Kazakhstan: the world’s ninth-largest country and home to the Earth’s few remaining wild horses and apples. Have you heard of it?
The first time this landlocked country caught my attention was early this year, when a friend — whose sense of direction and spirit for adventure I truly admire — was talking about making her way ‘round Central Asia. To cut the story short, she made it happen (as she always does). And upon wrapping up her epic Central Asian excursion, I remember eagerly awaiting her Instagram posts and stories. There, she unravelled in vibrant detail narratives she took with her from the -stans (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan).
Underrated no more: Things to do in Kazakhstan
Don’t get me wrong, I paid attention to my world history and geography classes. I’ve been aware of Kazakhstan’s existence long before my foray into travel writing. But it just wasn’t under my radar of wanderlust-inducing destinations, gets? But now that it is and now that the world’s largest landlocked country is VISA-FREE for Filipinos (apir!), it’s high time we took a closer look.
Get your weekly dose of #travelspiration with this list of things to do in Kazakhstan! May bonus pa: Make it to the end of this listicle and we’ll throw in a couple of Kazakhstan travel tips for adventurous Pinoys like you!
1. Discover almost every traveller’s drop-off point, Almaty
Familiar with the expression, “All roads lead to Rome?” Leave it to the Romans and their engineering genius to figure out a way to connect all other cities to their capital. Well, you could say that Almaty is Kazakhstan’s Rome, even if it’s no longer the landlocked country’s national centre. It used to be until 1997, when the capital city was changed to the more modern Nur-Sultan.
So yes, from all parts of Kazahstan, it’s easy to find your way to Almaty because most of the country’s major infrastructures are connected to the city. It’s most likely every traveller’s drop-off point in Kazakhstan as well, especially if you’re flying into the country. Almaty is a bustling centre that houses tourist spots like the Almaty Central Mosque, Ascension Cathedral, Presidential Palace, Central State Museum, and the Arasan Baths. Conveniently though, it’s also near several nature parks for those who prefer the great outdoors! And you’ll learn soon enough that a lot of the popular things to do in Kazakhstan highlights mother nature’s wonders.
2. Ski, hike, wander at Ile-Alatau National Park
One of the most popular nature reserves near Almaty’s city proper is the Ile-Alatau National Park. You have to remember that Almaty centre itself is actually a city of high altitude, so imagine the panoramic vistas that surround it! Unsurprisingly, Ile-Alatau National Park brims with these breathtaking sights. It offers a piece of the Tian Shan mountain system (which stretches from the south of Almaty to Kyrgyzstan) through the Zailiysky Alatau (also called Trans-Ili Alatau) mountain range. Accessing Trans-Ili Alatau via Ile-Alatau National Park will actually lead you to Chimbulak (or Shymbulak) and Mideu, popular areas for snow sports.
Although Ile-Alatau National Park is the perfect place for exciting winter activities near Almaty, you can always skip skiing and just hike around. Visit the natural alpine reservoir called Big Almaty Lake, which stays a spellbinding shade of turquoise all year round. Here the possibilities are endless, with a variety of land and water forms, wildflowers, and fauna covering around 200,000 hectares of sprawling park grounds. Other spots you have to see are Turgen Gorge and Lake Issyk, but don’t mistake the former for a popular Kyrgyzstan attraction with the same name!
3. Visit the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia
Declared the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia, Aksu-Zhabagly stands proud at 93 years old this 2019, officially. The expanse of greenery and biodiversity measures a total of 131,934 hectares and it had been there prior to its being set-up, of course. But the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve was established for its own protection and conservation in 1926, hence its “age”. What can you expect to stumble upon? Many travellers encapsulate it all in just one word: beauty. And we can’t help but agree — whether you find yourself in awe of the Aksu Canyon or mesmerised by the rough, white glacial waters of the Aksu River.
Those up for active fun can head straight to the Mashat Canyon, a recreational area perfect for picnics and rock-climbing. Animal lovers, don’t miss your chance to go birdwatching and even horseback riding. Travellers fond of flora, on the other hand, can try their luck spotting colourful wild tulips. You’re bound to catch them if you travel to Kazahstan in the summer.
4. Brave the sand dunes at Altyn-Emel National Park
Many people have dubbed Kazakstan as the under-visited beaut that’s home to scenes reminiscent of iconic tourist spots all around the world. That includes an attraction that can rival Africa’s Sahara Desert. Tucked in the Altyn-Emel National Park are the Singing Sand Dunes — named so because they produce a loud, almost hum-like sound when you slide down them. If this sounds like something you’d like to experience, prepare for some serious cardio; parts of these sand dunes reach a height of 150 metres.
