Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Venture into the heart of Central Asia with a visit to Kazakhstan—a land where ancient traditions meet modernity amidst vast landscapes.
From the ultramodern cityscapes of Nur-Sultan and Almaty to the windswept steppe and majestic mountains, Kazakhstan offers an enchanting mix of cultures, natural beauty, and architectural wonders.
Whether you're an adventurer eager to explore untouched wilderness or a history buff drawn to the echoes of the Silk Road, Kazakhstan's unique variety of experiences promises to captivate your imagination and awaken your senses.
Capital city: Astana
Currency: Kazakhstani Tenge – 1 USD = 465 KZT.
Electricity: Power voltage is 220 Volts. Power sockets type C, E, and F.
Languages: The two official languages are Kazakh and Russian, which are used equally in the country.
10 Handpicked Highlights of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital, Nur-Sultan, previously known as Astana, is a beacon of modern architecture set against the northern steppes. Explore the city’s dazzling skyline marked by the Bayterek Tower, an iconic structure symbolizing the country’s growth. The city’s audacious architectural projects, many designed by renowned international architects, serve as a testament to Kazakhstan’s ambitions and visions for the future.
In the heart of the city lies the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a pyramid that stands testament to the country’s commitment to cultural diversity and global peace. The capital is not just a showcase of grand designs but also a melting pot of Kazakh culture, with numerous museums, theatres, and the National Opera that await exploration by curious travelers.
Often compared to the Grand Canyon, Charyn Canyon offers a spectacular natural display carved by the Charyn River over millions of years. Wander through the Valley of Castles, where the rock formations resemble ancient towers and ramparts, creating a scene straight out of a fantasy tale. The vistas here, particularly at sunset, are truly a photographer’s delight.
Besides the visual spectacle, the canyon is also a gateway to adventure activities. Hiking, white-water rafting, and overnight camping under the stars are just a few of the experiences that draw nature lovers and thrill-seekers alike. The Charyn Canyon stands as a proud natural wonder within the diverse Kazakh landscapes, encapsulating the wild spirit of the country’s outdoors.
Lake Kaindy’s Submerged Forest
Lake Kaindy, with its serene emerald waters, holds a hauntingly beautiful secret—a submerged forest. The limestone deposits give the lake an otherworldly appearance, and the dead spruce trees rise out of the water like the masts of a ghostly fleet. This natural wonder, created by an earthquake in 1911, offers a unique underwater environment for divers and an eerie beauty for those viewing from the shores.
The journey to Lake Kaindy is itself an adventure, traversing rugged mountain terrain and offering breathtaking views of the surrounding Kungey Alatau mountains. Once at the lake, visitors can picnic at the water’s edge, hike in the surrounding forests, or simply bask in the tranquil, mysterious beauty of this natural marvel.
The Bustling Bazaars of Almaty
Almaty, the cultural soul of Kazakhstan, is home to vibrant bazaars brimming with life and color. The Green Bazaar, with its bustling aisles, offers an authentic slice of Kazakh life where spices, fruits, traditional sweets, and local delicacies such as horse meat and kumis await the adventurous palate. It’s not just about the food; the bazaar is also a social hub where you can experience the warmth of Kazakh hospitality.
As Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty blends its Soviet past with modern influences, resulting in a lively urban tapestry. Explore Panfilov Park, where the Zenkov Cathedral stands as one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings, or take a cable car up to Kok-Tobe Hill for panoramic views of the city framed by the majestic Alatau mountains.
The Steppe around Atyrau
The vast steppe around Atyrau in Western Kazakhstan is an expanse of open sky and earth that has remained unchanged for millennia. This stark landscape is home to traditional nomadic cultures and an abundance of wildlife, including the rare saiga antelope. It’s a place to disconnect from the modern world and reconnect with nature and the elements.
For those who seek to understand Kazakhstan’s heart, a trip across the steppe is essential. Here you can ride alongside local herders, spend a night in a yurt under the immense sky, or simply meditate on the infinite horizon. The steppe is not just a physical expanse but a journey into the soul of Central Asian nomadic life.
The Ancient City of Turkistan
Turkistan is a city steeped in history, having been a spiritual and political center for centuries. It is most famous for the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is an outstanding example of Timurid architecture. The mausoleum’s grandeur and artistry epitomize the city’s historical importance and the legacy of Sufi traditions in the region.
