See the Kazakhstan Photo Gallery.
Brief History of Kazakhstan:
On December 16, 1991, Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union, which dissolved and forfeited their international holdings, which had included several other Central Asian countries. Since independence, President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who was the leader under the communists) has been granted lifetime leadership. He runs the country in a limbo between Soviet-style policies, monopolies, and free economy ideals. Rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan has maintained friendly relationships with all of its neighbors and the Western community as a whole. While the people are mainly Muslim, the country has banned militant sects of the religion and maintains a clam balance. The second largest religious group is Russian Orthodox, from pre-Soviet era influence, which lives in relative peace with their fellow Muslims.
Kazakh culture, due to its proximity to Russia, is infused with Russian as well as Central Asian flare. The cities are Russian, in flavor, while some of the towns retain their traditional flavor and habits.
Transportation in Kazakhstan:
Within Kazakhstan, you will find the train system an efficient and exciting way to travel and meet locals. A cab consists of any citizen with a car who happens to see someone with his or her hand in the air. You will be expected to pay for your transportation, but arrange the fare in advance and know the distance you’ll be traveling so they do not drive you around the block a few times and demand a fortune. Be assertive but friendly and you will find that local ‘cabs’ can be a fun alternative to buses (which are often late and unreliable) or trains (which have limited destinations and run on varying schedules). About 400T should get you anywhere in Almaty.
Food in Kazakhstan:
One of the best Central Asian foods is plov, a mix of sticky rice, apricots and lamb meat and a melody of spices. Definitely try the local cuisine. While some guides recommend against eating street food, we are in favor of trying anything we see the locals devouring. Plov is often cooked on the street in a giant cauldron over an open flame. While this may seem unsanitary, this is, in fact, the best flavoring method for the food. Other local treats include nomadic-style cuisine like horse meat and quick-growing vegetables like carrots, onions and potatoes. You will find some infusion from China in the form of langman, or simple noodles in boiled water with meat strips or local vegetables. We also really enjoyed the Turkish cuisine influence. Try the kebabs.
Interaction with residents: Medium.
In Kazakhstan, you will find that people are interested in talking with you and learning more about you. Express interest in them as well and you could be dragged back to someone’s home for tea, food and marriage proposals. If you have time in your travel schedule, allow a few days to wander around the more offbeat cities and towns spending time in the bazaars and city-centers people watching and interacting. Be aware that while key cities like Almaty and Astana have a diverse and educated population with multiple languages spoken, this is unlikely in the countryside and you’ll need a phrase book to make headway in conversation.
Suggestions for Traveling in Kazakhstan:
Do not carry around money on your person, or wear any jewelry or accessories that indicate your income level or status, this will only encourage anyone in uniform to approach you for money.
If you are traveling through to Uzbekistan, we recommend taking a fast train or renting a driver to take you across the border. Horror stories flood out of the bus station crossings and we can personally attest to the horrors of the slow train from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. The border with China is more organized and professional, and with much less corruption. The border with Russia is somewhere in between the other two in terms of safety and official annoyances.
Recommendation level: 4
This is the lowest rating of any country that we have been to so far. While we really enjoyed our interaction with most locals, and the cities were clean, beautiful and full of life, the corruption in Kazakhstan put a real damper on our experiences there. Meanwhile, the women in Almaty were hardly clothed, which was a bit awkward on all accounts. Young ladies in miniskirts that could be belts in other areas of the world, would pose in see-through shirts on national monuments.
Visas for Kazakhstan:
From any consulate, apply weeks before your intended date of departure. Visa fees vary by nationality so your best bet is to run a search for a Kazakh consulate in your area and then call them to find out what their hours of operation are and what they require. Many consulates are converting to online application forms; ask about this before you go to the consulate. You will need the standard picture, passport with 6 months remaining of validity, application form and money.
Our Route in Kazakhstan:
Below is an image of our actual route through Kazakhstan. Though we saw many things in our limited time in Kazakhstan, this gives a general idea of the areas we traveled.