Altyn Emel National Park: a travel guide

This post is a travel guide to Altyn Emel National Park for independent budget travellers.

Altyn Emel National Park is one of the most spectacular and remote parks near Almaty. It’s like a miniature Kazakhstan with incredibly diverse landscapes. There are singing sand dunes, colourful mountains and vast steppes where wild horses roam. In Altyn Emel National park you will see Kazakhstan’s nature in all its diversity.

Kazakhstan might not come to mind as a safari destination. However, as empty as Altyn Emel National Park may seem, it is actually full of life. It is a prime birdwatching destination with more than 230 species of birds including some rare birds of prey. Although you will need a bit more luck to see its bigger residents, the park is also home to gazelles, lynx, bears and przewalski horses.

The nature and wildlife is outstanding in Altyn Emel National Park, but there is history too. Ancient petroglyphs, stone steels and burial mounds are proof that Saka tribes and Scythian warriors lived here already during the early iron age. There are few national parks in Kazakhstan where nature and history combine like in Altyn Emel National Park.

Aktau mountains in Altyn Emel National park

My experience in Altyn Emel National Park

It was on my first trip to Kazakhstan that I heard about the singing sand dunes of Altyn Emel National Park. With no public transport options and lots of things to do in and around Almaty I didn’t make it to the park that time.

That is why during my second trip I really wanted to make sure to include Altyn Emel National Park in my Kazakhstan itinerary. While doing my research I learned that it is huge and that besides the singing sand dunes there is much more to see.

Everything I read about Altyn Emel National Park convinced me that it was worth the effort to get there. I also found that there were no less than three routes to explore. After much consideration I decided to rent a car and make a one week road trip around Almaty including visits to the Charyn canyon National Park and Kolsai lakes National Park.

Altyn Emel roadtrip

To be honest, I haven’t done a lot of roadtrips, because as a backpacker I mostly travel with public transport. However, it was one of the best roadtrips I made in my travel history. Nature in Kazakhstan is really something special and in those 7 days we crossed through rocky canyons, alpine meadows, sand dune deserts, empty steppes and blossoming spring flower fields. Every day the views were so different that it felt like I was in a different country.

The original plan was to do only two out of the three routes in Altyn Emel National Park. However, I was so impressed by its beauty that I decided to do all three routes. The most famous one is the route to the singing sand dunes. Actually, this was the shortest route in the park and in my opinion the least interesting one.

The most spectacular route was the one to the Aktau and Katatu mountains where you could walk around for hours. The third route had beautiful views on lake Kapchagai and had lots of history with scythian burial mounds and ancient petroglyphs. This is also where I saw most wildlife. A przhewalski horse, a Persian gazelle, a snake and lots of birds.

Steppes in Altyn Emel National park

How to Organize your Altyn Emel National Park trip

There are two ways to reach Altyn Emel National Park. There is the northern entrance near Basshi (route 1 & 2) that is most popular and the less used western entrance near Shengeldy (route 3).

For the Northern entrance to Altyn Emel National Park and the first two routes to the singing sand dunes and the Aktau mountains you need to get to Basshi. Basshi is a small village where the headquarters of the park is and where you need to go to arrange your permits for the routes you will drive and pay the entrance fees. It’s a 4 to 5 hour journey from Almaty to Bashi.

For the Western entrance to Altyn Emel National Park and the third route to the Bes Shatyr Burial mounds you need to go to the village of Shengeldy. There is no park headquarters here so you need to have paid the entrance fees and have your permits arranged in either Basshi or Almaty. It is a 2 to 3 hour drive from Almaty to Shengeldy.

By public transport

There is no public transport to Altyn Emel National Park and even hitchhiking would be difficult. You might be able to make it to Bashi, but Bashi is still far from the park. Altyn Emel National Park is huge and without your own transport you won’t get far.

Tours

If you don’t have your own transport, there are several companies offering tours to Altyn Emel National Park. Unfortunately tours don’t come cheap and often only include the singing sand dunes (the first route). Especially if you want an english speaking guide or a private car with driver things can get pricy.

