed (more on Saty below). We did, however, have to stop for a while as one passenger became too nauseous from the bumpy ride. We stopped and waited for a while she rested on the grass outside the vehicle. If you easily become car sick, visiting this lake may not be the right for you.

Drive to Kaindy while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Off-Road Driving To Get To Kaindy lake

Kaindy Lake’s Sunken Forest

The ride was worth it as Kaindy Lake is another stunner. It’s 6,600’ (2,000 m) above sea level and has a “sunken forest”. The lake was created by a landslide of limestone, triggered by an earthquake in 1911.

Sunken forest while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Sunken Forest at Kaindy lake

The sunken trees look like masts from ships sticking out of the lake. The trees are bleached and dried after being submerged for over a thousand years, yet you can still see greenery under the water (which I think may be algae).

This alpine water is cold, supposedly never more than 42.8 F (6 C), but some scuba groups do arrange trips around the trees here. See this You Tube Video showing what the trees look like under water. Beautiful!

Sunken forest while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Sunken Forest At Kaindy Lake

The limestone gives the lake its unique blue-green color. In fact, later in the afternoon, the lake became a brilliant green as the sun hit it. It was crazy beautiful against the gold leaves across the lake. I was so lucky to have such a beautiful September day for my visit.

Brilliant Colors

We walked to various points around the lake, including an area that a local Kazakh told me was called the ‘love door’. To get here, we had to walk on logs and in the freezing water (below). Unfortunately, I don’t know the details as to why it’s called this, but it was fun to take turns navigating across the wet logs.

‘Love Door’ At Kaindy Lake

This post may use affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you choose to make a booking or purchase through one of these links. This is at no additional cost to you. If you find my content helpful, please consider booking through me as it is completely win win!

How To Get To Kolsay And Kaindy Lakes

Tours

The easiest way to get to a Kolsay Lakes National Park is to take a tour. There are two options here. You can either day a day tour, which is pretty tight and doesn’t leave much time to explore the sites, or you can stay overnight in the area and enjoy both the lakes and Charyn Canoyn more fully (which I recommend).

If you’re really set on the day trip, I recommend this tour: Kolsai Kaindy Lakes and Charyn Canyon small-group tour. This tour meets picks up at a set location in Almaty and makes a very short stop at the Black Canyon part of Charyn Canyon, then spends an hour and a half at Kaindy Lake, an hour at Kolsay Lake and then makes one more short stop at Charyn Canyon on the way back, where you can walk inside the canyon.

The other tour, Kolsai Kaindy Lakes with Charyn Canyon 2-day small-group tour, provides more time. It actually meets at the same pick up point as the tour above. On the first day you stop at both Charyn Canyon and spend time at Kolsay Lake. On day two, you explore Kaindy lake and make another stop at the Yellow Canyon portion of Charyn Canyon on the way back.

The Tourist Center in Almaty will also have tour options. This is who I booked my tour through. It was 2 nights on a bus that held about 36 people and se stayed at a local guesthouse in Saty. You see the Kolsay Lakes area on the first day (with enough time to hike up to the middle lake, ride a horse, and have a BBQ) and Kaindy Lake day on the second. We also made a short stop at Charyn Canyon National Park on the way back.

Admittedly, my tour was mostly in Russian. Our guide did speak English, but 99% of the people on the tour were Kazakh citizens, so he spoke to them. The Kazakh’s are so nice, they all helped translate everything to me and the one other non-Kazakh in the group. You can read more about my tour below.

Self-Drive

Kazakh driving is on the right side of the road. To drive here, you will need an International Driving permit from your home country in additional to your drivers license.

The roads are paved and in good condition to Kolsay Lakes National Park, but to get to the Kaindy Lake area, you need a 4 x 4 vehicle to drive over the rough mountain passes.

If you want to just see the Kolsai Lakes (and possibly stop at Charyn Canyon below), I think self-driving is not a bad option. If you want to also see Kaindy Lake, I would look for alternatives. Renting a vehicle can also be pricey, so best for a group. If you’re traveling solo, see if you can find others to join you to share the cost.

Marshrutka To Saty

There is supposedly a marshrutka from the Sayakhat Bus Station in Almaty to Saty, which is located between Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes, making it a great place to stay. They reportedly leave at 6 AM in the morning. You will read about this marshrutka, and hear about it, but no one ever seems to have really taken it, so I suspect it’s lore from the past. If you want to try this, I suggest arriving a day in advance to verify it’s still running. Or ask at the Tourist Center In Almaty.

