KazakhstanKazakhstan is the largest of the former states of the former Soviet Union apart from Russia itself, and it dwarfs the other countries of Central Asia.
Its lack of significant historical sites and endless, featureless steppe repel as many visitors as are captivated by the emptiness and mystery of this goliath state. Kazakhstan is the richest country in the region due to its large oil and natural gas reserves and is also the largest in Central Asia.
- (formerly Astana) — second largest city, and capital since 1997. Worth visiting but you only need a few days to get to the most worthwhile sights. This city is brand new and being built very rapidly. If you want to see what the old Aqmola looks like, you need to do it now as it is disappearing very rapidly.
- — largest city, and capital until 1998. Definitely a must-see. Beside the Soviet-style city, you may want to go to the Medeu and other places in the nearby mountains.
- — oil capital of Kazakhstan, with large onshore Tengiz and offshore Kashagan oilfields nearby
- — Kazakh city in the very north of the country, founded in 1720, closed until 1992 for its military significance in tank production, and home to one very impressive mosque, as well as other interesting Orthodox churches and various memorials
- (Semipalatinsk) — university city notorious for the nearby atomic bomb testing site
- — Kazakhstan's third largest city, very crowded with Uzbek people, it is an old market town located near Tashkent and some beautiful mountains; now booming with oil exploration
- — another ancient city, long a border town between the Persian culture to the south and the Turkic nomadic culture to the north, now majority Uzbek and home to several important cultural-historical monuments
- — mining city in the Altai mountains; primarily Russian-speaking
- — a nature reserve
- — site of the spaceport
Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were united as a single nation in the mid-16th century. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.
During the launching of the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities, including the Volga Germans) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these newcomers and their descendants to emigrate.
Modern Kazakhstan is a neo-patrimonial state characterized by considerable nepotism and dominance over political and economic affairs by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who only recently stepped down in March 2019 after a 29 year tenure. However, it is not a severely authoritarian government compared to bordering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China and opposition is not usually sacked or imprisoned. Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh government has allowed foreign investment to flow into the capital to develop. The development of significant oil and gas reserves, particularly in the north and west, has brought a large amount of wealth to the country, though the money falls into the hands of just a few people. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is now labelled a middle-income country, and is already classified with a high human development index. Corruption in Kazakhstan is ubiquitous compared to China, but it is not as widespread as other countries in the region.
Current issues include: developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets (an oil pipeline to China has been built; the gas pipeline is under construction); achieving a sustainable economic growth outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors, and strengthening relations with surrounding states and other foreign powers.
Most western passport holders don't need a visa to enter Kazakhstan for a visit of up to 30 days. (Day of entry always counts as Day 1, even at 23:59.) This waiver has been extended year-by-year several times, but since Oct 2018 appears to be permanent. For ordinary (i.e. non-diplomatic) passports, the countries included are:
- Americas: Canada, US and dependencies, Mexico, Greenland, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and French Guyana. (It's expected soon to include Cuba.)
- Europe: the entire EU including United Kingdom and Andorra, plus Iceland, Norway, Serbia, Turkey and Switzerland. It excludes Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Vatican.
- Middle East: Israel and United Arab Emirates.
- Australasia: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia & Singapore; citizens of Hong Kong only for 14 days.
- plus Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Citizens of CIS countries may enter without a visa for up to 90 days. These countries are: Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Mongolia.
Holders of Kyrgyzstan visas may also travel visa-free to the regions of Almaty and Jambul (which includes the Almaty-Taraz road). This is only relevant to those who would otherwise need a visa to enter, so it may benefit citizens of Liechtenstein and Saudi Arabia.
If you know in advance that your stay will be longer, e.g. for work, then you need a visa, which will need to be supported by an official Letter of Invitation from the employer / agency in Kazakhstan. For more information see Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan. For tourist visits where you're enjoying the country so much that you want to stay on, the simplest way is to take a trip to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, which also has no visa requirement for many countries, and come straight back to gain another 30 day stay. There's no limit how often you do this.
Registration (card): Never lose the registration card that you're given on entry. It must have at least one stamp on it, corresponding to the entry stamp in your passport. For most visitors it will have two, meaning that you're already registered for the duration of your stay, and don't need to register with the immigration police. If it only has one stamp, you must register within five days of entering Kazakhstan (there are offices in Astana and Almaty), and again in each place you visit for more than 72 hours. And you must also present yourself immediately if you lose it: otherwise you'll endure much grief, probably fines and possibly detention, when you try to leave the country.
As of Sep 2018, as a holder of a western passport, one receives 2 entry stamps right away, and 1 stamp in the passport, both when entering by plane and at the Kyrgyz border. No address of stay needs to be presented.
