For general tips on driving the Silk Road, see the driving overview page. Here we discuss specifics for driving in Kazakhstan: road rules, the state of the roads, where to find parts, repair shops, and how to deal with transporting, customs and selling a car.
Car and motorbike rental
Car rental from Kyrgyzstan is a valid option depending on your route, and perhaps the cheapest one depending on the type of car you would like.
Beyond that, Economy Bookings has a small selection of rental car companies in Kazakhstan, for now only the major players, with pick-up points in Almaty, Nur-Sultan, Aktobe, Shymkent, Aktau, Pavlodar, Semey and Oskemen.
You can start your search in the form below. Keep in mind, especially when going with a small local company, that not all companies are happy to let you go off-road into the steppe, so make sure you know where you are allowed to take your vehicle, and where not, before you set off.
Kazakhstan has embarked on an ambitious road building project, and everywhere in the country, roads are under construction. This means that at the moment, roads in Kazakhstan range from the terrible to the terrific, depending on whether they are finished, not yet started, or in progress. Our estimate is that by
2020 2022, all the main intercity roads in Kazakhstan will be of decent quality.
Of course, smaller roads to villages or in the suburbs of cities still have potholes big enough to make your vehicle disappear completely.
- From Atyrau
- Atyrau – Astrakhan: Contradictory info. In 2018, we heard the road is almost finished, only a few kilometers of bad road left. In 2019, we read: really really shitty, with lots of potholes.
- Atyrau – Uralsk: new tarmac (2015)
- Atyrau – Aqtau: new tarmac (2015) 110km/h possible.
To drive from Atyrau to Aralsk you have 2 options. You can take the long road via Aqtobe and Karabutak on the E38 – it’s good tarmac. Or you can turn south before Aqtobe at Kandyagash: this is real adventure. In any case, the first stretch, from Makat to Kandyagash, is in a bad state and already an adventure in itself.
- Atyrau – Aqtobe
- Dossor – Makat : the road is ok. Makat – Bayganin : the road is destroyed, 30 km/h average. Lot of potholes. Sometimes it’s better to take the track on the side but it’s sandy. A little bit better at the end (near Bayganin). Bayganin – Aktobe : the road is better but really bumpy, 60 km/h average.
- Updates on A-26 and A-27 roads collected here.
- From Aqtobe
- Aqtobe – Kostanay: 80 kms of bad road, rest is good.
- Aqtobe – Uralsk – Samara: new tarmac in 2015, but already potholed in 2018. Generally reasonable.
- Aqtobe – Aralsk via E38: Excellent quality tarmac. From Karabutak to Aralsk there are now at least 3 petrol stations operating between those towns. One after 112km, one near Irghiz (around 190km after Karabutak), and one at 380km.
- Aqtau to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
- For the latest on the Aqtau – Beyneu – Nukus road, see Crossing the Ustyurt Plateau.
- Aqtau – Turkmen border: A desert track. Probably best left alone without a 4WD.
- Saratov to Uralsk
- Saratov – border: road is in mediocre state, lot of patches and a bit bumpy. Average speed ~ 70 km/h
- Border – Uralsk: good new asphalt.
North & Center
- Astana – Pavlodar: brand-new tarmac.
- Astana – Petropavlovsk: Great until Burabay. Beyond?
- Astana – Karaganda: Decent. 80 km/h possible.
- Astana – Kostanay: Good road, 110 possible, with 20 km of enormous potholes around Esil. Your GPS may advise the northern route through Kokshetau, but locals advise it is better to go south through Auliekol, Esil, etc.
- Karaganda – Kyzylorda: In the plan for an upgrade. At the moment still a desert track we think.
- Pavlodar – Karaganda: under construction (2016). 5 hr
- Pavlodar – Semey: perfect
- Karaganda – Shu: Road is relatively smooth, but lots of speed restrictions, solid white lines and police. Average speed 70 km/h
- Karaganda – Almaty: See Karaganda – Shu road. After the turn-off to Almaty, first hour bumpy (70 km/h max), then new tarmac until Almaty. 40 km before Almaty center: more villages, traffic jams, slower.
- Shymkent – Tashkent: New road (2015).
- Shymkent – Taraz – Shu – Almaty: New road (2014).
- Shymkent – Turkestan – Kyzylorda – Aralsk – Aqtobe: New road (2014). Excellent quality tarmac.
- Shymkent – Yamala (border UZ): Tarmac in bad condition. Road construction ongoing (2016). Average of 40-50 kmh due to detours.
- From Almaty
- Almaty – Bishkek: good road. Getting out of Almaty takes an hour. In general, 4 hour to the border.
- Almaty – Kegen: Good road, except for the last bit near the border. New tarmac now also towards Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes. First 70 km out of Almaty features crazy drivers (lots of Caucasians in the area) and lots of police. Road to Talgar gridlocked during rush hour, in the evening going towards Talgar, in the morning going towards Almaty.
- Almaty – Ust Kamenogorsk: Until Taldykorgan, the road is brandnew (2,5h). Taldyk to Tekeli is new tarmac. Taldykorgan to Usharal takes 5hr for 300km; parts are seriously potholed. Usharal to Alakol and Chinese border is new tarmac, 110 km/hr possible. Usharal to Ust Kamenogorsk is 10 hr for 540 km. The first part is bombed out, it gets better near the end.
