If you ask half of the southerners in Kazakhstan what one must visit “nearby”, Kolsai lakes would be high on the list.
We started our journey from Almaty to the southeastern part of the country where the Kungey Alatau mountain range opens its grand shoulders. It was a crowded bus with a lot of other folks from Kazakhstan, but also from abroad (UK, USA, Russia). The ride was quite long, around 300 km, and I believe it took about 5-6 hours to get to the nearest ‘aul’ – a Kazakh village – that is situated not far from the lakes. We left in the evening (10 pm), and arrived in Satti very early in the morning (around 4 am). From Kazakh, ‘satti’ translates as successful or prosperous. This village has been a part of the ecotourism in the area, and you can book home stays in advance, or possibly negotiate on the spot (but isn’t advisable since the number of accommodations is limited), and you can choose to stay at the house or the yurt. I’d say the best months to visit the lakes would be around July-August for comfortable weather and the richly colored ‘jailau’ (green pastures), since both are located in the mountains, and if you want to stay in a yurt, it would be much warmer than the fall or spring months (however still cold at night). We visited during the month of July, but I would love to go back in winter. It must turn into a snow-capped wonderland. Saved for my next trip!
Arriving so early in the morning was god-given, as that’s the time when the aul begins to “wake up”, and all the sheep, goats, and horses go off to the jailau. I couldn’t sleep and decided to take a walk around, looking at the houses, admiring the landscape, and drinking in the peace of this place. This early on though most of the residents I came across were cows. We exchanged a few glances, but it was mostly me interested in them. While I was trying to assess how our communication could work out, a cute ‘aje’ (old lady) saw me and smiled.
I guess she could tell I was an etranger in this aul. She invited me to her house, and I watched her milk the cow as she prepared for the day. She asked where I was from, and if I came here to see the lakes. We chatted for a bit, and I was off to see what/who else I could stumble upon.
The aul is surrounded by hills and mountains, with lots of winding roads and cute houses nested under the huge, broad sky. My highlight of the morning was when all of the little sheep and goats were waiting by each of the house fences to be picked up to go to the jailau for the day with the rest of their friends from the aul. They seemed impatient, especially the little ones, jumping up and down, eager to get out into the “wild”. It reminded me of little kids waiting to go to kindergarten… The dog, who was actually our host family’s, was so skillful at organizing everyone, including people, and making sure no one was left behind, it was seriously impressive. I guess his life in an aul must be rich with green days, socializing with or disciplining the naughty sheep/goats, and much exercise. Sounds good to me!
With much to smile about, I headed back to the yurt. Having fallen asleep like little gophers, our hosts had to knock many times for us to wake up for hot morning tea. Per Kazakh tradition, we had tea with milk (which was too rich for us city folks), but it was a nice way to start the day. We continued our way to the table by the hosts’ house for more breakfast. In the pictures, you can see the mix of Kazakh and Russian breakfast choices: traditional Kazakh fried dumplings called ‘baursaq’ and tomatoes with cucumbers, as well as jam, ‘pryaniki’ (Russian ginger bread), and ‘sushki’ (crunchy and sweet bread rings). There are also sweets from the famous Kazakh confectionery brand called “Rakhat” (my personal favorite). Overall, a nice morning!
Speaking of the hosts, the father of the family, Elchebai agha, seemed to know everyone and everything going on around this area. He recommended to come back to the aul, where he could take us to hidden places that no one knows of, except for the local residents. Intriguing, no? In terms of the others who were staying with us, we shared our larger yurt with 3 people: 2 cute little boys and their Mom (from Kazakhstan), and at the nearby smaller yurt stayed a Kazakh family of 3 – a Mom with her two kids who grew up in the US. Both of the families were great fun and we made new friends with whom we could admire the landscape and share a few stories.