Air Astana keeps a monopoly on some international routes by limiting which airlines can fly to Kazakhstan.
Lufthansa also has daily flights to Almaty, from where you can go anywhere via local carrier SCAT, which flies to most cities in Kazakhstan. British Airways and KLM now fly several times a week to Heathrow and Schiphol respectively. There is also a non-stop connection twice a week from Prague, operated by Czech airlines.
Turkish Airlines is a good passenger carrier, with flights to Istanbul (ask a travel agent about the student fares, which can be a great deal).
There are twice a week flights from Seoul to Almaty; one is with Asiana Airlines, and the other is Astana.
Airbaltic also flies to Almaty; if you reserve tickets in advance, you can go there for €130 (from Riga).
Etihad flies weekly from Abu Dhabi to Astana. Flight time is around 4.5 hours.
Taxi fares from the airport to the city range are 2,000-3,000 tenge.
Note that since 2018, a Russian transit visa is needed if changing plane in Russia, when travelling to or from Kazakhstan.
By trainTrains in Kazakhstan are slow but comfortable and clean. Popular routes include Almaty to/from Moscow (77 hours), Novosibirsk (35 hours) and Ürümqi, China (34 hours). Count on a 3–4 hr stay at the Russian border or 6–8 hr at the Chinese border. Trains in Kazakhstan can also be booked on-line.
By carYou can enter Kazakhstan by car through many of the border checkpoints on main roads into the country. However, be prepared to wait up to 24 (twenty-four) hours in the queues, with rather poor facilities.
From ChinaIt is fairly easy to travel from Ürümqi to Almaty via sleeper bus, especially if you aren't in a hurry and don't mind living on a bus for a good 24 to 36 hours. The border crossing itself is a bit of a hike, and you may be made to carry all of your belongings with you for quite a way in some seriously warm weather. The bus trip and "baggage fees" are around US$45. You can pick up your Kazakhstan visa at the consulate in Ürümqi as well, but be prepared to chill for at least a week waiting, and be sure to get a copy of your passport before handing it over.
From KyrgyzstanIt is a straight forward 3½-4½ hr (mini) bus ride from Bishkek to Almaty for about 1,200-1,800 tenge, depending on the option you choose (e.g. 500 som directly from the Bishkek Western Bus Station). For more information, see Almaty.
By boatFreighters travel regularly between Baku and Aktau, and it is possible to hitch a ride. Note, though, that it is common for ships to get held up, even for weeks, before entering port, so you had better stock up on food and water before boarding. See freighter travel to better understand how this works.
By busIn Semipalatinsk (Semey) a marshrutka costs 35 tenge, and a large bus costs 35-40 tenge. In Astana it ranges between 60-65 tenge.
Public/city busesPublic transportation in big cities is rather popular. You can use buses, trolleys, trams and minibuses. One big minus of all of them is that they never come on schedule and very crowded on peak time. Moreover, there is absolutely no plan with bus stops and schedule whatsoever. If you don't speak Russian, taking the bus will be quite tricky but not impossible.
MarshrutkasSimilar to regular buses and another cheap way to get around is by taking a marshrutka. These are the dilapidated transport vans that cruise around or between towns. They usually have a sign (in Russian) listing the destination, and the driver will usually call out where they are going. However, you will not find them operating inside of Almaty city.
Long distance buses
Fares are relatively low, for instance a single from Almaty to Karaganda (14 hr) will cost you 2,500 tenge—much cheaper than a flight ticket.
By taxiUse taxis as they are very cheap (€2-6 within the city). You don't have to use official taxis in most cities, basically you can stop almost any car on the street by raising your hand. It works good in Almaty & Astana, but in Karaganda the best way is one of taxis by phone. It some cheaper and even faster than hitch-hike waiting.
A note of warning, getting to the Almaty airport can be expensive. Taxis to the airport vary greatly in price. Any foreigner will be quoted a very expensive rate but usually drivers will come down once they see they aren't going to be able to get that much. US$50 is outlandish. Do not accept the first price as it will result in your being overcharged. It should be less than US$10, although it can never be guaranteed that a foreigner will get that price. A better option are the minibuses and buses that go to the airport. The word "airport" is very similar in Russian and English.
A common way to get around is by unofficial taxis. Any time of day, just wave your hand and someone will stop. Locals do this all the time. Negotiate the price and destination before you agree to go. About US$2-4 is fair for a ride within the centre of Almaty. If your Russian is poor or non-existent, you will be charged a lot more than locals; to avoid this, try to use public buses as much as you can and don't hesitate to tell the driver how much you are ready to pay (do this before he tells you how much he wants). To be safe though, do not get in a car if more than one person is driving. Also, do not take these kind of taxis for long distances or anywhere that goes through remote areas, as there are frequent robberies, especially of foreigners.
