Kazakhstan has, in one form or another, been on the map since the Silk Road passed through some 2000 years ago. Yet, perhaps now more than ever, it feels distinctly off the map. Like all of the former Soviet states in Central Asia, little is heard of them in our daily lives and even less is heard from them in terms of tourism. But is this because they are simply not worth visiting or because they remain some of the world’s last remaining secret gems? I was sent on behalf of Mark Bratt Travel to find out.
First off, it’s worth noting that Kazakhstan is not just large, but huge (the 9th largest country in the world in fact). With a population of just 18 million people, much of the country forms part of the Asian Steppe, near-endless high-altitude grassland that stretches from the Caspian Sea in the West to Mongolia in the East. Yet, as in any large country, the geography and the culture has plenty of space to alter as our review will showcase.
Whilst Kazakhstan may be relatively unknown on the global tourism scene, there are direct flights between London and Astana with Air Astana and routes to Astana and Almaty from London and regional airports via Frankfurt or Amsterdam with KLM and Lufthansa. With a flight time in line with that of Dubai, Kazakhstan is logistically easier and nearer than you might think.
Landing in Almaty it’s soon clear that tourism is yet to develop. After departing the small airport you will find yourself to be one of only a handful of tourists exploring one of central Asia’s most interesting cities.
The setting is certainly worth the flight alone, with Almaty surrounded on three sides by snow-capped mountains which makes for one magnificent backdrop.
Almaty is not picture perfect. It does not ooze beauty like the renaissance cities of Italy do or the temple-strewn ancient Asian cities in Korea and Japan. But, its wide, tree-lined streets, open spaces and wide range of architecture make Almaty a culturally interesting city to explore that is full of its own charm and interest. What’s more is that it is a safe city to walk around in too.
High-end luxury cars dart along the mainly grid-system roads, a sign of the ever-growing economy fuelled by oil and gas reserves. Those not as financially fortunate either pack into Russian-made buses that seem to stop anywhere they get flagged down or hail a “taxi” Kazakh style. (Whilst there are taxis many locals stand at the side of the road and raise their hand waiting for a local to stop. If they can agree a price they will simply get in and off they go; if they can’t they wave them on and continue to wait. There is no need for Uber here.)
By our standards the taxis are not expensive and there is an inexpensive metro system too, but the best way to explore Almaty is on foot. The grid system combined with helpful locals mean you can see the city’s sites in a day. Changing money is also easy, with almost every street corner having a currency exchange (all of which will display the exchange rate they are offering).
Roaming fees are very expensive, and wifi coverage is patchy at best (with international chains and high-end restaurants having the best free wifi on offer). For that reason I recommend downloading the “2GIS” app. It is free and allows for city maps to be downloaded onto your phone so they can be used offline. With that, and a handy “point-it” book you will be good to go.
Almaty is a melting pot with each block varying in style and use. One second you are surrounded by imposing Soviet-era buildings (Kazakhstan was the last country to declare independence from USSR back in 1991) and the next second you could be in Eastern Europe, then a few moments later still and you are surrounded by mosques and bazaars giving a truly Near East Flavour.
Almaty served as Kazakhstan’s first capital until its relocation to Astana in 1997. Because of this, and the fact it was the most influential city in Kazakhstan under the Soviet rule, the city has much to offer the tourist.
The war memorial and Republic Square carry an unmistakably Soviet feel, whilst the Ascension Cathedral is as beautiful an Orthodox building as you will find anywhere.
The central Mosque and nearby Green Bazaar provide all the hustle and street trade you might expect. A visit to the Green Bazaar would not be complete without the sampling of some of the region’s finest fresh produce, but in particular the Apple. After all, Almaty gave the apple to the world and it is very much a symbol of the city.
A trip up to Kok Tobe by cable car is a great way to complete your city tour and you will pass the impressive Kazakhstan Hotel as you approach the entrance. From the cable car ride you will see the makeshift houses that lie just outside the city’s centre, a reminder of the widening gulf in income levels in this rapidly changing country.
From the hill top you get the best views of the sprawling city and the Alatau mountains beyond and, should you wish to stay longer and enjoy the view, expensive restaurants align the hill top.