An alternative is to take a marshrutka to Kegen (east of Saty) and ask to be dropped off at the turnoff to Kolsay Lakes. From there it’s still a long way, about 43 miles (70 km) to Saty or 50 (80 km) to the lakes, so you will need to catch a taxi or hitchhike the rest of the way.

Taxi

A taxi to Saty guesthouse from the Kok Tobe Gondola in Almaty is expensive, about $100 USD plus each way as of August 2023 (using the Yandex taxi app). The ride to Kolsay Lakes itself is similar in cost.

Note that for Kaindy Lake, you need a 4 x 4 vehicle to get there. If this is in your plans, ask your homestay if they can help with this type of transportation. They may not speak much English though, so be prepared to translate. Also, Kaindy Lake is 5 miles (8 km) from the park entrance, so make sure your driver agrees to take you all the way to the lake, and not just drop you off at the entrance.

Hitchhiking

Locals often act as taxi drivers for a fee in Kazakhstan, so although this is an option, you need to decide if you feel safe enough doing this. You never know if you’ll end up with someone honest or not. I did this in Kyrgyzstan and got lucky with amazing drivers, but have also heard bad stories.

Negotiate the price before you get in. I’ve read people being told the price quoted was per person at the end of the trip, so be very clear what exactly you are getting a price for. This is not easy when most people only speak Kazakh and Russian, but can be done with gestures, your phone calculator, and help with Google translate (make sure you download it in advance though).

I would also download the map of Kazakhstan in maps.me in advance. Then you can track your path to Saty along your journey WiFi free. Even better, if you’re staying in Saty, drop a pin at your accommodation so you can find it easily.

Hitchhiking to Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes from Saty is possible, but there are very, very few vehicles driving in this area, so you may end up walking the entire distance. It all depends on how adventurous you want to be.

My Tour Experience

The tour was only offered on weekends (probably because it was mostly locals). The bus left close to the tourist center Friday night at about 10 PM. As you get to the homestay around 3 AM, you need to try to sleep on the bus. Upon arrival at the homestay, we immediately went to our beds, as breakfast was early.

When we arrived, we were driven to several different homestays in Saty, with 5-10 assigned to each. Groups of beds were in different rooms.

Homestay for visit to Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Homestay

Our homestay did not have running water inside the house, although there was heat and electricity. The bathrooms, however, were outhouses. There was also no shower, but there was a spigot outside the house to wash up and brush your teeth. I was fine with the simplicity of this.

Homestay sink while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Bathroom Sink 🤣

The homes are very simple and provide insight into what life was like throughout Kazakhstan not long ago (and obviously still is here). Raising cows, horses, and goats is a way of life here.

Homestay while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Life Near the Homestay

Home-cooked meals from a simple stove, were served family style. The kind fueled by fire, not electricity.

Homestay while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
Home-Cooked Meals


Visiting Kolsai Lake – Day 1

We were up early for breakfast our first day to visit the lakes at Kolsay Lakes National Park with plenty of time to walk the lower and middle lake, swim or horseback ride.

Later that afternoon, we drove back to our homestay for dinner, which was homemade dumplings filled with meat, salad, and bread. Some of the homestay offered bonfires for evening entertainment. However, we were all pretty tired from little sleep the night before and hiking all day.

Visiting Kaindy Lake – Day 2

The second day, we were up early and fed breakfast before taking the Soviet all terrain vehicles over the mountain passes to Kaindy Lake. A half day is easily enough time to enjoy this lake. In the afternoon we drove back to our homestay for lunch and to pick up our bags before returning to Almaty.

This post may use affiliate links. This means I may make a small commission if you choose to make a booking or purchase through one of these links. This is at no additional cost to you. If you find my content helpful, please consider booking through me as it is completely win win!

Where To Stay For Kolsai And Kaindy Lakes

Saty

The closest city to both lake areas is Saty (Саты), which offers many, inexpensive, simple homestays, usually with meals. Many do not offer online booking, but you can find some listed on Booking.com in Saty. Some also do not accept card payment, so also make sure to bring cash!

If you visit during the week, you should be able to find space upon arrival. Some offer indoor plumbing, while some don’t, so if you have a strong preference, research the details in advance.

Kolsay Lakes

Camping spaces are available in the Kolsay Lake area, both near the lower and middle lakes areas. There will be an additional charge at the entrance for this. There are also some cottages Jibek Joly Cottages. You can try to reach them in advance via email.

