Kazakhstan is by far the biggest country in Central Asia and borders on Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. It also kisses Mongolia chastely on its Eastern side. Kazakhstan is generally misunderstood or ignored in the West and was famously grossly misrepresented in Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Borat’ film of 2006 as undeveloped and culturally backwards. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kazakhstan has a modern and sophisticated culture that has drawn influences from many of the civilisations that have surrounded it and travelled through it along the Silk Road throughout the centuries. Its cities are modern and well-planned, especially the Dubai-like capital of Astana in the North, and the more laid-back major centre of Almaty in the South.
A surprise for me was the absence of ‘Kazakh’ culture as a distinct phenomenon. Don’t come here expecting roving nomads building yurts and taming falcons. Modern Kazakhstan is just as much Russian as it is Kazakh, owing to the 150 years or more of Russian presence, and the effects of Soviet rule under the USSR. Russian is, for the most part, the predominant language, although Kazakh is still widely spoken (and has its roots in Turkish). There are cultural elements from Korea (Koreans arrived here in the 19th century), Turkey, Persia, China, and other Central Asian countries. These influences are readily experienced in the cuisine, which was another pleasant surprise.
Kazakhstan is a wealthy nation, with oil and other mineral resources. With a population of 15 million, petrol prices at US$0.40 per litre, and prices generally pretty low, there is plenty of wealth to go around. There was very little apparent homelessness or poverty, and I’m told that education and healthcare are state-funded. The roads were in good condition, railways old but functional, and sanitation pretty good. The tap water was drinkable in Shymkent and Almaty.
If you are thinking about a trip to Kazakhstan, there are a few things I would consider. Firstly, if you are a history-buff you might want to consider including Uzbekistan in your plans. Kazakhstan has a smattering of ancient sites that are worth seeing, but I’m told (by Kazakhs) that the best-preserved history is next door in Uzbekistan. Secondly, the natural beauty of the national parks here is, in my opinion, the biggest draw. The mountains, canyons, and rivers are stunning and largely undiscovered by foreign travellers. Thirdly, the major cities are pleasant but not particularly vibrant or exciting, so use them as a base for getting out and about.
Kazakhstan has only recently become a destination for foreign tourism. A relatively recent change to the visa system grants most Western visitors a 30-day visa at point of entry, which makes entering and remaining in the country easy enough. Other tourist infrastructure is lacking however, including a scarcity of non-Russian language information about tours (or anything else, for that matter) and restrictions on access to major attractions such as National Parks. Happily, tour companies and individual guides are available at reasonable rates, so it is possible to visit these amazing destinations without necessarily pre-planning or paying the exorbitant prices quoted for the limited options visible on the internet (see below for details of the people we used). The tourist industry is rapidly evolving and I’m sure the options will increase exponentially over the next few years.
Almaty is a pleasant, green, and spacious city with all modern conveniences available. It has an efficient bus service, an underground train system, and an inefficient-but-honest police service with whom Greg became intimately acquainted after having his phone stolen by a pickpocket on a local bus (beware!). Like all of Kazakhstan, it is quite safe apart from petty crime, and getting around by hailing passing ‘taxis’ (basically, anyone who decides to stop) is the done thing by locals and tourists alike.
Almaty lacks a strong cultural vein, and it was initially difficult to find authentically Kazakh restaurants among the plethora of Italian, Thai, and boutique Central Asian spots. One good mid-range restaurant was Rumi, which served Kazakh food including the ubiquitous plov (pilaf) of the highest quality we have yet discovered. Traktir Medved is another restaurant serving more Russian-influenced dishes. Their country-style borsht with a baked pastry covering was an absolute highlight. We had two excellent meals at the Georgian restaurant, Daredzhani (with branches in both Almaty and Astana). It’s more of a ‘fine dining’ experience than other options, and total meal cost ranged between 18,000-22,000 tenge for two, but the food and wine were absolutely worth it.
