To get to know the amazing traditions, the breathtaking nature, the skilful interweaving of the ancient and the modern, you don’t have to travel around the world: just come to Kazakhstan. Here they know how to welcome guests and you will feel the warmth of the country that lies at the heart of Eurasia. We have put together some useful information for your Travel to Kazakhstan.
Why visit: For the magnificent and unique nature, sports (including extreme sports), hunting, fishing, cultural life of Almaty and, of course, people. If your time in the country is limited, it pays to choose the region you want to visit first – the distance between cities and sights can be hundreds or thousands of kilometres, so plan your route well in advance. The most famous and popular places worth visiting are the Charyn Canyon, Lake Kaindy, the Borovoye (Burabay) spa area, the Turkestan excavations, the Ili River, the Singing Dunes, the Balkhash Reserve, the Karag Museum, the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the mausoleum of Khodja Ahmad Yassavi, Great Almaty Lake (BAO), Medeo high-mountain skating rink, Chimbulak (“Shymbulak”) ski resort, Turgen waterfalls, Chunya hot springs, Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains, Bayanaul National Park, Mangystau – there are many things to choose from depending on your interests.
When to travel: The best time to visit Kazakhstan is from March to November. You should bear in mind that in summer it can be very hot in the southern regions (up to +40°C), and in the northern regions the cold weather can last until May, starting as early as September-October. The rest of the time there is nothing to do in Kazakhstan – it is cold, windy and dirty, so you cannot visit any natural sights. The average temperature in winter is about -10 … -15 C in the south and up to -40 C in the north. It is a completely different matter if you are interested in winter sports – for skating, skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and also heliskiing and other amusements there are all the conditions in Kazakhstan, especially if you go to Almaty. In this case, you should plan a trip for the period from November to February, but just in case, it is better to check the forecast for snow, as the weather here is often unpredictable and even inconsistent.
Visa: Citizens of some countries are allowed to stay in Kazakhstan visa-free for up to 90 days (see here ⇒ Visa regulations Kazakhstan). The maximum duration of your stay in the country without registration is five calendar days; if you want to stay longer, you need to go to the local registration office (the procedure is simple). The main thing – don’t forget to fill in an immigration card when you enter the country, and keep all the receipts for your trip (train tickets, plane tickets) – just in case, so there are no unnecessary questions later.
How to plan your itinerary: choose the region you are interested in and then the city you will arrive in (in case of air travel, Almaty, Astana and Aktau are the most convenient). Almaty has the richest cultural life and most developed infrastructure; Astana hosts official events and exhibitions (such as Expo 2017); Aktau offers the flavour and special features of the western Caspian Sea region. Natural attractions and simply wonderful places are scattered all over Kazakhstan, so you need to choose the most interesting ones and plan your itinerary in advance. If you are travelling to Kazakhstan for the first time, it is worth visiting the city of Almaty and the Almaty region.
What you need to consider before travelling: Try to pack your luggage very carefully, as the local airlines’ chargers are not always neat. It is better not to pack fragile items and expensive equipment in your luggage and to wrap the bag itself with tape at the airport (or even at home) to protect it from damage and contamination during transport.
Transport to the train station/airport: At the airport it is better to arrive in advance – check-in for the flight starts two hours before departure and ends 40 minutes before departure. The journey will also take some time as the airports in Kazakhstan are usually located outside the city. The fare may vary: If you order a taxi from Almaty to the airport (same for the opposite direction), the cost starts at US $5; a hitchhiker can catch a taxi for US $2-3. Please note that all taxi drivers who meet passengers at the exit of the station always quote inflated prices, so it is better to order a taxi on your own or take a hitchhiker behind the station. There is also public transport to Almaty airport and train stations. Buses and trolleybuses usually leave before 21:00 – 22:00 and the fare is about 50 cents. There are two night routes to the airport, but they rarely run, so it is better to take a taxi – most popular flights leave at night. To use public transport (except metro) you should buy an Onai travel card (about $1.5), the account includes one trip, further you have to deposit money in terminals. The card is sold at stalls at bus stops, in the buses and trolleybuses themselves and from conductors. For the rest of Kazakhstan, almost the same recommendations apply – only the prices and distances change (except for Astana – to a lesser extent). The Onai cards are so far only valid in Almaty and Astana, while in the other cities the fare is paid via validators or “on the spot” at the conductor.
