On our third day in Kazakhstan, we went on a long car ride to visit Charyn Canyon, 150 miles or so east of Almaty. This canyon, billed by Kazakhstan as the second largest in the world after the Grand Canyon (more on this below), is an undiscovered gem which we had virtually to ourselves during our excursion!
It took us nearly four hours to arrive at the canyon. For the first half of the trip, we had the beautiful Tien Shan Mountains on our right side, but soon the snow-capped peaks faded away and the landscape grew drier and rockier. It reminded us a bit of our annual drive through northern Nevada (we are only a few degrees off the same latitude as I-80 in Nevada). The roads were good enough to travel at 50 miles an hour for much of the trip, but were filled with just enough potholes to be constantly thrown out of our seats.
After a quick lunch at the rim of the canyon, we descended into the “Valley of the Castles” and walked 45 minutes to the bottom of the canyon. After a brief stop at the Charyn River, we hiked back out in the heat of the day. We appreciated the weathered, eroded rock when we weren’t complaining about the hot weather. It’s only April and it was already in the upper 80s or so. You don’t want to come to this place during the summer!
The real treat was to come. We enjoyed a few minutes at a photo stop that was spectacular: canyon in the foreground and Tien Shan in the distance. While the sites were fabulous, it was clear to me that this was not the second largest canyon (I believe this billing may go to Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, which I had the pleasure of seeing in 1995). An internet search seemed to confirm that this canyon isn’t even in the top 10 in terms of size. Perhaps if they had said it was the “17th largest canyon in the world,” we wouldn’t have made the all-day trip and we would have missed this pretty place.
Charyn Canyon is very desolate and, when experienced on a weekday, it is almost empty. We saw about ten other tourists there during our two hours in the park. The facilities are non-existent: there is nothing to buy (not a canyon t-shirt or an ice-cream; not even a water) and no flushing toilets. Kazakhstan doesn’t see many tourists, by if this place ever does get discovered, I hope they can at least add a steady hand-rail down to the valley! I’ve got a bruised backside from a nasty fall. Ouch!