We venture into the wilderness of Katon-Karagay National Park, an undiscovered paradise found in the far east of Kazakhstan. Here you'll find a beautiful and rarely visited region of forests, lakes and high mountains. Close to the Russian and Chinese borders, this remote wilderness area is best accessed by riding and using pack horses.
These treks are most definitely exploratory in nature with no fixed itinerary, so you do need to be prepared for adventure! Once the horses, local team, food and equipment have been assembled, the trip is as non-itinerised as possible - days in the saddle could be long and the path unknown but that is what this adventure is all about; trying out different routes and really exploring the area to its full potential.
This ride is aimed at intrepid travellers of all sorts, not just serious horse riders. The more fit and active you are, the more you will enjoy the trek. You need to be comfortable with not having a rigid itinerary, therefore if you need to know whether the accommodation is en-suite and what time lunch will be, this might not be the trip for you. Your guides go out of their way for the promise of interesting wildlife and the numerous archaeological sites in the area. Experiencing the local culture is of course half the reason for travelling, so you will be meeting and mingling with the local people along the way.
You'll be guided along the way by local park rangers and will be riding their fit and surefooted horses. Experienced riders will be in trekking heaven, with plenty of opportunities for fast riding along forest trails and over mountain grasslands. Those with less experience can follow trails at a pace that is appropriate to their abilities. Camp overnight, cook and enjoy meals over the campfire, for this is an adventure of a lifetime.
Please Note: The opinions expressed in these reviews are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unicorn Trails Ltd. These reviews are "directly from the horses mouth" and unedited. Unicorn Trails may make additional comments for clarification clearly identified in red.
Review received from JC of Sevenoaks on 13/09/2019
Arrive at Ust Kamenogorsk Airport and transfer to Ust (around 13km) to your hotel for the night. Meet your guide and the rest of your group at 7pm to enjoy a delicious first dinner together. If you have time during the day, your guide can help to arrange some sightseeing in Ust. Ust has a pleasant central park, with two good museums nearby. The History Museum is useful for brushing up on the flora and fauna of the region, and to learn about the archaeological sites you will see. The Ethnographic Museum features traditional Kazakh culture and the many other ethnic groups in the region. You could happily spend one or two days enjoying this leafy town.
Drive from Ust to Katon-Karagay (330km, 6-7hrs). Watch the rural life of Kazakhstan pass by as we head east toward the Altai Mountains. Stay the night at our first campsite and enjoy our first camp meal together under the stars.
In the morning you will be paired up with a suitable horse so you can get the most out of the trek. Our luggage will be transported to a camp where we will have our yurt set up. We will be preparing for multi-day trekking with pack-horses and enjoying food by a campfire.
Days 4 to 15 (12 days)
This section of the trek is non-itinerised. We have 6,400 square kms of National Park to explore, much of it accessible only by pack-horse. Discover a part of the world famous for its beautiful landscapes and warm, welcoming people. The route we take depends on factors such as the weather, advice from local people along the way and most importantly, what you and your fellow travellers are keen to experience.
Return to Ust enjoying the breathtaking scenery, arriving in the evening. We will enjoy our last dinner together sharing stories of our trip and creating memories of a lifetime.
After breakfast, transfer back to the airport. Depart Ust Kamenogorsk.
Please note, we will require a copy of your passport (photograph or scan of the ID page) to arrange park permits.
We're avid readers here at Unicorn Trails and have selected several books connected to this ride. If you're interested in reading more about the area before you travel, or want to get into the cultural background, here are some suggestions that may inspire you. Click on the links for more information.
Apples are from Kazakhstan (2008), Christopher Robbins. A classic of travel writing, combining the author’s firsthand experiences (including hanging out with the president), with Kazakhstan’s history and contemporary culture.
Please note: All itineraries are given for your guidance only and it may be altered on the ground and in accordance with the prevailing conditions by the organising team.
