Central Asia is stepping into the limelight. Over the past year the vast landscapes, intriguing culture and increasingly cosmopolitan cities of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan has seen them creeping up the bucket list for many travellers. Though each country has a distinct personality, they are still intrinsically linked by their shared nomadic culture and vast, beautiful landscapes, so it often makes sense to explore both of them at the same time. If you are just looking for inspiration on what to do in Kazakhstan however, we have collated a list of the highlights that you should consider adding to your itinerary.
Explore the Charyn Canyon
Known as the Grand Canyon’s little brother, the Charyn (or Sharyn) Canyon is a 12 million year old gorge tucked in between the Ketmen and Ulken-Bogut mountain ranges in southeast Kazakhstan. Located about 3 hours from Almaty, a visit to the canyon is a must if you’re planning to be in the area. Formed by wind-erosion over many millennia, the valley walls have been sculpted into fantastic shapes and forms, making every corner as interesting as the last.
The two kilometre stretch of the canyon named “Castle Valley” is probably the section most similar to its American big brother, with rusty columns of rock soaring towards azure skies. There’s an easy one-way hike through the valley, which takes around 1.5 hours and ends at the fast flowing waters of Charyn River - a great way to get to see this incredible landscape. The river also provides opportunities for canoeing or white-water rafting for the thrill-seekers among you...
Enjoy the serenity of Lake Kaindy
If you’re looking for some peace and tranquility while on your trip around Kazakhstan, then head for Lake Kaindy. It is a relative newcomer to the country’s otherwise ancient landscape, having been formed by a landslide caused by an earthquake at the beginning of the 20th century. The buildup of earth made a natural damn, collecting rainwater to make a heavenly mountain lake.
The most scenic element of the lake is the bleached remains of the spruce trees that were submerged as the valley slowly filled. The silvery trunks reach skywards, rising from the lake’s surface like spears. The lake itself varies in colour from turquoise blue to emerald green dependent on the weather, making for an incredibly photogenic scene. Being in the Tien Shan mountain range not far from Almaty, this is another fantastic destination for a day trip.
Listen to the Singing Dunes
The Atlyn Emel National Park is a 4,600 square kilometre expanse of spectacular desert landscape, scattered with gorges and dunes. It’s most famous feature is the Singing Dunes (also known as the Singing Sand or Singing Barkhan). This ribbon of sand dune is about three kilometres long and 150 metres high, but it isn’t it’s size that makes it remarkable - it is the eerie sound that it emits as the wind drifts across its surface, or as you slide down its slopes. Some compare the otherworldly humming to the deep notes of an organ, others a distant plane engine like that of a Spitfire. Occasional sand avalanches can be heard from miles away and this has sparked many legends within Kazakh culture. Ancient superstitions include the sound being made by the bells of a buried city or the raging currents of an underground river. The humming has also been said to be the cries monsters or lingering spirits of the dead.
Discover the cultural hub of Almaty
Whilst Almaty is no longer Kazakhstan’s capital - Aqmola, now named Astana, replaced it in 1997 - it is still the cultural hub of the country. A lesser-known fact is that Almaty literally translates as “city of apple trees”, this area of Central Asia being the genetic home of most varieties of apple that we buy in supermarkets today. While the streets aren’t exactly lined with apple trees, the city is green and feels surrounded by nature, partly thanks to the epic backdrop of the Zailiysky Alatau mountains.
Immerse yourself in the Kazakh culture by paying a visit to the Green Market - a great way to get a flavour of Central Asia - where nuts, apples, Georgian sweets, Korean salads, meats herbal medicines and lots more are piled up on counters throughout the two-floor market. Why not try some kymyz (fermented horse milk) or shubat (fermented camel milk) why you are there? There’s also the recently renovated Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments where you can see the bagpipes, lutes, harps and horns that have featured in Kazakh culture, as well as instruments used throughout the rest of Central Asia.
The Zenkov Cathedral is a fantastic example of grand Russian architecture - Kazakhstan was a part of the USSR right up until the late 1990s - and you can get a good insight into the more cosmopolitan side of Kazakhstan by visiting one of the many bars or luxury restaurants that are scattered across the city. There really is something for everyone here, and it’s a useful base from which to explore further into Kazakhstan.
Go skiing in Shymbulak
When planning a skiing holiday, you may not think to add Kazakhstan to the list of places to research. But if you are looking for an alternative destination to the popular (but ever thawing) pistes of Europe, then you should definitely put Kazakh’s main resort up for consideration! Shymbulak is just half an hour from Almaty, has around 20 kilometres of pistes on offer, and played host to the Winter Asian Games in 2011. The season runs from November until May, and the lifts go all the way up to the lofty 3,200 metre Talgar Pass.
Make a haunting visit to the Aral Sea
As recently as the 1960s, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world, but it is tragically now only a tiny fraction of its original size. Badly planned irrigation schemes by the Soviet government meant that water was channelled away and the Aral Sea has slowly dried up. Rusting hulks of ships lie stranded in the sand - chilling visual reminders of the negative effect the human race can have on the natural world when not enough care is taken.
See the remnants of the Silk Route in Turkistan
Kazakhstan, as with much of Central Asia, was once a part of the world famous Silk Route, and much of the splendour that came with this can be found in Turkistan. Admire the mausoleums, mosaics and archaeological finds, particularly the majestic Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a treasured UNESCO World Heritage Site. Compared to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan has relatively little of its Silk Route sites remaining in such good condition, so Turkistan is an incredibly valuable record of their history.
Get a sense of scale on the Eurasian Steppe
If you want to get a sense for how enormous the Earth is, then make the journey to the Eurasian Steppe. This vast grassland covers much of Kazakhstan, and though it may initially seem devoid of life, it is in fact home to a wide range of plants, animals and people and possesses its own kind of beauty. If isolation is what you are after, however, then its hard to find a better place - take a car, drive along endless roads, camp overnight and marvel at the fact that you are likely to be the only person for miles…
Make it happen
If Kazakhstan has made it onto your list of places to visit, then get in touch with our local experts. They can plan your perfect tailor-made trip, whether that’s just to Kazakhstan or to wider Central Asia. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.