Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia is bordered by Russia to the north and northeast and China to the east. Four smaller Central Asian nations to the south divide it from Afganistan. Although a few beaches dot the southwestern shores along the Caspian Sea, they’re more scenic than touristy, and the country is rather lacking in significant historical sites. Still, travelers are fascinated by the vastness and mystery of this huge country, the ninth-largest in the world size-wise.
This itinerary focuses on two of Kazakhstan’s major cities, Almaty, the largest and Nursultan(formerly called Astana), the capital. You get the option of spending your time exploring Almaty and the surrounding countryside entirely or taking a short flight to the north to Nursultan. Almaty is the financial and cultural center of the country and the host of tourists and expatriates. Along with lakes of an unusual blue hue and snow-capped mountains to the south, you’ll find plenty to fill your week, but the 90-minute flight north to Nursultan will allow you to experience the alluring blend of Soviet architecture with the ultra-modern.
One Week Itinerary: The Best of Kazakhstan
If you are traveling from Europe or a country in the Western world, you probably know little, if anything about the history, language, currency, and customs of Kazakhstan. Tips are provided to help you understand the currency used and the best options for transportation. Kazakh is the official language, but 95 percent of the people speak Russian, so learning a few Russian phrases will be helpful, and learning a little of the history will enhance your trip.
Native Kazakhs are the descendants of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated to the area in the 13th century. By the mid-15th century, inhabitants united as a nation. By 1936, the Kazakhs became members of the Soviet Republic. In the second half of the 19th century, Russia conquered the area, and today, Kazakhstan is an independent country. It’s a neo-patrimonial state, and the president and his allies dominate politics and economics, however, it’s not as authoritarian as China. After gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the government invited foreign investments into the country. Oil and gas reserves brought much wealth to Kazakhstan. Most of the wealth goes to a few, but the country is still labeled as a middle-income nation.
Since Kazakhstan is so huge and the major cities are so far apart, a flight from Kazakhstan will allow you to see and do more within the week. Day trips from around 4.5 from each city will allow you to experience even more. You can travel within the country using rental cars, buses, trains, and planes. Taxis from the airport are quite expensive, so it’s best to use the buses. Public transport and taxis are available in the larger cities. Your best bet for the day trips out of the cities is a rental car. Here is a rough overview of spending your week in Kazakhstan. If you choose to break the trip up between Almaty and Nursultan, omit Lake Issyk and Karakol.
2. Big Almaty Lake
7. Lake Issyk
9. Lake Borovoe
10. Burabay National Park
Useful Information About Kazakhstan
- Time Zone: Coordinated Univeral Time Zone (UTC 5 to UTC 6)
- Currency: Tenge (KZT) 1 USD=380.000 KZT 1 EUR= 0.90
- Language: Kazakh (state) Russian (official)
- Visa: Citizens of the United States, EU countries, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada can stay up to 30 days without a visa, and neighboring countries except for China can stay up to 90 days. China and most other nationalities can easily apply for a visa online.
- Credit Card Acceptance: at least Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus, and Maestro
- Electricity: 220 volts with socket types C and F. Take a heavy voltage converter or a power strip with a built-in converter if you don’t have dual voltage appliances.
Getting Around Kazakhstan
Rent a Car: You can rent a car at the Almaty or Nursultan airports for around USD 90 per day.
Taxi: Taxis in Kazakhstan are inexpensive. Use the Yandex app to avoid getting scammed.
Buses: Download the 2gis app for bus schedules. Get tickets from the red touchscreen machines at the bus stops or pay the driver in cash. Although a cheap way to get around, buses are never on schedule and are often crowded. A rental car is worth the cost for day trips out of town.
Planes: Air Astana has flights that depart to other Kazakhstan cities several times a day and tickets are as low as USD 74.
Useful Phrases in Russian
It’s useful to know a few common phrases in the native language anywhere you travel. Since the Russian language is written in a different alphabet, it’s difficult to learn to speak it. But there’s help. The app or website Yandex.Translate will translate words, phrases, whole text, and even websites from 96 languages to Russian. You’ll need to listen to the audio translation several times to learn the pronunciation. Here is a list of words and phrases and how they are spelled in Russian.
- Please пожалуйста
- Thank you спасибо
- Do you speak English? Вы говорите по-английски?
- I don’t understand Я не понимаю
- I’m sorry Извините
- Yes да
- No нет
- Good day хороший день
- Good evening Добрый вечер
- Good night спокойной ночи
- Goodbye до свидания
- How much is it? сколько это стоит?
