Travel to Kazakhstan

Kolsai Lakes Kazakhstan

In 2018, I was searching for a job and taking some time to travel the world. So I jokingly told my friends that I wanted to go to Mongolia or Kazakhstan to scratch off a “big country” on my scratch-off world map. By chance, my friend Alex was invited to a wedding in Kazakhstan. He invited me along as his plus one, and I was suddenly planning to travel to Kazakhstan. As a side trip, I also decided to visit neighbouring Kyrgyzstan during the same trip. In fact, I had wanted to visit the historical silk road and the “Stans” for awhile. This was my opportunity!

Kazakhstan has infamously been the subject of the film Borat. Although I mention it, I can honestly say I saw little resemblance between the film and the country and people I encountered. In reality, Kazakhstan is a huge country in Central Asia with an interesting blend of Asian and Russian cultures. The nature is incredible with many lakes, forests, desert, and mountains. In contrast, the cities are quite busy with many tall buildings. And Astana seems like a modern city built in a vast expanse of land.

This post provides an overview with tips for visiting Kazakhstan. Of course attending the wedding of friends was the highlight of the trip! However, I felt very lucky to visit this interesting country. I have written more detailed posts about the cities of Almaty and Astana (now known as Nur-Sultan).

Almaty sign
Charyn river and canyon
Charyn river and canyon
Astana
Astana

Highlights

  • Almaty city, the old capital
  • Astana (now Nur-Sultan) the new capital
  • Supermarkets – largest selection of salami and sausages I have ever seen
  • Try the local wine and also Georgian wine, cheap and delicious
  • Home stays in local homes while travelling around
  • Charyn Canyon – like a mini Grand Canyon
  • Kolsay Lakes National Park- beautiful and challenging hike
  • State historical cultural museum-reserve Issyk
  • ¬†Issyk Lake – hike around the lake
  • Bear waterfall, you can hike right up to it, feel the spray and even have a swim

Before you go

  • Currently (in 2021), a visa is needed to visit Kazakhstan. However in 2018, it was not required for stays less than 15 days.
  • The road border checks can be time-consuming and not all nationalities can go through certain crossings, so check official websites and with your guide in advance
  • English is spoken in the big cities but I recommend to get a translation app like Google Translate to make communication easier
  • Cash machines give big bills and food and other small items are not expensive, so often times the shops do not have a lot of change. Try to get smaller bills whenever you get a chance

Transport

  • I flew Air Astana, the national airline. Surprisingly, the flight from London to Astana is only 6 hours. Free wi-fi at the airport!
  • We had to find a white immigration paper in the airport because we did not receive this from the airline
  • The internal flight between Astana and Almaty is about 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Our hotel shuttle driver and most taxi drivers did not speak English
  • Uber is available and has the advantage that you can enter your destination in the app so less communication is needed if there is a language barrier
  • I found my tour guide Mirlan (fixemerko@gmail.com) originally via Indy Guide. He was an excellent guide! He was knowledgeable, interesting, helpful, accommodating and reliable. He also had a separate driver for the trip and arranged a driver for us to visit some places outside of Almaty.

Accommodation

  • I used Booking.com to find the hotels in Almaty and Astana. There were plenty of choices
  • We stayed at Renion Park Hotel in Almaty, comfortable, clean, safe and well-located 3-star
  • In Astana, we stayed at the Hilton and it was quite luxurious, comfortable and spacious
  • For the wedding in Kokshetau, we stayed at Rixos Borovoe, a luxurious resort near a lake.
  • In the more remote areas on the road trip toward Kyrgzstan, my guide arranged stays at local family bed and breakfast style lodging
  • My favourite experiences were to stay with the local families and learning more about local life. I also had some of the best food at the guest houses.
  • However, I must admit that I ended up not staying in an authentic yurt. I saw too many mosquitos and flies around, attracted by the food since it is also where the family eats. And I feared being eaten alive by the bugs.

Currency

I recommend to check the currency conversion just before you leave as this fluctuates

The Kazakh currency is called Tenge. When I was there in August 2018, the exchange rate was approximately 440 Tenge to 1 British pound.

5000 Tenge note
Carved horse at the wedding
Lunch at Navat with lagman noodles, salad, samsa and boorsok (fried bread)
Kazakhstan sausages
Kazakhstan sausages

Food

The food was unique and I tried many dishes that were new to me. There were different types of meat pies called manti or samsa. I tried sour horse milk, which seems to be like an apero. My favourite was the tasty beef lagman noodles.

The different types of bread were also very tasty like boorsok (fried bread) and Georgian style bread with fillings (Khachapuri)

One of the funny things I noticed in the supermarket was the enormous selection of sausages- a whole aisle!

Wine from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan could be found easily. However the locals recommended Georgian wine, especially red

At the wedding, the special course was horse, carved by the male family members

FAQs

Q: Do I need a tour guide?

A: Most people travel on their own between cities using trains or internal flights. In the cities like Almaty and Astana (Nur-Sultan) it is quite easy to get around. I think it is a good idea to have a tour guide to get to the more remote places with natural beauty.

Q: Do people speak English?

A: We did not encounter many people who spoke fluent English even in the cities. See my post about the usefulness of Google Translate in Kazakhstan!

Q: Can I travel solo?

A: Yes I traveled solo part of the time and that was easy, but I did feel more comfortable to have a guide for the more remote places. I would not have hiked on my own through the woods, for example. It may be perfectly safe, but there were usually few people around. And the people we ran into were either tourists, single men or groups of men.

Q: How easy is it to send postcards?

A: Once we found the Postcards and Stamps door in the large post office, the staff were very helpful. They did not speak English so we used our phone to translate. We had a small selection of postcards to choose from and could buy stamps easily. The post office seemed to be partly a museum with many old stamp sets on display. See Sending Postcards from Abroad for details on cost and the time it took to reach the USA.

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