The horses are a local breed, but not the 'Kazakh horse', which is more like the Mongolian breed. The ones ridden on this trail look to have quite a Thoroughbred influence, so are around 15 to 16hh, but very tough and sturdy. During the first exploratory ride in 2015 the horses were calm and easily handled, but forward going and keen to gallop when asked. Experienced riders will get the most from them, but there are also horses to suit beginner riders too. The horses are not prone to shying and are trained to be calm on the ground. We have a range of horses available, including ones suitable for beginners. Local tack is used which will be familiar to riders from the UK. The saddles are similar to the English style but with a horn at the front. They are comfortable for long riding days. Saddle bags are provided. The horses are controlled by neck-reining. This is an undiscovered paradise for horse trekking. The ride works with local park rangers and their horses which is ideal. The rangers spend their time patrolling the mountain trails, so know the park like the back of their hand. The horses are fit and sure-footed, and very well-trained. Experienced riders will be in trekking heaven, with plenty of opportunities for fast riding along forest trails and over mountain grasslands. Those with less experience can follow trails at a pace that is appropriate to their abilities. There is no riding on roads but rather on used horse trails and over open grassland. The trails will be rocky and uneven in places so it is strongly recommended that all riders where hard hats (not provided).
This adventure ride is suited to all riders from beginner to experienced. Experienced riders will most appreciate the great horses and riding country but beginners are also able to join if they are able to canter. After many years of running treks for riders of mixed ability in Mongolia, your hosts are able to arrange the ride so that all riders get to enjoy the pace they are comfortable with. In general, the group moves along at a mix of walking, trotting, and cantering. When the opportunity arises, which is quite often, the more experienced riders are welcome to peel off for a gallop.
Riding etiquette is treated very seriously, for safety reasons. Riders will be given strict instruction on what is appropriate, and not, for riding at a fast pace, so that less experienced riders do not have trouble. Your guide will teach you the local riding techniques and how to ride safely. Help with the horses will be appreciated as will help with the camp, fetching firewood etc.
Above all, riders joining this trail need to understand that it is still very much in its exploratory phase. Riders who need to know how long each day will be, when they will stop for lunch and for how long, will not really be suited to this ride. The main challenge is the wilderness camping and the environment as this is a remote area with no tourism infrastructure. A sense of adventure and a positive, willing attitude will love it! Experience of camping and travelling in a developing country would also be beneficial.
Due to explorative nature of this trip, the minimum riding age is 16 years old. Younger riders must be experienced and be able to keep up with the rest of the group, especially during any unplanned long days. The maximum weight limit is 100kg but it is more important to be fit and active. Although the horses are of a 'normal' size, there are places where the terrain is very rugged so they would struggle with anyone over this weight limit. There will be times where riders have to dismount and lead their horse so a good general fitness is essential.
Please note, we will require a copy of your passport (photograph or scan of the ID page) to arrange park permits.
The weight limit for this ride is 220 lb/100 kg, please enquire if you are an experienced rider exceeding this weight.
Accommodation in Ust is in a simple but comfortable hotel with private rooms and en-suite bathrooms. WiFi is available. On the trail, hiking tents are used. If you wish to have a tent to yourself this is possible at no extra charge. Wherever possible, a yurt is set up as a communal area. The ride prides themselves on the meals they can create from the limited supplies available. Meals are simple but nutritious. Fruit and vegetables are brought along with staples such as rice, flour and pasta - these are all carried on the packhorses. They trade for delicious yoghurt, cheese and milk when they encounter local people. In the evening fresh bread is cooked on the camp fire. The rivers hold some excellent eating fish, if you can catch them. Vegetarians can be catered for; typically there is a vegetarian main dish and a separate meat dish. Gluten-free diets may also be catered for but please enquire for more information. Riders are welcome to pitch in with cooking if they enjoy creating campfire cuisine. Sometimes a cook is brought along, but it's also fun to work as a team.
Vegetarian or other dietary requirements can be accommodated with advanced notice. Please contact Unicorn Trails with requests.
Please note that it is your responsibility to ensure you have the correct documentation in place for your trip. If Visa’s are required the requirements can change from year to year depending on diplomatic relations. Please request information from the appropriate Consulate in your home country. Unicorn Trails will assist with any questions you have or supply any necessary supporting documents as required by the consulate on request.
All British passport holders must have a valid visa prior to travel. A visa for Kazakhstan is normally valid for 30 days from the date of issue and should be obtained from your nearest Kazakhstan Embassy before travelling:
Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 33 Thurlowe Square, London, SW7 2DS, Tel: 020 7581 4646, Fax: 020 7584 8481, website: http://www.kazakhstanembassy.org.uk
There is also a Consulate based in Aberdeen that can issue visas. You should ensure that your passport is valid for at least three months after your proposed date of leaving Kazakhstan.