- the bathroom ванная
- the bus station автобусная остановка
- the airport аэропорт
- a ticket билет
- a room комната
- a restaurant ресторан
- water вода
- vodka водка
- beer пиво
- Check, please проверьте пожалуйста
Arrival & Getting Around From The Airport: Almaty
The Almaty International Airport is 30 minutes by car or bus from the city center. Trains and buses travel to Kazakhstan from Russia and China but it takes many hours and then you have to go through customs, so flying is the best option. This itinerary assumes you will be arriving in Almaty, but you can arrive in Nursultan and work backward.
Day 1: Almaty
Spend plenty of time wandering around Almaty with its stunning backdrop of the Tian Shan mountains capped with snow. The nation’s largest city and former capital is the perfect place to experience Central Asia. The name translates to the “City of Apple Trees” and refers to the apple trees that traditionally grow wild in the region. During your stroll, look for the giant apple-shaped fountain. Stop and snap a selfie at the whimsical Beatles Statue of Almaty. You’ll see treasures from the U.S.S.R. such as the Statue of Panfilov’s 28 guardsmen.
Browsing around the Green Bazaar, a two-story market is a must-do. Open since 1875, this amazing market is a landmark and a favorite for locals and tourists. Vendors sell baskets of salty cheese balls made from mare’s or sheep’s milk and small bowls of kumis, a slightly-alcoholic beverage made of fermented mare’s milk. Trays of dried fruits are on display along with exotic spices and fresh-cut flowers. You’ll be encouraged to sample delicacies like salty camel’s milk, fish roe, and horsemeat sausage. Shop for unique souvenirs like embroidered Kazakh apparel.
Take time to relax in Panfilov Park, a lovely green space before visiting the candy-colored Ascension Cathedral locally called the Zenkov Cathedral after Andres Pavlovich, the engineer who oversaw its completion in 1907. The structure is made entirely of Tien Shan spruce with only a few metal nails and bolts. The cathedral’s interior is filled with colorful murals from Moscow and Kyiv.
Almaty has much more to see and do. Take in as much as you can. Tomorrow it’s off to Big Almaty Lake and Ile-Alatau National Park.
Other Almaty Highlights
- Medeu Olympic Ice Stadium
- Arbat Street-Almaty’s artists’ row
- Presidential Palace
- Republic Square
- Rehat Chocolate Factory
Day 2: Big Almaty Lake and the Ile-Alatau National Park
Impressive Big Almaty Lake is a natural reservoir in the Ili Alatau Mountains and is the main source of water for Almaty residents. For this reason, swimming and water sports aren’t allowed, and you’ll see guards making sure no one goes down to the lake’s shores. The views make up for the lack of water sports. The lake is over 8,000 feet above sea level with three snow-capped peaks in the background. The blue hue varies by season ranging from a deep turquoise in the fall to a milky blue in spring due to the melting snow.
The lake isn’t far away from the city, and you can get there easily. Bus 28 leaves from President’s Park and goes to nearby Kokshoky Village. It’s a little harder getting back by bus, so you may want to take a taxi depending on how long you plan to stay. A taxi will be inexpensive, costing around KZT 6000 (USD 15). The taxi will even stop and wait while you take photos on the way there and back. If you do go by bus, it’s quite easy and safe to hitch a ride back. If you are comfortable doing so, this will give you the opportunity to do some hiking. Keep in mind that foreigners aren’t allowed to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, and permits are required on some routes near the border.
The Ile-Alatau National Park is easily accessed by the route to the lake. There is a small fee to enter the park. The park stretches across about 200 thousand hectares from Gorge Turgen westward to the River Chemolgan. It’s almost untouched by civilization and features varying habitats from alpine meadows to glaciers and meltwater lakes. It is said that all known varieties of apple trees in the world began here.
Once back to the city, you’re bound to be famished. Have a hot meal in one of the local restaurants. They feature horsemeat dishes, but restauranteers realize it isn’t consumed in most parts of the world, and the menus feature other cuisines. Rest up for tomorrow’s road trip.
Day 3- Charyn National Park
A day trip to the east of Almaty to the Charyn National Park and Charyn Canyon will give you a chance to see one of Central Asia’s most varied regions. Several 4WD day tours are available from Almaty, one as low as USD 99. The tours include hotel pick-up and drop-off, park fees, and a professional guide. You can go from semi-desert land to dense forests in the park. The region stretches from Almaty to Lake Balkhash and the Land of Seven Rivers. You’ll see rock formations similar to those in the Grand Canyon, cascading waterfalls, and lakes filled with meltwater from glaciers in the Tien Shan Mountains.
