Kazakhstan now has suitable accommodation options for any type of budget in Almaty, Astana, Shymkent and Karaganda, and with the devaluation of the tenge in 2015, all accommodation is now very good value for money. An exception is the first week of October, when the large Oil and Gas exhibition descends onto Almaty, and prices skyrocket.
In smaller cities, options are more limited. Most of the time, your choice will come down to 2 or 3 competing, overpriced Soviet-era hotels. They are usually renovated nowadays, but still offer quite a bad service for the price they charge.
Couchsurfing hosts are eager to meet you and even in small places there is now a young person with a profile and a smattering of English. You should have no problem finding a couch. Only in Almaty at the height of summer, couches are busy.
Wild camping is allowed anywhere in Kazakhstan. There are plenty of scenic spots in the mountains, and a night in the desert under a new moon is also recommended for amazing views of the stars and oft-spectacular sunsets and sunrises.
There are some dangers though. Away from the main trails in the Dzhungar Alatau and especially in the Altai, bears roam. Around 30 000 wolves live in Kazakhstan as well. Everywhere in the mountains, ticks are perhaps the smallest, and yet the largest danger: they can carry Lyme’s disease and especially the deadly tick-borne encephalitis (get the vaccine in advance).
Other scary animals live in the desert: copperhead snake, tarantula and black widow. Scorpions also live in these dry landscapes, especially around Shymkent. If you are camping near water, make sure to take something against mosquitoes, especially in Northern Kazakhstan.
We hope none of this stops you from camping! We have never heard of a foreigner maimed by bears or killed by a tarantula. But know that they are out there.
One final word of warning: we have had 2 separate reports of hikers who left their tent and gear in a national park, and got robbed while they were out walking. So pack up before you go, or have your tent supervised to be safe.
Camping gear like gas bottles, tents, etc. is sold and rented out in every major city (see here for camping stove fuel reports in Almaty). Dedicated outdoor shops don’t exist outside of big cities, but bazaars tend to have a few stalls catering to the fishing and hunting crowd.
Trains & buses
Moving up slightly in budget, overnight trains are an excellent way to save money and get a good night’s sleep. We have all the details on our Kazakh train page. Buses in Kazakhstan, on the other hand, are a terrible way to spend the night. Seats stay upright, buses are old and roads are often still bumpy. There is one sleeper bus going between Almaty and Urumqi, but the beds are made to measure for Chinese travelers. Oversized Westerners will need to squeeze in.
Yurts, homestays and ecotourism
Although Kazakhs are always talking about their nomadic heritage, it is difficult to experience real nomadic life in Kazakhstan. Most Kazakhs have never slept in a yurt themselves. There are a few people who still set up camp in a yurt during summer, herding camels in the Kyzylkum desert, and some shepherds in the Altai mountains of Kazakhstan use yurts as well.
If you make it this far, expect a warm welcome (Irina and Indira can set you up).
Kazakh traditions are upheld more by Kazakhs who fled collectivisation and Stalinist purges in the 1930’s, and are now living outside of the country, in Western Mongolia. That is perhaps a better place to experience the old ways of nomads. Kyrgyzstan is another good option.
You will still see yurts on your trip in Kazakhstan, but understand they are holiday rentals, pop-up restaurants or shops for local produce, rather than homes for nomadic families.
Oft bandied around with little regard for its meaning, ecotourism is a word I try to avoid whenever possible. There is a point in using it here, though, as Kazakhstan has some wonderful homestays in out-of-the-way places where you can get in touch with the life of villagers. What that means and where to find them you can read at ecotourism in Kazakhstan.
Airbnb and apartment rental
Airbnb, Homeaway, VRBO and Flipkey all have spaces for rent in Kazakhstan. Apartments also get rented out on other hotel booking sites like booking.com. These apartments are generally owned by real estate moguls and you are unlikely to share a space with others or even see the owner. A decent alternative to more traditional accommodation options.
When I first came to Kazakhstan in 2010, there were no hostels and the best you could do was to hunt down a room in a student dorm. In the meantime, things have changed dramatically and all large cities now have at least 1 modern backpacker haunt. Almaty has more than 20 now! These hostels are often located in refurbished apartments in the center of town and run by young people themselves – like elsewhere hostels in Kazakhstan are a good place to meet other young, budget-conscious travelers.
I haven’t seen a ‘poshtel’ yet.
Unlike in neighbouring Uzbekistan, prices are non-negotiable and your bargaining attempts will be met with a contemptuous glare. We haven’t stayed in any of the hotels that excite by their luxury or history, so we hope you can chop yourself a path through the jungle of online reviews.
Outside of the really good hotels, breakfast tends to disappoint. Don’t get your hopes up, and prepare a back-up. Hot water is a typical summer problem in the FSU that is often outside of the control of hotels. When the utility company decides to switch it off, they are left standing. Ask politely if there will be hot water.
Thankfully, there are no problems with electricity black-outs in Kazakhstan like in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. Heating, likewise, is also not an issue in winter; it will rather be too hot than too cold. In summer, air-conditioning is not an excessive luxury in many places.
You might find shabbier hotels in a less interesting part of town that also advertise sauna. This is coded language for brothel, and renting a room comes with service included.