Evidence of “new Kazakhstan” is all around. Shiny new skyscrapers are shooting up in the governmental and business districts and building works ahead of the 2017 Winter Universiade were evident across the city. The Kazakhstan of old is changing, and changing fast. Oil and gas reserves combined with a desire to align itself closer to the west is transforming Kazakhstan and its cities.
The Winter Universiade and the snow-capped mountains remind you of the extreme climate the city experiences. Whilst plus 30 degrees is common in summer, the view from Kobe Tok reveals a ski slope within the city limits whilst the famous outdoor ice rink of Medeo is only a few miles away – there are few cities on earth where one can ski jump and sun bathe on the same day. During my visit at Easter the city’s greens were on the whole still bare, with no water in the fountains and large piles of snow still frequenting the shadier parts of the city, all of which acted as a reminder of how late spring arrives here.
Kazakhs of all ethnic backgrounds like to have fun and they appear to find fun in almost everything. Nightlife in Almaty is certainly pretty crazy and full of fashion-conscious 20-somethings enjoying dancing and vodka in equal measures. The clubs were certainly still busy when I finally departed at 3:30am (which was all in the name of research I may add!).
Almaty offers the traveller a safe and interesting off- the-grid experience where the number of other tourists you meet is likely to be countable on your hands. It is a city of contrast, but with western brands continuing their encroachment, now is a great time to go whilst you still have the safety of a Hard Rock Café and a few coffee / fast food chains (all complete with contactless payments) but where the majority of the city retains its distinctly Kazakh feel. The architecture too reflects this, not quite Russian, not quite Asian, but a mixture of both and with an ever-increasing number of modern skyrises planned it is, again, distinctly Kazakh.
Southern Kazakhstan is dominated (like the rest of the country) by endless wilderness. Yet, here, unlike elsewhere in the country, mountains too play a crucial role in shaping the landscape.
Not too far from Almaty lies the country’s largest National Park, Altyn Emel. Here, you can experience a small (although it won’t seem like it at the time) sample of the steppe, the endless grassland that covers the vast majority of this huge country.
A highlight of the Altyn Emel National Park is one of nature’s most peculiar features, the singing Barchan, or singing dune in English. Many folk stories exist as to the reason that this one particular dune sings, but no one really seems to know the exact science behind it. Sadly, on my visit it did not sing, but even the positioning of this impressively sized sand dune nestled between two mountains at the edge of Asian steppe is impressive and is certainly not in keeping with the rest of the local geography. As no one can guarantee when it will or will not sing, a visit to it is a must. You are encouraged to climb up it, and I would have, if I had not made a similar journey up some equally impressive dunes in Namibia last year. But I would certainly encourage you to climb it. Make sure you do not wear your best sunglasses as, whilst you will need to wear glasses to protect your eyes from the sand blowing in the wind, it has the incredible ability to scratch glass and ruin the lenses in a relatively short space of time.
The steppe may seem lifeless but wandering the infinite wilderness are herds of Onager and Przewalkski’s Wild Horses, Golden Eagles (who soar above the steppe rather than roam it) and domestic livestock (including camels).
Another feature of the park is The Mongol Cauldron, a group of large upright stones, the only ones for hundreds of miles. Legends state the Mongol armies constructed them to cook horses whole for the troops, whilst others say they are naturally occurring. Either way, standing by them in the middle of nowhere it is hard not to start questioning the legends for yourself.
The roads in rural Kazakhstan, except for the brand new highway that leads to China, are more potholes than tarmac and in some places completely unpaved. Despite this, after leaving the park my driver was amazingly stopped for speeding and, after 5 minutes of debating and discussion, a “fine” of 5000 Tenge was agreed (about £12). Bribe, sorry I mean fine, paid and off we went on our way to our night’s accommodation.
Our accommodation for the night was the tiny village of Baschy, close to the park’s entrance. Rural life is a stark contrast to Almaty and Astana. Children play with whatever they have to hand in the street and livestock graze at the side of road. Most villagers live on small plots of land with horses, cows and hay bales nestled next to their small farmstead.
It was on our approach to the village where a truly magical encounter occurred; out of the Steppe appeared a real life cowboy. Stopping to ask for a cigarette off my guide he stopped and chatted and proudly posed for photographs. It was a glimpse of a way of life that is no doubt becoming rarer. But here, with such vast areas to cover and rugged terrain, for many the horse is still king.
