I was recently fortunate enough to visit Kazakhstan. I say fortunate as we feel forever grateful for travel these days. We no longer take it for granted. I can see an influx of popularity in the less-popular destinations.
I think the pandemic will make people (when they feel safe to do so) start ticking off the Bucket List destinations. Places they have had on their list for a while. Well, I just want to say, Kazakhstan should be one of those. It was for me already. It’s been high on my list for a while. So, to get there this year, as a guest of the Nursultan Foundation, was a special moment.
You can read more about the Foundation and the reasons behind the trip in my previous article. For now, I want to focus on the reasons you should visit Kazakhstan. I have listed 10, it could easily be 100.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: The People
It is often said it’s the people that make a destination. I mean I say it every time I draft an article on Intrepid Escape! That’s because it’s true.
I’ve met a few people from Kazakhstan on my travels, I’ve always connected with them and found them very easy going and friendly. They are unassuming, and usually enormously proud of where they are from.
From the moment we landed in Turkestan, we felt the same. We were always greeted with a friendly smile by locals and guides. And even better, it wasn’t a big deal. No one was particularly bothered to see a group of tourists, we were very much left to it. That was nice.
Kazakhstan is so multicultural and inclusive. I’ll touch on religion more in a point later. But Russian and Kazakh people live together in harmony despite their past. And this culture is very much felt by visitors, and I loved it.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: It’s Undiscovered
Well, for a start it’s massive. The 9th biggest country in the world and the longest border in the world (the one with Russia). The biggest landlocked country in the world. You get the gist.
For a country with some untouched natural beauty, it is really undiscovered. By this I mean from the regular traveller’s point of view. Because it really has everything; canyons, mountains, lakes, vibrant cities, history and culture. Some of those points are featured later.
This is a country you visit if you do not want to travel the typical backpacker routes or well-trodden path. And you will get more from it. You can get away from other tourists in Kazakhstan and find somewhere to yourselves.
For us that was the Charyn Canyon. Sure, we saw a few other tourists, these were mostly locals. But it didn’t take long for our tour to take us to our own spot, with no one around for miles. And it was spectacularly stunning. Most people at home commented “how is this canyon not better known?”. That’s my point.
I’ll touch on this in my summary, because if you want to visit Kazakhstan, the time is now. It will not stay this way forever.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: The Lakes
If you’ve even begun to look into things to do in Kazakhstan as a destination you’ll have immediately come across one of the lakes. And the photo below shows you exactly why.
We went to Big Almaty Lake, as impressive as any I’ve been to. It’s 2511 metres above sea level and is used for hydro-electric power as well as a water source for Almaty. You can learn about it at the Ayusai Visitor Centre, which promotes and educates on sustainable tourism.
You can even stay here in glamping tents, right in the heart of the Ile-Alatau National Park.
Other options are Lake Kaindy or the Kolsai Lakes. Lake Kaindy fascinated me as it was only formed in 1911 following an earthquake. Consequently, trees poke out of the water creating one of the most unique lakes in Central Asia.
Lake Kaindy and the Kolsai Lakes can be found in the Tian Shan Mountains. Kolsai Lakes are often referred to as the “Pearls of Tien Shan”. There are two main Kolsai Lakes, and they are often done as an overnight trip combining Lake Kaindy in one trip.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: The Mountains
Another fantastic example of diversity. Any city surrounded by intimidating snow-capped peaks has something special about it. This is Almaty.
Wherever you turn in Almaty you’ll see mountains in the distance. I was blown away on the flight in, staring out the window like an excited child (I advise you to request a window seat for your flight into Almaty).
One of the best parts about this is the easy access Almaty has to the Shymbulak Ski Resort. Some of my favourite cities in the world have a ski resort on their doorstep, one day I will live in a city like this. Just 20-30 mins drive from the city centre and you can get to Shymbulak.
Shymbulak is a world-famous ski resort, known for its mild temperature and long snow season. They have over 20 lifts and a cable car. I had been told it’s a bucket list ski resort by some friends from Moscow who visit every year, so it’s on the list.
However, it’s also full of adventure in summer too. From hiking and buggy riding to horse riding. Just up the road they have the highest mountainous ice rink in the world, used by athletes from all round the world to train. My kind of place.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: Deserts & Canyons
What fascinates me most about Kazakhstan is how diverse the landscape is. I’ve just been talking about turquoise lakes, stunning mountains and even ski resorts. Now onto deserts and canyons.
The Altyn Emel National Park and its incredible Sand Dunes are just 120km from Almaty, and the Charyn Canyon National Park is a little over 2 hours.
Altyn Emel National Park has everything from sand dunes, colourful mountains, sandstone formations and the steppes (grassy plains). It’s probably best known for the Singing Dunes, but there are also some important archaeological sites here too.
Charyn Canyon on the other hand is Central Asia’s answer to the Grand Canyon. And it should be far better known. It’s part of the Charyn Canyon National Park and sits on the Sharyn River in the Uygur District. It can be done in a day trip from Almaty but be prepared for a long day as you’ll want to spend a lot of time exploring and taking photos.
