A travel guide to Kazakhstan

Wander off the beaten path and put Kazakhstan on your bucket list. ⛰️

4 mins
Written by:
Matt Cheok

Stretching from the Caspian Sea (which is actually a colossal lake – the Earth’s largest, in fact) to the untouched wilderness of the Altai Mountains, Kazakhstan is the biggest country in Central Asia. With lush green hills, blooming carpets of flowers and postcard-perfect scenes of horses grazing in front of snow-capped peaks, this majestic steppe country has a wealth of incredible travel experiences to offer.

Ustyurt Plateau, Mangystau Region

What to see 

In the west of Kazakhstan, you'll encounter the spectacular moonscape that is the Mangystau region. Can you believe this surface was once covered by the Tethys Ocean?! This means you can expect to discover fossils and shells amongst its stunning scenery — along with a ton of jagged escarpments that shoot up to the sky from the boundless plains. In every direction, the views are breath-giving. You'll also find dramatic canyons, mysterious underground mosques and ancient necropolises here. 

We highly recommend visiting Aktau: a city that rests on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The township is actually quite new, and sprung into existence in the late 1950s, but it sure packs a punch with its tourism offerings, being built to accommodate the region's massive oil and uranium discovery. They've recently opened up a fantastic boardwalk called Skal'naya Tropa, which hugs the coastline, and a stroll along here is one of the major highlights of any visit.

By the sea, Aktau

Central Asia's best-kept secret (although, perhaps, not so secret anymore) is located in the southeast of Kazakhstan – Almaty. This visitor hub has a plentiful selection of cafes, restaurants and bars, but is mostly praised for its nature.

Not even 20 minutes from the city centre, you'll have access to the mountains, which are also home to the very cool outdoor speed-skating rink Medeo and the ski resort Shymbulak. Come winter time, this area is ideal for snow sports; in summer, it’s a hiking wonderland! Definitely grab a coffee at Apa Katya cafe, and, if you’re wanting to work remotely, you’ve got access to wi-fi too. 

The view from Apa Katya, Shymbulak

If you’re a fan of moving your body outdoors, you can’t go past the 11km Four Peaks trail (from Furmanov Peak to Shymbulak) and the trails to highland plateau Kok Zhailau and the strikingly blue alpine reservoir Big Almaty Lake.

Adventure Outside Almaty  

Almaty is the perfect base for single and multi-day trips. Do yourself a favour and wander out to Kolsai Lakes National Park: a desktop-background-worthy area shrouded in alpine forests and spectacular hillsides. There, you’ve got three glacial Kolsai lakes to choose from. Jump in a taxi from Saty to reach the first, then hike or ride a horse to the second and third. There’s also Lake Kaindy – where a hauntingly beautiful sunken forest rises from the chilly turquoise waters.

An aerial view over Kolsai Lake #2

If you’re time-rich, an adventure to Charyn Canyon, Ushkonyr, Assy Plateau or Kegen will totally be worth your time too. In Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, you'll find an array of beautiful architecture, leafy green spaces and walkways around Central and Presidential parks. Don't miss a day trip to Alzhir or Karaganda to learn about the labour camps and atrocities arising from the Stalin era.

Astana, a city of incredible architecture

If you have time

Venture to the marvellous Sibinskie Lakes and its staple granite peaks. Hike between the five-lake system, or set yourself up at one location and enjoy nature. Either way, you'll have access to plenty of brilliant views and swimming opportunities. A stop by the Irtysh River in Semey (and a splash in its refreshing waters) is also worth considering as part of any Kazakhstan itinerary.

Locals cooling off in the Irtysh River, Semey

What to eat and drink

We'll be impressed if you can pass through Kazakhstan without tasting beshbarmak — cooked horse, mutton or beef (or even a combo of the three), alongside pasta noodles and topped off with meat broth, onions and vegetables. Beshbarmak translates to 'five fingers’, and it represents the nomadic tribes in the region who have long enjoyed eating the dish with their hands. If you happen to be visiting the west of the country, for example, in Aktau, try fishbarmak: the seafood equivalent of beshbarmak

In addition to the traditional range of Central Asian dishes (plov, manti, dimlama and lagman), it's also worth sampling kazy — a sausage made with the meat and fat from horse ribs. It's seasoned with a bunch of garlic, pepper and salt condiments, and typically served as an appetiser or mixed in with various dishes.

A plate of beshbarmak from Green Bazaar, Almaty

In Kazakhstan, chai is the beverage of choice, so prepare to consume a lot of black, green and Tashkent (very sweet) tea. It’s likely you'll be served a bowl of kumis (fermented horse milk), too. If you happen to be invited for tea, you can expect a whole spread of baursak, bread, dried fruits and sweets to grace the table. 

Summer scavenging is all the rage

Over summer, it’s common practice to collect flowers scattered around the foothills, forests and mountains of Kazakhstan. Not only do they pretty up one's home, but they also infuse a nice pot of tea. So whether you're returning from a hike or enjoying a picnic in nature, you won't have to go far to find these gems. And if fruits are more up your alley, there's an abundance of apples and berries hanging from branches everywhere, and they're absolutely delicious!

Almaty actually used to be called Alma-Ata — aka 'Father of Apples'!

Scavenging for flowers at Ushkonyr Plateau, Almaty

The picnics are to die for

The Kazakhs excel when it comes to picnicking. It's safe to say that it's not just a pastime, but a way of life! On any given weekend, you'll find locals plonked by the river, sprawled across patches of grass and savouring the great outdoors. Most gatherings will feature any combination of grilled shashlik (skewered meat), chai, watermelon and, of course, vodka.

A few of the staple goodies brought to a Kazakh picnic

Getting around

Don't let Kazakhstan's sheer size deter you from land travel. Rail and car journeys present an opportunity to dive deep into the country's stunning landscapes and also experience the warm local hospitality.  

Sleeper trains are an exceptionally comfortable way to move around and cater to all travelers – from those on a shoestring budget to travellers who seek a bit of luxury and comfort. You'll be provided sheets and access to a seat doubling as a bed. There's usually an affordable restaurant carriage on board; otherwise, bring your own food or purchase from a vendor at any train stops along the way.  

Share taxis present an alternative commuting option, particularly for those wanting to venture out on day trips outside of Almaty. We recommend downloading inDrive, where you can negotiate the rate with a driver via the app. It’s frequently used by the locals too! 

A share taxi ride and a stopover at Lake Tuzqol

An adventure to Kazakhstan is truly unforgettable. How often can you share a train carriage with a family who’ll offer you to sit with them and feast on homemade lagman, dried fish and chai? That was all par for the course during my 45-hour train ride from Aktau to Astana and, generally, my backpacking adventures across this steppe country. The kindness of the Kazakhs will leave a lasting impression. 

Wander off-the-beaten path this year and bookmark a trip to Kazakhstan.

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