That said, if you are happy to share the costs with other people and don’t mind a Russian guide, there are reasonably priced tours out there. Several hostels and local agencies run affordable community tours to the singing sand dunes in Altyn Emel National Park.

I personally had a positive experience with the tours from Almaty backpackers hostel. Local agencies like Steppe spirit and Campit.kz regularly go to the singing sand dunes and advertise their tours on their instagram sites in Russian. You can contact them for assistance in english.

Take into account that day tours only go to the singing sand dunes and that it will be a very long day with an early start. For 2 day tours to Altyn Emel National Park that include both the singing sand dunes and the Aktau and Katatu mountains you can check caravanistan that offers tours through Almaty Tours and Asya and Alexey.

Self drive

If there is one place in Central Asia where I would say it is worth it to rent a car it would be Altyn Emel National Park. Like I said before, most tours only visit the singing sand dunes. Therefore you will miss out on the other two routes. A pity, because the route to the Katatu and Aktau mountains is even more spectacular.

With the high tour prices, renting a car might be much cheaper, especially if you can share the costs with others. It is possible to rent a car in Almaty, but check if you are allowed to drive outside of the city. A 4 by 4 is not necessary, but you do need a car with a high clearance.

If you are renting a car you could make a bigger roadtrip around Almaty, including the Charyn Canyon, the Kolsai lakes, lake Kaindy and Altyn Emel National Park. Check my post with a one week Almaty roadtrip itinerary.

Interactive map of a one week Kazakhstan itinerary with a roadtrip around Almaty
Click on this picture to open the interactive Almaty roadtrip map

Permits and entrance fees

There are three routes in Altyn Emel National Park and for each route that you take you will need a permit. You can arrange the permits and pay the entrance fees at the Park headquarters in Basshi or the branch office in Almaty. There is no office in Shengeldy so if you do the third route arrange the permits before you go in Almaty or Basshi.

The branch office in Almaty is at Bogenbai Batyr 132, corner with Panfilov street, office N305A

Routes in Altyn Emel National Park

Below you will find the maps of the three routes in Altyn Emel National Park.

Route 1 & 2 in Altyn Emel National park
Route 1 & 2 from Basshi village
Route 3 in Altyn Emel National park
Route 3 from Shengeldy

Altyn Emel Route 1: Singing Sand dunes

The first route in Altyn Emel National Park is about 100 kilometers and runs from Basshi village to the singing sand dunes.

This is the shortest route and it can be done in about 4 hours from Basshi. If you come from Almaty it is easy to do this route in the afternoon after you arrive.

Oshaktas Stone Steles

The first worthwhile stop on this route are the Oshaktas Stone steles. To this day it is not clear what these stone structures were for, but they are probably related to the Scythian burial mounds a few kilometers away.

Oshaktas stone steles in Altyn Emel National park

Chokhan spring

After the Oshaktas stone steles you will pass by the small Chokan spring. This muddy water spring is named in honour of Chokhan Valikhanov. A famous Kazakh historian who is considered to be the father of Kazakh ethnography.

Chokhan spring Oasis in Altyn Emel National park

Singing Sand dunes

The final destination will be the singing sand dunes. If you are lucky you will hear a humming sound. It’s a rare phenomenon and there are less than 30 sand dunes worldwide that can ‘sing’ when the conditions are right.

Even if you can’t hear the sounds it is a beautiful place. You can hike up to the top of the sand dune for nice views over the park or walk around the foot of the dunes. The footprints in the sand reveal the amount of wildlife that roams around here.

View from the Singing Sand dunes in Altyn Emel National park

Altyn Emel Route 2: Aktau and Katutau mountains

The second route in Altyn Emel National park runs from Basshi to the Katutau and Aktau mountains. In my opinion, this is the most spectacular route. It’s around 160 kilometers, but it can easily take up your whole day as you will want to spend some time hiking around here.

