Kazakhstan is a name commonly heard of among the -Stan countries, apart from Afghanistan. Yet many can’t really point its location on the map. Is it in Europe? Near to Russia? Or maybe somewhere in Asia?
Kazakhstan is one of the few developing countries that can still be considered as an off-the-beaten-path destination. Geographically, it is the only landlocked country in the world with territories in two continents: Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan is also the 9th largest country in the world, larger than Western Europe combined, so there is actually a lot to explore! With snow-capped mountains, endless steppes, incredible wildlife, deep blue glacial lakes, modern cities and friendly people, it is a country that is full of surprises every step of the way!
For a country that literally means the “Land of the Wanderers”, doesn’t it sounds fascinating enough to make you want to book your flights now? Here’s some of the important things to know to help you get ready for your next adventure!
Getting in and out of Kazakhstan
Here are the 3 main international airports of Kazakhstan: Almaty International Airport (ALA), Astana International Airport (TSE) and Shymkent International Airport (CIT). Formerly the capital, Almaty has the largest and busiest airport in Central Asia region. From Almaty, there are regular flights to other Central Asian capitals if you want to save travelling time. There are also low-cost airlines such as Wizz Air, Pegasus Airlines and Air Baltic flying into Kazakhstan as well.
Entering Kazakhstan by train is possible from Russia, Uzbekistan and China. From Russia, you can either take the train from Saratov to Uralsk, Orenburg to Aktobe or Omsk to Nur-sultan (Astana). For Uzbekistan, there is the train from Nukus to Atyrau and Tashkent to Shymkent. China has a train connection between Urumqi and Almaty. Do consider that the cost of the train ride may be almost the same as flight ticket.
Kazakhstan shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Though there are often more than one border for each country, but not all land borders can be used by foreigners so make sure you check properly before travelling out.
We used Chernayevka (UZB) – Zhibek-Joly (KAZ) border to travel across Shymkent and Tashkent by bus. It is the busiest checkpoints we had encountered after 2-months in Central Asia that took us more than an hour to clear both immigration. The journey from Tashkent to Shymkent is about 5-hours and cost 40,000 UZS/ 1,500 KZT (US$4) on an air-con bus.
Getting out from Almaty to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan was a little tricky. We were told by many that we had to take a bus to Bishkek and change another bus to Karakol. We thought it was a waste of time as eventually we still need to go back Bishkek. At last, we met an English-speaking ticket staff and she told us that there is a bus from Almaty to Karakol via Bishkek at 9 pm daily. It’s an 11-hours overnight bus that cost 2000 KZT (US$5) per person.
Note: Kazakhstan has suspended its visa-free regime until November 1st 2020 due to recent global pandemic. This means that everybody who wants to visit Kazakhstan (except nationals of some of the other Post-Soviet countries) before November 1st 2020 needs to apply for a visa and must present a medical certificate confirming they haven’t been affected by the virus.
Since January 2017, Kazakhstan has opened its door to more nationalities to travel to the country. Gone are the days of expensive visas and Letter of Invitation (LOI), complicated bureaucracy and troublesome registrations in police stations. Backpacking in Kazakhstan is now easier than ever!
Citizens from the European Union, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to stay up to 30 days without a visa in the country.
Citizens from Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Mongolia are allowed to stay 90 days visa-free in Kazakhstan.
If you are not sure, check the latest visa requirements on the Kazakhstan visa guide on Caravanistan.
Registration of your stay
When entering the country – whether by flight or at a land border – you have to fill in a migration card. This card will be stamped twice at the passport control upon arrival, which indicates that you are automatically registered. In case you only see one stamp, ask nicely for the second one. If they refuse – which would be very unlikely – you have to register within 5 days with the Migration Police (OVIR). It is very important to keep the migration card with you as you need to show again when leaving the country.
Updated: In January 2020, foreigners will be able to stay in Kazakhstan without registration for up to 30 days.
Getting around Kazakhstan
- Marshrutka – For shorter trips and day trips from the cities, marshrutkas are the cheapest way to go if you are backpacking in Kazakhstan. The minivans leave once they are full and operate on demand.
- Shared taxi – As a general rule of thumb they are twice the cost of a marshrutka, but also much faster. Alternative, you may use Yandex taxis that works similar like Uber and Grab in the cities.
- Plane – For long distances like Almaty to Astana, many travellers opt to fly to save time.