Our tip? Make sure your water containers are full. And don’t expect a breezy time if you’ve included the Singing Sand Dunes in your list of things to do in Kazakhstan. Strong winds may make the hike up less strenuous but expect scorching heat as well. Altyn-Emel National Park is an area filled with desertland and otherworldly rock terrain, after all. But we promise you, all the sweat is worth it. At the end of each hike, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views and even a lovely sunset if you stay long enough.
5. Find your way around an actual lost city
There’s an ancient citadel with ruins you can explore in Kazakhstan’s Turkestan area that’s just around 45 kilometres away from Turkestan city proper. It’s called Sauran (I know it sounds familiar. Did I just hear The Lord of the Rings fans squeal?). They say Sauran used to be the largest city in Kazakhstan at one point, and you can just imagine its grandeur during its peak. You can tell that the city was guarded by tall walls, even if the place has undergone extensive restoration. Sauran houses remnants of ancient civilisation: underwater canals, intricate pathways, a distinct architectural layout. Historical records also confirm that Sauran played an important role in trade along the famed Silk Road. Imagine, then, its archeological significance!
P.S. Although unconfirmed, there has been speculation that J.R.R. Tolkien actually derived Sauron’s name from this Kazakh attraction. We wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. The place even looks like it could be the site of a new Mordor! Okay, enough geekery.
6. Dare to dive into freezing waters at Lake Kaindy
Within the Kolsai Lakes National Park, are well, the Kolsai Lakes (also spelled as Kolsay) — often tagged as the “Pearls of Tien Shan”. They’re as pretty as they sound, of course. Imagine a body of water that instills a sense of calm to all visitors with its glassy, blue-green sheen. The only time you’ll be reminded that you’re actually staring at a lake is when ripples break the surface. Surrounding the lakes are the verdant meadows and endless forests filled with pine trees. I’ll give you this opportunity to close your eyes and imagine the crisp scent of pine swirled with hints of fresh air and alpine water. Divine.
But it doesn’t stop there. Kolsai Lakes National Park also houses Lake Kaindy, which is just as majestic as it is intriguing (even from a scientific viewpoint!). Essentially, Lake Kaindy is a natural dam — a result of an earthquake that devastated the area in 1911. But as they say, even in destruction lies beauty. A landslide effectively paved the way for alpine water to fill the concave of land, and Lake Kaindy was born. But since it was created by a landslide, Lake Kaindy is also a watery gravesite of sorts to the trees that the earthquake dragged downward. The icy blue waters’ chilly temperatures, though, preserved the bleached spruce trees, creating an underwater forest that’s unlike anywhere else in the world.
7. Steep yourself in Turkestan’s rich history
By road travel, Turkestan is about nine hours away from Almaty. That’s one epic road trip, if you ask us. Parang road trip to parts of Quezon or Bicol lang! For history buffs and lovers of cultural heritage, the drive will most definitely be worth it.
Among other activities, a historical tour you can’t miss is one that will uncover the secrets of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi’s mausoleum. Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is an icon in Sufism, an Islamic movement that touches on the more mystical aspects of the faith and rejects all forms of materialism. The arresting, massive structure was by the conqueror Tamerlane or Amir Timur, and boasts of vibrant, intricate tilework from the inside out. The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi can be broken down into several parts, with the main areas being the main hall, the mosque, and the archives.
8. Check out what’s happening at the capital, Nur-Sultan
Fun fact: We already mentioned that the capital of Kazakhstan was moved to Nur-Sultan in 1997, but did you know that it was only renamed Nur-Sultan in March this year? For the past 22 years, the capital was actually called Astana! In any case, a trip to Nur-Sultan will be absolutely mind-blowing. As you may have noticed, Kazakhstan doesn’t fall short of natural attractions. We haven’t even covered all its nature parks, and yet, most of the entries on this list describe Kazakhstan’s unparalleled natural beauty.
Nur-Sultan, which takes almost an entire day’s drive (we’re talking around 20 hours, so we’d recommend booking flights if you’re in a hurry) from Almaty, is exceptionally modern and futuristic. And by futuristic we mean a bright metropolis that comes alive at night, architectural marvels that push the boundaries of design, high tech comforts of any modern city — the works. It surely is a stark contrast from the mountain ranges and quaint villages you’ll come across in other parts of the region. There are many places to see here, but we’re sure you won’t miss the Baiterek Tower. You should also check out the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and Khan Shatry Entertainment Centre, which features a prominent conical roof. You should note, though, that even if Nur Sultan is very modern and sleek, it still embraces its rich cultural roots.
9. Uncover an underground mosque
There are many places of worship to seek out in Kazakhstan but a handful of underground mosques can be found in the Mangistau region, thanks to a Sufi scholar called Beket-Ata who began the movement. As he was a respected figure of the faith, an underground mosque was erected at his burial site in the Oglandy Mountains. Naturally, the underground spectacle — painstakingly and lovingly carved out of the Oglandy’s rocky landscape — was named after the esteemed scholar. Which is why you must drop by the Beket-Ata if ever you find yourself soul searching in the region. So now, your itinerary of things to do in Kazakhstan is becoming quite holistic; you have nature, history, and even something to enrich your spiritual journey.