Kosbastau and the old willow oasis

Before heading to the mountains you can make a stop at Kosbastau. This oasis camping spot has a hot water spring with radon, believed to have healing powers and a 700 year old willow tree. It’s a peaceful spot and if you have your own tent you might want to consider staying here rather than in Bashi village.

Katutau mountains

As you leave the steppes and enter the Katutau mountains, the scenery changes dramatically. You can park your car at the volcanic red rock formations and then walk through the martian landscapes. Just make sure you leave enough time for the even more spectacular Aktau mountains.

Katutau mountains in Altyn Emel National park

Aktau mountains

The Aktau mountains are really out of this world and I thought it was the most beautiful place in Altyn Emel National Park. Aktau means white mountains in Kazakh and although some of them are indeed white and greyish there are also red, yellow and brown colours.

There is a parking place where you can park your car and then get out to explore. I spend around 3 hours walking around here enjoying the amazing lunar like landscapes.

Aktau mountains in Altyn Emel National park

Altyn Emel Route 3: Sholak mountains & Bes Shatyr Burial mounds

The third route in Altyn Emel National Park is the only one that does not start from Basshi village. To get to the entrance of the third route you need to get to the village of Shengeldy. There is no park office here and only a simple check point. Make sure you have arranged your permits beforehand in either Almaty or Basshi. Both are about a 2 hours drive from Shengeldy.

The landscapes are not as spectacular as around the singing sand dunes or the Aktau mountain ranges, but there is a lot of history on this route.

Terekty Petroglyphs

From the main road you can take the turnoff towards the Sholak mountains and enter the Terekty canyon. Look closely and you will see that the dark rocks have ancient petroglyphs on them including human figures and ibex with horns.

They are not as impressive as the Tamgaly petroglyphs, but they are probably from the same time period between the late Bronze age and early Iron age.

Terekty petroglyphs in Altyn Emel National park

Shore of lake Kapchagai

A large part of Altyn Emel lies at the shores of lake Kapchagai. This artificial lake was formed in the Soviet Union by a dam on the Ili river. The lake is very popular among people from Almaty who head to Kapchagai town in the weekends to visit the Kapchagai beach resorts and casino’s.

The sandy beaches are fun, but personally I prefer the peace and quiet of the rocky shores in the park. Maybe they are not ideal for swimming, but it feels miles away from Kapchagai’s party atmosphere.

There are several turnoffs from the main road that will bring you right to the shore where you can enjoy the silence and beautiful views.

Shore of lake Kapchagay in Altyn Emel National park
Shore of lake Kapchagay in Altyn Emel National park

Bes Shatyr Burial mounds

The main attraction on the third route are the Bes Shatyr burial mounds. Bes Shatyr translates as five tents in Kazakh, but there are in fact around 30 royal burial mounds in this area that belonged to Saka warriors that lived in this area in the first millenium BC.

The Sakas belong to the Scythians. A nomadic people that roamed the Eurasian steppes from about the 7th century BC up until the 3rd century BC. The biggest one is 17 metres high and has a network of underground passages that is partly open to the public.

Bes Shatyr burial mounds in Altyn Emel National park

Bes Shatyr dolmens

Around some of the Bes Shatyr burial mounds you will see a circle of stone dolmens. Their purpose is unknown, but it probably means that the Scythians considered it to be a very sacred place. They are probably related to the Oshaktas stone steles near the singing sand dunes.

Bes Shatyr Saki dolmens in Altyn Emel National park

Things to do in Altyn Emel National Park

Hiking in Altyn Emel

There are no established trekking trails in Altyn Emel National Park, but it’s a great place to go hiking. Most stops on the routes offer opportunities for exploring the area further by foot and it is recommended you take your time to do so. The best places for hiking are the Aktau mountains and the Singing Sand dunes.

Aktau mountains in Altyn Emel National park

Photography in Altyn Emel

Altyn Emel National Park is a great place for photography. I had both cloudy and sunny weather and at the Bes Shatyr burial mounds I was even surprised by a short, but heavy thunder storm. As the weather changes so do the views over the vast steppes. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to make pictures.