Beyond the mausoleum, Turkistan offers a deep dive into the past with its archaeological sites and museums showcasing the rich tapestry of the Great Silk Road. The city remains a pilgrimage destination for the faithful and a captivating site for historians and travelers alike.
The Tien Shan Mountains
The Tien Shan, or “Celestial Mountains,” are Kazakhstan’s crowning natural glory, with snow-capped peaks and pristine alpine lakes. Trekking routes abound, leading adventurers through flower-filled meadows, glacial streams, and rugged passes. For mountaineers, peaks like Khan Tengri offer thrilling challenges and breathtaking views.
Nature enthusiasts will find a rich biodiversity within these mountains, including snow leopards and golden eagles. The Tien Shan is not just a playground for outdoor sports; it is also a sanctuary where one can immerse in the solitude and beauty of one of the world’s most remote mountain ranges.
The Golden Sands of the Altyn Emel National Park
Altyn Emel National Park is a landscape of contrasts, with its famed Singing Dunes, ancient petroglyphs, and the mysterious Willows of Terekty. The dunes are a natural phenomenon; when the wind passes over them, the sands emit melodic sounds that give the sensation of nature’s own symphony. Visitors can climb the dunes for a surreal experience of both sound and scenery.
The park is also a conservation area, home to rare species such as the Siberian mountain goat and the Persian gazelle. With historical sites dating back to the Sakas and the Oghuz tribes, Altyn Emel is a treasure trove for both natural wonders and ancient human heritage.
The Silk Road Legacy of Otrar
The ruins of Otrar, near the Syr Darya River, whisper stories of a once-thriving Silk Road city that witnessed the comings and goings of merchants, scholars, and conquerors. The archaeological remains offer a glimpse into a city that was both a center of learning and trade. Visiting Otrar is like walking through the pages of history, tracing the steps of notable figures such as Al-Farabi, one of the Islamic Golden Age’s greatest philosophers.
While little remains of the city’s former grandeur, the sense of continuity and the weight of centuries is palpable as you explore the remnants of mosques, bathhouses, and the fortress. Otrar’s ongoing excavations continue to unveil secrets from beneath the sands, making each visit a potential witness to new historical discoveries.
The Kazakh Riviera: Caspian Sea
The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, offers a different facet of Kazakhstan’s natural beauty. The country’s coastline boasts sandy beaches and resort towns like Aktau, where the steppe meets the sea. The Caspian is also crucial for the region’s biodiversity, providing habitats for various species, including the famed sturgeon, the source of the world’s finest caviar.
Visitors to the Kazakh Riviera can enjoy water sports, sunbathing, and exploring the dramatic landscapes that surround the sea. With its rich cultural history, diverse ecosystems, and the allure of the water, the Caspian Sea region is a unique blend of beach retreat and ecological exploration.
Kazakhstan's Geography & Landscapes
Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, offers an extraordinary variety of landscapes, which is a testament to its vast size and geographical diversity.
The country straddles central Asia and Eastern Europe and is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west, Russia to the north, China to the east, and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the south. Its expansive terrain ranges from high mountains to deserts, and steppe to large flatlands.
The Great Steppe: The iconic Kazakh steppe forms a significant part of the country’s northern and central regions. It’s a vast grassland that has been the historical home of nomadic tribes for centuries.
The Tien Shan Mountains: Extending into the southeastern part of Kazakhstan, the Tien Shan Mountains are home to some of the highest peaks in the world, including the famed Khan Tengri.
The Altai Mountains: In the east, bordering Russia and China, the Altai Mountains offer a rugged and beautiful landscape that is also rich in wildlife.
The Caspian Lowland: Along the western border with the Caspian Sea, this area is characterized by below-sea-level altitudes and is known for its unique ecosystem.
The Ural River Basin: Flowing through the western part of the country into the Caspian Sea, the Ural River supports a range of wildlife and acts as a natural divide between Europe and Asia.
The Aral Sea Basin: In the southwest, although much diminished, the Aral Sea area tells the tale of one of the most dramatic environmental stories of the 20th century.
The Charyn Canyon: This canyon, located in the east, showcases a landscape shaped by water erosion, creating dramatic rock formations.
The Kyzylkum Desert: Shared with Uzbekistan, this desert spans the southern part of Kazakhstan and is known for its sand dunes and unique flora and fauna.
