The drive up to Big Almaty Lake was breathtaking. The trees wrapped in autumn foliage, boasting bright yellow amid the hunter greens of the pine trees.
As our taxi climbed up the mountains, I didn’t know what was awaiting me. Pictures of Big Almaty Lake don’t do it justice (though obviously the point of this photo essay is to try).
When we arrived at the crest above the lake, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Big Almaty Lake in Kazakhstan isn’t just the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen, it just might be the most beautiful lake in the world.
Read next: How to Get to Big Almaty Lake by Taxi
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Yes, Big Almaty Lake is THAT Blue
Seeing the lake with your naked eye – no Lightroom presets or Instagram filters – is magical. The day we arrived the lake was sparkling turquoise. Unlike a beach where the water can be a scintillating blue because it’s shallow, here the water looked thick with the color as if it was bursting with teal paint and the bottom was completely obscured from where we were standing.
Nothing, not Instagram or a National Geographic, could prepare me for what it felt like to see it shining like this in person.
Don’t believe me? While these photos have been edited, here’s the completely unfiltered video, so you can see just how bright blue it was the day I was there:
But Why is Big Almaty Lake Turquoise?
Reminiscent of the much more famous Lake Louise in Canada, Kazakhstan’s Big Almaty Lake is such a vibrant blue that in photographs it seems unreal. This year, I’ve explored my fair share of stunning lakes, from pink lakes in Bulgaria to Soviet-era lakeside towns in Kyrgyzstan to mountain lakes in Azerbaijan, I’ve been completely spoiled.
I even witnessed a beautiful lakeside wedding outside of Toronto in July. And the thing about gorgeous lakes is that the reason for their beauty – mountain settings, stunning colors, charming nature – can vary from lake to lake. While the mountains here are part of the appeal, it’s the stunning color of the water that makes this one so special.
The reason for the special color is due to the presence of finely ground rock in the water. These particles intensify the light absorbed by the water because it scatters it and bounces it back to the surface. This is more common in mountain lakes. Out There Colorado does a great job of explaining this phenomenon, which is also found in many lakes in the Rocky Mountains:
In fact, these lakes are so blue because of the presence of something floating in the water. As the warmer months hit, glaciers melt, thus filling these pools with their water. With this glacial melt comes something called glacial flour.
It’s basically finely ground rock. Unlike other objects that make their way into the lake water, this glacial flour is so light that it doesn’t sink. Instead, it stays suspended in the liquid, most clearly visible near the surface. These particles distort the wavelengths of lights that hit the lake, reflecting visible hues that fall in the blueish-green end of the spectrum.
Beware, however, that the lake does change colors throughout the year. This teal can morph into a gorgeous emerald, which is less vibrant but also impressive in its own right. One fool-proof way to check what the lake looks like on any given day is to check Instagram, where it’s easily one of the most ‘grammed places in Kazakhstan, with new pictures going up daily.
While we were there, we saw maybe two dozen other tourists, most of whom spent at least a small amount of time trying to get that perfect Instagram shot. Instagram culture is alive and well in Kazakhstan, my friends.
Big Almaty Lake is Well-Traveled, but It’s Hardly an Overcrowded Tourist Attraction
Whereas many of these kinds of sparkling mountain lakes are highly overtouristed (like the lakes in Canada’s Banff National Park) or inaccessible to anyone who’s not an avid hiker, Big Almaty Lake in Kazakhstan is easily reachable by taxi from Almaty. What keeps it relatively quiet is Kazakhstan’s struggling international tourism industry, which hasn’t been able to capitalize on its natural beauty and city culture the way that neighboring Kyrgyzstan has.
While there, we ran into a few tourists, but far more of the people we saw were locals out to enjoy the lake’s beauty. The quiet was refreshing, and there were many moments where we were nearly alone.
Watching the other visitors was a highlight. We found locals stopping to pray, families taking pictures, and groups picnicking together in the fall sunshine. We stopped to chat with some tourists from Russia, who were traveling together as a family from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
We didn’t run into any other American tourists at the lake, which isn’t surprising. In 2016, there were only about 25,000 American tourists to all of Kazakhstan, thus the fact that my friend Megan and I were already there meant Americans were far over accounted for at the lake that day.
Should More Americans Visit Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan receives very few European and North American tourists, so whenever I was doing anything remotely “touristy” in Almaty I was still mostly surrounded by Kazakhs exploring their own country. Selfishly, it’s wonderful to be in a country where people are so excited to meet you.
