The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country. Although a considerable proportion of its land is taken up by mostly uninhabited steppe, the outer perimeters of this territory contain all types of environments ranging from the taiga which creeps its way over from the borders of Siberia, extensive rock canyons, impressive glaciated mountains and deserts. Although it’s the most economically dominant of the Central Asian nations owed to its wealth of natural resources, the Kazakhs are still firmly rooted to their nomadic beginnings and all the traditions that come with it.
Now a former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is now the cultural and financial hub of Central Asia. Wandering the city streets with up-market grocery shops and art galleries, it’s easy to forget you’re within a country that maintains a strong interest in its nomadic/traditional heritage. Highlights in the city include watching a show in the Abai State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater and heading to the outskirts of Chimbulak where there’s cable car providing excellent access to hiking in the mountains.
The capital city of Kazakhstan since 1998 is continually undergoing considerable architectural and infrastructural development owed to the country being a powerful producer of oil and gas. As it is a relatively new city most things worth visiting involve marvelling at the distinct architecture, such as the Khan Shatyr, a giant tent that can hold 10,000 people and the New National Museum of Kazakhstan.
This is not the most popular destination in Kazakhstan, although it should be given that not far on the outskirts is the infamous ‘Polygon’, which was the primary testing venue for all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. Between 1949 and 1989, 456 nuclear tests were conducted outside of Semipalatinsk. Only in 2012 was the waste plutonium finally removed. Despite it once being a politically sensitive region it is possible to visit regions of the Polygon, but you may need a hazmat suit and Geiger counter…
Although it’s one of the largest lakes in Central Asia, Balkash is very much overlooked as a destination to visit. Much of this is due to the fact that the shores surrounding this 605km wide lake are both desolate and sparsely inhabited.
This isolated mountain range bordering China in the southeast is part of a geographically and historically significant mountain pass known as the Dzungarian Gate which was used by countless marauding invaders to and from China and Central Asia. Whilst access to the Jungar region can be tricky at times, due to minor and rarely reported skirmishes between Kazakh and Chinese border patrols, the mountains offer unspoilt trekking and rarely touched summits.
THE STEPPE OF MISFORTUNE
There’s not a single name for this region in local languages that doesn’t sound intimidating; the Hungry Steppe, Steppe of Misfortune and the Starving Steppe, all are accurate descriptions for this totally obscure desert region due west of Lake Balkash. There’s only ever been one known full crossing of its entirety completed by an eccentric Englishman in 2014. The only other things you’ll find out here are abandoned Soviet military testing sites, discarded nose cones of rockets and secret bunkers. There is quite literally nothing else here to do except go hungry and get yourself in to trouble if you’re not careful. But it’s precisely this extreme isolation and unforgiving environment that makes it worth a visit… if you know what you’re doing.
The Baikonur was the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. It was from here that Yuri Gagarin first launched from to become the first human in outer space (excluding the much-forgotten Lost Cosmonauts and the occasional monkey).
Created as a national park in 1996 this region of giant sand dunes inhabits an area of 4600 square kilometres between the Ak-Tau mountains and Ili River. It’s most famous for a large sand dune which sings when the wind blows or its walked upon (due to it being the right grain size, humidity and silica content). Aside from Altyn-Emel’s unusual musical charm, the Katutau volcanic mountains and Aktau canyon are also worth visiting in the area.
E-visa to be obtained in advance.
It can get cold in Central Asia, especially at night. Temperatures at night can drop below freezing.
For up to date exchange rates please have a look at www.xe.com
Two prong European style systems (types C and F).
Average internet connection/speed.
Meat is dominant in all Kazakh cooking. Traditional cooking uses mutton and horse meat. Milk products also commonly feature.
Alcohol is permitted and is widely available.
Kazak and Russian.
No special dress code.
SAFTEY & SECURITY
The FCO considers Kazakhstan to be a low risk region to travel.
Christopher Baumer – The History of Central Asia (tetralogy)
Dark Shadows – Joanna Lillis
The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin – Mukhamet Shayakhmetov
The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years – Chingiz Aitmatov
Book of Words – Abai
Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges – Keith Rosten
The Nomads – Ilyas Esenberlin