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River Guide • Tien-Shan • Charyn
Rivers by Region

Difficulty in September: 5 (5+)
From: Karkara - Alt. 1700 m (5580 ft)
To: Valley of Castles - Alt. 1100 m (3610 ft)
Distance: 80 km (50 miles)
River Days: 3-5
Average Gradient: 7 m/km (35 ft/mile)
Est. Max Gradient: 35-40 m/km (175-200 ft/mile)
Typical Flow in September: 30-50 cms (1000-1700 cfs)
Best Season: April, July-October
First-hand Information: NO

Charyn area map
Charyn area map

The Charyn differs very much from any other river in the Tien-Shan; in fact it is not a mountain river at all. It flows on a plateau in south-eastern Kazakhstan where the mountain ranges end and it is completely flat most of the time. Still, there are several gorges where the river cuts through the plateau; some of these gorges are long and extremely difficult.

The Charyn bears this name where its two sources - Kegen and Karkara join together. The river runs through several small gorges, giving some warm-up before rushing into 10 km long Mainak Gorge, the climax of the river. Very few groups ever ventured inside; most of them chose to put in just below it.

From here the river is much easier and apart from another 2 km gorge offer mainly class 4 rapids and long flat stretches between them. But the most remarkable feature of the lower valley is not in the water - it is the famous "Valley of Castles", an eroded sandstone monument of nature, the Grand Canyon of Colorado in miniature.

Being far from high mountains, the river has no summer flood and is fed mainly by the spring snowmelt with high level in May and June. The water is clean and warm (~20 C in August) - rare occasion in the mountains of Central Asia!

Access & Logistics
The access to the river is fairly trivial. A good road goes from Almaty, former Kazakh capital, to the town of Kegen, on the source of Charyn. You can put-in right in the town, but the Kegen river is 100% flat for nearly 50 km, all the way down to Karkara confluence. There is a road to the confluence so you better drive and put-in there.

Take-out at the Valley of Castles is not a problem whatsoever; this place is a major tourist attraction of the region. Many groups choose to continue 40 km down to the road bridge near Chundja town; but this section has only two class 4/4+ rapids (The Armadillo I and II) - the rest of the river is completely flat.

As a rule, there are no roads inside Charyn gorges, but plenty of them up on the plateau within 1-3 hours walk. These roads regularly cross the river between gorges; properly planned the river can be run in empty boats with the car support.

The upper Charyn and the Kegen valleys are apparently within Kazakh's borderland restricted area (Chinese border is only 70 km away) and in theory you need appropriate permit to go there. In fact, all groups in recent years did not come across any check posts - but the situation may change at any time.

River Description

Karkara to Mainak Gorge, 25 km (16 miles) – 0.5 day
This section contains three short canyons, but apart from one artificial obstacle in the 3rd canyon, the water is easy class 2-3.

From the Kegen-Karkara confluence the Charyn flows on an open plateau for 6-7 km, and then goes through the 1st canyon with easy class 2-3 rapid inside. The valley then opens again and in another 8-10 km the 2nd canyon follows; it is even easier than the first one.

4-5 km below, the 3rd canyon begins with a long but straightforward rapid. Watch out, there's a [reportedly uncompleted] dam and powerhouse about a kilometer below - you'll see a small reservoir in high water; in low water you may notice water marks on the canyon walls. The whole river is then diverted into a tunnel under the hill on the left - it's about 800 m long, 5 m wide ideally straight (but dark!) tube that in fact has been run in catarafts! Beware and decide for yourself - current status of the site is not known (if the powerhouse is completed, you may end up producing electricity in the turbine).

A 500 m long class 4 rapid comes almost immediately after the tunnel; Kensu river joins Charyn from the left at the end of the rapid and marks beginning of the Mainak Gorge.

The Mainak Gorge of Charyn, 10 km (6 miles) - 2-3 days
The Mainak Gorge is formed where the Charyn cuts through the edge of the plateau; by the end of the section the valley becomes nearly 300 m deep. For almost the whole length the gorge has more or less canyon-like walls; walking and scouting along the shore is extremely difficult to impossible. In many places it is vital to know next stop-and-scout-or-portage place; further down can be a dead end with vertical walls and unrunnable rapid ahead. There are trails on the edge and in middle tiers of the gorge along the left bank, and you will have to climb up and down frequently. There are no useable trails on the right.