Some cliffs in the Charyn Canyon have been named after the fantasy figures they resemble like the Devil’s Gorge and Valley of Castles. The Valley of Castles is the most breathtaking part of the canyon. The colorful rock layers were formed from sediment deposits, including volcanic lava rocks, from rivers that flowed through the region eons ago.
Zharkent Mosque – image courtesy of Wikimedia
Day 4- Zharkent
A day trip to the town of Zharkent will give you a good balance between nature and history, art, and architecture. The town is about four hours northeast of Almaty. You can get there by bus or rental car. One must-see is the Zharkent Mosque, a rare mosque in the Chinese architectural style.
The Architecture and Art Museum of Zharkentskaya is another colorful and interesting building to see in Zharkent. It was erected between 1887-1892 with public funds collected and built in the style of the lli Neighborhood using the structural art of Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
Other Zharkent Highlights
- The Orthodox Church of Zharkent
- Militray Glory Museum
- Abylkhan Kasteev Art Gallery
Day 5: On to Nursultan (Or More Things to Do in Almaty)
If you’ve decided to continue on to Nursultan, you’ll head to the airport early for the 1.5-hour flight. If you’ve decided to stay the remainder of the week in Almaty, you’ll find plenty more to see and do.
Lake Issyk (not to be confused with Issyk-Kul) is a good 90-minute day trip. The lake is not as huge as its namesake, but it has a fascinating history or creation, destruction by a mudslide, and recreation. This gives you something to research before your trip. Or you can choose to visit Karakol, a five-hour day trip away. This charming town is in Central Asia’s best skiing area, and the white-washed colonial period houses make it picturesque.
Additional Almaty Highlights
- Day trip to Lake Issyk
- Day trip to Karakol
- Kök Töbe (Green Hill)
- Abai State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater
Nursultan (formerly Astana) is the new capital city of Kazakhstan and is named after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president who wanted the shiny city to reflect the country’s new wealth. After landing at the airport, stick to the buses for connecting to the city about 15km to the north. Taxi scams are common here. There will be plenty of street taxis to take you around. All you have to do is stand on a corner, and one will buzz by in a few minutes.
You’ll be amazed at the extravagant and futuristic skyscrapers and hotels. It’s almost like being in a Sci-Fi movie. Buildings not to miss include the Khan Shatyr, a huge translucent tent. The energy-saving design helps keep the building warm. The Bayterek Monument is a tower topped with white metal and a gigantic golden orb.
The recently renovated National Museum of Kazakhstan is impressive. Spend time wandering the exhibits to learn the story of the country from prehistoric to modern times. If you’re an imbiber, you’ll probably find the microbreweries and craft beers available around the city a refreshing change from vodka and fermented mare’s milk.
Other Nursultan Highlights
- Ak Orda Presidential Palace
- Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
- Kazakh Eli Monument
- Hazret Sultan Mosque
- Shabyt Palace of Creativity
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
Day 6: Lake Borovoe and Burabay National Park
It’s time to leave the futuristic-looking city of Nulsurtan behind for another day trip. It’s the best way to see as much of this mammoth country as possible in a week. This time, it’s a shorter one to Lake Borovoe and Burabay National Park. In just over two hours and a cheap train fare of around USD 12, you can watch the vista change from flat steppe to forests, trees, and mountains. This peaceful area boasts 14 lakes that are crystal clear with a backdrop of pinewood and majestic mountain scenery. In fact, the area carries the nickname “Kazakstan’s Switzerland.”Take a boat ride on one of the lakes, climb unusual rock formations, and listen to legends and folktales about the area. There are no historical monuments here, but the scenery and serenity are more than amazing. You may just decide to spend the night in one of the luxury hotels to finish Day 7, and that is certainly an option.
Day 7: Nursultan or Almaty
It’s the last day for this exotic journey, and with all you’ve seen and done, you won’t believe it’s only been a week. If you can get a connecting flight home (or to your next destination), spend more time in Nursultan and finish up with some sightseeing. The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the Shabyt Palace of Creativity are good choices.
If you must fly back to the Almaty airport for your connection, the Kök Töbe (Green Hill) is a good place to relax, reflect, and enjoy the view of the city one more time. It’s easy to get there by bus. And maybe squeeze in one more trip to the fabulous Green Bazaar for some goodies and souvenirs to take back home. Bon voyage! Or удачной поездки as they say in Kazakhstan!