These kinds of landscapes make Kazakhstan worth visiting alone, without any of my other 9 reasons. They are the sort of places that 10 years from now, will be much better known and far less of a secret.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: The Nature & Wildlife
I was astonished to find out just how much wildlife can be found in Kazakhstan. This is a real gem for anyone interested in birdlife, big cats, or safaris.
Firstly, the national animal of Kazakhstan is the Steppe Eagle, which can be seen on their flag. You can also commonly see Golden Eagles; you’ll certainly see some in captivity. Nonetheless some people consider the Snow Leopard the national symbol. These extremely rare and endangered cats are protected in Kazakhstan and have recently been spotted in the Katon-Karagai National Park.
These are not the only predators found in Kazakhstan; they also have Eurasian Brown Bear, Wolf, Lynx and Wildcats. Naturally, you are unlikely to encounter these animals on your trip unless you are specifically looking for them and travelling with a local wildlife expert.
Finally, the Altyn Emel National Park and Tien Shan mountains are well-known among birdwatchers. You’ll need to go with a specialist guide, but it’s common to see Himalayan Snowcock, Himalayan Rubythroat, Guldenstadt’s Redstart and possibly even nesting Ibisbill.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: Religion and Culture
To put it simply, Kazakhstan is one of the most multicultural places I’ve ever visited. It embraces cultures and values from around the world and is home to 126 ethnic groups.
The majority of people here are Muslim; however Kazakhstan is a secular country. It doesn’t particularly follow any strict practice when it comes to religion.
One potential reason for this is the bridge built between the local nomadic beliefs of the Central Asian countries and Islamic Faith. This was the work of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. We saw a Mausoleum built in tribute to the man himself, considered a holy man and a saint.
This bridge and the subsequent version of Islamic faith is practiced across all the nomadic nations of Central Asia. It is so refreshing to see, and it’s certainly helped in creating a peaceful and welcoming nation.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: History & Nomadic Culture
What an incredibly rich and often sad history Kazakhstan has. From the nomadic culture and the Old Silk Road to the former Soviet Union. I am not a historian, but sometimes I wish I was. If you are a history buff, you’ll need plenty of time to explore it.
The nomadic culture is something the people here are immensely proud of, and you can find examples of this all around. From tamed Golden Eagles (previously used for hunting), to the traditional Yurts (which you can sleep in with some homestays).
We visited one of many museums in Turkestan which celebrated and preserved the nomadic way of life. If was a fascinating look back in time to the how the land once was. That was solidified after visiting the Otrar Hill Fort; a Medieval settlement which served as a crossroads on the Silk Road.
I didn’t get to visit myself, but 25km south of Karaganda you’ll find an important memorial to World War II; the Spassk memorial. It was the site of the KarLag camp with a mass burial of some 5000 foreign prisoners. Certain a sobering place to visit with an eerie atmosphere.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: The Food
Depending on how you see it, this could be a reason to visit or a reason not to! Personally, I wasn’t a massive fan of the food here in Kazakhstan. But I wanted to include this section so you can decide for yourself, as some people in my group loved it.
Firstly, it is a very heavy diet with a lot of meat. As someone who doesn’t each much meat (some weeks I eat none at all), I struggled with this. It wouldn’t be the best place to go as a vegetarian, and certainly not a vegan.
In addition to that, horsemeat is a local delicacy. I find that hard to fathom, as a nation that claims to have domesticated horses 6,000 years ago. Out or respect for horses and their part serving humans throughout history, many nations don’t eat them. Here in Kazakhstan, out of respect for horses they do.
However, that’s a lot to do with the type of horse that’s bred here, and the nutritional value of the horse. I started to understand it better from this article in the Guardian, however that still wouldn’t make me eat horsemeat!
Despite all this there are a lot of options on most of the menus in Kazakhstan, and Almaty has several Western restaurants. Just make sure you have your Google translate photo tool, as not all the menus are in English.
Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan: It’s Safe & Affordable
Yes, two categories combined into one as I couldn’t decide which. Firstly, I felt as safe as I’ve ever felt travelling around Kazakhstan, and it’s rated among the safest countries in the world. I really want to emphasise this, as many people I spoke to about Kazakhstan just didn’t know, which often leads people to assume its unsafe.
Finally, although I didn’t spend a long time in Kazakhstan from what I did see the country is very affordable. Almaty for example is a vibrant city with good transport, bars, and restaurants. And its relatively cheap place to live (it also has a ski resort on its doorstep, just saying).
In terms of how affordable, a beer typically cost around £1, you can eat out in a nice restaurant for less than a tenner and supermarket prices are pretty good. Obviously, these prices are approximate, and I am generalising a little, but for sure this is far cheaper than most European Cities.
Watch this space when it comes to guides for Almaty, as it is top of my list to go back and write more about. Please drop me a comment if this is something you would like to see.
So, in summary now really is the time to visit Kazakhstan, I truly believe it will become a very well-travelled country in the next 5-10 years. If you’re planning to travel somewhere new next year and want something a bit different. I cannot recommend Kazakhstan enough.
This article was supported by the Nursultan Foundation but as always, the opinions and photos in the article are all my own, and as you can see I loved every minute of my trip to Kazakhstan!