• Aaron

Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan- off-road

A tight section of the 4wd track at the bottom of Charyn Canyon

We had a fascinating nine days between setting setting off from Kazakhstan’s beautiful Almaty city and entering Kyrgyzstan. We’re now on the doorstep of some of some truly awe-inspiring places and getting increasingly excited about the coming stages of this expedition. In Kyrgyzstan I’ve got some incredible 4wd routes plotted through mountain passes higher than the peak of New Zealand’s Mount Cook, and we'll go even higher again in Tajikistan! Actually, we've now completed one of those high altitude routes in Kyrgyzstan in in the last couple of days. But before I get too far ahead of myself, the focus of this blog post will be on the route we used to exit from Kazakhstan. I have some fantastic photos to share in this post, some of which you may have seen posted on Instagram/Facebook, but this post contains a much fuller set of images.

We didn’t follow the sealed road too far out of Almaty before abandoning it in favour of a scenic off-road route through the mountains. From there we went on to explore an ‘otherworldly’ desert, followed by Kazakhstan’s own version of America’s Grand Canyon - and it was no less spectacular! Finally, we ventured higher into forested green mountains with some interesting high-altitude lakes near the border with Kyrgyzstan.

Mostly I’ll let the photos speak for themselves here. I’ve also produced a short 2 minute video showing our exploration of Charyn Canyon, which you can view further down the page, or on my YouTube channel here.

Photo Set One – Our off-road route out of Almaty

This route started off in a valley with a crystal clear (and icy cold!) river gushing down it. As such, this valley was lush green and beautiful. So long as our route followed the river our surroundings remained green, however by the end of this route we were essentially back out into arid desert, with temperatures hovering at 37 degrees Celsius through to around 7pm. It was amazing how the terrain contrasted from lush green to arid desert in a relatively small distance - the following sequence of images shows that transition quite well.

Photo Set Two – the Altyn Emyl National Park

This fascinating otherworldly desert setting contained a number of unique features and landscapes. In the following photo it will assist you to accurately gauge the scale if you recognise that the small black dot near the peak is a person walking up the ridge line of the sand dune.

Within this desert exists a wet green area where the willow tree in the photos below is said to be 700 years old! I’ve mentioned previously that I love these green oasis-like places to be found deep within miles of arid desert terrain. A spring comes up here and flows clear water, supporting a small sanctuary of green that is so peaceful to visit and provides a much appreciated respite from the harsh desert surroundings.

Next up in this spectacular desert was an area containing unusual rocks that looked as if they'd be more at home on Mars! The kids had a great time here scrambling all over the unusual rocks, locating the various nooks and crannies that made awesome hiding places.

This magnificent desert had one further treat in store; an area with tremendous desert landscapes and vibrant contrasting colours. We camped here. This was a special place and well worth the visit.

I snapped this next photo early in the morning while the family were still sleeping.

The route we took to enter and depart from this area didn’t offer up as many opportunities to refill with diesel as we had become accustomed to in Mongolia, where fuel stations were aplenty. The long range fuel tank fitted to the Pajero ahead of this trip proved it's worth here especially, as I know I would have been getting rather stressed indeed about being out in the desert with my main tank showing just 1/4 remaining! At the flick of a switch I have another full-size fuel tank on reserve, so we can typically travel between 1,000 and 1,300 kilometres before needing to find a fuel station.

Photo Set three – Charyn Canyon

I’ve twice previously visited America’s 'Grand Canyon', and though most have probably never heard of Kazakhstan’s 'Charyn Canyon', I’d have to say it’s also extremely impressive. We explored it from above before descending to the canyon floor on various 4wd tracks that we were able to find. We spent two nights here, camped beside the river in different locations within the canyon. The river flowed clear water and offered up some great swimming!

This next photo, taken from the drone, shows our approach overland towards the canyon. You'll have to look closely to see the small black dot that is the mighty Pajero!

Further photos from our time in and around the canyon:

The next four photos weren't right in the canyon, but rather en route - a great spot for a lunch stop and swim.

If you've not seen it yet, here's the short video showing highlights of our Charyn Canyon exploration.