Lake Balkhash: One of the largest lakes in Asia, located in the southeast, Lake Balkhash has a mix of fresh and saline water sections.
The Syr Darya: Flowing through the south, this historic river supports agriculture and has been critical to civilizations in the region for thousands of years.
Best Time To Go To Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan experiences a continental climate with distinct seasonal variations. The vastness of the country means that weather can vary significantly from region to region, but here are some general pointers:
Spring (April to June): A beautiful season when the steppe comes alive with wildflowers. The weather is generally mild, making it a good time for outdoor activities and sightseeing.
Summer (July to September): It can be scorching, especially in the south and west. However, it’s an excellent time for trekking in the mountain regions where the temperature is cooler.
Autumn (October to November): The weather is still pleasant, and the changing foliage offers beautiful scenic views, especially in the mountainous areas. It’s also a good time for cultural exploration as it is not too hot in the cities.
Winter (December to March): Harsh and cold, with heavy snow in the mountains, making it ideal for winter sports enthusiasts. However, travel to some regions might be difficult due to snow and ice.
The best time to visit Kazakhstan largely depends on the activities you want to engage in. For general tourism, including cultural and historical exploration, the late spring to early autumn months of May to September is typically considered the optimal window.
During this time, the weather is most conducive to a comfortable travel experience, allowing visitors to fully enjoy the wide array of landscapes and outdoor activities that Kazakhstan has to offer.
Traveling in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is generally a safe country for travelers, with a relatively low crime rate. However, as with travel to any destination, it’s important to take precautions and be aware of your surroundings. Here are ten tips for staying safe:
Stay Informed: Before and during your trip, keep an eye on travel advisories from your home country’s foreign affairs department for any updates on safety and security.
Health Precautions: Ensure your vaccinations are up to date, and consider medical insurance that covers international travel. Hospitals in larger cities are better equipped than in rural areas.
Respect Local Laws: Familiarize yourself with local laws and customs. Drug offenses carry severe penalties, and photographing military and government installations can be prohibited.
Keep Documents Safe: Always have a copy of your passport and visa with you, and keep the originals in a secure location.
Road Safety: Be cautious if you’re driving as roads can be in poor condition and local driving styles may be aggressive. Avoid driving at night outside of cities.
Beware of Petty Crime: Watch out for pickpocketing in crowded places and don’t leave your belongings unattended.
Avoid Unofficial Taxis: Use official taxi services, preferably those that can be booked via phone or app, to avoid being overcharged or taken to the wrong destination.
Alcohol Awareness: Be cautious with alcohol, especially homemade or illegally sold spirits, which can be dangerous.
Travel in Groups: When hiking or exploring remote areas, it’s safer to travel with a guide or in a group.
Emergency Contacts: Keep a list of emergency contacts, including the local police and your embassy, readily accessible.
Getting to & Around Kazakhstan
Travelers to Kazakhstan typically arrive by air, with the main international airports being:
- Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport in Nur-Sultan (the capital city).
- Almaty International Airport in Almaty (the largest city).
Airlines such as Air Astana and SCAT Airlines operate international and domestic flights.
For regional travel, railways connect major cities, with services operated by Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), the national railway company. Buses and marshrutkas (shared minibuses) provide cheaper, although less comfortable, travel options for both intercity and rural destinations.
For getting around cities, there is a mix of public buses, trolleybuses, trams, and in Almaty, a metro system. Ride-hailing apps are available and are a reliable way to hire a taxi.
Kazakhstan offers a range of accommodation options to suit different budgets and preferences. In major cities like Nur-Sultan and Almaty, you can find luxury hotels, international chains, and boutique hotels offering high levels of comfort and amenities. Prices in these establishments can range from moderate to high.
Mid-range hotels provide a good balance of comfort and value, with prices being more accessible while still offering essential services. Budget travelers and backpackers can find hostels in larger cities, and guesthouses are common in smaller towns and rural areas, offering a more local experience often at a lower cost.
Homestays are also an option, particularly in the countryside, and can provide a unique insight into Kazakh culture. For those seeking adventure, eco-resorts and yurt camps are available, particularly in areas of natural beauty, offering a traditional and eco-friendly stay. Prices vary widely depending on the region and the level of luxury, but overall, Kazakhstan can cater to a diverse range of accommodation needs.