The best food experience of all had to be the Green Bazaar, a market selling everything from sheep heads to rosebuds. This is a great place to buy a load of exciting foodstuffs for easy, cheap dinners or picnics. Our highlight was the selection of Korean pickles, which combine amazingly well with dumplings, flat bread, and cold meats. There are low-key eateries inside the market on the second level serving dumplings with beer, plov and other titbits. This is also a great place to stock up on dried fruits and nuts, fresh fruit and vegetables, and other ingredients such as cheese and honey. The quality of the fresh produce is beyond incredible, and you should at least prepare one meal for yourself to have the opportunity to enjoy the sweetest tomatoes and crunchiest cucumbers you will find this side of the equator. If you are buying quantities of dried fruit or nuts, bargain down to 50% of the asking price.
Almaty is a great city for picnicking. It has a nice but disorganised botanical garden, and we enjoyed wandering around President’s Park on the southern side of town, with its plethora of shady spots, monumental monuments, and momentous mountains overlooking it all [I hope this alliteration is killing you as much as it is me]. The park is also a good transport hub for getting taxis out to the Big Lake, which is around a 1-hour drive from there. We went there on a sunny public holiday and there were a few taxis making a living taking people up to the lake, hanging around for a bit, and bringing them back. We paid 10,000 Tenge, which was his asking price. We could likely have bargained him down, but we felt it was a good deal. The lake was frozen over in May, and a beautiful, cool place to take photos and breathe some mountain air.
Almaty has a few worthwhile museums. We really enjoyed the Kasteyev Museum of Arts, which has a diverse collection ranging from exquisite Kazakh felting and jewellery, to Soviet painting, renaissance works, and modern art. As an art lover, I highly recommend it, especially the Kazakh traditional crafts. The Museum of Folk Instruments was small but worthwhile. The Central State Museum of Kazakhstan is a mixed bag ranging from dusty and dishevelled taxidermy to an exhibit touting the achievements of the modern republic, with a strong vein of hero worship for the longstanding President Nazarbayev. In my opinion the best exhibit was the large room showing traditional clothing, jewellery, a yurt, and other cultural artefacts which made the visit worthwhile.
For music lovers, check out what’s happening at the State Conservatoire which has a roster of classical European and traditional music events, as well as the Spirit of Tengri festival (May-June) that brings musicians from all over central Asia to display their traditional styles.
Day trips around Almaty
It does however have more local eating options and we enjoyed eating a range of Kazakh and Central Asian food. One good option with a massive (and awkwardly-worded) English menu was Kok-Saray, which has two outlets on the West and East sides of town. It’s a good place to try horse meat kebab, but the highlight dish was their ‘Backed Eggplant cooked in the oven with the chef’s receipt’. I couldn’t taste the receipt, but this warm salad of aubergine, tomato, and peppers was tremendous together with flat bread. We had another good meal at a low-key eatery nearby that served freshly baked borek (pastries filled with meat) that we could see them making through the front window. I didn’t get the name, and it’s not on google maps, but if you walk from the east-side Kok-Saray, east along Tauke Khan (the main road running through Shymkent), you will see it on the left hand side after about 5-10 mins. It has a sign saying ‘halal’ in green writing on the front, and the kitchens are visible through the window.
Shymkent has a range of guesthouse/hostel accommodation options that have increased in number over the past few years. We stayed in a twin room at Sweet Home Hostel on the East side of town. This is a beautiful and relaxing place to stay, with dorm and private rooms available. There is a kitchen, shops within short walking distance, restaurants within 10-20 mins walk (or a quick taxi), and a very comfortable balcony that is perfect for evening drinks. The owner, Albina, speaks excellent English and can provide bookings for private day tours to the surrounding cultural and natural attractions.
Day trips around Shymkent
To contact Islam Kalani for English-speaking private guided tours in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan email Islam.Kalani@mail.ru or call +7 707 439 00 99
Sayram-Ugam National Park
Turkestan & Sauran Archaeological Sites
Turkestan (alt. Turkistan) is a pilgrimage destination for Central Asian Muslims coming to pray at the mausoleum of Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, an 11th century Sufi scholar who is credited with bringing Sufism to Kazakhstan and turning Turkestan into an important spiritual and theological centre. Built by Tamerlane in the 14th century, the mausoleum is considered Kazakhstan’s most important architectural monument and is part of a complex that includes a smaller mausoleum to Tamerlane’s granddaughter, a historic hamam that was only decommissioned in 1970, and an underground mosque that served as the base for the Sufi scholar in his older years after declaring that he could not walk the earth longer than the Prophet himself and retired to a small, dark cell where he continued in his work. The mausoleums have been stunningly restored, with iridescent turquoise domes and exquisite tilework. The interior is part-museum, part-holy place, and you will need to be covered below the knees to enter. Women will require headscarves.
