Monday, May 18, 2015

Lake Shaitankol in Karkaraly National Park

The big event of our trip to Karkaraly National Park was our hike to Lake Shaitankol, a rather small mountain-top lake that is beautiful but also somewhat ordinary-looking.

It appealed to me because wikipedia says it's only accessible by foot; I wanted an adventure.  Also, it's fed by underground water and the depth is unknown.

We left our hotel at around 10:30 am, after asking around for how to find the trail.  Via the hotel Shakhter, we were told, and so we walked to the gated entrance to the hotel's grounds.
Lake Pasheno and the mountains (hills?) of Karkaraly National Park in front of us.

There the guards told us that we could not enter.  We pleaded, and they said 300 tenge per person.  Finally, one of my friends got someone on the phone who convinced them to let us through.  Yesterday, my friends and Sophia had walked around the lake, and through these grounds, without any issues.

Once on the hotel grounds, we found two other workers (gardeners, perhaps?) who showed us where the trail began and gave us hints.  The trail was marked with arrows throughout (rare in Kazakhstan, I think); however, there are a few side trails we should not take.  One would lead us to a peak; another would lead us into town.  But the arrows always mark the trail to the lake, and the trail is always going up.

The hotel owner had told us that the trail would be strenuous - I wondered what "strenuous" means in this country.  I haven't been on many hikes here.

At the beginning of the hike, we ran into a group of young Kazakh women who had hiked this hike before.  Good, we thought, we can follow them.  But they soon out-paced us.

We saw a squirrel and my friend fed it sunflower seeds, though it never dared eat from her hands.  Squirrels here are more timid and rarer than American squirrels, and they are reddish-brown with long ears.
Central Asian squirrel

The entire hike followed a little stream, and at times we had to cross it back and forth.

There was a point where we were scrambling up over rocks; about a third of the hike.  This was the strenuous part, although it wasn't too bad.  We all made it just fine and with energy left.

The scenery was amazing - tall pines and a few scattered birches, a babbling brook, and amazing rocks - the rocks here are large and interestingly shaped, contributing in their way to make the landscape unique.
Amazing rocks - and there was a way to climb them without going straight up as the arrow suggests

My friend A. wanted us to be back at the hotel by 2, so that she could eat and get into town by 4, to take the bus back to Astana.  She had a lot of work to do and wanted to get home as soon as possible.

But the hike was long, and we kept making stops - there was always something to take a picture of, plus we got hungry, tired, thirst, hot.  At one point, we stopped to make sandwiches and feed a rather large ant.

Finally, the steeper section ended and we thought - we must be close!  A couple coming down said, "20 minutes."  But nope, it was closer to 40.

But finally we made it - through a gap in giant rocks we saw the lake.  A lake that is rather small, surrounded on one side by pines and rocks, on another by a jutting rock cliff.  We made our way to the other side, where we could sit on a rock and splash in the water.  "Make a wish," said the Kazakh ladies with whom we'd finally caught up.
Lake Shaitankol - the rocky "cliffs" on the other side are what I climbed

I handed Sophia my camera and left her with A. while my friend O. and I raced the other side.  Climbing the rocky cliffs was a bit more challenging than I'd first thought, and there were times that O. yelled at me to be careful - as the only driver in the group, I was their way home.

On top of the small cliffs (10 m high according to wikipedia), I felt like queen of the world, not because of the small lake before me, but because of the mountains behind me.  For here, they truly looked like mountains, stretched out in their magnificent glory.
the mountains - this photo does not do them justice

It was past 1:00 by now, and someone had told the Kazakh ladies that the path to Karkaraly (the town) was only 40 minutes.  A. was in a rush, and so we decided to take this path, and then take a taxi from town to our hotel.  I pondered, only briefly, why wikipedia had said the round-trip hike (to the lake from Karkaraly and back) was a 5-hour hike.

And down we went, a magnificent journey that lasted much longer than 40 minutes.  The first part was mostly jutting rocks in strange shapes, and then we went down further and we were in a forest.  Next, there was a clearing, a beautiful, green clearing, and we ran and threw ourselves down on the lush grass.  Then A. leapt up and we kept on walking.  We were on a road of sorts, and an all-terrain vehicle could make it most of the way (but not all the way) to the lake.  We passed by camping spots, and I thought how pleasant it would be to camp here.

Parts of the hike reminded me of hiking in the Appalachian mountains in the Carolinas in the USA.  Parts of the hike reminded me of hiking in the Alps foothills in France - especially some of the large, green-grass-covered rocky hills. 

It was a wonderful, refreshing 90 minute hike.  The Kazakh women were ahead of us, but we caught up with them.  They called us a taxi to take us to a restaurant and then back to the hotel to get our things.  It turns out that two of them wanted to get back to Astana, and so they agreed to meet A. at the auto-station, where they could hire a taxi.

And so we left the trail, went into the city, ate at a small Kazakh cafe, and went back to our hotel.

A pleasant hike, and Sophia is dying to return!

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