The world is a big, sloppy, messy place. It’s so tempting to think that just by being generally familiar with the history and culture of a large region, that you know it.
Or that you’ll know what it will be like to see it in person. But that’s not actually the way the world works, is it? When planning my first trip to Central Asia, I thought I knew what it would be like.
Of course, I was so, so wrong. The world is so much more beautiful and complicated than my brain can process.
And that’s part of why, three weeks after leaving Central Asia to spend some much-needed downtime in my beloved Sofia, I can’t get the images of Kazakhstan out of my head.
And I’m shocked at how much of a Kazakhstan evangelist I have become in a relatively short amount of time.
But I really can say that, even though Kazakhstan was the 67th country I’ve visited overall and my 18th country this year, I want to shout from the rafters: hey, you, find a way to travel Kazakhstan right now! Because it really is that special of a place.
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Reasons You Should Visit Kazakhstan
Here are just some of the reasons that you should be traveling to Kazakhstan as soon as you can:
Big Almaty Lake Might Be the Most Beautiful Lake in the World…And It’s Blissfully Free of Tourists
On a Monday afternoon in September, my friend and I found the lake practically empty compared to how stunning the place is. Sure, there were a few dozen local tourists walking around, and we met a lovely family from Siberia taking pictures. However, compared to how crowded this place would get if it was in Europe or North America, you’re practically alone. Imagine sitting with this view, completely unobstructed, while you breathe in the fresh mountain air (and snap a few pics sans annoying tourists ruining your shot). It might be as close to heaven on Earth as it’s possible to get.
The Country’s Landscapes are as Stunning as they are Diverse
Charyn Canyon looks like the Grand Canyon. Lake Issyk is a mountain lake paradise. The Tamgaly Gorge has inspired human creativity for thousands of years. Whatever kind of outdoor adventure or Eden you’re craving, Kazakhstan offers up a taste.
From Almaty, You Can See the Mountains, but They’re Much Better Up Close
Get out of Almaty and head southeast to see the beauty of the mountains in person. Whether you take a tour, a taxi, or hitchhike out to Big Almaty Lake, give yourself some extra time to enjoy the mountains in their own right. Covered in evergreens, they simply pop up close.
But It’s Not All Mountains, The Kazakh Steppe is Gorgeous in Its Own Right
As a fan of the podcast Hardcore History, I have had visions of the steppes of Central Asia stuck in my head for years. However, what I imagined was always just grasses blowing in the wind over a monotonous and never-changing landscape. Seeing the steppe in person, I realized I had been way off the mark. The steppe often gets compared to the ocean (or think of the Dothraki’s “great grass sea” in Game of Thrones). In my mind, that meant a huge, flat expanse. Except the metaphor is more apt to the part of the ocean undulating with waves and dancing water. The steppe looks like frozen waves of earth. It’s beautiful and completely unlike anything I’d seen before.
And Kazakhstan has Thousands of Rivers to Explore
Kazakhstan is bursting with rivers – about seven thousand! So while the country may be landlocked, between its sumptuous rivers, fresh mountain streams, azure lakes, and the majestic Caspian Sea, water lovers will never trouble at finding a place to play.
And a Simple Sunset Can Turn Any These Up to Eleven
Yes, Kazakhstan is gorgeous during the day. But it’s even better at sunset. (Or sunrise, but who wants to be up that early?)
It’s Not All Nature…Almaty is a City for City Lovers
For those who love to travel to experience what different cities around the world are like while enjoying the comfort and luxury that a cosmopolitan city has to offer, Almaty has you covered.
Almaty Architecture is a Mix of Modern Buildings with Older, Grander Ones
Architecture lovers will find a ton to love about Almaty architecture. Walking through the city, I stumbled across gorgeous buildings from Almaty’s Russian past. Ascension Cathedral, the fourth largest wooden building in the world, steals the show, although unfortunately, it was under renovations while I was there. However, I found that simply walking the streets and seeing the mix of styles and cultures was thrilling.
Visitors will be Surprised by the Trendy Almaty Nightlife
I was shocked at how many cool bars we managed to see in a week in Almaty, and I know there are tons I missed. Almaty nightlife is complete with hip bars and tons of places to party. Brits congregate at The Shakespeare Pub for a pint and a curry, Kraftwerk has an underground post-Communist vibe, and Bar Publika wins for the best (if a bit pricey) cider I had in Almaty.
Of Course, What Would Nightlife in Almaty Be without some Central Asian Swag?
