People tend to look at a map of Kazakhstan and say: “Looks like there is nothing here in the middle, we can just pass through quickly.”
2 mistakes there. First off, there is something of interest. Secondly, you cannot pass through quickly. The distances are huge.
Come here for solitude, for offroad expeditions, for the eery and obscure. Come here to sense the atmosphere of the endless steppe, and to discover Kazakh culture.
Karaganda and around
Karaganda is the pulsating heart of this nowhere-land, a surprisingly pleasant and progressive city. Its dark history of repression, as well as its current large-scale industries, are good reasons to visit the city and its satellite town Temirtau.
Karkaralinsk national park and the Kent and Bugyly mountains are unspectacular, but very quiet, natural retreats from the harmful city smog, with some archaeological remains to boot.
Bayanaul national park serves as the regional beach. Although there should be good hiking as well, it is best avoided in summer – the crowds suck all the enjoyment out of the place.
Stretching what counts as “around”, 400 km south of Karaganda lies the industrial beach town of Balkhash. Lake Balkhash is known for its fishing and birding, both of which are best on the southern side. Bektau-Ata is an unusual camp spot on the road to Almaty, while at Priozersk you can visit ruins and missile museums from the Soviet Cold War defense program.
En route to Kyzylorda, you pass the Betpak-Dala desert, one of the few remaining places a herd of the embattled saiga still lives. If you head north instead, you can find mysterious “balbal” sculptures guarding the steppe around Ulytau.
Ulytau is known as the mythical heartland of Kazakhstan; this is where the nation was born. It is also known for having the best lamb in Kazakhstan. Though almost every region claims to have a spot like this, Ulytau is definitely the remotest of them all.
Undaunted overlanders might want to drive from Karaganda to Ayagoz. The road is absolutely horrible, which should serve as a good enough reason to do it.
Kyzylorda, Aralsk, Baikonur & Aqtobe
First stop is Kyzylorda. Unfairly dubbed Kazakhstan’s most unattractive city, Kyzylorda is a provincial town with enough amenities to serve as a staging post en route to Aralsk, Baikonur and Aktobe.
For those keen to explore the region’s smaller points of interest, there are mausoleums and ancient ruined cities galore in the wider Kyzylorda region. It’s Kazakhstan’s most proudly Kazakh region; a good place to get off the beaten track and learn more about the culture of these Turkic steppe nomads, often so difficult to find in the more Slavicized cities of Kazakhstan.
Next stop en route is Aralsk, the hub for visitors interested in seeing the Aral Sea on the Kazakh side. After that comes the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is still expensive and difficult to visit here, but if you are lucky, you can watch a rocket get launched into space, either while on a tour, or from outside of the closed city.
Aktobe is definitely an off-beat destination. It is 100 km off the main highway, and most overlanders consequently avoid it by turning south towards Atyrau at Kandyagash. The Aktobe region does have some, admittedly very niche points of interest, like a large meteor crater, steppe lakes, little mausoleums and a bunch of cretaceous mountains rising up from the plains. If you have a good 4WD or are up for renting one, these will prove interesting diversions on your way to Russia or Uralsk.
- 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, stark desert landscapes, and a cute Cossack town.