By Michelle Witte
With Google, Bing and all the information in the world just an LED screen away, undiscovered adventure have become increasingly hard to find. Hanging out in Prague was passé by 1993. Everyone has already hiked Machu Picchu and you backpacked around Asia years ago after graduating college. So where is the next place you can go to find adventure that everyone hasn’t already been? Kazakhstan.
Mention Kazakhstan at most parties and you’ll get only the vaguest glimmer of recognition from most of your friends. They’ve likely heard of the place, but know almost nothing about it. Quiz them on its location and somehow the world’s ninth largest country disappears from the map.
But Kazakhstan is now emerging as a global player after just a couple of decades of independence from the former Soviet Union.
And despite the letters “Stan” at the end of its name, Kazakhstan has nothing in common with the volatility and troubles of some of the world’s other “Stans.” It is a religiously and ethnically diverse country that embraces tolerance as a cultural value. It has a vast array of natural resources that drive a strong and expanding economy and it enjoys a peace and stability that few other countries in the region can claim.
In other words, it is one of the planet’s truly undiscovered gems for the adventurous traveller. From the history of the yurt-living nomads across the vast Asia steppe, to the futuristic architecture of its new capital city to the prehistoric inscriptions carved into its rocks, Kazakhstan has much to explore. You can hike its nature reserves, heli-ski its mountain peaks and rock its nightclubs. It has sandy beaches on the Caspian Sea, ancient shrines in its south and vibrant urban life to the north. And the place is still affordable for adventurers with small independent hotels and mom-and-pop restaurants who welcome new visitors with open arms. And you’ll like being the first in your neighborhood to have been here.
The following is a region-by-region breakdown of what the adventurous traveller will find if they come to a country relatively few have visited. So grab your backpack, your sense of discovery and see for yourself what you have only heard about.
Almaty, the old capital, is still the country’s biggest city and cultural heart. Ease into the food, drink, and customs of modern Kazakhstan here.
Take a Bite
Dive into Kazakh food at the Zelyony Bazar. Check out horse meat butchers, try kumys or shubat (fermented mare’s and camel’s milk) or have tea or coffee and a bowl of laghman (a thick, vinegary soup of onions, garlic, peppers, and usually lamb or goat, plus chewy hand-pulled noodles) at one of the market cafes. And look for street side vendors standing beside large cauldrons — they’re probably cooking plov, a tasty mixture of rice, apricots, lamb, and spices.
Drink with Locals
Vodka may be king, but beer is making headway here in the form of pubs like little Shtab, a place to properly worship local and international suds. Bar Pivaltsa is another proper pub in which you’ll be more likely to clink glasses with locals than expats.
Drink with Expats
For a bit more English, ease into the evening at expat favorite Soho. There’s live music in the evenings and no cover on weekdays. It’s an expat friendly scene. If you just have to have the comforts of home, head to one of the ubiquitous global Irish pubs such as Mad Murphy’s, Guinness Pub and Dublin Pub.
Moves Like Jagger
Almaty has a big nightclub scene. Many of the bigger clubs have a roughly $15 dollar cover charge to shake your booty to a DJ. But often foreigners are given a pass. So make sure to stammer a couple of words of broken Kazakh or Russian and you’ll likely save a few bucks. And dress well as most clubs have dress codes. Pionerskaya Pravda does Soviet chic for the current generation of Kazakhs who have grown up in an independent Kazakhstan. Most Club will take you back to the 1980s and 1990s. It’s always worth checking to see who’s playing at Da Freak, which attracts DJs from Russia, Europe, and the UK.
Pick Up Speed
Feel the (freezing) wind in your hair at Shymbulak Ski Resort. Day passes are $40 dollars on weekdays and $44 dollars on weekends, with deals for students and retirees. There are slopes for all levels and some English-speaking instructors. Nearby is the Medeu Ice Rink, which was built for speed skating and is used by nearby top skaters to practice their skills. Rent skates or get some drinks and watch. Be warned: these facilities are at high altitudes and can get very cold. http://www.shymbulak.com/en/
Find Your Bloodlust
For centuries, Kazakh nomads hunted with trained eagles and other birds of prey. Some of these birds can take out wolves, and were regularly used to do so not so long ago. You can see hunting traditions in action at the Sunkar Raptor Sanctuary near Almaty, and you can arrange guided hunting trips in many parts of the country.
The Wild Southeast
The south eastern corner of Kazakhstan has some of the country’s most striking natural wonders.
Call it “Blood Mountain” or “Lord of the Skies”— or more likely both, – if you dare attempt Kazakhstan’s highest peak, Khan Tengri. The mountain, part of the Tien Shan range, is renowned among climbers for its beauty – glowing a deep red during summer sunsets. It’s also one of the two northernmost 7,000 meter peaks, which shortens the climbing season to about a month at the end of summer. This peak isn’t for the faint of heart – climbers have been killed in a few deadly avalanches over the past few decades. But for the bold, there are several expedition companies that organize trips of around three weeks and cost around $1300 to $3900 dollars.
