People tend to look at a map and say: “Looks like there is nothing here in the middle, we can just pass through quickly.”
2 mistakes there. First off, there is something of interest. Secondly, you cannot pass through quickly. The distances are huge.
Come here for solitude, for off-roading expeditions, for the eery and obscure. If you are the type to enjoy a challenge: your niche interest does not readily present itself here. You will need to work for it.
Karaganda and around
Karaganda is the pulsating heart of this nowhere-land, a surprisingly pleasant and progressive city. Its dark history of repression, as well as its current large-scale industries, are good reasons to visit the city and its satellite town Temirtau.
Karkaralinsk national park and the Kent and Bugyly mountains are unspectacular, but very quiet, natural retreats from the harmful city smog, with some archaeological remains to boot.
Bayanaul national park serves as the regional beach. Although there should be good hiking as well, it is best avoided in summer.
Stretching what counts as “around”, 400 km south of Karaganda lies the industrial beach town of Balkhash. Lake Balkhash is known for its fishing and birding, both of which are best on the southern side. Bektau-Ata is an unusual camp spot on the road to Almaty, while at Priozersk you can visit ruins and missile museums from the Soviet Cold War defense program.
Middle of nowhere
West of Karaganda lies another big mining town: Zhezqazgan. This really is the end of the line. From here, you can try crossing to Kyzylorda, or even Aralsk. Real Steppe. Should be fun.
En route to Kyzylorda, you pass the Betpak-Dala desert, one of the few remaining places a herd of the embattled saiga still lives. If you head north instead, you can find mysterious “balbal” sculptures guarding the steppe around Ulytau.
Ulytau is known as the mythical heartland of Kazakhstan, where the nation was born. There are some monuments to visit. It is also known for having the best lamb in Kazakhstan. Though almost every region claims to have a spot like this, Ulytau is definitely the remotest of them all.
Undaunted overlanders might want to drive to Ayagoz. The road is supposed to be horrible. There is no other reason to do it.
Kyzylorda, Aralsk, Baikonur & Aqtobe
The main east-west highway runs from Shymkent to Aqtobe.
First stop is Kyzylorda. Home of legendary Soviet rock star Victor Tsoy, it has been called Kazakhstan’s most unattractive city. Kyzylorda pumps out world class wrestlers, boxers and weightlifters on a regular basis, though, so don’t tell anyone to their face. In its defense, the Korkut Ata monument nearby is atmospheric.
Next stop en route is Aralsk, the hub for visitors interested in seeing the Aral Sea on the Kazakh side. After that comes the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is still expensive and difficult to visit here, but if you are lucky, you can watch a rocket get launched into space from outside of the closed city.
Aqtobe is definitely an off-beat destination. It is 100 km off the main highway, and most overlanders consequently avoid it by turning south towards Atyrau at Kandyagash. Barring a deep interest in oil production or the Chinese influence in Central Asia, you are likely to pass by Aqtobe only if you were on your way to Russia via Orenburg or Ural.
- Almaty Region: Kazakhstan’s most pleasant city, sat on the doorstep of a mountain range. Beyond, a landscape safari beckons.
- The South: Medieval mausoleums, and national parks sheltering tulips, birds, mountains and bears
- The North: Kazakhstan’s brash new capital stands in stark contrast to modest Altai
- The West: Oil towns and stark desert landscapes, this is a geologist’s dream