The remoteness of Central Asia means it’s a region that tends to attract only the most intrepid travellers, keen to explore arid steppes sprinkled with yurt-dwelling nomad communities and serrated mountain scenery. But it seems that more and more people these days are flocking to this part of the world to revel in its natural splendour – in particular, its multitude of turquoise alpine lakes.
Here are five of the region’s finest.
Lake Kaindy, near Almaty, is a sunken forest of silvery spruce trees
The ethereal Lake Kaindy lies 129km from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, in the Tian Shan mountains. This 400 metre-long lake was created in 1911 when an earthquake triggered a landslide that formed a natural limestone dam and – over time – the forested valley floor flooded with rainwater. Normally, trees would rot when submerged for decades but thanks to the freezing temperature of the water, they’ve been preserved to extraordinary effect; the silvery bark of the dead spruce trunks protruding eerily out of the almost unnaturally bright blue water. For more intrepid travellers, the lake is popular with divers looking to explore this sunken forest, with even pine needles preserved beneath the water, resembling shipwrecks. After a day’s expedition to Lake Kaindy, spend the evening in the garden complete with decorated yurt at the characterful Alma Cinema Hostel in Almaty.
The alpine lake of Song Köl is set 3000 metres above sea level
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and the place to base yourself for visiting the alpine lake of Song Köl. Set 3000 metres above sea level in the northern Naryn Province, this lake is a lot smaller than Issyk-Kul but no less sensational. It’s nearly 30km long and 20km wide and is bordered by undulating mountain peaks and meadows known as 'jailoos', where Kyrgyz herdsmen graze their livestock during the summer months. Staying in a yurt (a white, circular tent typical of the region) hosted by a nomad family is an unforgettable experience – you can spend the evening watching the sun set softly behind the snowy mountains with eagles soaring over the plains, tasting local food, watching traditional music performances and enjoying exceptional stargazing. Stay at Futuro Hotel in Bishkek, just two minutes’ walk from the city’s central Chuy Prospekt.
Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan
Head to the town of Cholpon Alta to visit 25-million-year-old salt lake, Issyk-Kul
The town of Cholpon Ata sits on the northern shore of the world’s second-largest salt lake, Issyk-Kul, backed by the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountain range. Experts believe the lake to be around 25 million years old, while local petroglyphs carved onto glacial boulders here date back to the Bronze Age, depicting the hunting of deer, snow leopards and ibexes. It’s a place that’s primed for outdoor adventures, including trekking, climbing, kayaking, skiing and horse-riding depending on the season. In summer, the clear waters are warm enough for a swim or – thanks to the salinity – a float, followed by a spot of sunbathing on one of the lake’s beaches (cover yourself in the mineral-rich mud for a back-to-basics but effective spa treatment). In winter, the scene is one of sweeping white snow but because of the salt, the lake never freezes, despite the high altitude and the temperature often falling below zero (Issyk-Kul means ‘hot lake’ in Kyrgyz). Stay at Maksat Guest House, right on the edge of Issyk-Kul.
Lake Burabay is something of an oasis on the steppe (the country’s expansive savannah)
250km north of the Kazakh capital of Astana, you’ll find Lake Burabay amid the foothills of Kokshe Tau (‘Blue Mountain’), a national park of sage-green waters and dense pine forest. It’s something of an oasis on the steppe (the country’s expansive savannah), the road to get there cutting right through the centre of the lonesome landscape. Around the water the scenery suddenly transforms to be more reminiscent of Norway, with contoured cliffs, murmuring streams, wildlife and butterflies that wouldn’t be seen anywhere for a hundred-mile radius. Climb up one of the surrounding hills and you’ll be able to see the strange contrast of the desert landscape behind. Or hire a bike from the town of Burabay on the edge of the lake and follow the path that weaves through the trees along the northern shore. Stay at Konfor Hotel Burabay and relax in the sauna after a day out hiking around the lake.
Barmashino is a place to come and unwind on a revitalizing break
Barmashino is a town beside the small Shchuchie Lake, located only a few kilometres from Lake Burabay. Deep in the Akmola region, the rural surrounds feature rivers and lakes that cut through fertile soil, while golden birch groves grow up the mountainside. With its deep blue surface reflecting the misty blue peaks of the Kokshe Mountains, it’s a place to come and unwind on a revitalizing break – the water is lined with luxurious spa hotels that promise just that. And it only takes 20 minutes to drive from Shchuchie Lake to Lake Burabay, so you could kill two birds with one stone. Stay just a 20-minute walk from the lake at Park House Kokshetau.