There are three left tributaries within the Mainak Gorge that facilitate orienteering: Kensu (just before the entrance), Orto-Merke (1-1.5 km below Kensu) and Shet-Merke (5-5.5 km below Orto-Merke); it's about 4 km from Orto-Merke to the end of the gorge.

First 500-600 m below Kensu confluence contain several class 4/4+ rapids squeezed between canyon walls; some local scouting is possible from the shores. Two more difficult rapids follow and then you end up at a class 5/5+ one (The Hangar), with 4 m waterfall at the entrance - scout left as far as the cliff at the end of the rapid allows. Another class 5/5+ rapid (The Fortress) follows immediately and is located between 60 m vertical walls - scout left from the top of the walls. 100 m of flat water in the canyon bring you to the Orto-Merke confluence.

From Orto-Merke the most difficult part of the gorge starts. 200 m below the confluence is a class 4+/5 rapid with several narrow 2-3 m drops - scout right. Just few dozen meters after this one you come to the class 5+/6 (The Monster) - half-syphon, half-slot with terrific gradient - stop well above and scout/portage left. Around the left cliff there's another class 5/5+ rapid (The Real Freaker), 250 m long mess in a narrow corridor - scout left.

Below the Real Freaker cliffs and walls slowly disappear and both shores become more or less passable; the river eases to mainly class 4 for the next 1-1.5 km. This section finishes with a class 5/5- river-wide 4 m drop (The Barrier) - scout right. Another long class 5/5- rapid (The Classics) follows immediately and here the river is squeezed between the cliffs again - very difficult partial scouting from the left.

Soon after the Classics the gorge opens and the river eases to class 4+ and then finally to 4- nearly all the way down to the Shet-Merke confluence. Watch out - the long class 5+/6 section (The Horseshoe) comes just before the confluence, where Charyn makes big bend, going around the left side ridge (while the Shet-Merke flows behind the ridge). The Horseshoe is a horrible sequence of waterfalls, syphons, giant holes and related dreadful mess with a gradient close to 100 m/km (500 ft/mile); it has not been attempted so far. The portage is an arduous climbing over the left ridge into the Shet-Merke valley (shortcutting the horseshoe) and then down along the creek to the confluence. Scouting the Horseshoe section is extremely difficult and possibly requires mountaineering skills and equipment.

Below the Shet-Merke the river eases to bearable class 5 and then to class 4 within couple of kilometers; the valley opens again and scouting becomes rather trivial (comparing to the above stretches). There gorge finishes with one more canyon-like narrow section with a class 5/5+ rapid at the entrance (The Hourglass). It is a half-slot, half-syphon - much like the Monster, but portaging is way more difficult - either climbing over the 100 m cliff on the left or dangerous roping inside the canyon. There are more class 4+/5 rapids down to the end of Mainak Gorge, but cliffs now allow relatively easy scouting, mostly from the left shore.

Mainak Gorge to Valley of Castles, 45 km (28 miles) - 1-2 days
Below Mainak Gorge the river flows in an open valley, flat and meandering for about 20 km, and then enters next 10 km long canyon. This one is easy though, there are mainly class 2-3 rapids inside with perhaps one class 4/4-, all in the second half of the canyon.

2-3 km downstream another class 5 canyon (The Toothbrush) begins. This one is relatively short though (about 2 km) and the really difficult rapid is only 500 m in the middle of it.

Easy class 2-3 stretch continues for 2-3 km below the Toothbrush and then Charyn flattens out again. The last difficult class 5 rapid (Tau-Teke), nearly a km long comes without warning few kilometers below. The rapid ends at the right angle river turn around right side cliff; there is another easy rapid around the corner. Look out the sandstone towers on top of the left hills - you have arrived to the Valley of Castles and to the take-out.

Charyn below Mainak Gorge Charyn below Mainak Gorge Charyn below Mainak Gorge Charyn below Mainak Gorge
Valley of Castles Valley of Castles Valley of Castles Valley of Castles

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