Blaze a trail through this obscure country of epic landscapes - a vast, empty, and mostly untouched swathe of Central Asia.
Remote mountains and glittering lakes punctuate the endless steppe in the world’s ninth largest country, where the gleaming capital is a shrine to bold modernism and the people are genuinely welcoming. One of the big attractions of a trip to Kazakhstan is its low tourist footfall, meaning that you get to experience the culture undiluted and with minimal overseas influence. Blaze a trail among pristine natural attractions, buzzing bazaars and historic monuments where few tourists have ventured. The empty landscapes are enough to take your breath away - the steppes and mountain ranges give way to shimmering lakes and desert canyons. If you tire of all that jaw-dropping beauty, head to Almaty where you can indulge in luxury hotels and fine dining.
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Top things to do in Kazakhstan
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this ancient Central Asian land. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top three things to do in Kazakhstan.
The high-end mountain resort of Shymbulak is within a half hour drive from Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city, and provides some of the best skiing in Central Asia. Take a ride on one of the cable cars and admire snow-cloaked peaks topping 3,000 metres. While the slopes aren't hugely challenging, they're perfect for learners and great for a few days break from a cultural trip to the more bustling areas. The best months to go skiing in Kazakhstan are September and October.
Canyon Also known as the ‘Grand Canyon’s little brother’, Charyn Canyon is truly spectacular. The 12 million year-old gorge is tucked between mountain ranges in Kazakhstan's southeast and was formed over millennia by wind-erosion, carving fantastic shapes from the rock. The famous Charyn River rapids offer some of the best white-water rafting in Asia, but you can just look if you prefer! To make the trip truly memorable, camp overnight in a yurt and make sure you’re up for sunrise.
Admire Lake Kaindy
One of Kazakhstan's most scenic lakes, Lake Kaindy, is tucked into the Tien Shan mountains and well worth a day trip. It is far from ancient, having been formed by a landslide caused by an earthquake in the early 20th Century. As the valley slowly filled with water, the spruces that previously coated the valley were submerged and their poker-straight bleached trunks are all that remain today. The lake varies in colour from emerald green to turquoise blue dependent on the weather, making for some stunning photographs.
Lesser known things to do in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has been largely untouched by tourism, but is slowly climbing the ranks as a go-to travel destination... so what about its lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Kazak adventure.
Head for the hills
Altyn Emel National Park preserves the region’s unique natural assets. It has over 600 species of plant of which 41 are rare and 27 are endemic, with an elm tree nearby said to be over 700 years old. Myth and legend drips from every rock with Genghis Kahn believed to have drunk from local streams. What is certain is that its striated, colour-saturated rock faces are striking indeed, their stripes melding rich reds and crimsons with burnt orange, deep chocolate and charcoal. Paleontological finds include Early Miocene flora from spruce and walnut, as well as ancient reptile remains.
Nuclear test zones
In the 1940s, confrontations were rife between East and West on ideological and many other levels. During this charged era, the Soviet Union founded the city of Kurchatov alongside the Semipalatinsk (Semey) nuclear test site 150km away, a zone also known as the Polygon. Over 800km from Almaty, Kurchatov is a secretive, remote outpost of a place with ‘dark tourism’ appeal. Our local experts can advise on visits and permits.
Explore the Kazakh canyons
Mangistau is a 400km-long labyrinth of eroded canyons. They stretch from Aktau out to the Uzbek border with many dramatically perched columns and creations. Multi-hued rock outcrops blanket the surface of the region, with mysterious underground necropolises and ancient mosques recently coming to light as archaeological exploration of the network continues. Routes across this wilderness were Silk Road off-shoots, and sacred Sufic and other sites punctuate the vastness. A truly epic place to explore.