Always try to have exact amount of money in cash (the price which you negotiated with a taxi driver), since usually they will not give you change. So if the price should be 350 tenge, give the driver 350 tenge, not more (as he/she might not give change).
The rolling stock, train classes, ticket and reservation systems were inherited from the former Soviet Railways, so they are very similar to the Russian train system.
Ticket prices are slightly lower than in Russia. Kazakh Railways tickets can be bought online.
Kazakhstan is a large country. For instance, it will take you almost 24 hours to get from Almaty to Astana. However, going by train is a very fun way of travelling, since the trains are a great way to meet people. A lot has been written about the pitfalls of being included in a vodka drinking party on a train, but for the most part fellow travellers are friendly, and keen to find out about you ("why aren't you married?" and, if you are, "why don't you have children?", and if you do, "why don't they have children?"!) Most travellers take food for the journey, as restaurant car provision is sporadic (and they expect you to share yours too!). If you don't have enough to last the distance, the trains generally stop for 15–20 minutes at each station and there are always people on the platform selling food and drink, at any time of day or night.
There is also a train called the Talgo, which can cover the distance from Almaty and Astana in 9 hours. The cost of the ticket is about 9,000 tenge.
By planeAir Astana provides offices in a few major hotels in big cities; it's the fastest way of travelling within the city for those who can afford it. Planes are brand new and match European standards in quality. Qazaq Air is a cheaper alternative and also provides some connections between major Kazakh cities, with the most frequently served connection being the route Astana - Almaty.
Kazakh and Russian are the official languages of Kazakhstan. Both languages are compulsory in all schools, and most people know both of them. Therefore, if you know either of them, you should be fine. However, in some regions people speak more Kazakh and in others they prefer Russian. For example, Shymkent and the western regions mostly use Kazakh but the northern part of the country remains to a large extent Russian-speaking. Kazakh will be somewhat familiar if you know another Turkic language, and Russian if you know another Slavic language.
Many people under age 20 will know some English as will many customs officials and airport people know English.
It is difficult to get around the country without some Russian or Kazakh language skills; though, within the more modernized cities, it is easier. Have your place of residence written on a card and get a taxi if you get lost (you might be somewhat overcharged by the taxi, but it is better than being lost).
Baikonur is the famous cosmodrome site for the launch of the first manned orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin. The modern town of Baikonur was built near the existing village of Tyuratam.
As the cosmodrome area (6,000 km 2 .) is rented by Russia, no Kazakh visa is needed if you fly in directly from Moscow.
Tours can be organised but reportedly these take weeks to be approved by Russian authorities.
- Köl-Say Lakes
- The modern buildings of Astana; a contrast to most of the rest of Kazakhstan
- Endless desert and steppe in much of the country
- The Altai mountains in eastern Kazakhstan, and other mountain chains along the southern border.
Sauna complexesBecause of its cold and windy weather, visiting saunas with friends is very popular in Kazakhstan. Saunas (Russian banyas or Finnish steam rooms) are an excellent place to discuss business issues or just socialize with friends. Having parties (birthdays, New Year, etc.) in saunas is a normal practice. In fact many modern sauna complexes in Almaty and Astana are usually fully equipped with karaoke, billiards, swimming pools, relax rooms, massage rooms, etc. Some saunas are a cover for sex services, and many will include a "happy end" option when taking a massage.
MoneyThe national currency is tenge, denoted by the symbol "₸" or "T" (Cyrillic: тенге, ISO code: KZT). On Wikivoyage we use tenge to denote the currency, e.g. 100 tenge.
CostsKazakhstan is slightly more expensive than Uzbekistan, but still cheaper than Turkmenistan. A street snack costs around US$0.30-0.70. A night in a dorm in the big cities is US$10-20. A more comfortable double room is US$60-80.
ShoppingEven for people who are not big shoppers, the beautifully crafted felt items will appeal. They are also easy to carry and inexpensive to post.
- Beshbarmak - "five fingers", a horse meat and pasta dish with potato and onion. The national traditional dish of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan most often served for special occasions. Can also be made with beef or lamb. Most restaurants that serve it will present a portion enough for two or three people.
- Kazy - handmade horse meat sausage, could be cooked and served with Beshbarmak, but not at the restaurants, unless you ask to do so when preorder menu. If you did not, it would be served as cold meat appetizer with other types of cold meat appetizers (Zhaya, Basturma, Shyzhyk). And separate price would be charged. Kazakh dish.
