The Tien Shan Mountains is one of the best mountain ranges that you can visit if you’re seeking solitude.
Whether you’re a hiker, trekker, or mountaineer, you’ll have over 10,100 square kilometers (3900 square miles of glaciers) of the Tien Shan Mountains to discover. And much of that to yourself. You may not see another hiker or mountaineer for days, or even weeks in the more remote parts.
This large mountain range lies in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and China. They’re even designated a UNESCO World Site in eastern China!
Geography of the Tien Shan Mountains
The combination of mountain ranges, valleys, and basins results in elevation differences of over 7 km (4.5 miles) long!
The Tien Shan Mountains or Tian Shan Mountains are a whopping 2500 km (1500 miles) long and up to 500 km (300 miles) wide.
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) in Kyrgyzstan. 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 steep slopes and high peaks in the Tien Shan Mountains!
Why You Should Visit the Tien Shan Mountains with a Guide
I highly recommend visiting the Tien Shan Mountains with a guide. There are many stories of people getting lost, and never returning. 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. 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!
Having a guide with you can also educate you about the different species of birds, domestic apples, wild fruit trees and other animal species found in the mountain.
Spot a Snow Leopard in the Tien Shan Mountains
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 this mountain range 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. If you do spot one, it will likely be a quick glimpse. So keep your eyes open. Read Peter Matthiessen’s classic The Snow Leopard to give you an idea of how hard they are to observe in the wild.
Tien Shan Mountains Near Almaty, Kazakhstan
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. From there our group took the gondola up for the glacier views:
I also visited Big Almaty Lake. Not only is this alpine 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.
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.
How to Get to Shymbulak Ski Resort:
If you’re really ambitious, you can cycle the 25 km uphill road to Shymbulak Ski Resort. I saw quite a few cyclists doing this. 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. I was with a group and we drove.
How to Get to Big Almaty Lake:
Drive or 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 one of the highlights of my trip!
I was also fortunate to see the Tien Shan Mountains when I visited Kyrgyzstan the following year.
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!
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.