Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. It has borders with Russia, China, and the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is the world's ninth biggest country by size, and it is more than twice the size of the other Central Asian states combined. Its lack of significant historical sites and endless featureless steppe have put many off Kazakhstan, while many still are captivated by the emptiness and mystery of this goliath state. It will be many travellers' first port of call on their Central Asian adventure, and there is much for the intrepid traveller to enjoy. Kazakhstan is the richest country in Central Asia, due to its large oil and natural gas reserves. The country is also said to be the largest landlocked country as well.
Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were united as a single nation in the middle of 16th century. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.
During the launching of the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities, including the Volga Germans) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these newcomers to emigrate.
Current issues include: Developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets (an oil pipeline to China has been built; the gas pipeline is under construction); achieving a sustainable economic growth outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors, and strengthening relations with neighboring states and other foreign powers.
Citizens of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Ukraine do not need visas to enter Kazakhstan.
Citiziens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, United Kingdom and USA (Jul 2009) can obtain single-entry (up to 30 days) or double-entry (up to 60 days) tourist visas without providing a letter of invitation.
Citiziens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, United Kingdom and USA (Aug 2010) with valid Kyrgyz tourist visa can travel also to Almaty Oblast and Zhambyl Oblast of Kazakhstan. However if you have single-entry Kyrgyz visa and you cross the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, you can't return back on this visa to Kyrgyzstan. Most customs officers don't know about this agreement, which can cause long obstructions at border crossings. The similar agreement applies reciprocally in Kyrgyzstan, but not for all abovementioned nationalities, see Kyrgyzstan#Get_in.
For more information you should contact a Kazakhstan diplomatic mission in your area or Kazakhstan MFA's website Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.
Air Kazakhstan stopped flying at the end of March 2004. The most important carrier is now Air Astana which flies to Almaty, Astana, Aktau, Aktobe, Atyrau, Uralsk, Dubai, Kyzylorda, Moscow, Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul, Bangkok, Hannover, London, Amsterdam, Baku, Kuala-Lumpur, Frankfurt, and Seoul.
Lufthansa has also seven days flights to Almaty, from where you can go anywhere via local carrier SKAT, which flies to most cities in Kazakhstan. British Airways (Almaty-Heathrow route taken over by bmi from Sept 2007) and KLM now fly several times a week to Heathrow and Schiphol. There is also non-stop connection twice a week from Prague, operated by Czech airlines. Turkish Airlines is good passenger carrier, with flights to Istanbul (ask a travel agent about the student fares, which can be a great deal). There are twice a week flights from Seoul to Almaty; one is Asiana Airlines, and the other is Astana. Airbaltic also flies to Almaty; if you reserve tickets in advance, you can go there for €130 (from Riga).
Popular routes include Almaty to/from Moscow (77 hours), Novosibirsk (35 hours) and Ürümqi, China (34 hours). Count with 3–4 hours stay at Russian border or 6–8 hours at Chinese border.
You can enter Kazakhstan by car through many of the border checkpoints on main roads into the country. However, be prepared to wait up to 24 (twenty-four) hours in the queues, with rather poor facilities.
It is fairly easy to travel from Ürümqi to Almaty via sleeper bus, especially if you aren't in a hurry and don't mind living on a bus for a good 24 to 36 hours. The border crossing itself is a bit of a hike, and you may be made to carry all of your belongings with you for quite a ways in some seriously warm weather. The bus trip and "baggage fees" are around US$45. You can pick up your Kazakhstan visa at the consulate in Urumqi as well, but be prepared to chill for at least a week waiting, and be sure to get a copy of your passport before handing it over.
Freighters travel regularly between Baku and Aktau, and it is possible to hitch a ride. Note, though, that it is common for ships to get held up, even for weeks, before entering port, so you had better stock up on food and water before boarding. See freighter travel to better understand how this works.
You must register your visa within five days of entering Kazakhstan if your border entry card has only one stamp. After your first registration you must register in each destination if you stay more than 72 hours (see each destination for further details). If you stay in Kazakhstan less than five days then you may not need to register but this needs to be confirmed (28 July 2008).
If you have a one-entry tourist visa for 30 days, no registration is needed. In Almaty airport, custom officials say that you don't need to register as long as you don't plan on staying more than 90 days (only for tourists), as of July 2008.
You can travel within country using taxis, buses, trains and planes, it depends on your budget and demands. Renting a car is rather costly compared to other means of transport.
In Semipalatinsk (Semey) a minivan costs 35 tenge, and a large bus costs 35-40 tenge (in Astana it ranges about 60-65 tenge), common taxi fare is minimally 300 tenge (at the time, March of 2009, USD 1 was approximately 150 tenge).