- Laghman - a thick noodle dish with meat, carrot and onion, usually served as a soup.Some other veggies could be added too.
- Manty - large steamed dumplings full of meat and onions. Sometimes made with onions or pumpkin. Traditional Uighur dish.
- Plov - wonderful dish of fried rice, meat, carrots, and sometimes other bits such as raisins or tomatoes. Traditional Uzbek dish.
- Shashlyk or Shish Kebab - skewered, roasted chunks of marinated meat, served with some sort of flatbread (usually lavash) and onions. Various marinates can be used, and different ways to cook it, open fire or other.
- Baursaky - bread best served piping hot. A little like an unsweetened doughnut. Kazakh.
- Pelmeni - boiled dumplings made from different kinds of meat or potato. Russian.
If you're a vegetarian, you're probably thinking there's nothing for you in Kazakhstan. And you're right, if you eat out. But if you're cooking your own food, you'll be more than satisfied. Kazakhstan has some excellent products available at little markets everywhere. You will be amazed at the taste and availability of fresh organic veggies at low price! For a treat in Almaty, try Govinda's, a delicious vegetarian Hare Krishna restaurant. Malls have food courts with some vegetarian options too. Even some small Kazakh eateries will prepare vegetarian meals for you if you make it very clear to them (e.g. "byez myasa" (without meat), "ya vegeterianetz" (I am a vegetarian), "ya vegetarianka" (I am a vegetarian) in Russian). At some places (e.g. smak) you can even find vegetarian manty made with pumpkin.
The legacy of Korean resettlement in Kazakhstan means that Korean dishes, particularly salads, are very common. At the country's many bazaars (independent food and goods markets), look for the Korean ladies selling these. They will wrap you up any number of delicious, often spicy and garlicky salads to take away in plastic bags. If you are vegetarian, this may be the only decent thing you get to eat while you're in the country.
On the other hand, in Kazakhstan you can find any dishes you want, but Chinese and Japanese dishes are very expensive.
The most delicious is caviar, which is very cheap, you can buy 1 kilo of caviar for less than US$300 in Almaty Zyeloniy Bazaar, but you can't export or take it with you home; you will be stopped at the airport and pay high fines.
Eating out is relatively cheap; you basically order the meat dish and then add rice, potatoes, etc. Each element is priced individually, so you can order for instance only meat or only rice. Prices are relatively cheap, count 500 tenge for chicken, 1,000 tenge for beef, and up to 1,500 tenge for horse, a local delicacy. Of course, the fancier the restaurant, the higher the price. If you don't speak Russian, things are relatively hard as the majority of restaurants don't have English menus (with the exception of some hyped places in Almaty).
While Kazakhs are not very religious, most do not eat pork. Be aware of this if you are dining out with Kazakhs or planning a dinner at home. Also many dishes that are made elsewhere with pork (such as dumplings or sausage) are made with beef or mutton here.
Traditional beverages include:
- Kumiss - fermented mare's milk, up to 6% alcohol content. Imagine tart lemonade, mixed with semi-sour milk.
- Kumyran (Shubat)- fermented camel's milk
- Kvas - described as similar to root beer it can be bought in a bottle in a store, or by the cup from people with giant yellowish tanks of it on the street.
- Tan. Fizzy beverage made of mare's milk.
- Cheap alcoholic drinks can be found at every little corner shop (called the astanovka). These places are open 24/7, just knock on their door if the shopkeeper is asleep. Kazakhstan's speciality is cognac, though stores still sell vodka cheaper than bottled water at times. However, some of these astanovka sometimes sell alcohol of dubious origin; for the sake of your stomach you may want to buy your beverage in a supermarket, although the price will definitely be higher.
- Several brands of beer, of good quality and flavor, are made in Karaganda. Becker, Staut, Tian-Shan, Derbes, Irbis, Alma-Ata. Local brands brewed in Almaty are pretty good.
- Juices, in cartons, are common and delicious, especially peach juice.
- Tea is widely available, mostly very good and often quite strong. If you are on a budget this is the thing to order with your food. Tea is culturally important in Kazakhstan - "shai" time is one of the most important things a visitor can engage in to learn about the culture.
- Coffee. Modern coffee houses and western-style cafés are appearing. They serve good coffee. Coffeedelia (Kabanbai batyr and Furmanov) is popular with expats and does OK coffee. One of the best coffee in Almaty can be found at 4A Coffee where they roast their own daily. Gloria Jeans and Marone Rosso also can be found.
