If you think that you can arrive in Kazakhstan and play your trip by ear – just like in the Southeast Asia -then you’re terribly wrong. Even though the country has many things to offer, well-organized tourism isn’t one of them. Therefore, you really need to carefully plan ahead. And you won’t regret it: untainted Kazakhstan in which the time for Kazakh people stopped in the 80’s is still a gem you shouldn’t miss out.
For now, there aren’t many well-established travel agencies that specialize in Central Asia. But don’t despair! Pack your adventurous spirit and go on your own! Rent preferably a 4WD because in order to get to some real natural wonders, you will have to slalom around huge potholes from one roadside to another while the cars in the opposite direction will do the same. It’s quite fun! 😀
Getting a car
You will most likely book your car with Europcar; I wish I had known that they didn’t have a booth at the airport in Almaty. We basically had to wait and pray that the person who was supposed to give us the car keys will find us. By the way it didn’t happen. We got a taxi to our hotel and a sweet receptionist kept calling Europcar for hours before they’d pick up. In Astana, though, the company does have a booth but when we arrived in the afternoon no one attended it. Instead, a lady approached us saying that that’s what Europcar does to all their clients who eventually end up without the vehicle they had ordered. Long story short, she started her own business – she waits for angry tourists who desperately need a car and offers one of hers. Without much choice, we paid her the same amount of money that Europcar charges and got a car from her.
Be really careful while driving – the Big Brother is watching you and speeding tickets will cost you an arm and a leg. The Kazakhs are irresponsible drivers and seeing 5 fender-benders in Almaty on a daily basis is a regular thing. Fuel is extremely cheap (some $0.40 per liter) and there are plenty of gas stations along the roads. None of them offer road maps so I highly recommend you to update your GPS and get a reliable app for your smart phone, too.
Poor city connections and car sharing
There are stunning national parks in the southern part of Kazakhstan which, I’m certain, are exactly why you want to visit the country. You won’t get anywhere without a car unless your adventurous spirit turned your bag into excess baggage. In that case, you can hitchhike around the country. There’s a small but there – hitchhiking or rather car sharing is a national paid sport. Since city transportation is limited, people hitchhike in order to get home from work. There are practically zero intercity connections so if you flag a car and the window opens, don’t be surprised if the driver asks you for some money.
Accommodation isn’t expensive and you can use your favorite reservation website to book a room. The fact is that you will hardly bump into a tourist so there are plenty of rooms available even if you’re looking for a room 10 minutes before your arrival (our case).
Typical Kazakh food is hearty and rather heavy. Vegetarians might have hard times finding decent food to eat (I’m not even going to mention vegans). Waitresses will wonder why you refuse to eat meat and they will rack their brains trying to figure out what to offer you. Meat-lovers shouldn’t miss out typical Kazakh specialities such as beshbarmak (boiled meat with huge noodles), shashlik (various kinds of meat on a stick), or plov (lamb/beef rice with vegetables). The Kazakhs like to drink black tea which will be brought to your table in a tea pot. Milk tea is also very popular. Food is not expensive at all and you can get lunch for as little as $2!
In the south, enjoy homemade cheese called kurt, typical Kazakh round bread, horse and camel milk. Horse milk (kumys) is fermented, therefore contains some percentage of alcohol. You can really taste the horse in it which is not really my cup of milk. On the other hand, I really enjoyed camel milk (shubat)! Its taste was similar to cow’s milk but with a pleasant zing.
Small(-ish) balls and other shapes of salty kurt are very typical for Kazakhstan and you should consider bringing some home as a souvenir. If stored in an air-tight container, some kinds last a lifetime. According to the Kazakh tradition, you can eat it while enjoying a glass of vodka. 😉 Also, you definitely need to try homemade cream and yogurt – both are heavenly! And just as in Russia, you can also get kvas – a traditional fermented drink made from rye bread – as a draught on a street or in bottles from a supermarket. As a cherry on the top, try sunflower seed halwa which you can get for cheap at the famous Green Market in Almaty.
If you know what the Former Eastern Bloc countries in the 70’s or 80’s looked like, you surely have the picture of Kazakhstan’s countryside in your head now. The Kazakhs also looked like the times have never changed – chubby women in aprons wear T-shirts with flower pattern, scarves on tied in a triangular shape on their heads while walking in rubber shoes. However, quaint white houses with azure blue shutters will make you get your camera ready and click the button. What you should definitely try is to spend a night in a yurt! Probably the best place for that would be during you visit to Kolsai Lakes. If you’re headed to Kyrgyzstan, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to rent a luxurious yurt for less than $20 including food!
Finding the right souvenirs gets tricky. Unless you like corny dust catchers, I suggest you bring home traditional food such as kurt, halwa and Kazakh candy. It was extremely difficult to find a typical Kazakh hat – surprisingly enough, we only came across one in a Kyrgyzstan grocery store! You can buy some very pricey souvenirs at Kok-Tobe, a family fun park, to which you can get on foot or by gondola. Astana is an itsy-bitsy more prepared for the tourists and you can find a big souvenir shop on the National Museum’s ground floor with relatively fair prices. If you have any tenge left, invest them in (costume) jewelry or hand-painted bowls and tea sets which are true gems.
Half of the nation follows Islam and the country is therefore marked with Muslim culture; even a small village has its own mosque, men wear Muslim caps (I believe their name is taqiyah) and women Hijab. You can awe at two amazing mosques built in Astana – Hazrat and Nur Mosques. Second place takes Christian and Russian Orthodox Church.
Besides Astana which keeps up with the times, don’t expect the people to speak (or understand) English. It’s good to know some Russian or have a conversational handbook in your pocket (or Google Translator, no publicity intended). Sometimes, you won’t even succeed with Russian, I’m afraid to say. Remote places use own dialect which even some Kazakhs don’t know at all! But don’t despair – use gestures, mimics, or pictures of places you need to get to and things will work out!
If I happened to forget anything you’d be interested to know, please ask in the comment section!