Transport in Almaty: As we have already mentioned, to move around the city by public transport you need to buy a special Onai card. It is valid everywhere except in the metro – there you use your own cards (tokens are also used). One ride costs 80 tenge, it works until you go out. However, the metro has only one line (nine stations), so this method is only suitable for getting around the city centre. For everything else, it’s best to use buses, taxis or hitchhike. A taxi ride around the city costs from $1.5 – there are many services with varying levels of service. You can use 2GIS to plan your route and hail a taxi via the InDriver and Touchka apps in addition to official taxis (you can set your own price there). One important point: hitchhikers can only be picked up in Almaty (i.e. you get out at the kerb and hold out your hand), this is not common in all other cities in Kazakhstan. A hitchhike around the city costs on average between 80 cents to 1.5 dollars. It is convenient (and even faster during rush hours) to get around the city on foot or by bicycle. There are public bike rental stations (but only a few), and you can also rent a bike at almost any sports shop or specialised place – there are many of them. The cost starts at $1.5 per hour.
Language: Officially, there are two languages in Kazakhstan – Kazakh (national language) and Russian (language of international communication). In practice, you can speak Russian in any big city. As a rule, people are open to conversation and happy to help foreigners find their way around or show them something. Few people speak English, but many understand it (especially young people).
Currency and its characteristics: The national currency of Kazakhstan is tenge. Payment for goods and services in the country is only made in the local currency. You can change EURO or USD at any exchange office – there are hundreds of them in every major city. As always, it is better not to change at the train station or airport, but in town. In addition, you can always withdraw the amount you need in Tenge from an ATM. In big cities, most goods and services can be paid for without cash, but cash is more reliable ⇒ currency exchange rate.
Accommodation: Hotels in Kazakhstan are quite expensive, especially considering the level of service in the hotels. The cost of a room in the big cities can range from $100 to $150. Of course, there are also cheap hotels, but they do not have online booking – and the rooms there are often not rented out for overnight stays. Adequate options are two – rent a bed in a hostel or rent a flat. Hostels have only been around for a short time and only in the big cities – a bed for one night costs on average $10-15. Airbnb is not yet very developed in Kazakhstan, but you can also try it.
Cuisine: Traditional Kazakh cuisine consists mainly of meat and dough. In the modern interpretation, they are mixed with dishes from other nationalities, so if you are offered traditional Kazakh cuisine, it is likely to be varied. The same goes for all other national cuisines of Kazakhstan, for example, how about the traditional Italian pizza with horse meat? Original Kazakh dishes include:
- Beshbarmak (also called “Kazakh-style meat”) – large pieces of cooked meat served with potatoes, skewers and onions;
- Kaurdak – fried pieces of liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, etc. with potatoes;
- Shorpa (meat broth) and Kespe (noodles);
- Cheesne (roasted young lamb cooked in a cauldron with onions and potatoes);
- Kazy, karta, shuzhuk – boiled sausages in natural casing;
- Baursak – round or square pieces of dough deep-fried in boiling oil in a cauldron
It’s hard to be a vegetarian in Kazakhstan: Everything found in the inexpensive kitchens is made of dough and meat. The menu of any café, regardless of cuisine, also consists mainly of these ingredients. So if you don’t want to limit your diet to fried potatoes and salad “Fresh”, you have to cook for yourself. Vegetables and fruits, especially in winter, can cost twice as much as meat. Vegetarian and almost-vegetarian establishments have been popping up in big cities lately, but so far they are rare and expensive.
It’s also worth trying in Kazakhstan:
- Kumys (fermented mare’s milk);
- Shubat (sour camel milk);
- Kurut (hard, salty curd);
- Kozhe (milk drink with cereals)
and many more. Generally, in any tourist country, the principle is: the more unsightly the restaurant looks with the national (and nearby) cuisine, the better the cuisine is. And vice versa – the more expensive and pretentious, the more it is an attraction for tourists and not an authentic place to eat. Apart from national cuisine (which does not exist here in its pure form), you can find almost any kind of food in Kazakhstan – from Czech to Malaysian.
