Tien Shan Mountains: One of the Least Visited Mountain Ranges Anywhere!

The Tien Shan Mountains, also spelled Tian Shan, are one of the least visited mountain ranges in the world! That's despite the fact that they're one of the longest in Central Asia at an incredible 2500 km (1500 miles) long, and up to 500 km (300 miles) wide!

Tien Shan Mountains: One of the Least Visited Mountain Ranges Anywhere!

Tien shan mountains in Kazakhstan

You gotta love the nick name for the Tien Shan Mountains, The Little Brother of the Himalayas! Love that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China. They’re even designated a UNESCO World Site in eastern China!

Fall colours of the Tien Shan mountains in Kazakhstan

The combination of mountain ranges, valleys and basins results in elevation differences of over 7 km (4.5 miles) long! The lowest point is the Turfan (Turpan) Depression. At 154 m (505 feet) below sea level it’s also the lowest point in Central Asia! In contrast, the highest point is Jengish Chokusu (Victory Peak) at 7439 m (24, 406 feet). Just to give you an idea of how high that is, Mount Everest, the highest peak on the planet is 8848 m (29,029). There are some seriously high peaks in the Tien Shan Mountains!

Tien shan mountains as seen from First President's Park in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Tien Shan Mountains as seen from First President’s Park in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The Tien Shan Mountains offer something for everyone, from day hikes, to multi-day hikes to full on mountaineering – with over 10,100 square kilometres (3900 square miles of glaciers)! Having said that, after hearing Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market about their experience of getting lost while hiking in the Tien Shan Mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan, I highly recommend going with a guide. My own guide told me multiple stories of people getting lost, never to return. Unlike other mountain ranges, like the Alps in Europe, many trails in the Tien Shan Mountains are not well signed or marked. You need to go with a local guide who knows the trails well. In addition, unlike hikes in Germany, where you may share a summit with 50 other hikers, the Tien Shan Mountains are much more isolated. If you need help, you may have to wait days, or even weeks for the next hiker/guardian angel to appear!

What especially intrigues me about the Tien Shan Mountains is that they’re one of the few places on earth where you can spot the highly endangered and incredibly elusive snow leopard! Although a trek through the Tien Shan Mountains is no guarantee that you’ll see them. Many experienced mountain guides consider themselves lucky to spot one once during their entire lifetime in the mountains!

Snow leopards are found in the Tien Shan mountains

Snow leopard photo: Eric Kilby, via Wikimedia Commons

I only experienced a small taste of what the Tien Shan Mountains have to offer near Almaty, Kazakhstan. They’re incredibly close, located ~25 km away. I did a short 2 hour hike along the road up to the Shymbulak Ski Resort, and from there our group took the gondola up for the glacier views:

Shymbulak Ski Resort is located in the Tien Shan mountains, ~25 km away from Almaty, Kazakhstan.

You can enjoy the views from Shymbulak Ski Resort, located just over 30 km from Almaty, even if you’re not there for skiing!

Glaciers at the top of Shymbulak Ski Resort near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Glaciers at the top of Shymbulak Ski Resort near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Two of the many glaciers found in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan.

Two of the many glaciers found in the Tien Shan Mountains

Landscape while hiking up to Shymbulak Ski Resort in the Tien Shan Mountains.

Landscape while hiking up to Shymbulak Ski Resort.

Views over the Tien Shan Mountains from the top of Shymbulak near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Views from the top of Shymbulak

At the top of Shymbulak in the Tien Shan Mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

It was amazing to see a wild flower growing when much of the ground was covered in a thin layer of snow.

Climbing forest at Shymbulak Ski Resort, with incredible views of the Tien shan mountains in Kazakhstan

Climbing forest at Shymbulak Ski Resort, with incredible mountain views!

I also visited Big Almaty Lake. Not only is the lake gorgeous, but it’s also the water supply for Almaty. At the end of the lake, I could make out a faint hiking path. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore to see where it led.

Big Almaty Lake is surrounded by 3 peaks - Soviet, Ozerny and Tourist. All of which are ~4000 metres high!

Big Almaty Lake is surrounded by 3 peaks – Soviet, Ozerny and Tourist. All of which are ~4000 metres high!

 

How to Get to Shymbulak Ski Resort:

If you’re really ambitious, you can cycle the 25 km uphill road, as I saw quite a few cyclists doing. Alternatively, you can either take a taxi or bus number 6 and 12 which runs from 7:00 am to 8:00 pm daily. Check for exact details on the bus route as I was with a group and we drove.

How to Get to Big Almaty Lake:

Drive, take a taxi. Alternatively, bus N28 also goes there. Check for exact details in Almaty.

I highly recommend visiting both Shymbulak and Big Almaty Lake. I visited them both even when I just had 48 hours in Almaty. (It’s also worth checking out the metro stations – seriously, in Almaty) They were the highlight of my trip! I would recommend allowing more time to really experience the Tien Shan mountains with several days of hiking, but go with a guide.

After my brief time in the Tien Shan Mountains, I can’t wait to go back for a multi-day hike and to meet the elusive snow leopard!

Tien shan mountains kazakhstan

Note: My visit to Almaty was made possible by Turan Asian Travel Company and by Almaty Tourism. They can help arrange a custom tour for you through Kazakhstan, or a tour that combines several of the “stans”. I stayed at Rahat Palace. As always, all opinions are my own. 

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.
2017-03-13T04:51:20+00:00

3 Comments

  1. kami March 16, 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

    These places are incredible! I was hoping to go to Big Almaty Lake and see more of Tien Shan but as it turned out November isn’t the best time to visit Almaty and area around :/ At least I have a reason to go back as I really enjoyed it there!

    • Laurel March 16, 2016 at 12:15 pm - Reply

      @Kami – Too bad! I’ll go back with you 🙂 Would love to spend more time exploring the Tien Shan Mountains!

  2. Erika March 31, 2016 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    Beautiful! Central Asia has been on my list for a while and I’m hoping to make it there within the next year. Love that the mountains are at such close proximity to Almaty.

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