- Train – An inexpensive and comfortable way to travel in Kazakhstan. We took a 12-hours overnight sleeper train ride from Shymkent to Almaty for 3,300 KZT (US$8).
Best time to visit Kazakhstan
The best time to visit Kazakhstan depends on what your interests are.
For hiking and outdoor activities, the months between June and September are pretty good with pleasant temperature. Spring (April/May) and fall (September/October) are best for the more arid sites like Charyn Canyon and Altyn Emel National Park as these places are uncomfortably hot in the Summer. November to February is the best time to see eagle hunting.
Kazakhstan has a pretty brutal winter of -40°C owing to the country being comprised largely of steppe. Nur-Sultan which is located in the North, is known as the second coldest capital in the world after Ulaanbaatar. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is home to a few ski resorts and home to the world’s largest high-mountain skating rink.
The currency in Kazakhstan is the Kazakh Tenge, replaced the Soviet currency – the ruble – in 1993. The exchange rate as of May 2020 is US$1 = 430 KZT. In the cities, you can exchange major world currencies without much problem, but it’s recommended to exchange your leftover Kyrgyz and Uzbek S’om at the border for better rates. You can easily find ATMs to withdraw money or pay by credit cards at international stores, hotels and food chains. Look for Obmen Valyuty (Обмен валюты) to exchange money.
Kazakhstan can be both a cheap destination and rather expensive, depending on how and where you travel. Compared to the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, we spent a lot more on food mainly because of its wide variety of international cuisine. On average, we spent about US$35 for 2 of us a day during our 10-days in Kazakhstan.
Accommodation – We spent 3000 KZT/bed (US$7) in Shymkent and US$5 per bed in Almaty. Both hostels come with breakfast and strong Wi-fi.
Food – We splurged a total of US$30 (for 2 persons) on Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese cuisine. But at other times, we ate at stolovaya (local food canteen) or bazaar for less than US$3 a meal.
Transport – Bus in Almaty is a flat rate of 150 KZT (40 cents) around the city. Expect to pay about 1 or 2 dollars for an hour marshrutka ride. Shared taxi’s are often double the price of a marshrutka, but faster. A train ticket from Shymkent to Almaty costs about 3,300 KZT (US$8). Cable car ride cost 1,000 KZT/way (US$2.50) to Kok Tobe.
Language and Culture
Kazakhstan is largely bilingual with Kazakh (a Turkic language) and Russian being the main languages spoken in the country. Both are written in Cyrillic. Though English has been growing in popularity, I would advise learning some basic phrases, and download the languages in Google translate to easy to get around.
When we arrived in Almaty, it felt like we stepped into an European’s city instead of Central Asia’s. Kazakhstan is a very multicultural and one of the most diverse in the world, with the largest minority being Russians. The Kazakh people are descendants of Turkic tribes with a nomadic heritage that still dominates their culture today. The same goes with religion. The country allows freedom of religion; however, Islam and Christianity are the two top religions in Kazakhstan.
Having said that, you are likely to see people dressing similarly to many other major cities in the world. Some people would describe the outfits as Russian style. In Almaty, it is common to see young girls dressed in sleeveless or sexy little dress. However, outside of city, people are more conservative so don’t expect to bring your summer wear to the outskirt.
Cuisine in Kazakhstan
Naturally, the national cuisine in Kazakhstan is generally similar to the rest of Central Asian countries consisting of mutton, beef and chicken meat, served in dumplings, on top of noodles or rice or alongside potatoes. On the brighter note, you will find most of the dishes are heavily influenced by Russians thus the dishes are more colourful and flavorful.
In large cities like Almaty and Nur-Sultan (former Astana), Kazakhstan offers a wide variety of cuisines to travellers. You can easily find vegetarian restaurants to a variety of other world cuisines, such as Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Mexican and more. There are even legit McDonald’s, Starbucks and other international food chains to indulge in.
Is it safe to travel in Kazakhstan?
Without doubt, definitely!
During our 10-days of backpacking in Kazakhstan, we did not encounter any problems and majority of the locals have always been very friendly and helpful, including the authorities. It is probably much safer to travel here than in western countries! Of course, like many other countries, it is no harm taking precautions against petty theft and pickpocket in crowded places like bazaars. Otherwise, violence is not something you will see in Kazakhstan.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!