Kazakhstan’s nature is second to none: altitudes range from the lowest point in the former Soviet Union to a 7000m high peak. Kazakhstan is great for mountain hiking and honey tasting, but its expansive territory also holds truly unique wildlife in a range of national parks.
Kazakhstan’s cities don’t have the natural charm of those in Uzbekistan, but there is lots of Soviet history there, and a seemingly endless mix of nations and traditions to keep all cliches about Kazakhstanis at bay. Highlights are the sophisticated culture capital of Almaty and the futuristic metropolis Astana.
Out in the villages, life continues as it did before. The yurt is the place to drink your camel milk and get philosophical as you gaze out over the endless steppe. It’s where you go horse riding or eagle hunting when the snow starts to fall.
Travel in Kazakhstan surprises, inevitably.
Southeast Kazakhstan Tourism
The southeast holds the most interest for travelers, and its location between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China means that, like in the past, this is where most people end up spending their time.
And there is a lot to explore. Almaty is the former capital, and it is still the cultural heart of the country. This is the place to eat well, catch a show or go clubbing. Once you’re done sipping lattes in the shade watching the beautiful people do their thing, it makes for a great base to discover the surrounding area.
The Ili-Alatau national park will be the first port of call for hikers. It’s big and easy to reach, and 4000m peaks are within a day’s walk. Further off you can find magnificent lakes in Esik, Kolsai and Kaindy, and a giant canyon at Charyn.
Less visited gems are Altyn Emel, for strange nature and wild animals, and Dzhungarian Alatau, for remote village life. Balkhash lake is great for fishing and birdwatching, as are Ili river (fishing and kayaking) and the Taukum desert (birdwatching, adventure). Petroglyphs and eerie statues lie scattered around the area. These are just some of the highlights: to go off the beaten track, get a guidebook.
South Kazakhstan Travel
Shymkent is the capital of the south, a wild open-air bazaar where people keep (and invent) Kazakh traditions. It is also a major draw for Uzbek migrants escaping their home country. Outside of Shymkent, nature takes over: Sayram-Ugam and Aksu-Zhabagly nature reserves are both very scenic hotspots of biodiversity. Outside of the southern heartland, in places like Taraz and Chuy, historical monuments attract attention. Front and center is the mausoleum of Turkistan, and the ruins of Otrar.
North Kazakhstan Travel
Hiking in the Altai mountains of Kazakhstan is a must if you make it this far. Astana is weird and glitzy, but of ever-increasing importance, and surrounded by refuges Burabay and Korgalzhyn. Take your time to visit the other cities in the north too, Pavlodar, Semey and others represent a totally different Kazakhstan than the South. There is a lot more for enthusiasts of nature, industrial heritage, Soviet wreckage and agriculture in this area, but you will need to do your research.
Central Kazakhstan Travel
Far, far away from everything else: that’s the best way to describe Central Kazakhstan. Travel to Karaganda and be surprised to find a cultured city of universities, museums and football. Nearby steel town Temirtau and Karkaralinsk national park are equally interesting. Even further off you will find the true spirit of Kazakhstan in Ulytau, Zhezkazgan and Kyzyl Orda. The Aral Sea and its shipwrecks at Aralsk are the sad tourism center for this part of the country.
West Kazakhstan Tourism
Deserts, oil and camels, but it’s not the Middle East. Most foreigners here are working in the oil industry, but for overlanders, Aktau holds the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. The underground mosque of Beket-Ata is the easiest sight to see here. Everything else is impossible without your own 4WD and good research or a guide.
Special Interest Tourism
Kazakhstan is the best place in Central Asia for birdwatching due to it large territory crossed by several migration routes. The skiing infrastructure around Almaty is well-developed. Other sports you might want to travel to Kazakhstan for are fishing, ice skating, cycling, kayaking and climbing.
A special interest in architecture, both Soviet and modern, or botany, are other good reasons to travel to Kazakhstan.