Kazakhstan is the largest Central Asian country as well as the world’s largest landlocked country – it’s the size of western Europe. It’s also Central Asia’s richest nation, generating 60% of the region’s GDP, thanks to its oil and gas reserves.
The country’s official language is Kazakh, a Turkic language currently written in Cyrillic script but the government plans to change to the Latin alphabet by 2025. Russian is co-official and very widely spoken, not only among the ethnic Russians – roughly 20% of the population – but also in business and government communication. Most ethnic Kazakhs speak Russian and since most people Kazakhstan don’t speak English (at all), basic Russian skills are essential to get around.
The population density is low: only 18 million people live in Kazakhstan, half of them in urban areas. This means that most of the country is very sparsely populated. A third of the country is steppe, grassland and sandy regions, and in the south, the Tian Shan mountains rise up to 7000 m.
How to Get Around in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is enormous, so it’s impossible to see the whole country in a few weeks. Therefore, you need to decide which region you want to travel. But how to get around in Kazakhstan? Public transport doesn’t always get you everywhere and many of the natural attractions are far from anywhere. Having your own wheels is always great, especially in such a big country but renting a car in Kazakhstan has its challenges and not everyone might be up to it. Lonely Planet has good information about getting around in Kazakhstan, read here. From Almaty, you can do tours to sights in the region, which is a very good option. I can’t give much tips on how to get around, though: we have a friend in Almaty and he has a good car and likes to travel (and, lucky us, he took a week off to travel around with us).
Central Asia is not a year-round destination. Kazakhstan has a continental climate which means summers are very hot and winters extremely cold. If you like snow and the cold, winter can be an interesting time to visit, there’s also good skiing in the mountains. However, Almaty is not a place to be in the cold season. Due to the surrounding mountains, the clouds stay over the city and keep the pollution there, like a lid. July, in contrast, is too hot and should be avoided.
Late August and beginning of September is probably the best time to visit the country. It can still get hot but is usually pleasantly warm. The nights are chilly but not cold. However, it’s good to pack everything from t-shirts for a stroll in the city and a visit to Altyn-Emel National Park to a good jacket and a warm sweater for when you go to the mountains.
Even if we didn’t have a friend in Almaty, I would still recommend it as the best starting point for a Kazakhstan trip. Almaty (the name derives from the Kazakh word for apple and the region is considered to be the ancestral home of the apple) is a very pleasant city and there’s a lot to do and see close by. “Close by” in Kazakh terms, of course. Given the size of the country and the vastness of its landscape, expect long drives and be aware that, unless you have a huge amount of time, you won’t be able to cover the whole country.
So if you start in Almaty, focus on that region and, if possible, go to Kyrgyzstan (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible so no excuses, please, and you can thank me later). That small country is packed with surprises and if you think it’s just a mountainous country, some kind of “Switzerland of Central Asia”, you’re wrong. It is mountainous, yes, but just as Switzerland is not all snow-capped mountains, meadows and Heidis, Kyrgyzstan is not all high peaks and clear mountain streams. The landscapes are fantastic and so diverse; there’s so much to see. It’s a real gem.
But back to Almaty: With its almost three million inhabitants, Almaty is big, but it doesn’t feel crowded. The inner city has wide streets, lots of parks and cafes and a pedestrian zone with an artisan’s market on Saturdays. It’s a green and very clean city. Distances are large, and we walked so much..! There are lots of parks though, which are great to rest, enjoy the summer sun and make travel plans.
In Panfilov park stands the beautiful colorful Ascension Cathedral (or Zenkov Cathedral), entirely made out of wood but without a single nail. To add some contrast to the marvellous cathedral, there’s also a WWII monument in the park, a wonderful display of Soviet architecture.
In one of the parks, there was a street food festival which is held several times a year and where local restaurants and cafes have a stall. The atmosphere was great and it we spent quite a lot of time there, tasting different things (the best: berry ice cream and Sensilyo Coffee‘s coffee and cold berry juice).
There are also many museums to visit, though we’ve only been to one (shame on us); the Museum of Musical Instruments. It’s free and has an interesting collection of musical instruments from all over the world with a focus, of course, on Kazakh instruments, especially the dombra.
A must-see is Kok-Tobe hill, accessible via a cable car. You can easily get to the cable car station by metro. On top of the hill, there’s a recreational area with food stalls, restaurants, souvenir shops, a zoo and, why not, a Beatles statue. It’s a fun place to go, the shashlik from the stall is cheap and delicious and the views, especially at sunset, are spectacular.
A very important part of every trip is the food. Now, to be honest, most travel guides seem to want to scare you a bit when it comes to Kazakh and Kyrgyz food. And I must admit they got to me. I was not very keen on trying Kazakh food, I was even a bit scared. Horse meat? Mutton head? Extremely salty curd balls? I don’t know.
So, the first day in Almaty, our friend recommended we’d go to a place called Sabiz. A big restaurant with a beautiful terrace, it looked good. However, they had no English menu nor did the waiters speak any language we also spoke. We called our friend, told him we were hungry, and he ordered for us over the phone. We weren’t able to finish everything but let me tell you, dear reader, the food was delicious! Absolutely amazing! Every country has its own cuisine and specialities but there’s no reason to be afraid to try something new. In most cases you’ll be positively surprised.
Food is cheap in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and portions are rather large. In the Green Market, we had tea and two huge plates of rice and noodles, respectively, one plate equalled about three “normal” meals for us, and we paid less than €5. Lagman (thick, delicious noodles with vegetables and meat), manty (dumplings, steamed or fried; we prefer steamed) and shashlik are always good but there are lots of other delicious dishes like warm grilled vegetable salad with meat which I couldn’t get enough of. And if you’re looking to expand your culinary horizon, there are quite a few very good Georgian restaurants around.
The Green Market
The Green Market is another must see in Almaty. If you’re there in August and like berries, you’ll go crazy. The berries, especially the raspberries, are fantastic! Also, don’t forget to buy dried fruits. Central Asia’s dried fruits are the best, especially raisins from Uzbekistan and dried apricots from Kyrgyzstan. Oh, and the almonds and hazelnuts and pistachios… We bought way too much and our luggage was overweight. Aeroflot charges €100 (!!) per kilo extra so each of us had to stuff three extra kilos into our carry-on bags. It was worth it, though.
Big Almaty Lake
Approximately an hour drive from central Almaty is Big Almaty Lake, a turquoise colored mountain lake at 2500 meter above sea level, surrounded by snow-capped peaks of around 4000 meters. A stunning sight. There are good views from the road leading up but the best ones are from the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory.
In theory, the road goes over the mountains all the way to Kyrgyzstan but it’s impassable. The road from the Observatory is paved up to the Kosmostantsiya, a research station that looks (a bit) derelict but carries out very interesting research. From the Kosmostantsiya, trails lead into the mountains and offer stunning views of the valleys and the seemingly never ending mountain range.