Some parts of Central Asia can be unstable: check current
government advice before travel. Ongoing military operations
in the region mean Western tourists can be the target of terrorism.
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world,
roughly comparable in size to most of Western Europe or around
half of the United States. It spreads over two time zones
and ranges in topography from the West Siberian lowlands
to the desert of Kyzylkum and the vast, inhospitable
ranges of Tien Shan and the Altai Mountains.
Due to ongoing political and social unrest throughout Central
Asia, now may not be the best time to travel independently
to Kazakhstan. It is advisable to travel as part of an organised
tour, or at the very least, seek current foreign office advice
before planning your trip.
Kazakhstan is split into fourteen regions with special status
awarded to Leninsk and Almaty, the former capital.
The official language here is Kazakh, however, as with much
of Central Asia, you will find Russian spoken as the mode
of inter-ethnic communication.
With a landscape relatively unchanged since the days of Genghis
Khan, Kazakhstan still retains its natural charm.
The vast and desolate plains are intermittently broken by
isolated cities, dotted throughout the desert. Much of these
towns are remnants from the Soviet era, and the bleak, industrial
wastelands do little to draw the visitor but look deeper to
find a welcoming populace, stunning scenery of mountains and
deserts and some fascinating historical mausoleums. The country's
biggest asset remains its vast oil and gas reserves lying
below the desert, potentially making the country very rich.
The varied topography of Kazakhstan creates a contrasting
landscape. From the vast plains and deserts filled with interminable
steppes through to the inaccessible snow-capped peaks, there
are many sights and activities to keep most travellers in
awe of this beautiful country. Combined with its long, difficult
history of occupation and the legacy of war, Kazakhstan has
many lingering monuments and mausoleums that will entice and
intrigue the traveller.
Kazakhstan is a fantastic landscape for trekking and hiking,
with its rugged mountain ranges, and pristine lakes, it makes
for some spectacular scenery. The best time to trek is between
June and September when most of the higher passes are clear
and the climate is moderate.
Along with Central Asia's love affair with horses, horse
riding is also a popular activity. You can either mount up
yourself and trek along some routes, or even watch and take
part in the many local competitions. Equestrian sports are
particularly popular in Central Asia, and include games such
as baiga, kiz-kuu, and kokpar.
Almaty, formerly the capital of Kazakhstan, was founded in
the mid-nineteenth century. Originally a Russian frontier
post, it remains the country's premier city. Almaty's translation,
'Grandfather of Apples,' comes from its many orchids which
produce peculiarly huge apples.
The main street, Tole Bi, which runs through the town
from east to west, is where most of the government buildings
are plus some cinemas. The shopping district runs along Zhibek
Zholi (Silk Road), and the nearby Panfilov Park
(named after the heroes of World War Two) is home to the beautiful
Zenkov Cathedral. This six story wooden building is built
entirely without nails and is reputed to be the second tallest
wooden building in the world. The cathedral is one of the
few buildings to survive the 1911 earthquake which destroyed
much of the city.
Just north of the park is the main bazaar, selling fairly
standard Western goods, and a fruit and vegetable market.
Almaty has a number of reasonable exhibitions including the
Central State Museum, which houses archaeological finds,
the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, and the State
Art Museum. A large number of gold handicrafts can be
viewed in the Golden Hall of the Central Museum of the
Republic, including a miniature replica of the Golden
Man, the country's chief archaeological treasure. It is
a warrior's costume made from 4,000 pieces of gold, each decorated
with ornate animal motifs.
For a relaxing break, head to the Arasan Bathhouse.
It's the perfect place to rejuvenate, with its white marble
baths divided into Turkish, Russian, and Finnish spas. As
for nightlife: don't expect anything too wild. New restaurants,
bars and casinos are opening up, but it is still fairly limited.
Almaty is a green city with plenty of parks and open spaces.
Street cafes are to be found all over town and along its long,
straight avenues. The modern city is said to lie on the ancient
settlement of Almaty, which dates from third century B.C.
