The Road

Days of Heaven at Secret Kazakh Sibinskie Lakes

We had to explain ourselves maybe to 10 drivers. Once you’re in Eastern Kazakhstan and you wish to have a swim in the lake, it better be Alakol Lake. Otherwise locals will give you a hard time describing its beauty and telling you how much you’re going to miss. It might be so, but if we would not reach other, planned by us, destination – Sibinskie Lakes, we would miss a real paradise! 

Sibinskie Lakes or just Sibiny consists of five lakes. While planning, we were scanning through the map of Kazakhstan and their interesting location brought our attention – small scale bodies of water parallel to each other and separated with small mountain ridges (reaching over 1200m while the lakes are located at around 800m above sea level). It became sort of our dream to see them and cool off in their waters!

We had to do quite a survey among local drivers not to end up on some empty road, the best way turned out to be the one going south from Oskemen (our then soon to be beloved city which is a getway to the Altai). On our road we meet a pair of foresters in UAZ. They stopped the vehicle near a village shop and picked a lot of groceries, paid for it and gave it to us. Though we tried to avoid accepting it, one of the guys was Georgian so it’s simply impossible to refuse to the offer… Yet again we’re so grateful to experience all the kindness on the road.

With the bag full of food and 1,5 litre of kumis (fermented horse milk) we were left on the road surrounded by wonderful nature. Here the greenest grass of steppe slowly convert to taiga. In front of us we could see granite hills, shining in the hot sun, between those ridges we shall find the lakes, we started the walk towards them.

Out of 5 lakes we stayed at the 2 of them – Sardykol and Tortkara. Though we planned to check the other ones, the true beauty of these two stopped us for good. We decided to take it slow, found good places for camping and just relaxed.

Sibinskie lakes are secret paradise and we had them mostly for ourselves. It seems like they’re known only locally, thus their southern shores are turned into organised camping area, with summer houses and rowing boats for rental. Approaching there all in dust and dirt, with our backpacks, we made quite an entrance. Workers of the place, with the security surrounded us and observed as if we would come from another planet. One of them guessed our taste correctly and explained in russian which route we should take if we want to find secluded place for wild camping. The walk took maybe half an hour but what a trip it was – on right side crystal clear lake, on the left rocky hills with, fish scales like, layers of white granite. Falcons were slowly circling over our heads while we were cutting through the dense bushes and jumping through the rocks of the Tortkara western shore. 

We got to the neatly flat rocks which looked like wide stairs dissapearing in azure water. Silence of the place was broken by splash sound of our jump into the water. Naked and happy we could swim with the fish around us for ever.

Those were the days of heaven. In the mornings we opened our eyes with the first ray of sun and jumped into waters, diving deep and admiring the bottom few meters below us. Water clarity and blue sky above created an amazing illusion, swimming underwater felt more like we would be hanging in some dense, silent air, floating about… Being in love with the lakes we wanted to learn more and we found some information online. Due to the chemical weathering of the granite around the Sibinskie lakes, waters are rich in potassium, calcium and sodium carbonates. The total mineralization of water is reaching 26 g/l, so it’s not only almost perfectly transparent but also works like soda baths and has a healing effect. It seems like we could feel it well just after few dips!

In the evenings when the temperature started to fall below 30C we would start a fire from the branches collected nearby. Kazakhi beer was cooling in the lake and the sun hid beyond the ridge. We observed various birds: duck groups and seagulls trying to catch fish swimming around our rock. Just when the first stars appeared, on the southern shore, lights of the camping area reflected in the lake.

We wouldn’t be ourselves though if we would for once just chill and not do some exploring… Starting from Tortkara shore we planned to hike to Shalkar lake through the small mountain pass, but we end up hiking and climbing another, higher pass, discovering valleys full of wilderness. Although the terrain was not challenging and elevation difference small, it was very hard walk – we spent hours trying to somehow get trhough dense flora and tall bushes around us. Being warned about bears, often times we loudly hummed to each other one traditional Kazakhi folk song. Despite that still, just on the top of the pass, one big badger scared the shit out of us, and we out of him! The rock formations were stunning up there, we took longer time to admire them and then the view from the pass on to vast green hills of taiga.

Second destination was much easier to reach (except for crossing the wetland). It turns out that tranquility of Sibinskie lakes attracted people for a long time in the past. We read that in nearby caves, traces of ancient people can be found, but this time our destination was fortified Buddhist monastery named Ablaykyt, or more like what’s left of it. Built In XVII century by Jungarrs (western Mongolian tribe which ocuppied Eastern Kazakhstan) it was famous primarly for its richest temple library containing ancient Tibetan manuscripts. Unfortunately structures could not survive various military battles, mainly between feudal lords. Luckily, part of the collection, around 1500 scrolls were saved. Today there is more to imagine than to see – we went up on the square hill, shaped by preserved external walls and were greeted by some workers having a lunch break in silence. They seemed to prepare the place for making reconstruction,but that’s only our guess. They didn’t mind us walking there and picking up straight from the ground various remains of the temple. We took a long and close look on pieces of bricks, roof tiles and water containers. Covered in turquoise and blue shining enamel they looked like new and gave us small insight into how wonderful the temple had to look. Standing there and listening to the hissing of the grass we wondered.

“I don’t know Sibiny, but Alakol you must see” – said another driver. If we ever get back to Sibinskie lakes, and we have a feeling it will happen, we may check Alakol as well – just for a peace of mind. When leaving the lakes our souls were filled with light and joy. The Buddhist temple is gone but its grounds are located in the much grander temple of nature. Sibinskie lakes with their mountain ridge frame are true paradise. Having their shores almost exclusively to ourselves, they become our secret garden, that today we share with you here.

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