There are, of course, also plenty of less death-defying adventures to be had in the Tien Shan: trekking, horseback-riding, hiking and other options abound.)
Read the Signs
South eastern Kazakhstan is sprinkled with petroglyphs – prehistoric drawings and carvings inscribed in rock. The most famous are within the Tamgaly Tas, a canyon formed by the Ili River. The white pictures carved into the red rock date from the Bronze Age onward. Among the petroglyphs are Buddhist prayers in Sanskrit, pictures, tamgas (family songs), and images of various idols. The images are a prehistoric reminder of the diversity of cultures within these borders.
The Old South
Ancient cultures are both preserved and alive in this region. See Silk Road cities, star-crossed lovers, and find the home of the tulip.
2000-year-old Taraz is famous for a love story. Among its antiquities is the 12th century mausoleum of Aisha-Bibi, who, legend has it, lost her life while disobeying her father to go and meet her fiancée. The light, lovely mausoleum outside of the town commemorates her. Local women come here to pray for happy families and newlyweds seek blessings. Other mausoleums in the town date from the 11th century onward. Taraz’s Green Bazaar shows that the old Silk Road is still alive, with goods on sale from all points on the map.
One of this country’s most important religious sites and one of its greatest historical architectural feats is the 14th century Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassawi in Turkestan. The beautifully and brightly detailed mausoleum was commissioned by the Mongolian conqueror Tamerlane for the Sufi saint who was credited with converting many Kazakhs to Islam. The shrine is a major site of pilgrimage for Central Asian Muslims.
Homestays and National Parks
The Aksu-Zhabagly State Natural Reserve and the Sayram-Ugam State National Park contain some of Kazakhstan’s most diverse terrain: tulip- and wildflower- covered valleys; forests that support lots of native wildlife, including raptors and bears; deep gorges and peaks. The parks require entrance fees and it’s best to sort accommodation out before you arrive. Several organizations organize homestays and guides, including a chance to stay in a yurt – the traditional style felt home of the early Steppe inhabitants. The Ecotourism Information Resource Center (EIRC, http://www.eco-tourism.kz) and Wild Nature (www.wildnature-kz.narod.ru) are two that can help.
The Deep WestIt is here that you’ll find the big industrial moneymakers. Oil, gas, and mining were and are major industries here. Aktobe, Uralsk, Atyrau, and Aktau are to some degree or another industry towns. And given the money to be made there, they have attracted a healthy number of travelling business people. So you’ll be able to find yourself a good number of places to eat, drink, and sleep. Near Aktau you can also explore a wealth of sandy and more rugged Caspian beaches.
The expanses of the Mangistau region hide treasures—literally. The harsh landscape is filled with underground mosques and burial chambers. One of the most interesting, Shakpak-Ata, is thought to be from the 10th century, carved into a cliff and decorated with inscriptions and pictures; many others date back to nomadic times. The huge necropolises and other religious and funeral structures of this region still aren’t fully excavated or understood.
There are natural treasures here, too, like Kazakhstan’s lowest point, the Karagiye Depression (Black mouth) and Karakol lake (Black lake), which draws birds passing through the dry area. There are sweeping desert views and surprising hidden plants. The relative lack of infrastructure means that some reserves in this area, like the Ustyurt Reserve, are Kazakhstan’s best-preserved areas. For this reason, plan trips out here carefully – hire a guide and a good vehicle. It’s very big, very dry, and very easy to get lost in these wastelands.
Astana and the North
Astana, the new capital, is directing the process of forging a strong national identity from Kazakhstan’s many cultures. It’s also keen to put itself on the map, taking a leading role in regional and international affairs and dotting its skyline with interesting, innovative modern architecture at an intense pace.
Pyramids and Petals
Astana has a number of new, ambitious and defining buildings. The huge pyramid called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is intended to promote peace and religious understanding and contains space inside showcasing an array of world religions, a library, a museum of culture, and a research centre. Astana’s Central Concert Hall’s curved outer shapes of different heights and lengths are meant to invoke petals. Then there’s the Baiterek Monument, a visual representation of a Kazakh legend about a mythical bird Samruk whose egg contains all the secrets of human happiness.
Scale tall buildings and see the city in a few steps at the Atemeken Map, a fun outdoor walk-through map of the country with models of cities and historical sites. The Atemaken is right next to the well known Duman Hotel.
Under the Big Tent
In another nod by Astana to Kazakhstan’s ancient culture, the enormous Khan-Shatyr entertainment center is shaped like a giant transparent yurt or tent – and is packed inside with shops, restaurants, game centers, and an indoor beach. There is even a small wave pool where – in the middle of the world’s largest land locked country which is home to some of the planet’s coldest winter temperatures – you can lay on a sandy beach, sip a margarita and go for a swim. The complex is a great spot to people watch the locals and get a sense of the country’s mix of the old and new.
