10 great experiences to have in Kazakhstan

Travelers seeking adventure, culture and something completely fresh should give Kazakhstan some thought.

This central Asian country today is leaning on its nomadic past and using its abundant oil reserves to carve out a bright future, especially evident in its futuristic looking cities. Travelers will find natural wonders like the sharp cliffs and towers of Charyn Canyon, and cultural treasures such as the statuesque stone markers called steppe balbals

Here are 10 top experiences any visitor should add to an itinerary for the ninth largest country in the world, uncrowded by visitors, for now.  

Stalls selling horse meat at the Green Bazaar, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Get a (literal) taste of Kazakh culture at Almaty’s Green Market, and its dozens of horsemeat vendors © Sebastian Kahnert / picture alliance via Getty Images

1. Immerse yourself in Kazakh culture in Almaty

Cradled by mountains, Almaty holds the essence of Kazakhstan’s heritage within its neighborhoods. Walk through the bustling Green Market. Marvel at the intricate architecture of the Zenkov Cathedral. And feel the spiritual call from the minarets of the Central Mosque.

Outside Almaty, get back in touch with the elements of nature by hopping in a 4×4 to take in the 12-million-year-old rock formations of Charyn Canyon. Or envelop yourself in dense forest by driving down to the Kolsai Lakes region. For those drawn to the enigmatic, the “Singing Dune” in Altyn-Emel National Park offers an otherworldly symphony of nature’s own making. 

Two men ski touring in the snowy mountains of Kazakhstan
Ski touring in the mountains of Kazakhstan is thrilling – but not for those without extensive experience and the right equipment © Pikoso.kz / Shutterstock

2. Hit the slopes at Shymbulak

Winter travelers should give the runs at Shymbulak a try. There are daily buses from nearby Almaty that head to this resort, where it’s possible and affordable to rent skis, boots and even ski clothes. While modest by European standards, Central Asian ski areas like Shymbulak offer gentle slopes that are accessible to average skiers, and it’s easy to book a class, which start at 20,000 tenge ($43) per hour for adults. 

Ski touring is a thrilling winter adventure for those with experience in unpredictable terrain (route planning, navigation and the ability to read the snow are essential). Go with a guide who knows the snow in the valley you want to explore. Airbags and avalanche-victim detectors are musts as mountain rescue here is slow or non-existent. 

Passengers aboard the night train, Kazakhstan
Join the many Kazakhs who cross their country by night train © Quentin Boëhm

3. Cross the steppes on a night train

Kazakhstan has a vast network of trains, of varying vintages. If you’re planning to visit the cities of Almaty (the former capital) and Astana (the shiny new one), a night train between the two is the way to go. From your sleeping cabin or the dining car, you can watch the empty, endless steppe extend to the horizon. Note that seats in the dining car are highly sought-after, so arrive a few minutes before opening at 8am to grab one. Try the fried eggs or syrniki, a type of cottage-cheese pancake.

Planning tip: The bottom bunk tickets sell out first, because they allow passengers to sit up and lie down. Book at least a week in advance to get a bottom bunk.

Military cadet looking up at Baiterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan
In Astana, gleaming modern monuments spring from the steppe © Eric Lafforgue / Lonely Planet

4. Admire ultra-modern Astana 

Brash and glittering Astana – where flashy architecture springs up from the harsh steppe – has been the Kazakh capital since 1997. While very few Kazakhs are “from” Astana, all will sing the praises of the cutting-edge city. Discover its ultra-modern, often shiny, architecture on the Left Bank. Then explore the city’s culture with a visit to the theater, the National Museum or the poet Saken Seifullin’s former home.

Planning tip: Astana outside of summer is often biting cold. On the pancake-flat steppe with no mountains to cut the wind, expect winter temperatures between -10° and -17°C (14° and 1°F) – and that’s on a good day. If you can’t make it in the summer months, pack a heavy parka.

Balbal statues making burial mounts at Zhaisan, Kazakhstan
Marking the burial grounds of nomads past, anthropomorphic balbal statues are found throughout Kazakhstan and Central Asia © Yevgeniy Volkov / Shutterstock

5. Consider Kazakhstan’s nomadic past through its balbals 

Along the Pavlodar highway, you might notice the stone sculptures called balbals, which mark burial mounds of ancient warriors or tribal years. Important symbols of Kazakhstan’s nomadic heritage, these stone columns take the form of human figures, and are carved with details like swords or bowls.

