8 Reasons to Visit Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-biggest country happens to be the most prosperous of all the ‘stans’, owing to its abundance of oil and minerals. With economic advancement comes better standards of accommodation, restaurants and transport than anywhere else in Central Asia.
Much to the disbelief of those fortunate enough to have travelled there before, Kazakhstan is a country that hasn’t quite received its due around the world. Its biggest city, Almaty is almost like a European city in its charm, with wide avenues, hip cafes, large shopping centres and pulsing nightlife. The capital, Astana, on the other hand, has been transformed into a 21st century centre of architectural magnificence.
However, venture beyond the cities of Kazakhstan, and you’ll find your greatest travel adventure, while you spend idyllic days hiking in the mountains and across the valleys of Tian Shan, spotting wildlife, enjoying local hospitality, or exploring remote mosques. So, the next time you’re planning a vacation, cast aside all thoughts and prejudices (The Borat movie did the country no justice!), and book your tickets to Kazakhstan. You won’t regret it.
If you need convincing though, here are eight reasons to visit Kazakhstan:
1. Visiting Almaty
Kazakhstan’s former capital is a stunning city, and you might just feel like you walked into Vienna or Zurich, rather than an Asian city. Almaty is developing swiftly, with luxury hotels, international restaurants and shopping malls cropping up. However, even with this furious tide of development, Almaty continues to retain that small-town feeling which is increasingly rare to find these days.
Once you get around to exploring the city, you’ll find some mesmerising sights, including the bustling Green Bazaar, the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral, the impressive Central Mosque and more. Apart from the sights, you can also set off for the surrounding mountains; to ski, hike and bike to your heart’s content. As the country’s main transport hub, Almaty is also the starting point for plane, train and bus journeys to the more remote areas of Kazakhstan.
2. There are no tourists
Ok that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Kazakhstan attracts some 3 million tourists every year (Singapore by comparison, clocked just over 15 million visitors in 2015), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find another group of travellers from the same country as you. The best part about Kazakhstan being a less frequented place by travellers? You get to explore most attractions by yourself, undisturbed by hawkers and noisy tourists.
3. The people are warm and welcoming
You may think that the Kazakhs are a bunch of surly blokes, but on the contrary, they’re tremendously warm and honest people. A fine example of the warmth of the Kazakh people comes from the words of a traveller, who said, “Kazakhstan’s people rarely smile, but when they do, they will take you to their hearts.” A genuine welcome awaits you when you visit, especially because the people aren’t close to being jaded or corrupted by tourism.
Don’t be daunted when your smile is repeatedly met with a cold face, because after that, magic happens – the scowling old woman on the train reaches into her bag and offers to share her food with you, the previously grim-faced conductor now gleefully poses for pictures with you, or a complete stranger presses a handicraft into your palms and vanishes.
4. Stunning landscapes
Kazakhstan’s rocky surface has created a wonderful landscape of towering mountains, stunning canyons, endless deserts and odd rock formations. A few locations worth visiting include the Charyn Canyon, which could pass off for the Grand Canyon’s brother, the Bozzhyr Valley, the Karagiye Depression and Kazakhstan’s own Uluru, Sherkala Mountain.
The best part? You get to enjoy all of it, without being bothered by noisy tourists, or anyone else, really, since Kazakhstan is sparsely populated. With no one to bother you, you can spend hours here, witnessing a staggering landscape that hasn’t changed in a million years.
5. Meals fit for a king
Kazakhstan’s cuisine is robust and hearty, complex yet simple, but ultimately, delicious. Perfect for getting in touch with your inner carnivore, Kazakh food will have you eating quantities of food you never thought you could. Endless skewers of grilled lamb, rounds of bread the size of hubcaps, platters of pilau rice and so much more awaits you. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never go hungry in Kazakhstan.
6. It has a vivid history
As a country that has seen countless civilizations since the Neolithic times, Kazakhstan is rich in history and archaeology. From the 80-million year old spherical rocks of the Valley of Balls, to the mausoleums and forts of Turkestan, to the Soviet-era architecture of Almaty, there is a history that is waiting to be discovered.
You might need a guidebook, or a personal guide to learn about the details, since most signage in Kazakhstan exists in Kazakh or Russian. Once you get past the language barriers though, you’ll see that the country has a remarkable history, whether you’re interested in 11th-century nomads or the Brezhnev era.
7. The great outdoors
With few towns and cities, and more beautiful landscapes, Kazakhstan is perfect for outdoor exploration. Without leaving Almaty, you can ski in Shymbulak, go biking in the Tien Shan mountains, or hike through the Charyn Canyon.
Kazakhstan also has a low population density (one of the world’s lowest, at a mere 6.5 people per km2), which means there are more animals than people. What does that mean for you? It means Kazakhstan is a haven for those looking for rare wildlife and natural vistas. Moreover, with breathtaking scenery and an abundance of natural light, Kazakhstan is a stunning destination for those looking to capture it in a camera.
8. Some parts of it are untouched by modern life
Kazakhstan is one of the few countries in the world which offers a landscape that has yet to be changed by human hands – no roads, no houses, no farms, no unsightly electrical pylons. However, the time warp isn’t only limited to the landscape. Camels and donkeys are the transport of choice for many rural inhabitants; women in head-scarves pray in old mosques that still stand proud, cars are a rare sighting deep in the country, and surprisingly, even in modern Almaty, the dreaded food chains from the West have yet to set up shop.