What pushes me to keep exploring Kazakhstan, besides the unbounded freedom, is its surprising diversity. Northern Kazakhstan is a case in point. There is still plenty of steppe, but already, the scenery is getting more Siberian. It’s colder and wetter. Trees and lakes start to dominate. The ethnic mix changes.
Right at the center, Astana prevails. It is often called the Dubai of the Steppe, and I think it is a good nickname in many different ways. Crowning Astana is an area the size of Spain that is simultaneously an agricultural powerhouse, an industrial Moloch, and a very, very spacious camp ground.
All the same, the real gems lie further to the east, and that is where you should be heading first. Semey and its surroundings have surprising tales to tell, while Ust-Kamenogorsk forms the gateway to the storied Altai mountains.
Astana & around
Astana, like its idol Dubai, is all about money and status. Life is a play-act performed in shopping malls and nation-branded offices. It’s definitely worth a look for the architecture and what it aspires to represent. After that, though, most will want to move on quickly. Like in Dubai, if you’re not shopping, working or eating, you’re bored.
Near the provincial capital Kokshetau lies Burabay, a sort of Astana-on-Sea. If that does not appeal, you can move a bit higher to Kokshetau national park for a camping holiday, or see flamingoes west of Astana at Korgalzhyn national park.
Kostanay, North Kazakhstan & Pavlodar regions
For now, the Kostanay region is still the exclusive domain of guys dressed in camo. Fishing and hunting is the thing to do here, but dedicated birdwatchers will want to visit the Naurzum nature reserve with binoculars instead of guns.
At the very tip of Kazakhstan sits Petropavl, a tourist bantamweight for now. You are almost in Russia, and it definitely feels like that.
Departing east from Astana, you will encounter Ekibastuz, a depressed mining town best-known for hosting Alexander Solzhenitsyn (in a labour camp). Nearby Pavlodar is a much more prosperous industrial city. It’s not well-known for tourism, though. Besides its odd mosque, Pavlodar greatest claim to fame are its famously rude people.
East-Kazakhstan region & Altai
The Kazakhstani side of the Altai mountains is not as well-known as the Russian or Mongolian side, and the Altai mountains not as famous as the Tien Shan. This is mainly because it is so time-consuming to get there. Although that is slowly changing now, Altai remains a remote place. That is a good thing: the Altai’s remoteness is the source of its beauty and unique atmosphere.
Ust-Kamenogorsk is the gateway city to the Altai. It isn’t the most exciting place in the world. Semey is the former capital of the region. It has at least 2 interesting museums, possibly even 4 or 5 depending on your tastes. Luminaries like Dostoyevski and Abay lived here.
Not far off, the Semey Polygon was the main testing ground for nuclear weapons in Soviet times. A scary reminder of a history that sometimes feels it could jump back to life anyday.
- 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 West: Oil towns and stark desert landscapes, this is a geologist’s dream
- The Center: Remote steppe oddities of niche interest