There are also lakefront yurts and some a little farther off (for less). I would try to arrange this in advance, as they may book up quickly is summer season. These yurts are only here June through September. Not October through May.

Keep in mind that the temperatures will be cooler in the elevation here. Much cooler than Almaty, especially in the evening. Make sure to bring warm clothes if staying overnight. Also, storms can blow in quickly, so be prepared with rain gear as well.

This is mostly wild camping, although there are some drop toilets in areas. Bring your own toilet paper for these!

Kaindy Lake

Camping spaces are also available at Kaindy Lake. Follow the same guidelines noted above for Kolsay Lake camping.

Where To Stay In Almaty

Shoestring

  • Art Hostel is a 6-bedroom very basic mixed dorm, but located within walking distance of some of the main sites here, including the tourist center noted above. This is where I stayed and for the price, I enjoyed it, liked the people, and felt safe. 

Budget

Moderate

  • If you want something more grand, but want to avoid the international chain hotels here, try the Kazakhstan Hotel (I always try to choose local over big chains). This historic Soviet era hotel, located by Kök Töbe Gondola, is a 4-star hotel. Reviewers note it’s a little dated, but renovation seems to be going on. It’s known for its views of the Zailiyskiy Alatau snow peaks.

When To Visit Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes

May to late September are generally the best months weather-wise. I visited late September and was rewarded with stunning weather, with leaves just starting to turn gold. This is also when kids are back in school, so even though I was there on the weekend, it was not too crowded.

May and June may require spray to keep the ticks away. April is known for heavy rains, so maybe not be best for an outdoor adventure. At least not for this desert girl. There can also still be snow at higher elevations (like the middle Kolsay lake).

Keep in mind that this park is in the mountains and at a high elevation, so it will be cooler than in Almaty. Even in summer it can get very chilly at night. Bring warm clothes if staying at night (and a warm sleeping bag if camping).

Charyn Canyon National Park

After visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes, our tour stopped on the way back to Almaty to take photos at Charyn Canyon. It’s about mid-way between the two.

This canyon is in Charyn National Park and looks like a mini Grand Canyon, carved over a million years from the Charyn River. It’s about 96 miles (154 km) long with different areas based on different rock formations. They include; the Bestamik Canyon, Black Canyon, Red Canyon, Valley of Castles, Temirlik Canyon, and Yellow Canyon. The most popular one, or the one most tours stops at is the Valley of the Castles.

Charyn National Park

We stopped at Black Canyon for about 30 minutes. Admittedly, other areas of the canyon look much more beautiful, so I suggest adding this on as a separate trip if you take the same tour option I did. If you self-drive, or travel independently, you’ll have more options. Ideally an overnight stay (or two) would allow you to explore more of the canyon. The tourist center can help with this also.

Best Time To Visit Charyn Canyon

The best time to visit Charyn Canyon is April to June and September and October as summertime temperatures inside the canyon can get quite hot. If you’re just looking for the top, warmer summer months may be OK.

Charyn Canyon | MrPanyGoff

Although this tour was a little grueling (no showers and little sleep), the price, the people, and the amazing scenery made up for it in leaps and bounds. I would do it again in a heatbeat!

Kazakh friends made while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes
My New Kazakh Friends

Not only was I amazed at the beauty of these lakes, but after two days, I had made new Kazakh friends. They really are extremely nice, and likable, people!

What To Bring

Because this alpine park is a distance away, and in a very rural area, it’s best to bring water and any snacks you’ll want for your trip. Good hiking shoes are required for any hiking, as well as typical basics like sunscreen, a rain jacket, and a swim suit and towel. There are some non-flush toilets by the parking area, but never any paper, so it’s best to bring some with you, as well hand sanitizer.

Note that as these lakes are near the border, it’s possible guards will request to see your passport, so please bring it with you.

Other Things To See And Do In Kazakhstan

In addition to visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes, there’s a staggering wealth of natural beauty in Kazakhstan. It offers so much for the outdoor enthusiast.

To learn more about Almaty, which makes an ideal base for exploring Kazakhstan, see my post on the Best Things To Do In Almaty.

Another must-see alpine lake near Almaty is Big Almaty Lake. This alpine lake is much closer to Almaty, but still a little challenging to get to. See my post to see how to get there and what to expect.

And for a comprehensive overview of Kazakhstan, including money matters, safety, scams, visa information, and more, to help plan your independent trip, see my Kazakhstan Travel Guide.

Safe Travels!

Julie

To learn more about me and my philosophy on travel, read my About Me page.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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