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.
The former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is 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 and traditional heritage. Highlights of the city include watching a show in the Abai State Academic Opera And Ballet Theatre and heading to the outskirts of Chimbulak where a cable car provides excellent access to hiking in the mountains.
Formerly known as Astana and the capital of Kazakhstan since 1998, the city is continually undergoing considerable architectural and infrastructural development thanks to the country being a powerful producer of oil and gas. As it is a relatively new city visiting involves a lot of 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 perhaps it should, given that not far on the outskirts is the infamous ‘Polygon’. 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…
One of the largest lakes in Central Asia, Balkhash is very much overlooked as a destination to visit. Much of the shore surrounding this 605km wide lake is both desolate and sparsely inhabited. It is divided into a western fresh water zone and a deeper eastern salt water, the two meeting at the Uzynaral Strait conveniently near Balkhash City.
This isolated mountain range bordering China to the southeast frames the geographically and historically significant mountain pass, the Dzungarian Gate. This has been 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, the Steppe of Misfortune and the Starving Steppe. All are accurate descriptions for this totally obscure desert region due west of Lake Balkhash. There’s only ever been one recorded full crossing of its entirety, which was completed by an eccentric Englishman in 2014. The 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 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 launched to become the first human in outer space (excluding the much-forgotten Lost Cosmonauts and the occasional monkey). A monument for all those who appreciate the space age.
Created as a national park in 1996 this region of giant sand dunes inhabits an area of 4,600 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 it’s walked upon (due to it the combination of 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.
Isolated in the Kazakh desert in the south of the country, Turkistan is great base for exploring the ancient ruined cities of Otrar and Sauron as well as learning more about the nomadic life of the area. The city boasts the 14th-century mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, built by Timur to honour the Sufi Sheikh. An impressive and important monument in its own right it embodies the history of religion, conquest and art in the region.
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
Trips in Central Asia
Kyrgyzstan, an offbeat destination renowned for its trekking and horse riding, is an ideal place to discover nomadic culture at a grassroots level. There are plenty of rarely-visited locales to explore throughout this centuries-old Central Asian nation, and our two-part…explore