Kazakhstan – What does central Asia’s largest country have for you?
As the title suggests, Kazakhstan is absolutely huge. The 9th largest country in the world in fact. Why do we know so little about it in the west? What are its people like? What is the history of this country? What do they eat? What language do they speak? Is it worth going there? This blog will answer all those questions and give you an insight into why Kazakhstan shouldn’t be overlooked as a holiday destination.
The biggest battle of any trip to Kazakhstan is the size of the place. If you want to tour around a bit as I did, it will involve internal flights or long train journeys. I only had 9 days to explore, so obviously was only able to see a tiny part of this epic country, so this guide will cover the main cities and resorts that are within easy driving distance of them.
A Brief History and its People
The land that is now Kazakhstan has been invaded over the years by everyone from the Persians, the Turks, the Mongols and most recently the Soviets, having joined the Soviet Union in 1936. The country remained part of the union until 1991, being the last republic to declare independence. Subsequently, its population is now mixed. Kazakhs make up about 67%, but other groups include Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Uyghurs and more.
The Capital City
Nur-Sultan, or is it Astana, no, Akmola. The capital seems to have a bit of a habit of changing its name. The most recent name change happened in 2019 when the city became known as Nur-Sultan in honour of the first president of independent Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Most people still use the name Astana, it’s even the name of the national airline, Air Astana, who flew me from Heathrow direct to Astana.
Astana has a feel of a city that shouldn’t really exist. Like it was forced to grow out of the desolate steppe landscape. It’s a relatively new city, with a planned vibe to it.
Wide roads with bordering apartment blocks, manicured gardens with fountains and some experimental architecture give the feel that the city is here to stay, despite its diurnal climate.
Not so many travellers spend time in the city, there isn’t a whole lot to do, but you won’t have been to a city like this before, so this alone makes a couple of days’ worth it.
The Baiterek Tower is the symbol of the city, rising 105 metres into the air, you can take an elevator to the top and look out down the fountain lined park to the Khan Shatyr, or place your hands over a mould of the former president's hands.
Khan Shatyr entertainment centre, a huge shopping mall in the style of a traditional Kazakh yurt!
Inside you’ll find all manner of shops, a theme park and even a waterpark complete with its own tropical beach!
Not far away from here, you’ll also find the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the second-largest in Central Asia!
There is room for 5000 worshippers inside and worth popping in to see the ornate ceiling.
There are lots of great places to eat in the city too, prices are low and the quality high. Local dishes like horse meat Manti (dumplings) and Besbermak (horse or mutton, served with chunks of fat and noodles) are popular, but you’ll also find great pizza, sushi, burgers and fully stocked supermarkets.
There is also an interesting emerging microbrewery scene to explore. Line Brew has a great choice. I stayed at Rixos President Astana, paying around £60 per night. It’s an upscale place with restaurants, an indoor pool and bars. The staff were very friendly and help me to plan the next part of my journey – a road trip to Burabay.
About a 3-hour journey north of Astana is the spectacular region of Burabay. My hotel in Astana was able to organise a taxi for very little money. As you journey north, the landscape changes dramatically. The desolate arid grass gives way to towering trees, lush vegetation and lakes as big as oceans.
The town of Burabay itself is not worth visiting but is the starting point for exploration around the lake. A very well maintained boardwalk hugs the coast and you can walk for hours taking in the glorious views.
It’s possible to rent kayaks or climb some of the mountains around here too. I visited in July, so temperatures were very warm, but in winter I imagine this whole place closes and the lake freezes over. Little cafes are dotted along the walk and make for a nice pit stop amongst the holidaying locals.
After the 3 days spent in and around the capital, it was time to head south to the commercial capital, Almaty.
A 1.5-hour flight across the country will bring you Almaty, the largest and culturally most important city in the country. A quick taxi ride brought me to my hotel, the Mercure Almaty City Centre. For £54 a night, this hotel was very comfortable with a cool spa complete with Jacuzzis, steam rooms and saunas on the top floor overlooking the city and surrounding mountains.
The city is pretty big and you’ll need to use the cheap and efficient metro or taxis to get around to some sights. Here is a list of my favourites:
A leftover from the Russian influence, a typically beautiful Orthodox Cathedral and parks
Zolotoy Bazaar – lots of beautifully presented fresh fruit and veg
Almaty Central Mosque
The main mosque in town is worth a visit and to rest your feet in its accompanying park.
Note we could not go in as we had shorts on so make sure you dress appropriately.
A.Kasteev Art Museum
Lots of local art, from sculpture to carpets
First President Park
Huge and impressive park in town.
Big Almaty Lake
About an hour by taxi, this lake is nestled in between mountains and is a great place to escape the mad heat of summer. Unfortunately for us, a freak rain shower started just as we arrived so the picture is rather grey and miserable.
Located on top of a hill and reached by cable car, come here for food, great views and a few surprises!
You won't go hungry whilst in town either. There is a cosmopolitan choice of Kazakh, middle eastern, bbq, Indian or pretty much anything you’re in the food for. Special mention to Chechil Pub, great for drinks and snacks!
Less than an hours drive from town is the ski resort of Shymbulak which looks back over Almaty on a clear day.
Access is restricted to cars, so you’ll probably get dropped off at the base of the resort where you’ll take a cable car, the 15 minutes or so to the resort. Tickets are £6.00 return.
This excellent service will bring you to a small village with hotels, restaurants, bars and more cable cars that go further up the mountains.
As my visit was in July, there was no snow, but the panoramic views are still worth coming to see. I stayed in Shymbulak Ski Resort Hotel, a wooden built structure with simple rooms for about £40 per night including breakfast. There isn’t a huge amount of accommodation, so I advise you to book well in advance if you want to visit.
The cable cars from the resort take you up to a grand height of 3163 metres ( more than 10,300 ft). There are multiple walking trails to explore in summer and the peaks of the Talgar Pass are stunning.
On your descend, you can make a stop at a restaurant for a bit to eat whilst taking in the breath-taking views back down to the resort and the sprawl of Almaty in the distance.
Well connected Kazakhstan should feature on any central Asian itinerary or even a stand-alone trip like mine. There is still so much to explore in this sprawling country. This blog doesn’t begin to cover it all. One thing I’m sorry for not getting to see was Altyn Emel National Park with its singing dunes and beautiful rock formations in the desert to the east of Almaty.
Still, there’s always next time!
To see more of our trip you can also watch our YouTube video on the area. This will give you even more insight into the trip.
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