After breakfast we finally started our short journey to the national park. The view when entering the premises already looked promising. You can rent horses to go to the 1st lake, but we ended up walking as it was an amazing and beautiful day out, and the hike seemed more like a promenade. Here are some of the highlights, with all shades of blue and green that you can imagine:
As you might have guessed, the lakes do offer some nice trout fishing spots. But do keep in mind that this is a national park and should be treated as one 🙂 It was a bit frustrating to watch people pick up flowers or other herbs for their personal use, when the park clearly asks visitors not to do that. Please be mindful when you visit, it is such a beautiful place with such a rich and saturated array of colors, it would be awful to endanger that.
As for the spruce trees, they are quite pointy, aren’t they? They are called the Tian Shan spruce, or the Asian spruce, and this kind is native only to these mountains, growing up to about 60 meters in height. These little spikes of wonder always make me think of home (Almaty region), they are so perky and make the hills look like resting porcupines. I can’t imagine Tian Shan without them, and here they are in their full glory. What do they look like to you?
On the way back, we also saw a few of the “sacred trees”, an influence of the Tengriist religion that is present in many customs and beliefs of ancient and even modern Kazakhs, one of which is the belief that trees are sacred and unite the underworld with the sky. You can easily spot them by the strings of fabric attached to the branches. People usually make a wish or a prayer when tying the strings (any fabric that you have) and leaving it there. Across Kazakhstan you will find trees like this, which are believed to have a special aura and powers that consequently draws people to them. In some places, people will travel far and close for a single tree, which is said to hold a certain healing or life-changing power, to hang a strip of cloth to it and make a wish.
After the pleasant hike, we sunbathe near the lake, with a beautiful view (duh! I guess it’s a given). On our way back to the aul, we also come across a sweet Kazakh family selling ‘qymyz’ (mare’s milk).
When we get back to “our place” in Satti, the hosting family has already butchered the sheep and everyone is involved in it, from little kids to grandparents. It all started and finished before we knew it, and everyone was very efficient with sorting the parts of the animal, cleaning it and preparing the fur. I know some of my friends will cringe at the sight of this, but this is part of the nomadic tradition of providing for the family and eating a meal. To many people, having no meat is like having no meal.
While all of the meat-related procedures were taking place, our aje host was cleaning the guts, as you really have to “get in there” to make sure they’ve been thoroughly emptied and cleaned. As it takes a bit of time, I warmed up into a chat with the grandma about life in this aul. I assumed she was from there, but in the end, not at all. Before she moved here, she was a city girl who had never really been in an aul or spoken much of Kazakh. For university she studied in Ukraine to become a teacher, and was finally sent to this village to teach, as they were short on staff. She liked her life there, but didn’t expect what unraveled to be a lifelong commitment (in many ways). She had seen her “future husband” out and about the aul, but didn’t pay much attention. Apparently that wasn’t the case for him and his family, who quickly laid their eyes on her and decided she was the best match for him. Sooner than she had imagined, his father approached her and, while telling her about his son and the great catch that he is, asked her whether she’d marry him. As expected, the immediate response was nothing short of “NO!”, but before she knew it, the father dropped his hat on the ground, and said that if she dares to step over it, then he will not approach her again. FYI, in Kazakh culture that is considered a really serious and challenging sign of respect. She could not find the courage to step over it, and accepted her fate. Now, many years later, she says she likes her life here, speaking Kazakh, growing accustomed to his family, adapting to the expectations of being a “kelin” (daughter-in-law), cooking and raising children, as well as teaching at the local school… Here she is.
In terms of the rest of the family, the daughter of the two grandparents lives in Almaty and travels every weekend to Satti to help her parents with the business and around the house. She has 5 kids: 4 girls and 1 boy, all of whom are painfully adorable.
And here is where they get to play. One can dream, huh!?
I was so engulfed by the story that I had not realized the dinner was already waiting for us, and before I knew it, I was eating … only my favorite besbarmak! (translated from Kazakh as “five fingers”)
For the next day’s part of the story, please see “Kolsai lakes getaway: Part 2“.