While in Kazakhstan, you simply must experience the over-the-top ostentatious displays of opulence in Central Asia, lovingly referred to as Central Asian Swag. After the collapse of the USSR, the combination of new wealth, new freedom, and access to western goods for the first time caused a boom on this version of decor. Think Central Asia’s answer to Las Vegas. When done well, it makes a room sparkle. When done with less precision, it makes for a fun juxtaposition of styles that can seem odd to outsiders.
While Digital Nomads will Appreciate the ease of Working at an Almaty Cafe
While too many bars skimped on wifi, Almaty’s cafe scene made getting work done simple. Or at least I had access to solid wifi when I made myself focus. I worked out of four different coffee shops, each with great wifi, good coffee (at least by my non-coffee person standards), and relaxed atmosphere. I could also generally find a place to plug in my laptop, which is always clutch when working from a cafe.
This One Might Be Just for Me…But Almaty’s Mexican Food Scene is Solid
Having grown up in the American Southwest, there’s nothing I get more homesick about than being on the road without access to good tacos and guacamole. For weary, burrito-starved travelers, I can attest that, after trying the Tex-Mex at four different restaurants in Almaty, that the Mexican food scene here is solid. You can get good salsa, decent guacamole, tasty burrito bowls, and even some excellent fish tacos, as long as you know where to look. BurritoGo has two locations, one a Chipotle-style burrito joint and the other a sit-down cafe. While both are tasty, I preferred the cafe on Abay Ave. Confusingly the sign out front says Familia, but Google will have this as BurritoGo since they own both.
Kazakhstan’s History is Long…But Still Misunderstood by Outsiders
The originator of domesticated horses. The birthplace of the first wild apples. Home of the Scythians, one of the great enemies of ancient Rome and thought to be the model for the Amazon myths in classical Greece. The ancient people’s of Kazakhstan played an enormous and influential role in antiquity, but much of this history has been obscured by outsiders who took over Kazakhstan beginning with the Mongol invasions in the 1200s AD.
Nomadic Life in Kazakhstan is Not Just Part of Its History
While the ancient Scythians are not around anymore, many of their descendants and other Kazakhs still live a nomadic lifestyle in Central Asia. Along with Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan helps to throw the semi-annual World Nomad Games to celebrate nomadic life around the world.
Listen: The World Nomad Games
In Kazakhstan, You’ll See Traditions like Eagle Hunting and Falconry are Alive and Well
Eagle hunting is a strong tradition in this part of the world. Like all forms of animal tourism, seeing birds tied up for photo opportunities feels a bit sketchy, but it’s important to keep your perspective that this is part of the Kazakh way of life. If you’re interested in seeing eagle hunting and getting more than a photograph, you can still see this tradition alive in Central Asia if you seek it out.
Kazakhstan has Many Dark Chapters in Its History…And Its Still Not Grappling with Them Well
The Great Kazakh Famine was the USSR’s answer to getting rid of the nomadic Kazakhs that they found troublesome. By forcing them to collectivize and shipping out the food they produced, the Soviets in Moscow starved over 1.5 million native Kazakhs, who became a minority within their own country. While this memorial to the victims of the famine was recently erected in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia means that it has far downplayed the pain and legacy of the famine compared to Ukraine, whose famine has been memorialized to a much greater extent.
For Travelers Looking for Soviet Architecture, Look no Further than Hotel Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has many examples of Soviet architecture on display, but none are quite as distinct as the Hotel Kazakhstan, which towers above Almaty as the city’s third tallest building. Built in the 1970’s, it combines the boldness of concrete with intricate shapes and details that make it far more interesting than just a concrete slab.
Kazakhstan has a Long History of Religious Tolerance
During the Soviet Union, religion was illegal and the country was officially atheist. However, prior to the USSR, Kazakhs were considered a tolerant people who didn’t enforce a state religion. Today the majority of ethnic Kazakhs are Muslim, while Russian Kazakhs are mostly Russian Orthodox. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan instituted legally protected freedom or religion. While traveling the country, you’ll find people worshiping from different faiths as well as seeing the culture and architecture of Islam and Orthodoxy on display.
By Now, I know You Want to Visit Kazakhstan, And the Locals are Dying to Explore With You
It’s easy to travel Kazakhstan without running into too many foreigners. However, community-based based tours have helped Kazakhs explore their own history and nature faster than ever before. This means that you’ll get to meet locals, even on an organized day trip, where you’ll find that most of the other people on your trip are Kazakhs with a few foreigners sprinkled in.
