The Grand Canyon's Little Brother
Just over three hours’ drive from Almaty is Charyn Canyon, the so-called little brother of the Grand Canyon in Colorado.
There would be no sense in claiming that the Kazakh version of the famous American natural wonder is quite as impressive, yet this 12 million-year-old natural landform is one of the must-see places on the Kazakhstan itinerary, and at the same time surprisingly unknown anywhere outside the country.
A day out among the natural caves and towers requires a three to four hour drive east out of Almaty in the direction of China. There is really only one road there and although not in the best condition, is not preclusive to a comfortable ride out in the fresh air. The final approach to the canyon is over rough semi-arid terrain, perhaps useful for rousing people from the slumbers of their journey before the car, or minibus, arrives at the western reaches of the canyon, where there is an area set aside for parking. Leaving your vehicle here, at the highest point of the valley will usually leave a 25-minute walk down to the River Charyn which is comfortable for most provided wearing sensible shoes. No, this does not have to mean expensive climbing boots, but something sturdy enough to get over loose rocks and sand.
Although the drive there is a fascination in itself and may involve a meal stop permitting people to sample the famous Central Asian shashliks, the lasting memory for everybody involved will be the incredible wonders of nature at the destination. Traversing the entire 200 km canyon is virtually impossible, and literally so on a simple day trip, but even the 2 km tourist trail offers enough to fascinate people for the half-day they usually have here. People are known to marvel at the unusual land forms created by erosion, and many years.
The Valley of Castles, as Charyn is sometimes known, is a dreamlike stretch of red clay towers and columns of all different shapes and sizes. It is almost unreal, and certainly one of the most exotic destinations in the region. In spite of the many visitors, the place has that feeling of being deserted and remote, almost as if inhabited by spirits. There are imposing cliffs with the slopes and arches almost 300m high in places.
The final destination is usually the rapids of the river, famous also for its kayaking and picnics, while at the same time there will be time to admire not only the eerie rock faces but also the bay leaf poplars and the rare Sogdian Ash trees, among the many protected flora in the Charyn National Park. It is best as a group to stick together although there are numerous trails in the canyon area and many may prefer to view the river from the cliffs. Most people head down the rocky trail to the river and spend upwards of an hour there marvelling at the power of nature.
Most visitors have never been to the canyon before but many come again and again to find something they had not seen before, be it a hidden cliff or a trail leading over the rock face and out of the valley. One day is simply no time to cover everything, but the main appeal of the canyon is something that two or three hours will allow visitors to witness, and even in most cases will leave most people tempted to return, feeling they have experienced a very magic place.