British Passport holders travelling to Kazakhstan do not need to register with the local authorities providing you arrive at one of the 12 Kazakhstan International Airports and you do not intend to stay for longer than 30 days. For journeys less than 30 days, British Passport Holders MUST ensure that they keep their white Immigration Card stamped by Kazakhstani Immigration throughout their journey and ready for inspection upon departure. Failure to do so could result in you having to register with the local authorities.
You should ensure that you have entered your next of kin details into the back of your passport. If you lose your passport you must report this immediately to the police and obtain a police report.
The British Embassy in kazakhstan is found at: 62, Kosmonavtov Street, Renco Building 6 Floor, Astana 010000; Telephone: (73172) 556200; Facsimile: (73172) 556211; Email: email@example.com.
Apr–Jun Naturalists' heaven as the steppe and hills blossom and migrating birds flock in.
May–Sep The weather is perfect – from July it's hiking season.
Extra batteries should be bought in Almaty/Ust.
- Camping equipment:
Sleeping bag (essential)
Pillow (OK we admit it, we’re soft!)
Saddle bags are provided.
- Riding / camping clothes:
Boots / walking shoes (see more information below)
Comfortable trousers (zip-off travelling trousers are not recommended, but jodhpurs are OK)
Shirts / T-shirts
Spare shoes / sandals
Thermal tops and leggings
Jersey / polar fleece / down jacket
Raincoat (please DO NOT bring a horse-scaring poncho-style plastic coat)
Light waterproof over-trousers
Sun hat (with a string if you expect to be galloping!)
Beanie / warm hat
Gloves (warm ones mainly, but also for riding if you have soft hands...)
- Personal first aid kit:
We suggest you have your own kit containing at least the items listed below. Talk to a travel doctor about including more serious medication such as antibiotics. Kazakstan is actually a very healthy country because of the climate and low population density, so no problems with malaria or other tropical nasties.
Diarrhoea - Imodium or Lomotil
Rehydration salts - if suffering from above
Constipation - mild laxatives. Remember you’ll be on a low-fibre diet!
Headache or other mild aches and pains - paracetamol or disprin
Coughs and colds - nasal decongestant, throat lozenges
Skin care - sun block, lip balm
Wound care - antiseptic ointment
Selection of bandages
Insect repellent and after-bite cream
- Other useful items:
Dry bags (plastic bags) for keeping gear dry
Fishing rod / handline
Photo album (to show the locals your family, horse etc.)
Spare boot laces
A pair of light hiking boots is ideal. They can be used for riding, wearing around camp, leading your horse over rough ground, and for wandering around the streets of Ust. No need for serious hiking boots, but trainers (sneakers) are really not serious enough. The stirrup irons used are 'plate-type' and wide enough to take light hiking boots. Some people do prefer to take a pair of short riding boots, which are also fine (as long as they have some tread on the sole), and keep another pair of boots or trainers for around the camp.
A pair of sandals can also be useful (depending on the time of year). It may sound odd, but a pair of gumboots can be very useful around camp, when the grass is long and wet. We provide chaps, so there is no need to bring long riding boots.
Riding hats are not provided but it is strongly recommended that riders do bring their own. You will not ride on roads but rather follow horse trails or ride on open grassland, however the trails will be rocky and uneven at times.
This is a 17 day/16 night programme with 12 days riding available on on set dates.
2019: 28 June; 15 July; 20 August.
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Apples are from Kazakhstan (2008), Christopher Robbins. A classic of travel writing, combining the author’s first-hand experiences (including hanging out with the president), with Kazakhstan’s history and contemporary culture.
We go out of our way for the promise of interesting wildlife, and the numerous archaeological sites in the area. Experiencing the local culture is of course half the reason for travelling, so we will be meeting and mingling with the local people along the way.
Part of the attraction of course is that so few people go there. In 2015 the ride saw no tourists at all. Many people only know about Kazakhstan because of Borat (never mention the b-word to a local). The beautiful natural landscape and interesting culture is ideal for developing ecotourism. With the support of local officials it's a great opportunity to get involved with establishing trekking routes.
For an overview of Kazakhstan: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/kazakhstan
Visas and Permits:
The ride will provide all necessary paperwork and detailed information to help with obtaining your visa. They will arrange all necessary registration papers and permits for entering the National Park and border region. Please note, we will require a copy of your passport (photograph or scan of the ID page) to arrange park permits.