Wanna get off the beaten track in Kazakhstan? The places on this itinerary are cool as hell, and they have less visitors than outer space.
This itinerary is going to cost you a pretty penny though, as many of them need a special permit and are far from civilization. You will need your own transport and a fair bit of time, but you will be rewarded with unique experiences and a totally different view on Kazakhstan from those that stick to the big cities.
Starting out in port town Aktau, dive deep into the Mangystau desert to find the lowest point in the former Soviet Union, pray at the holy caves of Sufi Beket Ata and scratch your head at the mysterious Valley of Balls, close to the magic limestone formation of Sherkala.
After that, it’s a long, long (long, long) way to the most touristy stop on this itinerary: the former port of Aralsk and the all-but-vanished Aral Sea. Further down the road lies the Russian-owned Baikonur space port. If you have the cash and manage to time it right, you might be able to witness a launch. Echt Porno, as the Germans say.
Kyzyl Orda is the ancient capital of Kazakhstan, and still brings forth the most Kazakh of Kazakhs: huge carnivores wrestling down tradition. This is most definitely the ‘real Kazakhstan’, like it or not.
Then we travel straight through the center of this empty land to the remote mining town of Zhezkazgan, and the spiritual heart of Kazakhstan, Ulytau, where the mysterious balbals live, and the ruins of ancient civilizations lay untouched.
After this, our itinerary leads us to visit the moving museum of Dolinka, testimony to the victims of the KarLag concentration camps. To forget about all of that, go watch football in Karaganda, and be amazed at the huge steel production plant in Temirtau. 3 visits to reshape your idea of Kazakhstan and its history and people once more.
We’ll bypass boring old Astana and head to cultured Pavlodar instead, by way of the beautiful national park and beach resort 2-in-1 Bayanaul. Another black tourism destination follows with Kurchatov, command center for the destructive atomic bomb testing around Semey. Terribly fascinating, or the other way around?
From Semey, head to the Altai: the Kazakh bit has lots to offer for the outdoor enthusiast, but the parts in Russia, Mongolia and China are just as stunningly beautiful, and unexplicably unexplored.
If you still haven’t had your fill of off-the-beaten-track Kazakhstan, head down more emptiness to wander around the land of milk and honey that is the the seldom-visited mountain range of the Dzhungarian Alatau.