If you have ever lost your bearings in Almaty, simply look for the huge wall of mountains. Once you have found the mountains, you know you are looking directly south as the mountains create Kazakhstans southern border with Kyrgyzstan. Though hardly perceptible, the city slowly increases in altitude as you go closer to the mountains. Thus people refer to going up town, as going towards the mountains although it is in fact south. Most maps are also oriented with the mountains to the top of the map, however, it must be remembered when renting yourself that you must flip the map upside down to match a typical north oriented map. Either way, the mountains are a beautiful backdrop and no trip to Almaty is complete without putting yourself deep into these monstrous mountains.
And if you are looking for an amazingly beautiful destination to begin your wandering through the mountains, Big Almaty Lake would be a great place to start. The lake is now used for harnessing hydro power to be used in the city so to one end there is a dam and water levels are changing depending on demand, however the other side has maintained natural beauty. The aqua blue waters turn to green pined fields turn to snow capped rocky mountains. The shades of blue are incredible as the sun begins to peak above the mountain range. The trickling of glacial streams can be heard flowing into the lake. Birds chirping as the summer weather makes the mountain climate more bearable. Colorful flowers fill the valleys in between the mountains and begin to bloom as the sun hits them.
The lake is the primary destination in the mountains. We were slightly disappointed to not find an accompanying array of hiking trails to take us through the mountains and around the lake. Unfortunately, with the Kyrgyzstan border being just a bit further in the mountains and top secret Kazakhstan observatories being based around the lake, there are many police and security around. We had to show our passport twice during our hiking and a few roads and trails were off limits for us as Americans. However, we we able to go deeper into the mountains by following the road the wiggled its way up to the glaciers. The higher we hiked, the taller these mountains seemed. They appeared to grow as we were hiking, becoming giant monsters of rock and snow. Eventually we got to the snow line however and we felt like true mountaineers. Though we were hiking through the snow, the sun was hot beating down on us and the snow felt good as it cooled us down. The lake grew smaller and smaller as we looked down the ravine, but the colors got richer as the sun rose higher in the sky.
When we returned to the city below, a strong sense of accomplishment came over us as we were able to look back at the wall of mountains and point out specific snow patches we had stood at the base of on our mountaineering expedition.