Charyn Canyon is colloquially known as the “Kazakh Grand Canyon”, and for someone who has never been to the American one, it’s easy to imagine the resemblance. Unusual rock formations line either side of the canyon as it weaves from north to south, and on the drizzly November day we visited, the grey skies cast diffused light on hills and cliffs that almost glowed vibrant colours ranging from brown to red to green and even purple.
We’d decided to give it a visit as we’d really run out of options for to things to do in Kazakhstan in the winter that don’t involve freezing our asses off. Located between Almaty and the Chinese border, it seemed like a worthwhile and convenient last stop on the first part of our journey before continuing on into East Asia. It was pretty cool.
What was not cool was what happened afterwards. We’d stayed in a small, pretty desolate town called Shonzhy (or Chundzha, the internet doesn’t know for sure) that is about 10 or 15 kilometres west of the canyon. The main road cut straight across the national park, and we figured we could just get a bus or hitch a ride to where the road meets the park, and hike the five or six kilometres into the northern mouth of the canyon. The lady at our guesthouse insisted that the only way to get there was a taxi, as there were no buses that went to the park. This confused us because the road went straight through the park. What we didn’t know at the time is that the park has an official entrance somewhere on the southeast side. So when we told people we wanted to go to the park, they thought we wanted to go to the entrance.
The weather was pretty shit that day, with icy winds and heavy clouds overhead. The forecast was for rain. We bought some lunch supplies and a bottle of vodka, then went to the town “bus station” (a strip of road in front of the bazaar) to see if we could find a marshrutka heading back east towards Almaty. There weren’t (we later found out there are only about two or three per day), so we decided we’d see how much a taxi to the road nearest to the canyon would cost. We’re shit at haggling and we can’t speak much Russian, so we set our maximum fare at 500 tenge (€2.20) for the 15-kilometre drive.
The road was crowded with taxi drivers, so we picked a group of older dudes and told them we wanted to go to the canyon. They were, of course, happy to drive us all the way into the canyon, and one of the drivers held up his fingers showing “six”. We were surprised and jumped at the opportunity to not have to hike from the road to the canyon. I got out my phone and typed in 600 (€2.65) to confirm it was six-hundred, not six-thousand tenge. The dude nodded and told us, for a one-way trip there, 600. So we got in his buddy’s Audi 100 sedan and headed east out of town towards the canyon.
We drove the 10 or 15 kilometres to the place where the main road crossed the national park, but the driver kept going. We still had no idea that the entrance to the park was actually somewhere else. I was getting worried that there had been a misunderstanding, so I pointed back towards the park and asked if we shouldn’t be going the other way. The driver pointed further southeast and mumbled something in Russian.
The further we drove the less I believed this ride was going to cost us 600 tenge, so again I got out my phone, typed in 600, and showed it to the driver. He glanced at it and nodded, irritated at all our questions. Adin, 600. Six-hundred tenge per person. Oook, that makes slightly more sense, we thought.
Then the driver made a left, off the main road and into the desert towards the actual entrance of the Charyn Canyon park. It was 22 kilometres off-road, a sign said.
By the time we reached the park entrance it had started raining, and the wind was bitterly cold. We started to think we were a bit nuts to be going out into the middle of the rainy desert with nothing but some bread and some vodka and the clothes on our backs. Now that the taxi driver had brought us 22 kilometres south of the main road, we’d have a long walk back.
Another surprise: It costs money to get into the park. The price of entry for two of us left us with just 1200 tenge, which is what we needed to pay the taxi driver, who was hanging around waiting to go into the park with us instead of heading back into town. It was at this point we should have clarified things, but we already felt stupid for asking so many questions, and the driver seemed to think this was part of the deal. It was the middle of the desert during the cold, rainy off-season, and we figured that we’d never be able to find a ride back into town—surely the driver thought we were nuts as well and planned to double his fare and save us from getting lost and freezing to death by driving us back to Shonzhy. Even if it’s 600 tenge per person each way, it would still total only 2400 tenge (€10.65)—relatively decent for the 60-kilometre drive in middle-of-nowhere Kazakhstan.
We went, we saw, we drank some vodka, we left. When we arrived back in Shonzhy we asked to be dropped at our guesthouse. Mook handed the driver our remaining 1200 tenge. The guy snarled and handed it back. “What is this shit? Are you kidding? I drove all that way and you think it costs just 1200? I could drive you up the block for that price, no further.” He sneered in Russian. We insisted: He’d said it was 600 tenge per person. But he feigned ignorance, and said the ride was 8000 tenge (€35.50).
Eight-thousand tenge? What a joke! An 860-kilometre bus ride from Almaty to Urumqi costs 8000 tenge! I started to get angry. We’d confirmed with the head taxi dude that it cost 600. We’d confirmed with the driver himself: Adin, 600. Even “adin 600” there and back was only 2400. Where did 8000 come from? I shouted at the taxi driver in English and he yelled back in Russian, complaining about the price of petrol, and how far the off-road drive was. I could tell the guy was just being a dickhead as his sneer turned into a grin at the corners of his mouth. But what are we supposed to do now?
We stood for a moment in silence, but the fighting had caught the attention of a young woman from our guesthouse who had come out to see what was going on. The taxi driver explained the situation to her and she giggled as she lazily dragged her fingers across the screen of her tablet. I asked her: How much would you pay for a ride to the canyon and back? She made fleeting eye contact and answered with a lie: “Eight-thousand is normal for that, I think.”
We were furious but didn’t really know what to do. We definitely weren’t going to pay 8000 tenge, but my mind was blank on other ideas (retrospectively, we could have waited it out, or gone back to the taxi rank and tried to find the head taxi dude). In the end we said we would pay a whopping 6000 tenge (€26.60; to put it into perspective, you can hire a driver for nearly an entire day for that price). It was still far too much for the journey because the driver agreed on it immediately.
Lesson learned: Never trust a taxi driver. Even if you’ve double or triple-checked the agreed amount, either pay in advanced or get it in writing. Or even better, avoid taxis if possible.