10. Take a peek at a spaceport
Here’s one thing that you don’t see every day: a spaceport! I often wonder about the thrills of being in outer space and studying the complexities of heavenly bodies. Seeing as it won’t happen for me in this lifetime, stepping into a space station will do. Apparently, the Soviet Union put up its own spaceport in Kazakhstan. To this day, the Baikonur Cosmodrome carries out launches into the International Space Station — too cool!
Touring the facility is shockingly expensive and might require extensive paperwork. In short, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is usually only open to official and state visits. But there’s no stopping you from staying nearby and watching out for exercises. If you’re lucky, you might even witness a launch! My astronaut heart is getting all giddy just thinking about it.
Tips for your Kazakhstan trip
Now that we’re done with your can’t-miss list of things to do in Kazakhstan, it’s time for some top tips!
1. Take advantage of our new visa-free perk
We told you before and we’ll tell you again: Philippine passport-holders no longer need a visa to travel to Kazakstan for as long as they don’t overstay. You can visit a maximum of 30 days per trip to Kazahkstan — not bad at all!
Since there are no direct flights from the Philippines to Kazakhstan, you’d need to put in a little more effort in trip planning. The good news is, airlines that offer flights to Almaty often have stopovers in exciting destinations as well! Take your pick from Hong Kong, Incheon, and even Taipei! We suggest checking out your flight options so you can better map out your Kazakh adventure.
2. Locals speak Russian, but their national language is Kazakh
The only way to ensure that you carry out your itinerary of things to do in Kazakhstan successfully is if you can communicate it properly. Sure, Russian and English are widely spoken in Kazakhstan but keep in mind that their national language is actually Kazakh. Locals take pride in this and they’re really approachable to begin with — but they’ll definitely warm up to you if you learn a few useful phrases in Kazakh. Go on, practise your pronunciation before your trip!
3. If you like riding taxis, don’t be weirded out by the Kazakh way
According to travel vlogger Patmax Adventures, the local taxi system in Kazakhstan can be quite a culture shock. So best be prepared. What happens is you hold out your hand (the way you usually hail a cab in Manila) so that random cars with no identification or signages whatsoever will approach you. You are then to engage in a delicate dance of negotiating for the price of your ride.
The system varies depending on which city you stay in. We thought you should just know that this widely happens in the country, so better read up and do your research when it comes to public transportation. We know it sounds intimidating at first, but friendly locals and efficient police officers roaming all areas make Kazakhstan quite the safe destination even for solo travellers.
4. Brace your tummy for a very meaty diet
Before anything else, know that Kazakhstan is a meat lover’s paradise. Almost every dish’s main component is a hefty serving of tender meat! While you’re in the country, make sure to try authentic Kazakh cuisine. There’s horsemeat, of course, which they say is a tad sweet and a bit like beef and venison combined. Other Kazakh treats to watch out for are Kurt (a dried, salty cheese snack), Kumis (mare’s milk or horse milk), Beshbarmak (boiled meat dish that’s also called five fingers), Shashlik (kebab), and Pelmeni (meat dumplings).
Some words of wisdom to vegetarians: Although you’ll find options, they’re far and few in between. Our advice would be to book accommodations where you can cook and find the nearest market or grocery so you can DIY your meals.
A bonus for those who like to keep hydrated: Carbonated water (also called sparkling or gas water) is very popular in Kazakhstan. If you prefer to gulp down still water (normal drinking water without the fizz), ask for it specifically to be sure!
5. Be sure to have cash on hand; don’t rely on your credit card
Kazakhstan has recently opened its doors to more tourism opportunities through an updated visa-free policy and by welcoming more foreign airlines to operate in the country, but it still remains underrated to date. This is not to say that Kazakhstan lacks the proper tourism and hospitality infrastructures and services, but it’s generally better to carry a decent amount of cash. So exchange your dollars for KZT or Kazakhstani tenge (the national currency, which you can get from exchange counters at the airport and banks).
Be prepared for ATM machines that won’t readily dispense cash through your Philippine bank cards, as well as the off chance that your credit card(s) won’t work. Don’t let this put you off, though! All you need to do is prepare for your trip and embrace the Kazakh way of life for an unforgettable excursion.
With this handy list of things to do in Kazakhstan, we’re sure you’ll fill your itinerary in no time. Keeping an eye out for affordable airfare tickets? Make sure you’re already a part of TripZilla Philippines’ flight deals page on Facebook for the best rates to any destination!