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Kazakhstan

Photo © Nat and Ev

Travel Guide Asia Kazakhstan

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Introduction

Peak

Peak

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In terms of land area, Kazakhstan comes into the charts at number 9, measuring in a whopping 2.7 million square km. As far as national confusion goes, Kazakhstan once again carves itself into the top ten. Since Soviet rule was abandoned in the early nineties, Kazakhstan has been a somewhat disorderly affair, complete with rigged elections, a less-than-effective approach to capitalizing on its huge mineral resources and a random change of capital from cosmopolitan Almaty to Astana (formerly Aqmola). National order does not seem particularly natural for a country of nomads.

But for travellers, it's a little easier to make sense of the chaos and pick out Kazakhstan's bright spots. For one, it offers Central Asia's finest skiing opportunities, including heli-skiing and ski-mountaineering. For twos, the Tian Shan range at the country's north makes for some mighty fine scenery. And lastly, Kazakhstanis do have the quirk of playing polo with dead goats' bodies.

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Brief History

Humans have inhabited present-day Kazakhstan since the earliest Stone Age, generally pursuing the nomadic pastoralism for which the region's climate and terrain are best suited. The earliest well-documented state in the region was the Turkic Kaganate, or Gokturk, Köktürk state, established by the Ashina clan, which came into existence in the 6th century AD. The Qarluqs, a confederation of Turkic tribes, established a state in what is now eastern Kazakhstan in 766. In the 8th and 9th centuries, portions of southern Kazakhstan were conquered by Arabs, who also introduced Islam. The Oghuz Turks controlled western Kazakhstan from the 9th through the 11th centuries. While ancient cities Taraz (Aulie-Ata) and Hazrat-e Turkestan had long served as important way-stations along the Silk Road connecting East and West, real political consolidation only began with the Mongol invasion of the early 13th century. In the 15th century, a distinct Kazakh identity began to emerge among the Turkic tribes, a process which was consolidated by the mid-16th century with the appearance of a distinctive Kazakh language, culture, and economy.

In the 19th century, the Russian Empire began to expand, and spread into Central Asia. The "Great Game" period is generally regarded as running from approximately 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. The tsars effectively ruled over most of the territory belonging to what is now the Republic of Kazakhstan. In the early 19th century, the construction of Russian forts began to have a destructive effect on the Kazakh traditional economy by limiting the once-vast territory over which the nomadic tribes could drive their herds and flocks. The final disruption of nomadism began in the 1890s, when many Russian settlers were introduced into the fertile lands of northern and eastern Kazakhstan. In 1906, the Trans-Aral Railway between Orenburg and Tashkent was completed, further facilitating Russian colonisation of the fertile lands of Semirechie. Between 1906 and 1912, more than a half-million Russian farms were started as part of the reforms of Russian minister of the interior Petr Stolypin, putting immense pressure on the traditional Kazakh way of life by occupying grazing land and using scarce water resources. The Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was set up in 1920 and was renamed the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 when the Kazakhs were differentiated officially from the Kyrgyz. The Russian Empire recognized the ethnic difference between the two groups; it called them both Kyrgyz to avoid confusion between the terms Kazakh and Cossack (both names originating from Turkic "free man"). In 1936 Kazakhstan became a Soviet republic. Kazakhstan experienced population inflows of millions exiled from other parts of the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s; many of the deportation victims were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan merely due to their ethnic heritage or beliefs.

In December 1986, mass demonstrations by young ethnic Kazakhs, later called Jeltoqsan riot, took place in Almaty to protest the replacement of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR Dinmukhamed Konayev with Gennady Kolbin from the Russian SFSR. Governmental troops suppressed the unrest, several people were killed and many demonstrators were jailed. In the waning days of Soviet rule, discontent continued to grow and find expression under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty as a republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in October 1990. Following the August 1991 aborted coup attempt in Moscow and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence on December 16, 1991. It was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence. Democracy, however, has not gained much ground since 1991. In 2007, Kazakhstan's parliament passed a law granting President Nursultan Nazarbayev lifetime powers and privileges, immunity from criminal prosecution, and influence over domestic and foreign policy. Critics say he has become a de facto "president for life."

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Geography

With an area of 2,700,000 square kilometres, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country and the largest landlocked country in the world, equivalent in size to Western Europe. It shares borders of 6,846 kilometres with Russia, 2,203 kilometres with Uzbekistan, 1,533 kilometres with China, 1,051 kilometres with Kyrgyzstan, and 379 kilometres with Turkmenistan. It lies between latitudes 40° and 56° N, and longitudes 46° and 88° E. While located primarily in Asia, a small portion of Kazakhstan is also located west of the Urals in Eastern Europe.

