Kazakhstan traditionally sits in last place on Silk Road travelers’ must-visit list. That’s not because of a lack of attractions. But it does get trumped by its neighbours on several counts.
While Kazakhstan has beautiful steppe and mountain scenery, there are no yurts like in Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia. Kazakhstan has interesting medieval Islamic architecture, but Uzbekistan has more.
Add to that the sheer size of Kazakhstan, few tourism companies and restrictive government policies (it’s getting better): more limiting factors in attracting tourists.
So why still visit Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan appeals to different people in different ways. Chinese travelers enjoy the fresh air and the lack of people, while Emiratis love how it is so green, and kind-of Muslim. Snow-white, ice-cold winters attract visitors from tropical countries.
For Westerners, the main selling point are Kazakhstan’s unique landscapes, dripping with freedom. On top of that, singular experiences include the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Semey Polygon, the landscapes of Mangystau, the balbal of the steppe, glitzy Astana and chaste Altai.
Where to go?
For the majority of visitors, Almaty region and the southern area around Shymkent are the only things they will see of Kazakhstan. There is nothing wrong with that. Kazakhstan is a very big country: in area size, these 2 regions are bigger than Germany or Japan.
Together, they provide a great sample of what Kazakhstan is all about, both culturally, historically and in terms of natural beauty. Since they border Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, visiting the south and the Almaty region makes a lot of sense in any overland itinerary.
If you only get to see 1 place: Almaty region has the most attractions and the best infrastructure.
Off the beaten track
Only those who like to go further off the beaten track (preferably with their own transport or a budget for tours) will want to venture into the other regions of Kazakhstan. If you have a specific interest like Soviet history, archaeology, botany or birding, you will also find much to enjoy here.
Kazakhstan is very big. It is developing its rail network, and several high-speed trains now connect Shymkent and Almaty with the capital Astana in 12 hours. Other trains are still slow, their speed reflected by their low prices.
Flights are more expensive, although low-cost airlines now exist in Kazakhstan: FlyArystan, SCAT and Qazaq Air. For travelers who have the time, the train is a comfortable and budget-friendly alternative to the airplane. For those who don’t, the airplane is the quickest way to get around Kazakhstan with airfields in all corners of the country.
Buses and shared taxis are usually the only way to get to smaller destinations. Less comfortable, we do not recommend taking them for long distances.
Although Kazakhstan is less mountainous than some of its neighbours, winters do disturb the transport system. Snow storms can block roads and airports, or delay trains. Between May and October all parts of the country are usually easily accessible.
Getting to Mongolia on public transport is a long and arduous journey overland, either via Russia or via China.
For transport links to Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China, see the border crossings section and the city guides.
Have a look first to see if you need a visa for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is pretty safe, all things considered, with traffic as the main danger. We discuss possible concerns in detail on the safety in Central Asia page.
Health-wise, there are a few things you could worry about: diarrhea, smog, tick-borne encephalitis and rabies.
Generally speaking, food in the region is unhealthy and of little variety, based primarily on meat, fat, pasta and dairy products. Few tourists become fans of the tastes of Central Asia. Almaty and Astana are the exceptions, with a range of international cuisines offering escape from the tired local menu. We discuss your options as a picky eater.
Exchanging money, getting out money from an ATM or paying by card is easy in Kazakhstan. Buying a sim card and getting mobile internet is also not an issue at the moment, although you will need a VPN to access all of the internet. More details in our articles on money and banking and communications.
For orientation, Maps.me and 2GIS are often better than google maps.
Budget and accommodation
The Kazakh tenge experienced a sharp devaluation in 2015 due to low oil prices and sanctions on Russia. Together with the rise in tourist services like hostels and tours and the subsequent drop in prices, it made Kazakhstan a very affordable place to travel.
Count on 3$ for a basic meal, 3-10$ for a hostel bed and a double room in a decent hotel starting at 20$. For a train ticket in an open carriage, it’s around 15$ per 1000 km. We go in depth on the budget question at the Kazakhstan travel budget page.
Hostels have popped up in every part of Kazakhstan in recent years, and now every mid-sized city has at least 1 good hotel. Almaty and Astana have a lot of options for luxury and business travelers, and there’s also plenty of apartment rentals.
We dive deeper into yurtstays, homestays, winter issues, camping, couchsurfing, … in the accommodation chapter.
Find out more about Kazakhstan’s different regions.
- 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
- The Center: Remote steppe oddities of niche interest