Public transportation in big cities is rather popular. You can use buses, trolleys, trams and minibuses. One big minus of all of them is that they never come on schedule and very crowded on peak time. Moreover, there is absolutely no plan with bus stops and schedule whatsoever. If you don't speak Russian, taking the bus will be quite tricky but not impossible.
Use taxis as they are very cheap (€2 to €6 within city). You don't have to use official taxis in most cities, basically you can stop almost any car on the street by raising your hand. It works good in Almaty & Astana, but in Karaganda the best way is one of taxis by phone. It some cheaper and even faster than hitch-hike waiting.
A note of warning, getting to the Almaty airport can be expensive, a taxi to the Airport can cost USD 50. Taxis to the airport vary greatly in price. Any foreigner will be quoted a fantastic rate but usually cabs will come down once they see they aren't going to be able to get that much. USD50 is outlandish. Do not accept the first price as it will result in your being overcharged. It should be less than USD10, although it can never be guaranteed that a foreigner will get that price. A better option are the minibuses and buses that go to the airport. The word "airport" is very similar in Russian and English.
A common way to get around is by unofficial taxis. Any time of day, just wave your hand and someone will stop. Locals do this all the time. Negotiate the price and destination before you agree to go. About $2-$4 is fair for a ride within the center of Almaty. If your Russian is poor or non-existent, you will be charged a lot more than locals; to avoid this, try to use public buses as much as you can and don't hesitate to tell the driver how much you are ready to pay (do this before he tells you how much he wants!). To be safe though, do not get in a car if more than one person is driving. Also, do not take these kind of taxis for long distances or anywhere that goes through remote areas, as there are frequent robberies, especially of foreigners.
Always try to have exact amount of money in cash (the price which you negotiated with a taxi driver), since usually the will not give you a change. So if the price would be 350 tenge, give the driver 350, not more (otherwise he/she might not find a change for you).
Train is the most popular way of covering the huge distances between Kazakhstan's main cities. Main train stations are located in Astana, Karaganda and Almaty, but they can be found almost in every big city.
The rolling stock, train classes, ticket and reservation system was inherited from former Soviet Railways, so they are very similar to the Russian system, see Russian train travel article.
Ticket prices are slightly lower than in Russia. Kazakh Railways have an e-shop (only in Kazakh and Russian), but it doesn't accept many of non-CIS credit cards, so you probably use it only for price check.
Kazakhstan is a large country. For instance, it will take you almost 24 hours to get from Almaty to Astana. However, going by train is most fun way of travelling, since the trains are a great way to meet people. A lot has been written about the pitfalls of being included in a vodka drinking party on a train, but for the most part fellow travellers are friendly, and keen to find out about you ("why aren't you married?" and, if you are, "why don't you have children?", and if you do, "why don't they have children?"!). Most travellers take food for the journey, as restaurant car provision is sporadic (and they expect you to share yours too!). If you don't have enough to last the distance, the trains generally stop for 15-20 minutes at each station and there are always people on the platform selling food and drink, at any time of day or night.
There is also a train called Talgo, which is able to cover distance between Almaty and Astana in 9 hours. The cost of the ticket is about 9000 KZT.
They are a popular alternatives to trains and are faster but less comfortable than them. As for trains, you will need to buy your ticket in advance and will be given a seat number. Be careful when the bus makes a bathroom stop, the driver don't check if all passengers are on board before resuming driving!
Fares are relatively low, for instance a single from Almaty to Karaganda (14 hours) will cost you 2500T, much cheaper than an flight ticket.
Air Astana provides offices in a few major hotels in big cities; it's the fastest way of travelling within the city for those who can afford it. Planes are brand new and match European standards in quality.
A fun and cheap way to get around is by taking a "marshrutka". These are the dilapidated vans that cruise around town. They usually have a sign (in Russian) listing the destination, and the driver will usually call out where they are going. But you will not find them in Almaty.
For too many foreigners the Kazakh language has been seen as very difficult to understand and to pronounce; however, it has been contrasted as easier than some other regional languages like Kyrgyz. Actually, travellers proficient in Turkish might be able to get by because Kazakh is of the same Turkic language family.
If you speak and/or understand the Russian language, then you should be fine. Still, Russian is considered to be tougher to learn (grammatically speaking). At the very least, become familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet and learn a few phrases.
Note that despite the president's campaign to stamp out the Russian language, Almaty and much of the North are still predominantly Russian speaking.
Many people under age 20 will know some English as well as many customs officials and airport people know English.
It is difficult to get around the country without some Russian or Kazakh language skills; though, within the more modernized cities, it is easier. Have your place of residence written on a card and get a cab if you get lost (you might be somewhat overcharged by the cab, but it is better than being lost).
