So. Destination Kazakhstan? Perhaps not one you’ve ever considered, possibly. Did you know it’s the ninth biggest country in the world? And is home to the Cosmonaut (Russian) Space Program? Or that it’s capital, Nursultan (or as used to be known, Astana) is one of the world’s more unique cities and capitals?
It has two main influences, that of the central Asian Kazakhs, nomads as they used to be, and the Russian. Just under 20% of the country is Russian today – back in the days when it was a territory in the Soviet Union they were the majority. Uzbeks and Ukrainians are also significant minorities in modern day Kazakhstan.
It has a mix of different environments, from the steppe that do make up a lot of the country, to mountains in the south and even deserts in the south-west. The Aral Sea is part in Uzbekistan, part in Kazakhstan and over not so many years all but completely dried up. Today there are projects to try and reverse this condition, however you can see large ships out there today, stranded on salt and sand.
So – what do you need to know about Kazakhstan before you visit? What are the people and food like, and what is there to do when you visit a country whose name may be a mystery to many if it wasn’t for the creation of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat. The first thing you need to know is that, well, unsurprisingly I guess Borat is in no way a reflection of this country, one with increasing wealth and vision. With long distances, and much empty space, juxtaposed with cosmopolitan Almaty in the south and some great slopes for skiing and winter sports, I’m hoping today’s post is going to prepare you for a trip to Central Asia’s largest, and most diverse, country!
So let’s dive into Kazakhstan. As I said, at a little over 2.7 million kilometres squared it is the ninth biggest country in the world. However, at just under 19 million people it is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, which means people are pretty sparsely spread over the country. 1.7% of the country is covered in water, which makes it pretty dry.
As a country…
The history of Kazakhstan as some sort of nation or ‘Khanate’ dates back to the Fifteenth century. In the first part of the 20th Century, it was incorporated under several guises into the Soviet Union. In 1991 when the Soviet Split up, it became its own republic and Nursultan Nazarbayev became the first President of Kazakhstan. Under his leadership, one not dissimilar in many ways to that of Rahmon in Tajikistan and Niyazov of Turkmenistan in terms of, well, being practically a dictatorship in all but name, the country began to capitalise in the land’s rich resources in minerals and gas.
Nazarbayev managed to keep in good with Russia while at the same time rejecting much of what the Soviet Union had done negatively to Kazakhstan, in particular disavowing the nuclear testing in the north of the country near Semey which he also banned. Nevertheless, the Baikonur Cosmodrome stayed open – opened in 1955 – and remains an important part of the Russian Space Program – rockets to the International Space Station are often launched from it. On the other side of the coin, independence and the years after saw a mass exodus of ethnic Russians back to Russia, seeing them go from just under 70% of the population down to just under 20%.
Nazarbayev moved the capital city from Almaty in the countries south, partly because of its susceptibility to earthquakes – the one most known is the 1911 earthquake which killed over 400 people and destroyed 770 buildings. He also wanted to build a modern city, something the country could be proud of, something akin to Dubai in the middle east. He settled on a spot where a town stood – ‘Akmola’, which translates into English as ‘White Tomb’. It’s a more central point, flat, and from my first impressions didn’t have that much to recommend it.
He changed the name to ‘Astana’, and had architects such as Norman Foster design some of the most incredible buildings in the world that were built there at great expense. Which is where a lot of the country’s wealth has be poured into. Today the population is a little over a million, although surrounding areas don’t have a lot of people as is the case with many big cities. Almaty has a little under 2 million today, and remains the country’s biggest city and main port of entry by air. When Nazarbayev retired the Presidency, the city was renamed after him, so in the space of 20 years or so it had three names, and today is known as ‘Nursultan’.
So now you know a little about this country, where to start if you want to go. Whilst not that long ago all of the Central Asian countries required you to have some sort of visa when entering, and some of those had extra tricky requirements too, these days it’s thankfully a lot easier. When I first went in 2011 I had to send my passport overseas as Australia did not have a Kazakh embassy/consulate here. In fact I posted my passport over to Tokyo with my application and cheque, said a bit of a prayer and waited for it to come back. It did, and I was able to get a multiple entry visa which it turned out I did need.
Last year there was quite a contrast. No visa required! So I just got off the plane and straight through immigration. And that’s the way now for passport holders from most western nations, which makes things easier, less time consuming and obviously, cheaper!
The flag carrier of Kazakhstan is Air Astana – you can read my review here – Air Astana – Incredible Views! A Review. The first thing to say is that they are an EXCELLENT airline. Which is handy because flying into Central Asia in general isn’t that easy simply because only a limited number of airlines bother to fly there. From China China Southern fly there, through Urumqi Airport, and plenty of Russian airlines will fly you Kazakhstan too. To find a direct connection from Kuala Lumpur the only one I could find last year was though with Air Astana.
From Europe your options are very limited – Lufthansa is the main one. And Ukrainian Airlines too. So if you’re flying in, you have limited options, and I would say most international flights will still take you to Almaty rather than Nursultan.
By land, well, there are a number of countries bordering Kazakhstan and they all have borders the traveller can use. There’s an overnight train between Almaty and Urumqi, and also Nursultan too with Urumqi I think. Certainly there are a few trains that come south from Russia to both cities and through plenty of other cities in Kazakhstan as well. One train between Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Moscow goes through a fair bit of Kazakhstan with a number of stops.
