Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country in the world. As you would expect from such a large landmass, the geography of the country differs greatly from area to area. Northern parts of the country are predominantly steppe, the central desert, and the southern mountains. The country shares its borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and the Caspian Sea. It is considered part of Central Asia and was an important route as part of the ancient Silk Road.
Kazakhstan Places To See – An Adventure Tour
This country is an adventure tourist’s dream. Almaty in the south is home to Central Asia’s premier mountain resort with skiing, snowboarding, and hiking all possible at different times of the year. For lovers of history and architecture, the cities provide a stunning glimpse of the past from the caravans of the Silk Road to more modern Soviet times.
Food in the country can be quite basic; a throwback to the country’s nomadic past. However, the bazaars and markets are awash with the colors and smell of fresh fruit, pastries, spices, and herbs. They are an excellent place to pick up a healthy breakfast or lunch.
Baiterek Tower & observation deck in the center of the capital Nur-Sultan.
The Presidential Palace of the country in Nur-Sultan.
Nur-Sultan, renamed after the former president in 2019 and previously known as Astana, is the countries glistening and shiny new capital. Once a dusty outpost on the vast Eurasian steppe, Nur-Sultan is a palace to modernity with shimmering skyscrapers, department stores, and world-class restaurants. The city is a little bland. But for those who enjoy the finer trappings of modernity, it’s a great jumping-off point to discover the rest of this wild country.
Soviet-era murals adorn many walls in Karaganda.
A soviet era monument dedicated to the miners of Karaganda.
Located 200 KM south of Nur-Sultan is the small provincial city of Karaganda. The city is tied ominously to its Soviet past and the large system of gulags that were set up to mine the area’s abundant coal deposits. It’s not all doom and gloom though as the city’s tree-lined boulevards and parks come alive in summer. There are some interesting murals preserved from the soviet times that decorate the city’s walls.
The museum dedicated to the victims of Kazakhstan’s gulags at Karlag.
The Karaganda Corrective Labour Camp, or Karlag for short, was the headquarters of the countries Gulag complex. The site, which lies 30 KM north-west of Karaganda, is now home to a museum depicting the horrors of Stalinism and the gulag “archipelago”. The grand-looking whitewashed building belies the dark past of the place. Inside are three floors with exhibits and dioramas of prisoner life. Do check out the reconstruction of a gulag guard tower.
The beautiful Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park, Almaty.
Almaty skyline with the Tian Shan Mountains in the background is a beautiful sight.
The beating heart and former capital of the country, Almaty is a joy to behold. Wherever you are in the city the giant Tian Shan Mountains dominate the skyline. The huge number of street-side cafes means that you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in Paris rather than on the Silk Road! Almaty has a mixture of central Asian and Russian architecture. The stunning yellow, blue and white Zhenkov Cathedral is a must-see!
Big Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan
Big Almaty Lake in the mountains above the city.
Stunning mountain pastures near Big Almaty Lake.
Tucked in a valley some 3,000 meters above Almaty is the translucent Big Almaty Lake. In winters the surface resembles the glass of a skyscraper. And in summers it turns an azure blue as it reflects the blue skies above. The lake lies very close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. So don’t be surprised to find border guards hiding in the forests surrounding the lake. A short hike from the lake lies the Almaty observatory.
Read More – Pangong Lake in Ladakh
The world’s highest ice rink at 1,691 meters (5,547 feet).
The Medeu cable car that goes up the mountain to the resort at Shymbulak.
Medeu is home to the world’s highest ice-skating rink. In winter families head here for a day of fun on the ice. And in summers it opens up for different events such as go-karting. Medeu is only a 30-minute bus ride from Almaty city center. It is the starting point of many hiking trails into the wilderness. This is also where the cable car to nearby Shymbulak is located.
The dramatic Zailiskiy Alatua Mountain, part of the Tian Shan range that spans Central Asia and China.
A signpost detailing the distance to other ski resorts around the globe can be seen on the way.
Central Asia’s premier mountain and ski resort, Shymbulak is a wonderful destination all year round. For lovers of winter sports, you can hire skis or a snowboard and hit the slopes. In summer the hikes into the mountains high above Almaty offer incredible views. The resort is home to 10 restaurants, bars, and cafes making it a great place to escape the city for a coffee or lunch!
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The Abdulhamid Kattani Mosque in central Shymkent.
A pleasant walkway following a tributary of the Kochkar Ata River in Shymkent.
Known as the Texas of Kazakhstan for its wild horses and “cowboys”, Shymkent is a pleasant, sleepy town not far from the border with Uzbekistan. The pedestrian street is lined with large trees and shops selling traditional Kazakh souvenirs. Shymkent makes an excellent destination for those wishing to explore the nearby countryside of lakes and mountains. Before discovering nearby Uzbekistan which lies less than 100 KM to the South.
A ship monument near Aralsk railway station alludes to its past glory as a fishing village on the Aral Sea.
Salt lakes glimmer under the hot desert sun of Aralsk in the central part of the country.
Aralsk has a sad story tell. This once-thriving fishing port is now a dusty and run-down desert outpost. The fishing trawlers have been replaced by camels as the Aral Sea has retreated hundreds of kilometers into the desert as a result of Soviet cotton farming and the damning of rivers. It’s not all bad news though, as slowly but surely the Aral is returning. Perhaps one day in the future it will once more lap at the town and bring back the fortunes that faded into the sand.
Read More – Wadi Rum – The Arabian desert
Aktau’s beach on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Nearby the Aktau lighthouse sits atop an apartment building.
Aktau is very, very far from anywhere. It is a small, industrial city on the Caspian Sea (like the Aral, the Caspian is really an inland lake). It takes three to four days to reach Aktau by train from Almaty or Nur-Sultan. But is an incredible adventure journey nevertheless. The main reason for traveling to Aktau is for the weekly sailing between Kazakhstan and Baku in Azerbaijan. One of the quirkier things about this city is the extraordinary lighthouse perched atop a block of flats.
The small village of Zharkent is made up of many wooden dachas.
A small but picturesque mosque can be seen in the Kazakh village of Zharkent.
Zharkent is a small village close to the border with China. It represents a real look at rural parts of the country with its unpaved roads, wooden painted houses, and laid-back feel. You are just as likely to see a horse and cart as you are the ubiquitous Ladas that can be found across the former Soviet Union from Kaliningrad to Kazakhstan! There isn’t much to see in the village save for a small war memorial and pleasant shady park.
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It is a wonderful and little-visited country that is just opening up to tourism. There has never been a better time to visit, as travelers seek alternatives to well-trodden paths. There is enough to see in this huge country to keep travelers of every interest engaged and coming back for more!
Excited about visiting this country? Check out this comprehensive Kazakhstan Backpacking Guide for more information.
This is a guest post by Steve Rohan.
Steve Rohan is an English teacher originally from England who has lived and worked in China for five years. His interests include cycling, hiking, travel, and all aspects of the great outdoors. Steve has traveled to over 50 countries. He writes for the blog https://thetripgoeson.com/ which focuses on overland travel and extreme destinations. He has visited the country eight times in the last three years. And plans on moving to Almaty in 2020.