Around 1845, it was developed into the frontier post of the
Russian Empire, and artefacts from the city's ancient roots
can be seen, including the remains at the Issyk burial
place, about 50 miles from the city.
For the more active travellers, the Medeo Ice Stadium,
ten miles above Almaty, hosts many international skating events
in one of the world's largest ice rinks, and it's a popular
hangout for the town's youth.
If you prefer skiing, check out Shymbulak Ski Resort,
with operational lifts and a season lasting November through
to April. Hikes are also possible in the surrounding mountains,
providing stunning views across the valley.
The stark beauty of the Altay Mountains, 450 miles northeast
of Almaty, reveals breathtaking scenery: the waterfalls, forests
and meadows are naturally alluring and in contrast to the
flat, barren lands throughout the rest of the region. The
15,000 feet peak of Mount Belukha marks the point where
Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and Russia meet. The Buddhists
believe that Belukha is a pole of spiritual energy, connected
to Tibet and anyone who climbs it will be blessed with longevity
With a population of around 300,000, Astana became the capital
of Kazakhstan in December 1997. Traditionally, the town was
an agricultural centre, but its newfound importance was not
well received by its inhabitants. The city was founded as
a fortress in 1824, but has a severe climate with cold winters
and hot summers, when you should watch out for the mosquitoes.
Astana, meaning capital, was renamed from Akmola,
meaning white grave. Unlike its southerly neighbour, Almaty,
politics is the mainstay here and there is little to attract
the independent traveller. Progress is evident in the new
hotels that are springing up across town and there are plans
to build parks and gardens, by widening the Yesil River
that cuts through the centre of town.
The second largest city in Kazakhstan is still relatively
new. It is primarily a coal-mining centre and attractions
for the visitor are limited to a few war memorials and some
mosques and churches.
Situated on the main highway between Almaty and Bishkek in
Kyrgyzstan, this border town on the old Silk Road is a good
base to explore the Chumysh Hills. These ancient hills
are about three miles outside of the town and house an impressive
collection of 2,000-year-old cave paintings. You will be able
to find accommodation in Kordai, however there will not be
much else in the town itself to warrant a longer stay.
In an otherwise bleak setting, Leninsk is the original site
from where the Mir Space Station was launched. This
40-year-old settlement is home to the Baikonur Space Center,
however tours around this site are now mostly prohibited.
Rumours abound that it will eventually be closed permanently.
A distinctly Russian-influenced town close to the Siberian
border, Semey holds the legacy of extensive underground nuclear
testing. For the less squeamish traveller, the exhibitions
at the Anatomy Department of the Semey Medical Faculty
show examples of the mutations that resulted from the testing.
There are also museums in Semey honouring Russian author Fyodor
Dostoyevsky and Kazakhstan's leading literary son, Abay
Primarily a polluted industrial city, Shymkent is most notably
home to Astrakhan coats. You can see how the sheepskins
are processed in the Karakal Sheep Breeding Museum
or use this town as a base to visit the beautiful Khodja
Akhmed Yassawi Mausoleum in nearby Turkestan. Considered
one of Kazakhstan's cultural treasures, the Mausoleum is considered
something of a Mecca. Khodja Akhmed Yassawi was a holy Islamic
person and his huge, domed tomb is one of the most stunning
architectural constructions in Central Asia, which was begun
by Tamerlane in the 1390s. It houses a sacred two-ton vessel,
made of seven metals and used for storing holy water.
With a selection of interesting sites, including several
mausoleums, this industrial city is also the site of the historical
Battle of Talas. The mausoleums of Kara Khan
and Shamansur are nearly 1,000 years old, with beautiful
terracotta exteriors carved in a way that makes the building
appear as if it is made of straw.