For true history buffs who want to get a sense of more recent Kazakh history, there is the unique Antiqvariat shop. This tiny store is half shop and half museum filled with Russian and Kazakh artefacts from the last couple hundred years. If you dig rare, hard-to-find Soviet memorabilia, there are few better places to find it than Antiqvariat.
The world’s northernmost flamingo colony makes its summer home at the Korgalzhyn nature reserve. Stay a few days to watch them and the other migratory birds that stop here from April through the summer. Homestays can be arranged through the EIRC or other agencies.
Repairing the Damage
The pre-independence Soviet era was hard on the Kazakh and regional environment. And Kazakhstan’s north and northeast were the sites of some famous ecological disasters. For a little eco-history lesson you can visit the Karaganda Ecological Museum. Run by an NGO, the museum’s mission is to spread information about the ecology of the region, and to promote awareness of the damage that’s been done and efforts to make things right. The museum is fully interactive: reach out and touch bits of fallen satellites and other unique items. www.ecomuseum.kz
Some of the few clues to the lives of Kazakhstan’s ancient nomads come from their burial chambers. One of the most recent discoveries is a site near Berel Village, where archaeologists found a number of burial mounds, some amazingly preserved, containing the remains of rulers, their horses, and loads of gold to get them through the afterlife. You can visit the excavations in progress. Much of what is found here is displayed at the Presidential Culture Center in Astana.
A Literary and Tragic History
Semey is one of Kazakhstan’s oldest cities, and also one that’s been sadly affected by recent history. On the plus side, it’s brought forth several of Kazakhstan’s intellectual heroes, including the poet Abay Kunanbaev, perhaps because it sits in the old territory of the Middle Horde who were known for their eloquence. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was also exiled here; the house next to where he lived is now a museum about his life. (Bring a Russian speaking friend as most of his texts and the tours are in Russian). There are art and regional history museums in town, lovely 19th century wooden buildings, and even a wooden mosque.
But the area around Semey was also the site of devastating nuclear testing by the former Soviet Union at the Semipalatinsk proving ground from 1949 to 1989, when mass protests forced them to stop. The city has been deemed safe for visitors, but long term effects of the testing continue to affect residents and the local ecology. A monument, “Stronger than Death,” has been erected to those victims.
You don’t have to visit everywhere in one trip. Kazakhstan is a big place. But if you pick any one of the regions mentioned here, you’ll have more than enough tales of undiscovered adventure to share with friends back home.
Drink Like A Local: Tea often marks the beginning and ending of social occasions. If you’re offered tea in someone’s house, it would be rude not to accept. The traditional Kazakh way of drinking tea uses a wide-mouthed cup filled halfway or less. The tea should stay hot, you see, and the pouring and passing of cups ensures social interaction.
For something stronger: Vodka is part of many gatherings, formal and informal. It’s traditional to toast before taking a shot – not a sip – so don’t down yours before your hosts can drink to your health.
Getting Around: Kazakhstan is huge and getting around it takes time – many large cities are 15-22 hours apart by car. Buses and trains take about the same amount of time, but you’re much more likely to have a chance for chat and interaction on a train. If you don’t want to fly between cities, take a train ride and perhaps make a new friend. Tickets are sometimes cheaper at the stations than through agencies for smaller trips.
Ride with Friends: The bigger cities have good bus systems, with some offering English route maps (www.astana.kz). If you miss the bus, you can just stick out your hand – its custom for regular Kazakhs who want to earn a few tenge to be unofficial cabbies. You’ll need to negotiate a price first, which usually comes to a few dollars. On main roads between towns, you’re likely to find someone going your way. Just make sure you know how to communicate where you need to go as few drivers will likely speak English.
Be Prepared: We know adventure travel is often best experienced solo and by the seat of your pants. But outside the cities, Kazakhstan is pretty new to tourism. And going places not many visitors have been to before means travelling through small towns where accommodation – and English – can be limited. In a country with the extremes of terrain, temperature, and weather experienced in Kazakhstan, it’s not nice to be caught without shelter, a map, or a meal. So in rural areas, make use of the Ecotourism Information Resource Centre (EIRC, www.eco-tourism.kz). It’s been made just for this.
Sweating It Out: Kazakhstan’s banya experience is not to be missed. The country is scattered with public and private banyas, which are facilities with various types of saunas, steam baths, and hot and cold pools. They can range from tiny local banyas to Romanesque-style spas at upscale hotels. And they usually serve beer. In community banyas, folks often spend hours drinking, sweating, and gossiping. Many Kazakhs believe regular visits to the banya are essential to having clear skin and improving circulation.
Pillow Talk: Prices for accommodation vary greatly across Kazakhstan. Upscale adventurers can enjoy luxury suits in Astana and Almaty that rival any in the world for amenities – and price. For more budget conscious adventurers, smaller private hotels can be found close to transportation centers and can be had for about $35 dollars and up. Some even offer lay-over stays of less than 12 hours and luggage storage.