- Wine. Try the local variety. A good one can be had for less than US$4 a bottle. "Bibigul" is perhaps the most consistently good wine, and it comes in a semi-dry red or semi-dry white. Avoid drinking wine in restaurants. It's usually very expensive.
- Vodka. Good vodka at US$8–10 per bottle. In restaurants that do not usually cater to foreigners you get 20(!) cl if you order a vodka, smaller servings not available. Buy a bottle of "Kazakhstan" vodka to take back. It is in a pretty bottle with a picture of Kazakh hunting with a falcon seen through a "window". Try Edil vodka, which is made with the pantacrene of local deer antlers.
There are almost no camping sites except in Burabay/Borovoe in Kazakhstan. You can, however, camp almost anywhere due to the huge uninhabited spots. The scenery is beautiful but because of the very hot weather: don't forget to take plenty of water with you as you can very easily spend many of days without seeing anybody. If you camp near a nomadic tribe, ask for the permission to stay near; it will not be refused.
Generally, Kazakh cities are safe during the day, but certain parts of major cities should be avoided at night to reduce risk (e.g. (i) all parts of Almaty below Tashkentskaya street and all microdistrict areas within these zones, certain other remote microdistricts, and areas with high concentrations of shabby private houses (such as Shanyrak); (ii) in smaller towns, e.g. Taraz, Balkhash, Shymkent, Taldykorgan, Uralsk, Semey and Ust-Kamenogorsk, going out at night should not present a significant risk, though infrequent muggings do occur; and (iii) all smaller towns such as Shar, Stepnogorsk, and Temirtau may present a higher risk of mugging and violent crime).
Although illegal, unfortunately prostitution has become widespread in many big cities lately. Usually prostitutes work in hotels, night clubs or saunas. Also, local classified newspapers typically have a whole section dedicated to escort services. Many sex workers in Kazakhstan are in fact from neighbouring less economically developed states such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Keep your passport (or a certified copy of your passport and visa) with you at all times. While the situation has improved lately, police might still try to extort money from foreigners, especially on trains and long-distance buses. Unless the officers involved are drunk, it is possible to avoid paying them by pretending not to understand, or by claiming poverty.
The risk of violent crime is comparable with Eastern European countries and rougher parts of major US cities. An ordinary tourist should not experience any violent crime and is unlikely to be a target of minor crimes, if their behaviour stays within generally accepted norms in public places.
A foreign man soliciting a local woman on the streets or in a nightclub may draw unwanted attention from locals, or might result in arguments. Normal western attention and respect for women and children, including a smile or kind greeting, can be taken by a local husband or father as threatening or offensive.
Carrying expensive phones, watches and jewellery; or otherwise demonstrating wealth in public may result in closer attention from pickpockets and potential criminals. Outside Almaty and Astana, this should be avoided.
There is zero tolerance for any drugs, and trace amounts may result in criminal investigation, prosecution and a prison sentence. Prisons are known to be dangerous and often inhumane.
Careless and drunk driving is a problem. It is always advisable to obey traffic rules and wear seat belts. In most cities, using local taxis may present a higher risk than official public transportation due to many taxis operating unlicensed with incompetent drivers. Situations of unlicensed taxi drivers demanding additional fees before releasing luggage from their boot, or driving off and stealing luggage are more common than would be expected in western cities with a well-regulated taxi industry. It's advisable to keep your valuables and passport in your pockets and your most valuable bag on your lap. Public transportation and taxis are much less expensive than in western cities.
Kazakh people have more pride than most westerners would expect. Therefore, insulting or negative comments about Kazakhstan or local Kazakhstani people will often result in arguments and possible threats of physical violence. It is not recommended to get into an argument with locals, as Kazakhstan is a nation where physical power is part of the local culture, and can occasionally lead to a fatal last argument. Do not under any circumstances associate the country of Kazakhstan with the character Borat. There have been cases of violence against foreign workers in West Kazakhstan. A housing camp of Turkish workers was destroyed, with many workers assaulted, due to anger about foreigners taking local jobs and an alleged rape of a local woman.
Major criminal organisations are active in the Shu valley, between Taraz and Almaty. Locals widely report a heavy police presence, and that corrupt police are known to plant drugs on both local and foreign visitors.
Watch out for food poisoning from shady vendors in smaller towns. In Astana, completely legitimate cafes may include milder drugs in their drinks menu. A misunderstanding can get the unwary traveler lots more than he bargained for.
Water: The municipal water is more or less drinkable, with no real nasties, but try to boil it if possible. Bottled water is cheap and easily available. When at restaurants, ask specifically for "Sary-Agash" (of Asem-Ai brand) or Borjomi. Many other widely-known water brands can be found in restaurants and supermarkets.