Five finger food
Nomads eat many dishes with their hands for practical reasons but only one takes the descriptive name of Beshbarmak – ‘five finger food’. This is one of many traditional Kazakh dishes and combines beef or lamb with boiled dough or noodles with a spiced onion sauce. Classic Kazakh drinks include Kumys and Shubat, fermented mares’ and camels’ milk respectively.
When is the best time to visit Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan has extreme seasons so plan your trip carefully. The hottest months are July and August, and the coldest between November and March. In midwinter temperatures can plunge below minus 20 degrees celsius; Kazakhstan is said to be snow-covered for roughly 111 days a year so be sure to pack warm layers whenever you visit. The best months for skiing are September and October and for hiking come between May and September to enjoy crisp fresh air, whilst avoiding the winter freeze.
Interesting facts about Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our favourite facts about it?
- It has a space launch facility and is where British astronaut Tim Peake blasted off from ahead of joining the International Space Station.
- Kazakhstan is larger than Western Europe and is the world’s largest landlocked country with a landmass of 2.725 million square kilometres.
- Kazakhstan’s national drink is fermented horse milk and horse meat is a big part of their cuisine.
- One of the country's premier tourist attractions is a former dwelling of novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Located in Semey, it’s preserved as a museum with notes from his most lauded works including ‘Crime and Punishment’.
- The apple is believed to have originated at a junction of the Tien Shan mountains shared by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China.
Insider tips from our local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Kazakhstan. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
The artists of Almaty…
The artists of Almaty can be found in Arbat and Panfilov Streets. These are popular neighbourhoods to visit while in town. Once the capital of the country (until that transferred to Astana in 1997), Almaty is still referred to as Kazakhstan’s southern capital. Browse the stalls and shops to discover many talented artists exhibiting and selling their work. There are several café clusters in which to discuss your new-found favourite artists; Satpaev Street and Nazarbayev Avenue are notable.
How do you like them apples?
It’s believed that the apple originates from Kazakhstan’s Tien Shan mountain region. The country’s Apple Festival coincides with Almaty’s annual ‘city day’ on 25 August. Concerts, classes and attractions for children and adults alike are staged throughout the city with the Grand Apple Bazaar open for business and entertainment.
Ground control to Major Tom…
Kazakhstan has a cosmodrome called Baikonur. Its huge complex covers over 6700 square kilometres and its personnel live in the eponymous city, 30km away. The cosmodrome and the entire city have been rented by the Russian Federation until 2050. Visitation and permits may be required, our local experts can advise.
Triple UNESCO listings…
Kazakhstan has three World Heritage Sites. These are (the birdwatchers' favourite) the Saryarka Plains; rock-carving rich Tamgaly with its 5,000 ancient carvings; and the monumental Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan. The Mausoleum remains incomplete (work stopped in 1405) but a visit is no less impressive for it.
What to read before you go to Kazakhstan
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Kazakhstan, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges' by Keith Rosten
US academic Rosten vividly captures the moments after Kazakhstan’s independence following the Soviet Union’s collapse. This was an optimistic, hopeful time when everything not only felt possible but, in some ways, actually was. Once in Kazakhstan has been dubbed a crash course in how to start a country and oozes anecdotes both entertaining and poignant as this new nation finds its feet.
'The Silent Steppe: the Story of a Kazakh Nomad under Stalin' by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov
The Silent Steppe tells what remains an unknown story for many in the West. Millions of Kazakhs died or were displaced under Stalin’s rule and this book is the first-hand account of a survivor who conveys the sad end to the nomadic lifestyle for many Kazakhs. This is understated and written with dignity, eschewing bitterness and venom to reveal the traits of traditional Kazakh life that can still be spotted today.
'Book of Words' by Abai (Ibrahim) Kunanbayev
Abai describes the Kazakh people and their ways, encouraging them to seek a higher moral ground. This remains a pivotal reference work for anyone keen to gain deep insight into the Kazakh mentality and motivation. Abai was a poet, a teacher and a key figure in developing Kazakhstan’s new national written literature.
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