Lake Kapchagay in Altyn Emel National park

Wildlife in Altyn Emel National Park

Altyn Emel National Park is one of the best places in Kazakhstan to see wildlife. There are more than 250 different animals, some extremely rare and endangered. You need a bit of luck seeing them and most will be from a distance. I did see a lot of birds, lizards, snakes and from far away a gazelle, a wild donkey and a przewalski horse.

Animal prints in the sand dunes in Altyn Emel National park

Bird watching in Altyn Emel

There are more than 200 species of birds in Altyn Emel and it is a perfect place for birdwatching. Birds of prey include eagles, buzzards and falcons. There are also storks, sparrows and larks.

Blue bee eater in Altyn Emel National park
Bird in Altyn Emel National park

Other wildlife in Altyn Emel

It’s easy to spot all kinds of lizards and other insects. Watch out for snakes, spiders and scorpions as they can be poisonous. Luckily I didn’t spot one of the more dangerous little creatures in the park.

If it comes to bigger mammals you need some luck, but it is one of the few places in this world where you can see wild donkeys and wild horses in their natural habitat. The famous Przewalski horses have never been domesticated and they are the only wild horses left on earth.

You also have a good chance of seeing a Persian gazelle or a Bukharan deer. Other species are very difficult to see, but there are many rare animals out there such as lynx, wild cats and brown bears.

Gazelle in Altyn Emel National park
Reptile in Altyn Emel National park

Where to sleep in Altyn Emel National Park

Altyn Emel hotel

The nearest accomodation from the park is in Basshi village and the only hotel is related to the park headquarters. It has reasonably priced rooms with shared bathrooms that are clean and nice. The hotel’s restaurant is opposite the road and serves breakfasts and dinners.

Homestays in Bashi

Besides the official park hotel, there are also several homestays in Basshi. Just watch out for the signs or ask around. The facilities will be simple, but it offers a unique insight into rural life of Kazakhstan and will help the local economy. Another bonus is that the food is almost always better at homestays.

Camping

If you have your own camping gear it is possible to do so and it is your only option to actually sleep inside the park. You can set up your tent at the Mynbulak rangers farm near the singing sand dunes (on route 1) or the Kosbastau Oasis (on route 2).

Lake Kapchagay in Altyn Emel National park

Where to eat in Altyn Emel National Park

There are not a lot of choices in Basshi village if it comes to food. If you stay at the park headquarters hotel you can eat in their restaurant opposite the street and if you stay in a homestay you will eat there. It’s not a bad idea to bring some snacks with you for lunch when ytou are in the park. There is a small grocery store in Basshi with a limited selection.

When to visit Altyn Emel National Park

With icy cold winters and scorching hot summers, spring and autumn are the best times to visit Altyn Emel National Park.

flowers in Altyn Emel National park

Safety in Altyn Emel National Park

Altyn Emel National Park is safe to visit, but it is good to keep in mind that it is remote and that outside of Basshi village there are few facilities. If you plan to do some hiking bring enough water, snacks and a mini first aid kit.

In summer it can get very hot in Altyn Emel National Park. To avoid heat stroke it is very important to bring enough water with you. To protect yourself from the sun also bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. There is little shade so it’s easy to get a sunburn even in spring or autumn.

If it rains heavily there is also a risk of mudflows in the Aktau mountains and the trails become slippery. At last, watch out for poisonous snakes and scorpions.

Rain in Altyn Emel National park
Rain in Altyn Emel National park

What to bring on a trip to Altyn Emel National Park

Sturdy shoes or hiking shoes: Proffesional hiking boots are not necessary. However, the trails can be rocky and require a good pair of shoes.

A sunhat and sunscreen: The sun can be pretty strong in Altyn Emel and there is little shade. Bring a hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun

Enough money: There are no ATM’s in or near Altyn Emel National Park so make sure you bring enough money with you.

Snacks & water: There are no general stores outside of Bashi and no water sources in the park. It is very important to bring enough water with you and also best to carry some snacks.

Toilet paper: There are very few toilets in Altyn Emel National Park and they are of the drop down variety with no toilet paper in sight.

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