Ile-Alatau National Park, Kazakhstan

Photo: Mike Norton via flickr
Photo: Mike Norton via Flickr

The beginning of November is a strange, in-between time of year. It’s too cold to do anything along the coast or on the water. The colorful foliage has all but disappeared. While it’s too early to go skiing, snowshoeing, or even build a snowman. But you can’t sit inside either. A trip to a national park might be just the fix.

Since you’re yearning for an adventure, you aren’t returning to a national park that you’ve visited before or even one of the few in the United States that you’ve yet to see. This time, you’re off to Kazakhstan. Long part of the Russian Empire—and then the Soviet Union—Kazakhstan only recently appeared on the world stage. It’s now the world’s largest landlocked country, whose wealth comes from oil and natural gas reserves. It’s also home to heavenly mountains—really, that’s what their name means—and a breathtaking national park.

Ile-Alatau National Park is part of the Tian Shan mountains that run through Central Asia. The park lies outside of Almaty, the country’s cultural and financial center, and in between the Turgen Gorge and the Chemlogan River. It was established in 1996 to protect apple trees, of all things, which most likely originated here. In the process, alpine meadows, thick forests, large glaciers, and mirror-like lakes were protected, as well.

Photo: Aureliy Movila via
Photo: Aureliy Movila via

Your sights are set on one of those lakes, Big Almaty Lake. As you drive through the national park, you pass apple and apricot trees, already snow-capped peaks, and distant waterfalls. A herd of Siberian ibexes, with their circular-ringed horns, is climbing the rocky cliffs to the right. A bearded vulture is circling its next meal to the left. Eurasian lynxes, Tian Shan brown bears, and snow leopards are probably hiding just out of sight. While uniformed patrolmen seem to be stopping a car ahead.

Though you can’t see it yet, the lake is only a short distance from the security point. Big Almaty Lake was created by earthquakes. The natural alpine reservoir sits more than 8,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by three pyramid-shaped peaks. Depending on the way the sun hits it, the water can look light green or deep turquoise. While it does indeed reflect the surrounding mountains and the overhead clouds like a mirror. And, since it’s the beginning of November, you have the lake—and the steep hiking trails around it—all to yourself.


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