- Saryozek – Altyn Emel – Khorgos – Urumqi: Decent.
- Ust-Kamenogorsk – Ridder: new tarmac (2016) – 2hr
- Ust-Kamenogorsk – northern side of Zaysan lake – Lake Markakol/Zaysan/Chinese border (Maykapchagai): new tarmac (2016) – 7hr with ferry to Markakol or Maykapchagai. Good road all the way except bit between Terekty and Urunkhayka: no asphalt.
- Ust-Kamenogorsk – southern side of Zaysan – Maykapchagai: first bit not good, then wavy but without potholes, then perfect tarmac. Better to take northern side, more scenic and can also take in Ak Baur, Kiin Kerish and Zhanytas.
- Ust-Kamenogorsk – Rakhmanov Springs: new tarmac (2016) until Katon Karagai. Then asphalt ends (50km/h possible). Last 30 km to Rakhmanov Springs are awful, only good jeeps can navigate it. From October onwards, Rachmanov only reachable by helicopter.
- Urunkhayka – Uryl (Austrian Road): the bridge has been restored!
Kazakhstan now also has a first toll road, starting about 20 km north of Almaty, ending at Taldykorgan. Expect to pay around 1000 tenge.
A few specifics concerning driving in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has Singapore-style fines. 10 km too fast = 20 000 tenge fine. Crossing a solid white line = losing your driver’s license for a year. Police does not have Singapore-style morals, though, and they earn well on bribes. Another issue that makes it easier to pay a bribe is that fines need to be paid in regional offices, during office hours. This means that if you get stopped in some shithole on a Saturday, it’s easier and cheaper to pay a bribe rather than wait 2 days until you can pay the fine.
You always need to have your lights on while driving in Kazakhstan.
Don’t break any rule. Drive as careful as you can to avoid trouble. Police are the worst in Central Asia. They are everywhere and they are well-equipped. When stopped, see our main driving page for dealing with them.
Going in and out of big cities, there are checkpoints where you have to slow down to a crawl. Your license plate is registered by cameras, but if you go slow enough, you are rarely stopped.
Not stopping for pedestrians at crossings (particularly in Almaty) or driving a dirty car (particularly in Astana) is an offense.
Kazakhstan has a zero-tolerance policy towards drinking and driving. 0,00 pro mille.
Kazakhstan’s speed limits: 110 on motorway, 90 on some bigger roads, 60 inside the village or city.
The city/village limits are announced by a white sign with the name of the place. Going out, it’s the same white sign with a red diagonal line across. Speed cameras are positioned behind the sign, so make sure you are already going less than 60 km/h before you hit the sign to avoid the speed trap.
In winter, driving around in the steppe can be very dangerous. Every year people freeze to death after their car got stuck due to a mechanical failure or a sudden snowstorm. At -40° this happens very fast.
This being said, Kazakhstan is very beautiful in winter, and there is little that warms the soul as much as when, during a quick stop for a wee, squinting your eyes against the bright winter sun to spot an eagle soaring overhead (his faint cry filling the silence) you are suddenly surprised by a scared bunny rushing to safety, kicking up snow over the endless plain.
Insurance and border payments
You don’t have to pay anything at the border when coming into Kazakhstan. You are, however, obligated to get a 3rd party insurance once you are in the country. Nomad and Centras are the biggest insurance companies with branches in every major city. They are also present right after the border at bigger crossings.
13 000 tenge for 30 days or 10 000 tenge for 15 days are reported prices in 2018-2019 – more reports welcome in the Kazakhstan insurance forum thread.
At the border, you only need to show your car registration, and fill out a temporary import form. Then you’re off into the wild plains!
Fuel and fuel price
It pays to shop around, as there can be considerable price differences from station to station. Prices also differ from city to city, with South and West Kazakhstan being the cheapest, and East and North the most expensive. KazMunaiGas and Helios are the most celebrated petrol sellers with European-style operations.
See the forum for a good debate on the quality of diesel in Kazakhstan.
Parts and repair shops
For car parts and car repair, see the following:
- Almaty: Car City (map) is a gold mine for spare parts. Astana Motors deals in Toyota.
- Atyrau: There is a Toyota garage on the road to the airport that can do repairs.
- Shymkent: Avtonur scrap bazaar (Gmaps) and Avtorazbor 3/4 bazaar (Gmaps)
Motoboard and Stoppy Stars in Almaty are the 2 places you can find motorbike tyres. Russia is easier and more reliable, though. If you’re looking for someone to repair your motorcycle, Almaty is once again the place to be.
“Agent Orange” in Almaty are the KTM dealers for the country. There are also dealers in Aktau and Shymkent, but the Almaty one is probably more useful, it’s a good size and they speak English. But if you want tyres you might be advised to let them know in advance.
The BMW dealer in Almaty is useless, only knows about cars. There is also an independent shop here, freerider.kz. Updates are collected at the motorcycle maintenance Q&A.
Self-driving the Silk Road
More on Kazakhstan
- The basics