The national currency is Tenge (KZT, Cyrillic: тенге). As of July, 2010, the exchange rates are:
Even for people who are not big shoppers, the beautifully crafted felt items will appeal. They are also easy to carry, and inexpensive to post.
Meat, potatoes, rice and pasta. And lots of it. If you're vegetarian be wary, because if it doesn't have meat in it, it was almost certainly cooked on meat stock.
Some recommended dishes:
If you're a vegetarian, you're probably thinking there's nothing for you in Kazakstan. And you're right - so long as you eat out. But if you're cooking your own food, you'll be more than satisfied. Kazakstan has some excellent produce available at little markets everywhere. For a treat in Almaty, try Govinda's, a delicious vegetarian Hare Krishna restaurant. Malls have food courts with some vegetarian options too. Even some small Kazakh eateries will prepare vegetarian meals for you if you make it very clear to them (e.g. "byez myasa" (without meat), "ya vegeterianetz" (I [male] am a vegetarian), "ya vegetarianka" (I [female] am a vegetarian) in Russian). At some places (e.g. smak) you can even find vegetarian manty made with pumpkin.
The legacy of Korean resettlement in Kazakhstan means that Korean dishes, particularly salads, are very common. At the country's many bazaars (independent food and goods markets), look for the Korean ladies selling these. They will wrap you up any number of delicious, often spicy and garlicky salads to take away in plastic bags. If you are vegetarian, this may be the only decent thing you get to eat while you're in the country.
On the other hand, in Kazakhstan you can find any dishes you want, but Chinese and Japanese dishes are very expensive. The most delicious is caviar, which is very cheap, you can buy 1 kilo of caviar for less than USD300 in Almaty Zyeloniy Bazaar, but you can't export or take it with you home, you will be stopped at airport and pay high fines.
Eating out is relatively cheap; you basically order the meat dish and then add rice, potatoes, etc. Each element is priced individually, so you can order for instance only meat or only rice. Prices are relatively cheap, count 500T for chicken and up to 1500T for beef. Of course, the fancier the restaurant, the higher the price. If you don't speak Russian, things are relatively hard as the majority of restaurants don't have English menus (with the exception of some hyped places in Almaty).
While Kazakhs are not very religious, most do not eat pork. Be aware of this if you are dining out with Kazakhs or planning a dinner at home. Also many dishes that are made elsewhere with pork (such as dumplings or sausage) are made with beef or mutton here.
You can find any sort of drink you want, some of the traditional beverages include:
Cheap alcoholic drinks can be found at every little corner shop (called the astanovka). These places are open 24/7, just knock on their door if the shopkeeper is asleep. Kazakhstan's specialty is cognac, though stores still sell vodka cheaper than bottled water at times. However, some of these astanovka sometimes sell alcohol of dubious origin; for the sake of your stomach you may want to buy your beverage in a supermarket, although the price will definitely be higher.
The juices, in cartons, are delicious, especially peach juice.
There are numerous hotels, from very cheap ones (10 Euro per night) to the luxurious ones. You wouldn't find the cheapest ones on the web; the only way to book them is to call directly, but in that case you'll have to speak Russian at the least.
There are almost no camping sites except in Burabay/Borovoe in Kazakhstan. You can, however, camp almost anywhere due to the huge uninhabited spots. The scenery is beautiful but because of the very hot weather: don't forget to take plenty of water with you as you can very easily spend many of days without seeing anybody. If you camp near a nomadic tribe, ask for the permission to stay near; it will not be refused.
Work is not impossible to find. English teaching schools are sprouting up all over. The English department at KIMEP might be a good place to start, depending on credentials and experience.
The general rules of safety in Kazakhstan are the same as in any other civilized country of the world. Besides the normal risk of pick-pockets, etc. The main risk is meeting a group of corrupt police; try to avoid being taken to the police station. However, in general, Kazakhstan is a very friendly country where foreigners are respected as hospitality is one of the Kazakh main traditions. It is good to have a passport and migration card or copy of them in pocket, because the policeman may to want to check it in any time, especially at night.
Packs of stray dogs can present a problem as they are very hungry and in some cases downright aggressive to humans. They should be avoided when possible, but luckily the problem of stray or feral dogs is more common in the western section of Kazakhstan near the Caspian Sea where there are less tourists.
Fire brigade: dial 101 (land line and any mobile phones) Police: dial 102 (land line and any mobile phones) Ambulance: dial 103 (land line and any mobile phones)
Rescue service: dial 112 (any land or mobile phone), describe the problem and your call will be redirected to the according service. However, you need to know Russian or Kazakh in most cases for conversation with a dispatcher. All calls are recorded.