Best time to travel to Kazakhstan

Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan

If you believe a single lake can't be half freshwater, and half saline, visit a crescent-shaped lake in the middle of Kazakhstan. Its freshwaters in the west never mix with saline waters in the east

Best time: May–October

Lake Balkhash
Lake Balkhash

According to a local legend, the lake and rivers have a mysterious origin. It says there once lived a wealthy wizard named Balkhash, and he had a beautiful daughter Ili. A day came when she was about to get married, and her father wanted that the son-in-law was of a certain type—the richest, the most handsome, and also the strongest of all. Suiters outshined one another: there were the sons of a Chinese emperor and the sons of Mongolian Khan. However, ironically, as it often happens, the girl fell in love with the poor shepherd Karatal... Discarding the poverty, he wasn't that bad in two other categories and won the competitions. However, Balkhash didn't want a poor suitor, so at night Ili ran away with Karatal. Furious Balkhash bewitched the lovers into two large rivers, which could never cross because of the lake the wizard himself turned into.

The legend is nice, but it doesn't explain why the western part is freshwater, and the eastern—saline. That unique feature draws dozens of scientists who love to solve mysteries. In fact, the Ili River seems to have much to do with the phenomenon as it brings lots of freshwater to the western part of the lake, as well as colourful sediments which make the water look brighter. The eastern part of the lake has more inflowing rivers, but smaller ones—one of them is Karatal, also Aksu, Lepsi, and Ayaguz. The main reason why freshwater doesn't mix with saline seems to be a large ridge of sand that divides the basin into two sections.

Along with the scientists, the large lake attracts photographers and also vacationers, even though the purity of water is rather questionable, and it's not recommended to swim near the city of Balkhash. The lake is huge, namely 22,000 square kilometres, 26 meters deep, 605 km long, and 74 km wide, and is considered the 15th largest lake in the world. Moreover, it used to be much bigger during the ice age.

Despite its large area and partial salinity, Lake Balkhash freezes between November and April, so the best time to visit it is May through October, whereas June to September is the best for a swim,—water temperature is about 30°C.

Practical info

When is the ideal period for visiting Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan?

Lake Balkhash is best visited between May and October, as the lake is prone to freezing between November and April. Optimal swimming conditions in the lake are usually between June and September, when the water temperature can reach 30°C. Show more

What causes the east side of Lake Balkhash to contain saline water, while the west side is freshwater?

Multiple rivers feed into Lake Balkhash, resulting in a divide between freshwater and saline water. Abundance of freshwater from the Ili River causes the western part of the lake to have less salt. This region also has bright sediments that give the water a distinctive appearance. Smaller rivers, such as Aksu and Ayaguz, contribute salt to the eastern side of Lake Balkhash. Show more

What is the story behind Lake Balkhash’s mysterious creation?

Legend has it that a wizard named Balkhash who resided in the area gave the lake its name. The wizard's daughter, Ili, fell in love with Karatal, a poor shepherd, much to Balkhash's dismay. He punished the young couple by turning them into rivers, which cannot meet due to the lake that he became. This is how Lake Balkhash supposedly formed. Show more

Is it possible for tourists to go for a swim in Lake Balkhash?

While swimming is permissible in the lake, it is advised that visitors avoid areas near the city of Balkhash as the water is polluted. This lake is affected by industrial and agricultural activities, which have left its water quality questionable. It is preferable to swim during the summer months from June to September, especially in areas around the Ili River delta in the western part of the lake. Show more

How does the size of Lake Balkhash compare to other globally recognized lakes?

Lake Balkhash, covering an area of 22,000 square kilometres, is among the larger lakes on the planet and is 15th in size. While it ranks in the top 20 biggest lakes worldwide, it misses out on being one of the largest lakes, such as the Caspian Sea or Lake Superior. Ice age resulted in Lake Balkhash once being larger than it currently is before receding to its current size. Show more

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Last updated: by Eleonora Provozin