After working most of yesterday in the hotel, catching up with emails, I decided to take a break from work today and head up into the Zailiysky Alatau mountains to the south of Almaty. At the conference dinner on Friday night, the conference manager had offered to arrange for one of his drivers and a translator to take me up to the Big Almaty Lake in a four-wheel drive.

I wanted to leave at dawn to catch the best light, but as Sunday was his staff’s only day off, I felt a bit guilty about asking them to leave too early, so I suggested we leave at 7.15 am.


It was a lovely spring morning as we drove out of town (I took the picture above from my hotel window just before we left), along an almost deserted highway lined with colourful tulips on both sides. After half and hour or so, as the road started heading up into the foothills, it became narrower and quite rough, and soon became so rocky and steep that it would have been passable only by 4WDs.

The distance to the Big Almaty Lake is not great, but the second half of the journey up to the lake – which is at a height of 2,510 m (8,200 ft) – is very winding and wide enough only for one vehicle in many places, so the total journey takes about two hours.

By the time we got to the lake at 9.15 am, the light was still pretty good (I took the photograph below at 9.30 am), but within an hour the best light had gone, so it was good we didn’t leave any later.


The Big Almaty Lake is located in the upper Bolshaya Almatinka river valley, not far from the Kyrgyzstan border, and most of the peaks around the lake are 4,000 – 4,300 metres (13-14,000 feet) high. The scenery is very beautiful – spoilt only by a few piles of rubbish and beer bottles around the shore of the lake (why don’t people take their rubbish with them and leave these places as they find them for others to enjoy?)

I spent about an hour walking around one side of the lake, climbing over rocks and large blocks of ice to get photographs from as many different POVs as I could (I liked the one above the best).

It was cool and crisp at that time of the morning, but not cold, and quite comfortable with a jacket on.

I could have spent hours up there enjoying the peace and quiet of this pristine scenery (there was only one other 4WD up there when we arrived). Almaty had some unseasonal snow last week, so that left a fresh covering on the mountains, and made it even more picturesque. But I was conscious of the fact that my drivers and translator had given up a Sunday morning of their own time to take me up there, so decided to leave at about 10.30 am – just as a few other day trippers started arriving in their 4WDs.

On the way back down to the city, we stopped by a gully across which there was strung a water pipe – but it had a leak in the middle. And underneath there was a massive stalagmite-like mountain of ice – it seemed that the cold air at night was freezing the water as it gushed from the broken pipe, and it was staying frozen during the day despite the sunny weather.


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