Both are stark reminders of the gulf in living standards that is developing in Kazakhstan. That said, the rural locals are as accommodating as anywhere in the world, albeit with a rather direct style at times.
The next day we pushed on. Our accommodation on this occasion was not a stand-alone guest house but rather rooms within a local’s house. For me, this was by far the most authentic experience. We would go on to eat meals with the host family, play games with their children and use their own handmade sauna. But before that we had perhaps Kazakhstan’s most famous tourist attraction to visit, the Charyn Canyon.
Locally at least it is dubbed the Baby Grand Canyon. But that name is not needed; the canyon is grand enough in Its own right that it does not need to play off its larger American cousin.
Along the mile-long track the red walls of the canyon open up, becoming deeper and even more spectacular. This is photobook pretty and such a contrast to the flat grasslands of the Steppe not all that far away.
Rarely is there snow and mountains without glorious lakes, and south Kazakhstan is no exception. Lake Kaindy, in which lies a sunken birch forest, features the most stunning hues of blues. It is surrounded by snow even at Easter (in April on this occasion) and only really accessible by 4×4 (a little more on that later). We were transported from our guest house by two locals in what was perhaps the first ever 4×4 constructed by man. Slow and sturdy are the words that spring to mind as we worked our way up the steep road to the lake which crossed numerous fords en route, all full with snow melt.
Half way up, at some 1900 metres above sea level, we encounter a young family trapped in a muddy quagmire in a Lada, and an old non-4WD one at that.
The locals immediately stopped to help, wading in waist-deep (and what I can only assume extremely cold) water to help the stranded family. There was no hesitation in them doing this, and even if I had not wanted us to help (which I of course did) I do not think my views would have counted. Out in the countryside, more than anywhere else, people help each other out.
For 20 minutes they tried to push and pull the Lada out. Making phone calls to see who else may be in a position to come to their aid, eventually they accepted defeat and we drove on and upwards towards the lake.
The drive was probably no more than a couple of miles but it took nearly 45 minutes, helped in part by the trapped Lada and by our limited top speed of 3 mph. But the lake, or rather lakes, did not disappoint.
Being the only people at the shores of such a stunning piece of geography is rare these days. After all, the world is getting smaller and smaller.
No further words are needed for the lakes. Photographs do far more justice, so I will just leave these here.
No sooner had we explored the lakes when the Lada appeared. They had made it! The car smoking, the dad soaked through. They got out, had a 10 minute look round and off they went. When Kazakhs set their mind at something they follow it through!
The weather was now turning and so we stocked up on some local brandy and chocolate and headed back to base. That evening was spent dining with our hosts and then consuming rather too much brandy (with each shot followed by a square of chocolate). Late night saunas continued the entertainment. (I did say Kazakhs know how to have a good time!)
My final morning in the wilderness was hampered by the weather; thick low cloud and torrential rain meant the mountain passes we wanted were inaccessible. But fear not, there is plenty to do in Kazakhstan.
Instead I got the chance to visit the small but informative Issyk State Museum, home to one of several replicas of perhaps Kazakhstan’s most famous relic – the Saka Gold Man. The Saka people inhabited the Steppe some 2,500 years ago, prior to the Mongols. The Kazakhstan Gold Man was discovered in 1969 and is in immaculate condition. Strikingly ornate, it must have been quite the symbol of power and wealth.
Nearby Saka burial grounds can be seen, similar to Bronze Age burial mounds from the UK and all over Europe.
On route back to Almaty we stopped for lunch at a local market. An eclectic mix of stalls were present and my intrigue levels were certainly raised by the food stalls selling edible clay (sadly I found no further information on why clay was consumed here).
We stayed and tucked in to wonderfully tasty charcoal-cooked kebabs which were not only delicious but also so cheap they were pretty much giving them away, so much so I was persuaded to eat a 2nd (and then a 3rd later whilst on the road!).
On our approach back to Almaty I visited Medeo, a famous outdoor ice rink on the edges of the city. The weather at this point was particularly unpleasant, but even in the pouring rain the size and positioning of the stadium is notably impressive.