The terrain extends west to east from the Caspian Sea to the Altay Mountains and north to south from the plains of Western Siberia to the oases and deserts of Central Asia. The Kazakh Steppe (plain), with an area of around 804,500 square kilometres, occupies one-third of the country and is the world's largest dry steppe region. The steppe is characterized by large areas of grasslands and sandy regions. Important rivers and lakes include: the Aral Sea, Ili River, Irtysh River, Ishim River, Ural River, Syr Darya, Charyn River and gorge, Lake Balkhash and Lake Zaysan. The Charyn Canyon is 150-300 metres deep and 80 kilometres long, cutting through the red sandstone plateau and stretching along the Charyn River gorge in northern Tian Shan ("Heavenly Mountains", 200 kilometres east of Almaty) at. The inaccessibility of the canyon provided a safe haven for a rare ash tree that survived the Ice Age and is now also grown in some other areas.

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Regions

  • Southern Kazakhstan stretches from Lake Balkhash southward to the border, and includes the largest city of Almaty.
  • Northern Kazakhstan is home to the capital Astana.
  • Central Kazakhstan is a sparsely populated region and includes Lake Balkhash, one of the world's largest lakes.
  • Eastern Kazakhstan is a mountainous region bordering China, Mongolia and Russia.

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Cities

  • Almaty - the biggest city, in the south on the edge of the mountains
  • Aqtau
  • Atyrau
  • Astana - the new capital of the country
  • Karaganda
  • Chimkent

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Sights and Activities

Turkestan

Inside Yasaui Mausoleum, Turkistan

Inside Yasaui Mausoleum, Turkistan

© All Rights Reserved Nat and Ev

Turkestan is an ancient town dating back to over 1500 years. I used to be called Yassy and was a centre of civilisation during the time of the Great Silk Road. The city is one of the most important historical and cultural in the country with many sites to offer travellers. It was an important trade and religious centre and there used to be as many as 14 mosques after the city was founded in the 5th century BC and onwards. Turkestan is an important site of worship for Moslems and is home to the Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassavi built at the time of Timur (Tamerlane), from 1389 to 1405. This site has attracted many pilgrims over the centuries and is on the Unesco World Heritage List.

Aksu Zhabagly

Aksu Zhabagly State Natural Reserve was the first nature reserve in Central Asia and obtained the status of UNESCO biosphere reserve. The are is about 750 square kilometers big in total and is located at an elvation between 1000 to over 4000 meters above sea level. The reserves is home to around 50 species of animals including the rare snow leopard, which is an endangerd species and hundreds of species of birds. To add, there are even more species of plants. If you are lucky you can see bear, ibex and some rare birds.

Tamgaly Tash Valley

The Tamgaly Tash valley is a valley with a natural accumulation of about 5000 unique petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating from the second half of the second millennium BC to the beginning of the 20th century. The site is on the Unesco World Heritage List as well and is of outstanding natural and cultural beauty.

Other sights and activities

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty

© All Rights Reserved Nat and Ev

  • Zenkov Cathedral - in Almaty, the world's highest all-wooden building
  • Otyrar - ancient ruins
  • Sairam - fortress
  • Kol-Sai Lakes
  • Charyn Canyon

It feels like in ancient open-air art gallery. Each picture is a message from centuries back telling about gods, rituals and life of ancestors of present days Kazakhs. Some inscriptions are as much as 3 thousand years old and even more. They are made on black flat surfaces of rocks and cliffs darkened by ages of influence of solar radiation by metal chisels

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Weather

Kazakhstan is a huge country but generally the climate has not that much variation between the different parts. Only higher up in the mountains, temperatures are much lower and there is snow year round. But this is a relatively small section in the southeastern portion.
Large parts of Kazakhstan are steppe and (semi)desert, with very little rain or snowfall during the year, generally between 100 and 150 mm of precipitation. Summers are hot, averaging 30 degrees during the day from June to August but 40 degrees is possible. Nights are pleasantly cool, around 17 degrees. Winters are bitterly cold, averaging between -10 and -15 degrees Celcius but dropping as low as -40 degrees in the northern parts of the country.
The southeast where Almaty is located is somewhat wetter, with montly precipitation and April and May are the wettest months. Summers are around 27 degrees maximum, and around 15 degrees at night. During winter, temperatures are between -5 and -15 degrees but also here temperatures can drop well below -30 degrees sometimes.

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Getting there

Plane

Air Astana is the national airlines of Kazakhstan, based at two airports: Almaty International Airport (ALA) and Astana International Airport (TSE). From the latter Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hanover, Moscow and Shannon (Irleand) are served while from Almaty the cities of Antalya, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Beijing, Delhi, Dubai, Hannover, Frankfurt, Istanbul, London, Moscow and Seoul have flights. A number of airlines serve both airports, mainly to and from Asian countries, like the neighbouring Stan States. KLM and Lufthansa have flights from Amsterdam and Frankfurt respectively. BMI flies from London to Almaty and visa versa.

