Located in Central Asia, hugged by Russia on its northern border and China to the east, Kazakhstan is huge. The ninth-largest country in the world, it has truly diverse landscapes, a gripping history and a culture rich enough to rival any destination worldwide. Here’s everything you need to know before your first trip.
Kazakhstan means “land of the wanderers” – and the country’s futuristic cities, dramatic landscapes and friendly locals reward those who choose to explore it. Best of all, Kazakhstan is not (yet) a tourist hub, so if you’re hankering after an offbeat escape, it should be on your list.
The best times to travel are in spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) when temperatures are moderate. In July and August it’s hot, hot, hot (reaching 40°C), while in winter the temperature hits a serious low: think -43°C at the chilliest.
As far as cities go, one of the main players is erstwhile capital Almaty. The country’s financial and commercial centre, it’s a conglomeration of Soviet-era architecture. Worthwhile sights include the wooden Zentov cathedral and the Green Bazaar.
The other city you shouldn't miss is Astana. This shiny, new capital is packed with ultra-modern buildings, many designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster. One such building is transparent, tent-shaped Khan Shatyr. Impressive from the outside, the interior boasts shops, entertainment venues, a monorail, boating river and even a beach resort.
There’s the Bayterek Tower too, an exhibition space and observation tower shaped like a tree, topped with a gold mirrored sphere. It is 97m high to represent 1997, the year that Astana became the country’s capital. Another of Foster’s creations is the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, home to an opera house, a museum and conference facilities.
Kazakhstan is certainly not short of wide, open spaces. Towering mountains, sprawling deserts, lakes and the largest dry steppe region on Earth all belong to this diverse expanse of land.
In the Tamgaly region, you can see thousands of Iron Age rock carvings. In the country’s south, you can visit the Baikonur Cosmodrome – it was here that Russian Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin was launched into space in 1961, the first human to make the journey.
Wildlife lovers should head to the Ak-Zhaiyk Reserve – a wetland habitat for migratory birds. It’s a great place to spot pink flamingos, pelicans, spoonbills and ibis, and the river delta hosts the endangered Russian beluga sturgeon, sought after for its caviar eggs. Kazakhstan’s abundant wildlife also includes red bears, snow leopards and the Steppe Eagle, a symbol of the country, which appears on the national flag.
Besides hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and horse riding, you can also ice skate on the world’s highest skating rink, 1691m above sea level, at the resort of Medeo. For those who prefer skiing, the season at Shymbulak, 25km from Almaty, lasts from mid-November until the end of March.
The sauna is a popular pastime here too. Some modern sauna complexes are equipped with billiards and even karaoke machines.
Food here is traditionally meat heavy. A speciality for most Kazakhs is beshbarmak, a stew (usually) made from horse meat, occasionally mutton. It tends to be served on flat pasta squares. If you befriend a local and go to their home for supper (Kazakhs are very hospitable), you may be offered kumis, fermented mare’s milk, to drink. In outlying regions, this is usually replaced by camel milk. If you’re considered a really special guest, you may well be presented with a sheep’s head for the main course.
However, if you’re vegetarian you won’t go hungry. Thick vegetable soups, salads and rice dishes abound. For the sweet toothed, desserts and cakes are also plentiful and delicious.
To explore the country’s wilder regions join a coach/minibus tour, or hire a car with a private driver – the latter option is pricier, but you’ll have more control over the itinerary.
If you prefer to go it alone, the slow but clean trains are a popular way of traversing Kazakhstan’s huge distances. For those wanting to get around more quickly, the domestic network of national carrier Air Astana includes services to 13 destinations throughout the country.
Air Astana offers return flights between London Heathrow and Astana. They also arrange tailor-made packages, which include city tours of Almaty and Astana and a seasonal bonus, such as a visit to the Arasan Baths or a day skiing at Shymbulak.
Header image by Mariusz Kluzniak via Flickr