In 751 A.D. there was a war for control of Central Asia between
the Arab Ummayad and the Chinese Tang Dynasty. With the Arab
victory, the Chinese no longer had influence in the region
and Islam was introduced. This particular battle marked the
limit of Chinese influence to the East. It was the Chinese
Prisoners Of War who were ordered to produce paper in Samarkand,
thus introducing the technology to Central Asia and the Middle
Aksu-Djabagly Nature Preserve
A UNESCO biosphere preserve, Aksu-Djabagly is the only site
with this status in Kazakhstan. It is also one of the oldest
nature reserves in Central Asia, established over 75 years
ago. It is at its most beautiful in spring when rare flowers
bloom over the mountains and forests. In particular, the region's
wild tulips enhance the stunning natural beauty of
the rivers, steppes, and fresh springs.
238 bird species call Aksu-Djabagly home, including nine
protected ones such as the Egyptian vulture, golden eagle,
and black stork. Other animal species you may see prowling
the canyons within the reserve are brown bears, wild sheep,
and - if you're lucky - a snow leopard.
The preserve can be reached from the nearby village of Djabagly
or the Tulkubas railway station, about 60 miles from
Shymkent or Taraz. While you're in the area, check out the
Karatau Mountains, the Chokpak Ornithological Observatory,
and the nearby Moyinkum Desert.
Altyn-Emei National Park
With its topography unchanged throughout history, this national
park is scientifically and culturally unique. It was founded
in 1961 and spreads out over an impressive 73,300 hectares.
Within this park, plants number 137 varieties and there are
200 types of birds. You'll find 29 species of animals including
sightings of rare red bears, Turkestan lynx,
and endangered snow leopards, among the slightly more
numerous gazelles, goats, wild sheep, and boars.
Within the national park is a desert-like section in the valley
of the Ili River, popular for its singing sands.
These unusual sand dunes, reaching heights of 500 feet, make
a sound like that of an airplane. As you walk past, the sand
from beneath your feet sweeps down the steep dune and a buzz
emanates from deep within the sand. The dunes themselves lie
between the mountain ridges of Ulken-Kalkan, yet no
one knows quite how they originated. Peculiarly, the sand
does not move along the plain - instead it stays in the same
place for thousands of years. For thrill seekers, it is possible
to ski down the slopes.
These three lakes are located in the mountains between 6,000
and 8,000 feet above sea level. Coloured a beautiful sky-blue,
they are located in the Kazakh part of the Kungey Alatau
Range of the Central Tien Shan in the south-east
of the country, 160 miles from Almaty. You will find excellent
trekking and hiking along the routes around the lakes, with
captivating scenery and breathtaking views of the surrounding
alpine mountains and lakes. The highest point in Kazakhstan
is Khan-Tengri at 23,000 feet, located in the mountains
surrounding the Kol-Sai Lakes. Full
article: Trekking in the Tien Shan Mountains
One of the largest rivers in Kazakhstan, the Ili begins in
the Eastern Tien Shan, out of the Tekes and
Kunges rivers. In total, the Ili River flows 2,150
miles, with 1,222 miles in Kazakhstan. It flows into Lake
Balkhash forming a vast delta, with marshes, lakes, and
About thirteen miles downstream lies Tamgaly,
famous for its ancient rock drawings. Close by is the Kapchagay
Reserve, home to the Kapchagai Hydroelectric plant.
Once you pass this point, rafting is easy enough as
the river flows deep and wide. With clear waters and a rapid
current, it is an ideal spot for category one rafting. More
challenging rafting can be achieved in the Charyn and
Chu rivers. Swimming is also popular, along
with fishing, as the water is warm from May all through
This island, off the North-western Aral Sea Coast,
translates as 'The Land of No Return', and is home to the
kulan, the rarest hoofed animal in the world.
Kurgaldjino Nature Reserve
This A-class nature reserve, located in central Kazakhstan,
is of international importance. This is the most northerly
settlement of flamingos in the world.
Bayan-Aul National Nature Park
Dubbed the 'Museum of Nature', Bayan-Aul National Park is
located in central Kazakhstan and offers the visitor rock
drawings, stone sculptures, and clean, sparkling lakes.