Train

Kazakhstan - China vv
There are two trains a week connecting Almaty in Kazakhstan with Urumqi in China. On Mondays and Saturdays, trains leave Almaty at 10.40pm, arriving in Ürümqi on Wednesdays and Mondays at 7 in the morning. From Ürümqi, trains depart just before midnight at Mondays and Saturdays, arriving in Almaty on Wednesdays and Mondays around 10.30am.
Kazakhstan - Russia vv
There is train every second day between Moscow and Almaty (Kazakhstan), leaving Moscow at 10.30pm and arriving at day 5 early in the morning in Almaty. From Almaty, trains leave around 7.30am, arriving the 4th day at around 10.30 in the morning. Check this site for schedule details.
Kazakhstan - Uzbekistan vv
Daily trains run from Aqtöbe, Aralsk, Kyzylorda and Turkistan to Tashkent via the border at Saryagash. Coming from Almaty you can transfer at the trains at Arys, 60 kilometers west of Shymkent. Another rail crossing exists between Beyneu, western Kazakhstan, and Kungrad, Uzbekistan. Daily trains run from Beyneu to Kungrad (10 hours) and on Saturday and Wednesday, there is a train via Beyneau coming from Saratov (Russia) via Atyrau (Kazakhstan), continuing to Tashkent via Nukus and Samarkand.

By Car

You can use border crossings like mentioned below and many other to Russia as well. Be sure to have your visa, and documentation regarding the car (insurance, green card, international driving permit) in order and expect sometimes a bit of hassle and long waiting times.

By Bus

There are many daily bus and minibus connections between Almaty and Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. There are also overnight buses to Cholpon-Ata and Karakol from Sayran, and minibuses to Bishkek from Taraz.
To China, road crossing is at Khorgos and there are sleeper buses between Almaty and Urumqi in Xinjiang, taking 24 hours. Buses to Yining take 12 hours and both are on a daily basis except Sunday.
To Turkmenistan, there is a remote border crossing 200 kilometers south of Zhanaozen, a two-hour minibus ride east of Aktau. From the border it is 50km south to the Turkmen town of Bekdash and a further 200 kilometers to Turkmenbashi. To Uzbekistan, the main border crossing is at Chernyaevka between Shymkent and Tashkent and there are connectons between the two latter cities. Another road crossing exists between Beyneu, western Kazakhstan, and Kungrad, Uzbekistan.

By Boat

A ferry across the Caspian Sea between Aktau in Kazakhstan and Baku, Azerbaijan, leaves about every seven to 10 days taking around 18 hours or so. The ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan goes more frequent and is more comfortable as well, but if you want to avoid travelling to Turkmenistan the one to Kazakhstan is a good alternative.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Air Astana has frequent flights to many airports in the country. Almaty to Astana vv is the most frequent used route but services to the western towns near the Caspian Sea are popular as well and saves a lot of time as well. Planes are new but maintenance is not always how it should be.

By Train

Kazakhstan has an extensive network of trains and most routes have at least one or two daily trains. Astana, Karaganda, Almaty, Chimkent and many other cities all have long distance trains leaving frequently and there are comfortable overnight train with dining cars available on most routes. It is cheap and relatively fast as well and is a great way to experience the vastness of this country. By tickets a day in advance and expect some long lines at offices.

By Car

There is reasonable network of tarred roads in Kazakhstan and renting a car (either with or without a driver) is possible at Astana and Almaty and most airports. An international driving permit is required.

By Bus

Regular buses link most major cities and towns, but buses can be uncomfortable on some routes and distances are huge. Trains are the better way of getting between the major cities. Still, buses, minibuses and taxis are the way to go on shorter routes to more remote places.

By Boat

There are no scheduled passenger services.

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Red Tape

Most visitors have to apply for a visa before arrival, sometimes including a Letter of Invitation (LOI). The latter might not be needed for single entry visas though.
Nationals from the following countries do not require an invitation (but do need a visa!):
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States and United Arab Emirates.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Kazakhstan. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Kazakhstan) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Kazakhstan. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

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Quick Facts

Kazakhstan flag

Map of Kazakhstan

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Capital
Astana
Population
16,764,000
Government
Republic; authoritarian presidential rule
Religions
Islam, Christianity (Orthodox)
Languages
Kazakh (Qazaq), Russian
Calling Code
+7
Nationality
Local name

Contributors

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Accommodation in Kazakhstan

This is version 24. Last edited at 13:02 on Dec 23, 13 by Utrecht. 35 articles link to this page.

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