While Instagram May Be a Dumpster Fire for Most, It’s Helping Kazakhstan Tourism Develop
For example, Nomad’s Land is an abandoned movie set that’s being preserved for both future movie projects and local tourism. This Instagrammer’s Paradise has encouraged more Kazakhs to travel here, as well as to see the rest of what the Tamgaly Gorge has to offer. While Instagram may be to blame for ruining this sunflower field in Canada, in Kazakhstan it’s doing some real good for tourism development.
Tourism isn’t As Developed as Other Central Asian Countries, So Every Trip Ends Up Being Unique
Locals on your day tours, locals in your hostel, and locals picnicking at the major tourist sites. There simply aren’t enough foreign tourists, so the local tourism infrastructure relies on Kazakhs to help pay the bills. This is a great way to meet people, but it also means that things tend to be a little less outsider friendly. Russian-only tours, extremely loose timetables, and strange quirks when trying to book or pay can make an ordinary day trip feel like an outright adventure. Take our trip to Tamgaly, where the man operating the riverboat chained smoked and occasionally refused to pick people up. Or my friend Megan’s trip to the Singing Dunes, where her bus broke down and she had to hitchhike. Being openminded and flexible with a sense of adventure goes a long way in Kazakhstan, but you get rewarded with epic (completely unplanned) sunset views, the chance to make new friends, and a good story to tell when you get home.
The People May Be Excited to See You, but the Animals are Ambivalent
Not everything about travel in Kazakhstan is sunshine and roses. I was disappointed to learn that not every cat and dog I met wanted cuddles. This one certainly didn’t.
Like Many Parts of the World, There’s a Chance You’ll Run into a Scam or Someone Demanding Bribes
Whether it’s a border guard asking for bribes at Big Almaty Lake or a policeman shaking down a foreigner on the road, there’s the potential for bribes and scams during your Kazakhstan visit. I don’t let things like that deter me from traveling somewhere, and I ran into no problems while I was there. However, the downside of traveling off the beaten path is that the rules get a little loose. Keep your wits about you, use a taxi app instead of negotiating, keep your passport on you while at Big Almaty Lake, and use common sense. Oh, and always follow posted signs.
But You Just Might Have Such a Good Time You Walk Around with a Goofball Grin Permanently attached to Your Face
Yes, my eyes are shut from staring into the bright midday sun in this picture. But it’s hard to be in Kazakhstan and not feel happy. Even when things go horribly awry (like getting a nasty flu, having a sprained ankle that wasn’t healing, and fighting with my hostel about my room), I couldn’t help but appreciate how easy and enjoyable it was to be in Almaty and how beautiful the country was when we got outside of the city. Even when things were hard, they were easy. And it made it so easy to love the country and to just be happy to be there. Kazakhstan is a special place where the people are welcoming, the city is a great place to enjoy, and the countryside is bursting with places to explore.
Kazakhstan Will Make You Want to Come Back
The country is so large, that you know you didn’t see everything. Or even close to it. Yet it’s got so few tourists that you know that you’re valuable and the country wants you to return. Even when I left, I knew I’d already be back. In fact, I’m planning a return trip for next summer. I’ve been many places where I didn’t feel this need to return but leaving Kazakhstan felt different. As happy as I was to be home in my own bed, I know that I have unfinished business in this beautiful country.
5 Things to Pack when Traveling to Kazakhstan
- Lonely Planet Central Asia which is available as a paper copy or in a Kindle edition.
- Your Passport since you might be required to show it to a guard at some of the activities in border zones. While you might be tempted to leave it behind in your hotel room, you’ll want to have it handy in your day bag when headed to places like Big Almaty Lake.
- Your Cell Phone and Camera to get that Insta Pics you know you’re dying to come back with.
- Trekking Poles for anyone planning to do the hikes while in Kazakhstan, especially if you have knee issues.
- Travel Insurance Policy information, because things happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any hiking or trekking while in Kazakhstan.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any adventure sports like horseback trekking, hiking, or traveling off-road. Even in Almaty, you’ll be happy when you’re able to replace your stuff if it’s lost or stolen.
Kazakhstan Travel Resources
Are you conducting research for a trip to Kazakhstan? You might also like:
- 10 Mind-blowing Facts about Kazakhstan to Inspire Your Next Adventure
- 10 Exhilarating Day Trips from Almaty, Kazakhstan
- Big Almaty Lake: 15 Pictures of Kazakhstan’s Stunning Turquoise Jewel
- How to Get to Big Almaty Lake by Taxi
- Tamgaly Tas: How to Visit Kazakhstan’s Enchanting Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary
- Visiting Nomad’s Land: The Abandoned Movie Set in the Kazakhstan Steppe