Photo Set Four – Kolsai Lakes

The 'sunken forest' at Kaindy Lake

After all that arid desert terrain, it may surprise you to know that the Kolsai Lakes, with its complete change in scenery, can be reached in around two hours drive from Charyn Canyon. The Kolsai lakes are situated in forested mountains at between 1,700 metres and 2,500 metres altitude, (Charyn Canyon is 1,300 metres) so the two hour drive entails a significant shift in climate too. The two lakes that we visited were beautiful, with Kaindy lake also featuring something a little unusual, being the 'sunken forest' pictured above.

Where are we now and what’s coming next

Our final camp in Kazakshtan, near the Kyrgyzstan border, which we crossed the following morning

Kazakhstan side of the border on the left, shortly after entering Kyrgyzstan on the right

When I began drafting this post we were in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, and I thought that is where I would publish this post. But it's a constant job trying to keep on top of blogging and producing videos etc while also planning routes (and actually driving them!), attending to vehicle maintenance and a multitude of other core daily tasks. The end result is that we moved on from Karakol before I could get around to publishing this post and are now in the small town of Naryn.

The terrain map above shows that Naryn is getting well into the high mountains of Central Asia; indeed we reached Naryn off-road via the 3,893 metre Tosor Pass. This was an absolutely spectacular route and the highest I've ever driven, but I'll save a description and photos of that route for the next blog post. The next post will reveal that, for the most part, we've traded desert landscapes for high altitude alpine environments. Two weeks ago we were sweltering in 37 degrees in Kazakhstan's deserts, but more recently in Kyrgyzstan we've finally had my home made 4kw diesel-electric heater down from the roof-rack keeping the tent cozy.

We’re slow travellers it would seem. Having taken two months in Mongolia alone, we are running slightly behind the original plan I set out prior to this trip commencing – not that that was ever intended to be set in stone. Indeed, the freedom we have to adjust our itinerary and timings along our route is one of the things we cherish about this form of independent travel. That said, on an expedition of this kind across Central Asia one should correctly time the crossing through Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains. Typically the best time is mid July through September; this because whilst Uzbekistan’s deserts lying beyond these giant 7,500 metre high mountains will be sweltering in summertime heat, the up to 4,600 metre high route that we will follow through the Pamirs will be at its relative best, with the most snow melted. Of course, when adventuring above 4,000 metres one must be mindful of the risk of snow at any time of year (we're driving higher than the peak of New Zealand’s Mount Cook!). Broadly, we appear to be roughly on schedule and are really looking forward to what lies ahead.

As this is the final post on Kazakhstan I'll end with the usual country specific section:


  • welcoming, helpful, generous people

  • terrible roads, especially small ones: lots of potholes - some patched up, uneven surfaces. However, extensive road works are underway across the country and in the not too distant future Kazakhstan's should have improved substantially

  • 2,000 tenge (8 NZD) for a SIM card with 30Gb mobile data

  • cheap diesel! About NZ 75 cents per litre

  • cheap groceries - as little as one quarter to one fifth New Zealand grocery prices

  • lots and lots of amazing, cheap fruit - all kinds of melons, berries and stone fruit

  • hitchhikers everywhere:  mostly locals trying to catch a ride home

  • lots of old, closed down petrol stations. Generally fewer petrol stations than in Mongolia and some that you'd prefer to avoid

  • shop till you drop. Almaty is the place! It has the best shopping malls across Central Asia for every taste and budget. Generally Almaty is a beautiful city with all the mod cons

  • We weren't stopped by Police in Kazakhstan so have no direct experiences to share. Kazakhstan police (along with much of Central Asia) don't have a great reputation. That said, we understand from locals that there is currently increased focus on combating police corruption in Kazakhstan, with police officers now required to wear cameras - not just to capture the actions of the bad guys, but of the police themselves!


  • people to speak English, but Russian was commonly spoken (of assistance to Sylwia only) and Google translator was (as always) very handy

  • to be able to make card payments in little towns. Cards were accepted just about anywhere in big cities like Almaty

  • ATM instructions to be in English in little towns - even when given a choice of languages, the machines often reverted back to Russian (or Kazakh - I can't tell!). No such issues experienced in Almaty

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