Alcohol: There is no national alcoholic drink in Kazakhstan, except for kumys, which can be quite strong when fermented. Almost any alcoholic drink can be found in shops sold in Russia or Europe. Prices will be about the same or higher, but not crucial. Alcohol is only sold from 12:00 to 21:00 (strong) or until 23:00 in the case of beer and wine. The cafés, bars and restaurants are not subject to time restrictions. Of the good and cheap alcohol of local production, one must note the cognac “Kazakhstan” (factory “Bakhus”), and also the production of the company Arba Wine. Cognac (which is actually brandy) is superior to almost all similar products in the CIS. Beer costs from 150 tenge (50 cents) – several dozen local producers and all major import brands are represented. In every town there are beer outlets disguised as “bars” (although there is nowhere to sit) – you can even legally buy beer there at night.
Tour guides: the best tour guides are the locals. You can contact a local travel agency and there you can also organise an English-speaking tour guide(s). There is also a service of Roboguides in Almaty that can be useful for someone – and it is not expensive.
Travelling between cities: Cities are far enough apart that it is more convenient and quicker to fly between them. Domestic flights are operated by Air Astana, Qazaq Air, Bek Air, SCAT Airlines and tickets for them are not always found on aggregators like Aviasales; it is more reliable to contact the offices of the airlines and companies directly.
Trains are also a viable option. The main operator is “Kazakhstan Temir Zholy”, you can check the timetable and availability on the website. You can buy tickets at numerous train counters (commission costs about $2) and at the station itself (no commission, but you have to stand in a queue). The cost of the journey depends on the distance and the class of carriage. For example, the saloon car Almaty – Astana costs from US $12 (in KZT); the coupe car costs from US $18 (in KZT) and the journey takes 16-18 hours. A high-speed train runs between these cities and can take you to the capital or back in ten hours – the journey starts at US $25 (in KZT).
The third option is buses. Buses are either official (you can buy tickets at bus station ticket offices), or private (buses are hired at the bus station, and the route can be seen on the boards on the windscreen or from the driver). There is almost no difference in price, but the official buses run according to the timetable, while the private ones leave as soon as the salon is full. At the bus station you can also hire a taxi to another city (within 500 km). Bus fares are comparable to train fares or slightly more expensive. Usually this travel option is resorted to when the available train tickets run out (e.g. public holidays).
Internet: If you are not in the steppe and not on a snow-covered peak, you should have no problems with mobile phones and internet. There are Wi-Fi access points in almost all hotels, cafés, bars and restaurants. Mobile internet is also pretty stable (at least in the city) – operators Altel, Beeline, KCell, Tele2 offer both 3G and LTE (4G). SIM cards can be registered in company offices or at traders – you will find them already activated, so you don’t even need documents. KCell and Beeline have the best network coverage; Tele2 has the best price/quality ratio.
A few more little things that may also be important: There is no specific list of things to visit in Kazakhstan – you can buy almost the same things here as in Europe. The only exception is absolutely rare prescription drugs – you’d better take those with you. Otherwise, it all depends on the region and the purpose of your visit. Don’t forget to download city maps and update Maps.
Prices: A full meal in Almaty or Astana costs around US $10-15 (in KZT). You can eat at cheap establishments like kebabs for US $2.5 (in KZT) or even take samsa in transit for 30 cents each. The upper limit here is very vague and depends only on your appetite: dinner for half a million KZT is also quite realistic.
Prices in cafés and restaurants depend on the city and the level of the establishment. On average:
- Meat dishes from US $4 (in KZT);
- Soups from US $2 (in KZT);
- Salads from US $2 (in KZT);
- Shashlik from US $1.2 to 4 (in KZT);
- Beer from US $1.2 to 3 (in KZT);
- Cocktails from US $3 (in KZT)
Souvenirs: Souvenirs are not of particular interest. They are usually the same as those you can buy in any other country, but with national ornaments, pictures of eagles, steppes, yurts, etc. on them. You might find something interesting at fairs or craft shops, but be prepared for high prices. A great option (no kidding) is Kazakh cognac, which comes in a gift box.