By far the largest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is a vast nation of snowy peaks and untouched wilderness that is developing quickly thanks to its huge oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. Although the capital was shifted north to Astana in 1998, Almaty remains the main hub of Kazakhstan and the region, a cosmopolitan city of tree-lined boulevards and parks. Still very Russian despite its independence from the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, Kazakhstan is a nation that continues to search for its own identity, with plenty to offer travelers who are willing to deviate from Asia’s better-known tourist circuits.
Almaty remains the most developed and foreigner-friendly city in the country, with its numerous high-end hotels and restaurants catering to almost all tastes. Western food is readily available here and also in Astana, although the new capital has fewer choices. Central Asian favorites including shashlyk (meat skewers), laghman (noodles with meat) and plov (fried rice with meat and vegetables) are readily available in any town at very reasonable prices. Travelers should also be aware that hotels in the two main cities are not cheap and budget options remain scarce, particularly in Astana. In other towns, prices remain more reasonable and if you’re venturing into the wilderness, homestays and cottages are a good value option with a distinctly Kazakh feel.
When to Go
Kazakhstan is generally very cold and snowy in winter and hot in the summer.
In summer, between May and September, most parts of the country are sunny and hot. The winters, even in the south, are cold, with temperatures dropping below freezing for much of the period between November and March. Even in Almaty in the south, snow covers the ground for nearly one third of the year.
Getting There & Away
Getting in and out of the country usually involves going through Almaty. The national carrier, Air Astana, also connects the new capital to cities throughout Russia and Europe as well as to Delhi, Beijing and Bangkok, among other destinations. Kazakhstan also has a number of overland road and rail links to neighboring China and Russia. Given the size of the country, internal flights make a convenient alternative to train and bus journeys which can mean hours, if not days, of travel across a very barren landscape.
Health & Safety
Kazakh towns are relatively safe, but travelers should be a little more careful when going on long trekking expeditions, particularly when doing so without a guide as bandits are not unheard of. The altitude, which in many parts of the country climbs to over 4,000 metres, is also a concern. Climbers should always be wary of symptoms of altitude sickness. Kazakh towns usually have a number of well-stocked pharmacies and the standard of healthcare is reasonable. The police in Kazakhstan are very corrupt and can therefore present problems to the uninitiated.
Three days in Almaty
Three days in Zailiysky Alatau and Küngey Alatau
Two days in Semey
Three days in the Altay Mountains
Two days by Lake Balkash
Two days in Turkistan
Almaty: the former Kazakh capital, one of the most developed cities in the region, is a great place to take a stroll with intriguing Soviet relics including Gorky Park and St Nicholas Cathedral.
Zailiysky Alatau and Küngey Alatau: peaks over 4,000 metres, glaciers, ski resorts and great trekking in touching distance of Almaty.
Lake Balkash: the largest lake in the country with beaches along its eastern shore.
Turkistan: home to Kazakhstan’s most celebrated building, the mausoleum of the first great Turkic Muslim, Kozha Akhmed Yasaui.
Semey: situated in the northeast, this town was the site of Soviet nuclear experimentation but is also the home of a number of famous Kazakh intellectuals and authors.
Trekking: Kazakhstan is a trekker’s paradise. Head to Zailiysky Alatau and Küngey Alatau or the Altay Mountains for the best routes and scenery.
Skating: just outside of Almaty, the huge 1,700 metres above sea level ice rink at Medeu is a hive of activity in the winter between November and March.
Skiing: ludicrously cheap by western standards, ski resorts are easily accessible from Almaty.
Bathing: as popular here as elsewhere in the region, Russian baths are a great place to relax and get to know your fellow Kazakh that little bit better.
Horseback-riding: a favorite mode of travel in Central Asia and a great way to cover part of Kazakstan’s vast landscape.