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KAZAKHSTAN

Mountains, canyons and lakes, Almaty and the silk road
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Travelling in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a gigantic country, largely empty or full of steppe; the southeastern corner, though, boasts fantastic mountain landscapes, as well as very special canyons and lakes. The following information will help you plan a vacation in Kazakhstan while our photos and the travel diary at this link provide further information on our favorite itinerary and details on recommended destinations.
Kazakhstan is a former Soviet Union country that serves as a gateway between the Russian steppes amd the mountainous regions of Central Asia... but the steppes are the dominant part! It is the south of the country to present the most fascinating natural landscapes.
Kolsay lake in Kazakhstan
Kolsay lake, in the south-eastern part of Kazakhstan
Western travelers are few: you will meet more often Russian tourists or expats on a weekend getaway. The country, however, now is focusing more on tourism and has eliminated the need for a visa for several nationalities so things could change soon!
The capital of Kazakhstan is Astana, but the historically most important city is Almaty, which, being in the southern part of the country, is much closer to the tourist destinations. Almaty is also a city where it is convenient to fly without spending too much in order to visit Central Asia. A travel itinerary in Kazakhstan can in fact be easily included into a longer holiday that also touches Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan
Charyn Canyon, in the south-eastern part of Kazakhstan, too

When to go to Kazakhstan

Unless you want to enjoy the slopes of one of the ski resorts near Almaty (Medeu is the most famous), summer is the right season: ideal temperatures in the mountains for trekking and sun almost always present. When the altitude drops, and this also applies to Almaty and the Charyn Canyon, July and August are too hot: if possible, better postpone the trip to September... even more so if your travel itinerary also includes Lake Aral or the central part of Kazakhstan.

Main destinations

The capital Astana is very modern, while Almaty has more history and is very animated, though it lacks sensational monuments.
South of Almaty, alpine mountains rise and, further east, between these mountains appear the beautiful lakes of Kolsay and the extraordinary Lake of Kaindy. Here you are also close to Charyn Canyon, a small Grand Canyon. A few hours' drive from here, to the north, is the Altyn Emel National Park, with truly unique landscapes of colorful hills, canyons and dunes. The mountains of Tien Shan and the Altai plateau, on the border with China, are beautiful and wild.
Farther away from Almaty, still along the southern borders of the country, passed the Silk Road, touching historic towns like Turkestan. Even further east there is the lake Aral, dried up in the years so much to leave carcasses of ships at tens of kilometers from the water.
Offroad driving in Kazakhstan
Offroad driving in Kazakhstan

How to travel in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, so domestic flights can be very useful for visiting different parts of the country. If you then focus on area to the east of Almaty, a rental car is the best solution, because it allows to wander happily between mountains and canyons. It is not so difficult to drive in Kazakhstan, because the traffic is really limited outside the capital. Obviously the rental car must be a 4x4, because the most beautiful roads are baaaad. The Italian driving license is sufficient. A known problem in these regions is police corruption, that could make excuses to accuse you of some infraction and then ask for a bribe of about fifty euros. It did not happen to us: even the policemen at the border with Kyrgyzstan were honest, even if a little cold.

Costs of a trip to Kazakistan

The country is very cheap by Western standards: in the big cities there are expensive luxury hotels, but for the rest you will find very simple accommodation at low prices, like the yurts, the typical fixed tents of Central Asia, where one night, half board, can cost around 15 euros per person. Car hire is often the most expensive part of the trip (50-60 euros per day for a date 4x4). Public transport and taxis have low prices for a western tourist.
Return flights to Almaty generally cost no more than 500 euros.
Horses along the road to Kaindy lake
Horses along the road to Kaindy lake

Dangers and mishaps

Kazakhstan is a very safe country, although you may occasionally encounter problems with the locals, especially in the cities. In particular, the setbacks could arise from corrupt cops, people eager to cheat one rich westerner or drunk at the exit of a nightclub... these events are rare, don't worry.
Obviously the biggest dangers are related to activities such as trekking in far away places, mountaineering or extreme off-road, things to be done carefully like everywhere. We have not had any mishap with the local population, indeed very kind especially in the countryside.

Some practical info

The local currency is Tenge (1 euro = 414 Tenges in August 2018) which can be changed in major cities more conveniently at the banks. On entering Kyrgyzstan from Kyrgyzstan along the Karkara Valley, we forgot to stop at Kegen, the only city within two hundred kilometers with banks. Fortunately, the owner of a yurt accepted euros as payment, changing them correctly. However, take this into account if you follow our travel itinerary.
For lunch there is almost always some cheap place that offers invariably mutton with vegetables. The menus are usually only in Cyrillic, a good translation app helps but it is not easy anyway! Gasoline costs around 30 eurocents / liter (a lot of envy!). Everyone hitchhikes, it's a normal way to travel: if you have a car, you can take the opportunity to meet people; if you travel by public transport, you can find some cars that will take you where you want. Along the way we have accompanied Kazakhs and tourists.
To "navigate" you can use Google Maps, downloading the offline maps.

For more infos, phots and details about the different destinations, read our exciting Kazakhstan trip report!
For many more photos of Kazakhstan, click on the images of the photogallery:
Photos Kazakhstan
All photos of our trip to Kazakhstan

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