Kazakhstan tourism is in its infancy by international standards, but with its extremely hospitable people, food to die for and varied Silk Road landscape of steppe, desert and mountains, this former soviet republic can’t stay a secret forever!
Planning a trip to Kazakhstan in Central Asia? Look no further than this comprehensive guide to the world’s ninth largest country.
From the ultra-modern capital Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana), to alpine Almaty, desert Aral and the Caspian resort of Aktau, there is enough to keep avid adventurers occupied for some time.
As well as being a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, Kazakhstan offers plenty for so called “dark tourism” and those searching out more interesting destinations.
The country is home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome where manned space missions start off, a former soviet nuclear testing site at Semipatalisnk, and the gulag complex at Karaganda.
Kazakhstan Tourism Quick Facts
Languages: Kazakh & Russian
Currency: ₸ Tenge (KZT)
GMT +6 (East)
GMT +5 (West)
KAZAKHSTAN TOURISM DESTINATIONS
Situated on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Aktau is a pleasant resort town and Kazakhstan’s main coastal city (although the Caspian is technnically a large inland lake). A nice place to cool off after the heat of the desert and there are a few interesting sites, such as the lighthouse.
Once a thriving fishing port on the Aral Sea, the small town of Aral (Aralsk in Russian) has seen better days. You will see more camels than ships here now as the coast has moved some 40km away as a result of Soviet damming of the rivers feeding it. Discover Aralsk.
Baikonur is a city in southern Kazakhstan that has been leased to Russia as it is the location of the Russian Cosmodrome. The site has been sending manned missions to space since Yuri Gagarin. Russia’s Soyuz rockets are lauched from Baikonur throughout the year and it’s possible to join a tour for one of the launches.
Karaganda is a small yet pleasant town a few hundred kilometers south of the capital Nur-Sultan. It has some interesting Soviet era murals, and is a base for exploring one of the less savory reminders of Soviet rule; the KarLag gulag camps.
Kazakhstan’s shiny new capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) is the business and financial centre and was moved from Almaty to foster closer ties to nearby Russia. Due to its northern location, Nur-Sultan is the second coldest capital in the world (after Ulaanbaatar).
Known as the Texas of Kazakhstan, Shymkent is a small town close to the border with Uzbekistan and certainly has a slightly wild-west feel about it. The town itself is pleasant with plenty of cafe’s, bars and restaurants and there is some good hiking in the nearby mountains.
Turkistan is one of Kazakhstan’s most historic cities and is home to some magnificent medieval Islamic architecture. The city was ruled by Timur (Tamerlane) in the 14th Century and he erected the famous Mazar, or tomb, for Sufi poet and mystic Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi.
Zharkent is a small town/village very close to the border with China. It gives the visitor a glimpse of rural Kazakhstan. There isn’t a great deal to see or do here, but it’s a useful stop on the way to/from China and is worth exploring for a day or two.
MONEY AND COSTS
Kazakhstan is an inexpensive country by world standards and ranks 334th out of 376 cities worldwide (which is 70% lower than the USA).*
Accommodation and transport (if travelling between cities) are the two biggest costs associated with a trip to Kazakhstan, but with an abundance of cheap hotels, hostels and transport methods, it’s possible to travel the country on $30 to $50 per day.
Money Saving Tips
Kazakhstan has plenty of hostels in the larger cities. In the smaller cities it’s possible to get a hotel room for c5,000 tenge. In Zharkent I had a whole suit for this price.
The old slow trains can cost up to 60% less than a ticket on the new fast trains and are perfectly comfortable for an overnight journey outside of the summer (no air con).
Long distance buses make a good alternative to the trains and ply many of the same routes.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KAZAKHSTAN?
As Kazakhstan is a vast country (the world’s ninth largest) the temperatures can differ greatly from region to region.
Nur-Sultan is the 2nd coldest capital in the world after Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and temperatures can drop to -20c in winter, with the Siberian winds making it feel much colder. The south-east has a much more temperate climate with hot summers even in mountainous Almaty. South-western Kazakhstan is dominated by hot and dry desert.
Spring to autumn is a great time to visit, but let’s not forget that Almaty is also Central Asia’s largest winter sports destination with its famous high-altitude ice skating rink at Medeu and the nearby ski resort of Shymbulak (Chimbulak).
HEALTH, SAFETY & INSURANCE FOR KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakhstan is a wild country with huge distances between cities.
Although it is a very safe country, the deserts and mountains can pose a hazard for unprepared travellers. Ensure you have comprehensive cover before departing and if you will be heading into the mountains to ski or hike be sure that these activities are covered.
Our partners at World Nomads specialise in insurance for adventurous destinations and you can get a free no-obligation quote on their website or by filling in the form across the page.
FOOD AND DRINK IN KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakh cuisine is strongly influenced by the country's nomadic past. Kazakhstan's national dishes are meat-heavy with horse, mutton and lamb, but there are plenty of vegatarian options in the larger cities.
Dishes such as beshbarmak (boiled horsemeat or mutton) are very popular, but it is the ubiquitous shashlik (grilled chunks of meat served with dill and onions), that you will find alomst everywhere.
Dining out in one of Almaty's many street-side restaurants or cafe's is the highlight of any trip to the country and the quiality of the food is very high. In the larger cities you can find cuisines from around the world including Chinese, French, Georgian, Italian and Japenese to name a few.
Eating out in Kazakhstan is inexpensive by western standards and a good meal with drinks can cost less than $10. Head to one of the many bazaars such as Green Bazaar in Alamty or Ayna Bazaar in Shymkent for a real taste of Kazakh ingredients at their freshest and most colourful.
Kazakhstan is a very large country and the distances between cities can be huge. The country benefits from a comprehensive rail network and the old Soviet era trains are gradually being replaced by faster more modern wagons, complete air conditioned carriages, bar and dining car. Prices are generally cheap by western standards but tickets can sell out so it’s always best to book a few days in advance. You can buy tickets at the station or online at the official Kazakh Railways website.
Buses are another great way to travel and are slightly cheaper than the trains. As the roads in Kazakhstan are not all paved, the journeys can take much longer.
It’s also possible to take taxis long distances and you will find people at transport hubs offering rides to other cities. Every car is a potential taxi in Kazakhstan and you just need to hold your arm out to flag down a car and negotiate a price. Hitchhiking is common, but you should always offer money first, as is the custom.
One of the biggest draws for tourism to Kazakhstan is the stunning nature that abounds. From alpine lakes to canyons and desert, you can really experience nature at it's wildest here. Wild camping, hiking, skiing and kayaking are possible all over the country and a great way to immerse yourself into this unique part of Central Asia.
If you are looking for a tour guide or driver in Kazakhstan, check out Indy Guide; the leading tour operator in Central Asia.
This article is a work in progress and will be updated with further information after each visit (I'm planning my 7th trip back already). Do you have anything to add, reccommend or something that shold be avoided? Share your own experiences in the comments below! And if you love this unique country as much as I do, please give this article a share!