Unlike over-touristed spots like Barcelona and Venice, exploring Kazakhstan still feels like you have the chance to discover something few of your countrymen have ever seen before. Of course, that mentality comes with a bit of neo-colonialism.
As my friend, Allison would say, “you’re not f***ing Marco Polo.” High up in the Tian Shan mountains, near the actual Silk Road, it’s important to put your travels here into perspective. In the vast history of the great steppe, in millennia of Kazakh history, stopping to take selfies at a lake isn’t very transgressive or all that exciting.
However, it’s also true that it would be better for Kazakhstan if there were more western tourists coming in to appreciate the beauty and culture here, as long as they come prepared to be respectful and pay their own way.
Big Almaty Lake’s Tourism Infrastructure
You’d be surprised at how little tourism infrastructure exists at the lake, which is only 15 km outside of Almaty. We traveled there by taxi, and there are a few tour companies that will take you out there as well. Megan, who’s spent quite a bit of time in Kazakhstan, told me one of the most popular ways to get to the lake is to hitchhike.
We found a small coffee car and a few picnic tables. On the road to the lake, there’s a hotel with a restaurant and spa, though I couldn’t tell just from passing by if they are open year-round. There are other activities nearby, like hiking to a hidden waterfall.
Of course, wherever tourists go in Central Asia, you’ll find eagles and their handlers trying to sell the opportunity to be photographed with them. Eagle hunting is a strong tradition in this part of the world, and I had already seen so many eagles at the World Nomad Games that seeing them out no longer surprises me.
Like all forms of animal tourism, seeing birds tied up for photo opportunities feels a bit sketchy. If you’re interested in seeing eagle hunting and getting more than a photograph, you can still see this tradition alive in Central Asia if you seek it out.
When is the Best Time to Visit Big Almaty Lake?
The lake changes year-round, so it’s up to you when you visit. I loved seeing the autumnal colors and the dried grasses juxtaposed with the bright blues of the lake. Of course, for most a trip to Kazakhstan requires some planning and there will be more to the decision than whether or not the lake will be emerald or turquoise that day.
No matter when you go, more than likely there will be Kazakhs visiting and the occasional tourist. We saw exactly one drone while there, and a ton of Instagram poses. But it was also pretty quiet. I think the fact that we went out on a Tuesday instead of a weekend kept the numbers of locals down. Additionally, September is considered the shoulder season in Kazakhstan, so there were fewer tourists visiting the country overall.
Photographing Big Almaty Lake
The lake was so blue and vibrant, that it was easy to shoot with just my cell phone (a Samsung8), but I also shot with my DSLR (a Nikon D810). One thing that was unfortunate was I hadn’t checked how much space I had left on my SD card and ran out of exposures.
Check your SD card, and I always recommend traveling with a spare SD Card. I don’t have a drone, but there was one there. Drone footage of the lake would be awesome. Note that you need a permit to fly a drone in Kazakhstan. Since there are many border guards at the lake, you definitely do not want to be flying a drone at the lake illegally!
5 Things to Pack for Big Almaty Lake in Kazakhstan
- Lonely Planet Central Asia which is available as a paper copy or in a Kindle edition.
- Your Passport since you might be required to show it to a guard. The area around the lake is part of the border with Kyrgyzstan, so you need to have it with you at all times.
- Your Cell Phone and Camera to get that Insta Pic you know you’re dying to come back with.
- Trekking Poles for anyone planning to do the hikes nearby or while in Kazakhstan, especially if you have knee issues.
- Travel Insurance Policy information, because things happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any hiking or trekking while in Kazakhstan.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any adventure sports like horseback trekking, hiking, or traveling off-road. Even in Almaty, you’ll be happy when you’re able to replace your stuff if it’s lost or stolen.
Final Thought: Enjoy the Ride
Big Almaty Lake is gorgeous, but so it the drive up and back! Whether you’re in a taxi, hitchhiking, biking, etc., stop at some of the viewpoints along the way to get in some gorgeous mountain views!
I even saw these beautiful horses on the way back, but they were a little too far away to get them into the frame. I’ll always have the memories, though.
More about Traveling in Central Asia
- How to Get to Big Almaty Lake by Taxi
- 25 Reasons You Need to Travel Kazakhstan ASAP
- Mind-Blowing Facts about Kazakhstan
- Tamgaly Tas: How to Visit Kazakhstan’s Enchanting Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary
- Visiting Nomad’s Land: The Abandoned Movie Set in the Kazakhstan Steppe
- Kyrgyzstan Travel Advice
- Things to Do in Bosteri, Kyrgyzstan
- The World Nomad Games