Road connections between Tashkent and the south of Kazakhstan exist and you can use a marshrutka or shared taxi to get to the border. Also Almaty is not far away from the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek, and so with a couple of hours you can travel between the two pretty easily. In the far west of the country near the Caspian Sea there’s a stretch of border between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. I believe you can cross there but Turkmenistan is the one country where visas are still very tricky, and I haven’t heard of people crossing there.
The Caspian Sea however is useful if you want a different way of entering Kazakhstan and Central Asia. There is a somewhat regular ferry that takes around 30 hours I believe from Baku in Azerbaijan, if it takes your fancy. And ‘fancy’ is not what you might call this ferry, as it’s mostly cargo and you’ll most likely need to share a cabin.
Moving About the Place
Although the infrastructure of Kazakhstan has a few obvious gaps, and in the remote areas is poor, generally it’s not too bad. Ais Astana is your safest bet in terms of domestic carriers, although there are others their safety reputation is pretty poor.
Trains are a great way to get about the place. They aren’t super fast in general, although there are some Talgos which mainly ply the route between Almaty and Nursultan. I took this one, it was still an overnight trip although the cabin was pretty comfy. Considering the population density the rail network covers a fair bit of ground, although the middle section isn’t so well covered.
Otherwise you may find yourself in share taxis or marshrutkas, which are also common ways of getting around towns and cities. Almaty now has a Metro system though and a good tram network along with trolley buses. Nursultan relies on buses, is quite spread out and you may find yourself in taxis there sometimes to save time waiting.
There are buses too, I took one across from Semey to Pavlodar where I stayed one night before taking the train down to Astana as it was then. It was a pretty ramshackle affair across poor roads, unsealed in parts, and took a lot longer than it should have. But I expect roads have improved since then and buses too!
Food & People
The food in Kazakhstan is pretty similar to the rest of Central Asia. However, one thing I will say is that they do love their horse meat, and the best place to get plov with horse meat – if you want to try it – is Kazakhstan. I still don’t know if I’ve had it or not, but I certainly had my fair share of plov when I was there so it’s possible. Russian food is also very prevalent in Kazakhstan as there is still a sizeable Russian population there despite the exodus. So if you love a good borscht, well, you’ll be in luck! You’ll also find a few dodgy Russian owned burger joints, kebabs on the side of the road in Almaty and the like. When I visited there wasn’t a single American Fast Food chain in the country, but I believe there is nowadays.
Generally I found the Kazakh people, regardless of ethnicity, to be really friendly. I was shown around Semey by a group of university goers I just met, stayed with some nice people in a flat in Almaty, really, very very friendly place.
Money, money, money… it’s a rich man’s world
All in all I would say that Kazakhstan is probably the most expensive of the ‘stans. Aside from the money you need to spend to organise a tour in Turkmenistan. Although I found staying in Semey pretty cheap at the Semey Hotel, accommodation in the two biggest cities of Nursultan and Almaty is more expensive. A quick check online though reveals that perhaps there are a few more budget-orientated options than there were in 2011, especially in Nursultan.
Food is pretty cheap, and transport bar flying is reasonably priced too and cheaper than say Russia. The currency is the Tenge and 1USD is equal to around 430 Tenge, at the moment. It didn’t buy so many 12 months ago, maybe 350 Tenge or less so it’s not a particularly stable currency.
What to see and do?
I don’t usually go overboard in this section as I generally have plenty of posts out there about this sort of thing. I could do a few more on Kazakhstan I guess though.
Almaty is a leafy, very pleasant city. Surrounded by mountains. It’s great for parks, walking around, visiting the surrounding countryside, or for a bit of culture you can check out the ballet, or dance or the opera. Take a cable car up Kok Tobe for a view of the city, or take a bus out to where the Asian Winter Games were once held at Medeu or the mountain resort of Shymbulak.
See Also – The Allure of Almaty
Nursultan, or as some including myself may still call it, Astana, is a city that needs to be seen to be believed. Here the buildings and architecture are the thing, where you’ll find the Byoterek – a lolly pop shaped tower, the Grand Mosque, two giant golden samovars, the Presidential Palace and the pyramid shaped Palace of Peace and Accord – where you can get a tour. And there are plenty more amazing buildings.
See Also – Sunday Spotlight – Astana
Semey is a smaller town not far from the Russian border in the north-east of the country. It’s quite pleasant, and if it takes your fancy you can choose to visit the nuclear test zone some 150km away on a tour. In town there are a few things to see, the museum to the poet Abai, the house of Dostoyevsky and the park with Soviet statues. Also has the friendliest people I met in Kazakhstan!
See Also – Sunday Spotlight – Semey
Elsewhere in the country I think a trip to the Caspian Sea might be very interesting. Aktau is a post city that’s growing, not that far from where the Baku ferry arrives and leaves. The Aral Sea is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but it sounds amazing just to see giant ships stuck in the middle of the salt.
Also, the Baikonur Cosmodrome would be brilliant, however you do need to book a tour and from Almaty it starts apparently at around $700 USD, which is pretty hefty price. I’ve also heard good things about Taraz in the south if time allows, a more historical city.
All in all Kazakhstan is a place that rewards those prepared to go the extra mile, to endure the long journeys, and to see the sort of thing you don’t always see when travelling. So why not give it a go? Thanks for reading – May the Journey Never End!