At the open-air museum near Yereimentau, about 160km (100 miles) from Astana, you’ll find many balbals from the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Many believe that the area was once a Silk Road settlement; it stands today as a testament to the long history of the Kazakh people.

The Soyuz TMA-05M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Watch a rocket blast off at close range at the Baikonur Cosmodrome © NASA Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

6. Get a taste of the space race at the Baikonur Cosmodrome

The Baikonur Cosmodrome was a center of the Soviet space program, and is still in use today. For space buffs, this remote spaceport offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience: a five-day tour leading up to launch day. Though the price tag of €3000 is eye-popping, the in-depth expertise of the guides and the thrill of witnessing a rocket launch up close make this something you’ll never forget.

Planning tip: Baikonur offers about four tours each year. Reserve one as soon as – or even before – you book your plane tickets to Kazakhstan. You have to book at least two months in advance for processing of security clearances. 

Wild tulips blooming in a meadow with the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains in the distance, Kazakhstan
Wild tulips bloom each spring in the rugged mountains of eastern Kazakhstan © iStockphoto / Getty Images

7. Fuel up in Shymkent before exploring the rugged Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve

The ancient caravan crossroads of Shymkent is today Kazakhstan’s third-largest city, and known for some of the best food in the country. In April and May, the mountains south of the city bloom with wild tulips (which are native to Kazakhstan). Drive out for a day of shashlik (kebabs) and fresh air.

Shymkent is the not far from the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve, the oldest such preserve in Kazakhstan. The reserve is open to visitors only when accompanied by a guide or park ranger, so you’ll need to book in advance. In the park’s vast expanse, it’s easy to spot eagles and vultures; sometimes you can see deer and even bears (though it’s more common to find just their tracks or scat). Most likely, you’ll go animal watching from the saddle – the paths are best adapted to travel on horseback or by foot. 

Men on horseback riding in the mountains of Kazakhstan
When you take them in from atop a horse, Kazakhstan’s epic landscapes dazzle © Maxim Petrichuk / Shutterstock

8. Saddle up in the far east 

Hop on a horse to explore the lush valleys and mountains of Katon-Karagay National Park, near the border with Russia and Mongolia, from a thrilling vantage point. Since the smell of a horse can add extra camouflage for humans looking to spot evasive animals, you never know what you might see: in 2021, a camera trap showed that the ultra-rare snow leopard still calls the park home.

Planning tip: Always check that your horse has metal horseshoes to protect their feet from the abrasive rocks, and have your groom remove the saddle to verify there are no open saddle sores. Refusing to subject an unfit horse to the journey helps in one small way to improve animal-welfare standards.

Dead submerged trees in Kaindy (Kaiyndy) Lake, southeastern Kazakhstan
An eerie grove of dead spruce trees is forever trapped in Kaindy Lake © Sidney van den Boogaard / Shutterstock

9. Take a lakeside hike 

About six hours’ drive from Almaty and at an altitude of nearly 2000m (6560ft), salty Tuzkol Lake offers fabulous floats that ease muscles achy after mountain hikes. Beloved by nature lovers looking for adventures, this remote lake in the Kazakh part of the Tian Shan mountains is best visited in summer, with a driver or behind the wheel of your own 4×4. 

The more-accessible Kolsai Lakes, a series of alpine lakes, make a popular day trip from Almaty. Since the first one is the easiest to get to, it can get crowded on weekends – so put on your hiking boots and hike to the second and third lakes, which you’ll have practically to yourself. For the full nature experience, spend the night in nearby Saty village.

Detour: Kaindy Lake is not far from Saty village, but more difficult to reach than the Kolsai Lakes. The short hike is worth it, however: the lake was formed after a 1911 earthquake flooded the valley, and spruce trees are still trapped in the lakebed.

A hiker at the top of a mountain looking out at the mountains of Boszhira, Ustyurt Plateau, Kazakhstan
The rock formations of the remote Ustyurt Plateau prompt wonder and reflection © Alexandr Dubynin / Getty Images

10. Get lost on the Ustyurt Plateau

From the Caspian city of Aktau, hop in a 4×4  to visit the Ustyurt Reserve, a natural wonder 350km (218 miles) into the deserted steppe that’s ripe for spiritual reflection. In the middle of what might be the emptiest place on Earth rise pillars of limestone and chalk in pinks, blues and whites, reaching high into the air. 

On the same trip, visit the ruins of the ancient city of Shakhr-i-Vazir, as well as the Beleuli Caravanserai (fortress) and Allan Fortress, plus mausoleums and underground mosques. The desert has reclaimed the rest of this once-important Silk Road stopover.

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