I honestly did not know what else to do with my time in Astana, so I took a ride to Borovoe. Also spelled Burabay, it is a lake area 250 km north of Astana, near to Russia. That distance translates into a 3 hour taxi ride that costs 2,000 KZT (5 EUR).
The way up there is actually pretty unique and cool. The road is wide, dividing the steppe in two, forever separating herds of animals who might have been friends before.
For the first two hours, the horizon lay in front and around us on all sides, stretching uninterrumpedly. With no mountains around, you can feel the weight of the whole celestial semi-sphere on you. The breeze was delicious and the steppes were kind.
The taxi driver had never been there before, and the tolls caught him by surprised. We finally reached Borovoe by 10am, and he was suddenly in a hurry to kick me out of the car for some obscure reason.
I stopped to buy some groceries for the day trip, and headed for the lake. The city of Borovoe is as a holiday destination, and as such hiking activities come with sunny beach-going and loud nightlife.
Pretty much all accommodation options are mid-buget to expensive mountain-type hotels, but of course you can camp around (outside of the Park).
The nearest train station is Kurort Borovoe, south of the park, and next to the Shchuchie lake. It takes 20 minutes to drive between the two lakes (two of the largest ones in the region, Borovoe in the north and Shchuchie in the south), so it should be easy to hitch a short ride for some pocket money.
There are buses that go from one place to the other. There are also taxi drivers that will want to charge you 2,000 KZT, for those 20 minutes, which is clearly a rip-off.
Borovoe lake, Burabay National Park
Now surrounded by thick forest, rocks and a big blue lake, it felt like Norway. Borovoe is also called the Pearl of Kazakhstan. The legend has it that God was sorry that the nomads in the region only had arid steppe to survive, so she gave them an oasis in the form of Borovoe.
When you climb up any hill around, you can see again the steppe beyond Borovoe, which makes for very interesting imagery.
I could definitely spot the families that came to enjoy the lake in holiday resort mode, and then fishermen. I saw couples everywhere, and that made me feel a bit lonely for a few minutes. But the beautiful views were there to get rid of any such thoughts.
There is a road (R224) that goes around the park, and walking trails on both sides. If you are the monkey type, there are plenty of rock formations that are ideal for easy bouldering, which comes with great rewarding views on the crystal blue lake.
I personally ran from climb to climb looking for the best views, desirous of doing some exercise after the 3 hour drive. You only need simple boots for hiking and climbing around, definitely nothing technical, but really fun.
The highest peak in the park is Mount Kokshetau (957 m). Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to go all the way up because I had to allow some time for finding a car that would take me back to Astana before midnight.
If you follow the road, there is a detour to your right on the northern side of the lake. This takes you to the northern lakes, which are supposed to be less beautiful and impressive, except they are not.
I found these absolutely nice in their own way. Because on the other side of the lake, there’s your Kazakh steppe again instead of the hills. There was something mesmerizing about that kind of landscape on a quiet afternoon, and no pictures I took do it justice.
Hitchhiking back with all the wrong people
It took me a few interactions before I finally found a ride back to Astana.
Inside the park, a young Russian couple picked me up and drove me till the entrance. He was driving, and she was drinking and asking me questions all the time.
I told her “No Russian” a few times, combining it with different types of body gestures, but she kept going. Once in the city, he turned around and gave me a sad look and said some more words in Russian. I smiled and got off the car. I started walking south and once I was far enough from the city I stopped and pointed to the ground (which is Kazakh for the thumb up).
I waited half an hour for the first car. It was an old, red Russian car. In it, a young driver gave me the biggest of the smiles. He looked like the main guy from Trainspotting and his eyes were shining with LSD. I wanted to reach Astana alive, so I rejected the ride.
He took off, did a U-turn in the middle of the road and came back. “Come on, come on! Let’s goooo” I had to walk away from the road so that he would just go away.
The second car stopped twenty minutes later. I did not expect to wait so long; everyone was telling me to go back to the taxi station, where they would overcharge me just a bit. It was a car packed with five women in it, with clearly no room left for me.
They still stopped. Two of them asked me something in Russian, then rolled down their windows, then spread their arms around my neck and caressed my face for a few seconds, then laughed it off while driving away.
The third car that stopped took me in, and it was a really funny experience. A couple in their mid-therties with a toddler in the back decided to take me in. I was planning on bargaining a bit, but they automatically accepted my 2,000 KZT offer.
Then we set off, but it took us almost an hour to leave the village. Why? Because there is a resort south of Borovoe called Borovoe. So we drove south, aiming for Astana, and then they saw the Borovoe sign (for the resort!) so they thought they were going the wrong direction, so we turned around.
We went back to Borovoe. When we reached a roundabout at the entrance of the city, they used it to turn around. She told him to take the road south again. And then we reached the resort sign again, and they discussed something and turned back again!
When we reached the roundabout again, they took a different exit, and we drove ten minutes until we reached a village north-east of Borovoe. There, they stopped and asked for directions, and were obviously told to go back to the roundabout and continue south. And so we did.
Again at the roundabout, there was a policeman. They stopped and asked for directions, and the guy pointed south. “Were we going to make it past the resort sign this time?” I wondered. Obviously not.
They saw the sign, they turned around. And then the policeman stopped our car before the roundabout and gave the driver a speeding ticket. I was so sorry for them. They discussed a bit more with the policeman, and south we went again.
Finally, we passed the Borovoe resort sign. We were free. I tried my best to communicate the fact that the sign was for the resort and not the city the whole time, but it was impossible to understand each other.
I fell asleep somewhere between steppe number 6 and steppe number 10, and woke up in Astana.