- Language: there is very little English spoken by older people, and Russian is the most useful language. Google translate rocks, especially the ‘Conversation’ function of the mobile app. Younger people (especially teenagers) have usually studied English at school and many are keen to practice.
- Money: get as many small denomination notes as you can as it is hard to spend the large ones, even 2000 tenge can be a problem. Some ATMs will offer you the choice of large or small notes – choose small.
- Phones: pick up a local SIM card from Beeline or Tele2. Get the person at the shop to activate it. Technodom is a major electronics store and can help you with this, otherwise try your luck with a small retailer.
- The 2GIS app gives an offline map (in Cyrillic only) and a very useful public transport journey planner (at least for Almaty, we didn’t use it elsewhere).
- Keep your passport on you at all times
- Beware of pickpockets in Almaty, especially on buses and in marketplaces. I learnt this the hard way on day 1 :-(
- There’s limited information on Kazakhstan on the internet and in guide books, we found there was more flexible options (tours, etc) on the ground, so it pays not to overbook your trip.
- Kazakh people are really friendly and generally want to help you. They were patient enough to bear with our terrible Russian.
- Kazakhstan is a Muslim country, but not very observant or conservative. Alcohol and pork products are readily available, especially beer and vodka.
You can drive as a tourist on your local license. Car hire was available only in Almaty, and only from a single location (Avis at the Intercontinental Hotel). Don’t be fooled by information suggesting other Avis outlets at the airport and downtown, these are just delivery points for the main Avis office. I imagine that Astana has more options. Driving was ok, though you need to be careful, especially in the crowded city traffic. Kazakh drivers overtake carelessly, and at great speed, so drive defensively. Driving outside of the city was much better, though road quality was variable in some parts. Kazakh police patrol regularly and are well-known for stopping foreigners arbitrarily. Kazakh people told us that they usually settle police stops with a small bribe (a couple of thousand Tenge left surreptitiously on the seat) or argue the point with them if in fact you weren’t doing anything wrong. We were only stopped on one occasion, for no apparent reason. The officer came to my window and put his hand in, but as I handed him my license I realised all he wanted to do was shake hands and say hello in English before waving us through.
The taxi from the airport in Almaty to downtown should cost less than 2500T; they will quote you a lot more initially. If the driver won’t come down then ask the information desk to call you a taxi, or use Uber. In town hail a local ‘taxi’ by sticking out your hand, someone will come along in a few seconds usually. This is essentially a paid form of hitchhiking and is an extremely common form of transport around the country, used by locals as well. The drivers are unofficial, and costs vary wildly. You will likely get a bit ripped off, but sometimes it’s not worth arguing over a dollar or two. Importantly, have small notes available and agree a price beforehand.
Buses cost 150 tenge to go anywhere within the Almaty city limits. Shymkent was similar. Use the 2GIS offline maps application to find bus routes. For longer distance travel enquire at your accommodation or search online – there are often buses going nearby major tourist destinations.
Long-distance trains (https://tickets.kz/en/gd) seem to have improved from earlier reports, we had no problem with corrupt guards or people taking our seats, as reported elsewhere. The second-class cabins contain two bunk beds and clean sheets are provided after boarding. If you are travelling as a couple and book an upper and lower berth ticket you can use the lower bunk as your seat. If you are travelling alone, book a lower berth ticket. There is a metro system in Almaty but did not use it during our stay.
There are all ranges of rooms available in Kazakhstan, from hostels to international hotel chains. We stayed in two excellent hostel/guesthouses: DA Hostel in Almaty, and Sweet Home Hostel in Shymkent. Both cost us less than 9000 tenge (£20) per night; dorm rooms were cheaper, of course.
- For private English-speaking guided tours from Shymkent at very reasonable prices email Islam Kalani at firstname.lastname@example.org or +7707 439 0099
- For private English-speaking guided tours from Almaty at very reasonable prices email Igor Sanzharovski on email@example.com
- For organised tours try www.grandevoyage.kz