So, rural Kazakhstan is perhaps more in line with the stereotypes that may exist about this country. The vastness is endless, the people continue to work the land as the nearby cities continue their drive towards Western capitalism. The scenery is as good as anywhere (trust me on this occasion my photographs really did not do the area justice), from the barren windswept grasslands, to the snowed-capped mountains to the canyons and the ice-cold lakes. Kazakhstan has it all in abundance.
The last leg of my Kazakhstan adventure saw me take the overnight train from Almaty to the new capital of Astana some 750 miles to the north (it is worth noting that Astana is situated fairly centrally within Kazakhstan!).
I had a 2-berth sleeper cabin, complete with shower cubicle. Whilst it was the most expensive option, the benefit of a smaller room and shower facility was well worth the uplift.
I was to share my berth with a local businessman whose stop was at some ridiculous time in the early hours. He invited me to go drinking ‘Kazakh style’ which apparently would get me just as drunk but with none of the hangover. Now being well into my 30s, the promise of hangover free drinking was too good to turn down and off to the canteen carriage we went.
He proceeded to order vodka (by the bottle) that was not on the menu and got us set for an evening of his larger than life tales and considerable alcohol consumption (remember this is all in the name of research!). Each vodka shot was followed by a sip of tomato juice (seasoned with salt and pepper) and then by the eating of a very salty pickled green tomato. Whilst they tasted quite disgusting (in my opinion at least) his theory worked. He was helped, ok carried, off the train in the early hours and I awoke surprisingly fresh at 8am for my day in Astana. I was indeed hangover-free.
Astana was made the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, just some 6 years after independence. Why the capital was moved seems to be up for debate amongst locals but as the entire city has been constructed since then (although it did sit on the site of a much older village-size settlement) Astana has a very different look and feel to Almaty.
Astana is a planned city, on the banks of the Ishim river. It is a statement of new Kazakhstan. Over-the-top architecture is everywhere, much of it beautiful and inspiring and some of it down right odd.
As with Almaty, Astana is easy enough to get around on foot, although it is surprisingly well spread out (I walked 36km but it could be covered in far less).
The striking buildings make it easy to get your bearings and Astana is much quieter than Almaty with more public space too.
Astana is hosting the World Expo 2017 and building work for it is everywhere. This is a statement city and on track to hit a population of 1 million within 25 years.
At one end of Astana sits the sail-like Khan Shatyr; an entertainment and shopping complex. From there it is a straight line, albeit a long one, down through the main business district to the Hazrat Sultan Mosque and the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Tranquillity. Strategically positioned between the two is the expansive Presidential Palace.
Astana seems to have it all and, if it doesn’t yet have one, it is building it. Sometimes dubbed the “Dubai of the Steppe” it is easy to see why – the architecture is grand and striking, the city is rising quickly, not from the Arabian desert but from the grasslands of the Steppe. And here is where one issue with this claim may be found. Whilst Astana enjoys beautiful clear skies and hot summer days it can be incredibly windy and the winter temperatures plummet to -35C, which may be a harder sell to those looking to relocate.
However, for shopping, museums and the arts Astana punches well above its size and I am sure they have more grand plans afoot.
Placed in the centre of Astana lies the Bayterek Tower. Based on the Kazakh legend of the Samruk bird it has become very much the symbol of the city. From the top views of the myriad of architectural anomalies, many designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, can be enjoyed.
Astana is a photographer’s dream. It is as grand as Almaty is authentic, as planned as Almaty is eclectic. It is everything that the Government wants new Kazakhstan to be. But is it worth a visit? I think so, especially if you take the overnight train which is a cultural experience in itself. The flights home start at Astana and touch down in Almaty, and the airport is close to the city centre making it an easy additional option to include in your trip.
However, would I be disappointed if Kazakhstan only ever showcased Astana? Absolutely. It creates great juxtaposition and contrast, but for me, the heart and soul of the country still lies 1000 miles to the south. It is in visiting both that you get a true flavour of this country that is a crossroads on so many levels.
Kazakhstan really will surprise you. And you will thank it for that.
When in Rome, or in this case Almaty.
Has this caught your appetite? Check out our Kazakhstan Highlights Itinerary.