Ask most people about Kazakhstan, and one word exits their mouth before you have even finished speaking. Borat, they say. Beyond this cinematic work of fiction, few people know much more about this expansive Central Asian nation, by far the largest in the region.
Composed mostly of flat, arid steppes and desert stretching out infinitely into the horizon, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that your common person, even in the travel community, knows little about Kazakhstan.
Being the closest to Mother Russia in geographic proximity, this nation has the most similarities to its former master, with a significant minority that are of Russian descent, most of whom are Orthodox Catholics. The majority of the population here are Kazakh in ethnicity, who dedicates most of their religious attention to Islam rather than Christianity.
Despite the flatness of the majority of this country, pockets of it do contain mountains that will leave you awe-struck, and its cities, fuelled by petro riches, are rapidly being transformed into super futuristic icons that will leave avid urbanists from the West green with envy.
So forget everything that Sasha Baron Cohen taught you about this proud and diverse nation, and prepare learn more about one of the fastest rising stars of Central Asia than 99% of the people you know.
Currency: Kazakh Tenge
Languages: Kazakh, Russian
What To Do
After flying in Astana and settling into your hotel, make your way through the rapidly changing streets of this dynamic city to The President’s Museum of Kazakhstan. Shaped like a yurt with a blue-domed roof, this structure contains a wide array of artifacts from Kazakhstan’s long history.
Yurts, carpets and traditional clothing from over the ages dominates the first floor, while the second floor has mock-up of various buildings, precious gems, and perhaps most notably, a replica of the Golden Man (the original is too fragile to be on display, so he is kept safe in a vault), who was likely a prince from medieval times that was buried with his luxurious adornments.
Displays here, unlike other Central Asian museums, are in English in addition to the native languages here, making it easier to appreciate the history of this place.
After learning up on Kazakhstan’s past, leap boldly into its future by visiting Baiterek Tower. A 97 metre tower overlooking the city below, it offers a great insight into the rapidly changing nature of Astana.
After strolling through the art gallery located within, also make an effort check out the heated tent known as Khan Shatyry if you here during the colder months. Winters in Kazakhstan can see temperatures plunge as low as -40 Celsius, so to engender continued business in the downtown core, officials have erected a transparent tent over a part of the core that is heated, allowing street life to continue in the dead of January as if it were summer (even the canals within are unfrozen, thanks to this innovation!)
While the pancake flat steppes of central Kazakhstan get old within the first couple of hours of being there, this geographic area has proved to be the ideal spot to launch and land space flights. As such, it has, and continues to serve as the location where the Russian space program is managed, with its base of operations being located at Baikonur Cosmodrome. To tour this complex, you need to apply for a pass 45 days before your visit, so be sure to plan this well in advance if you are a space nut!
Once you get tired of the featurelessness of the Kazakh plains in the central parts of the country, it will be time to head for the mountains in the southeast portion of the country near the city of Almaty. Within these soaring peaks, many mountain activities can be enjoyed, such as going on a trek to the creatively named Big Almaty Lake, which has a baby blue tinge due to glacial runoff suspended in the water. The peaks in the area are becoming increasingly popular with big mountain skiers and boarders in the winter time, so if you wish to rub elbows with folks you might find in a Warren Miller flick, head here during that time!
End your time in Almaty and Kazakhstan with some time in a local sauna, which can be found everywhere in this country. After a good steam, jump in a swimming pool within the complex to cool off, and then shoot some billiards to cap off an entertaining day in a country 98% of people can’t find on a map!
What To Eat
Like Kyrgyzstan, Besbarmak is the national dish, which translates to five fingers in English. This dish is essential a flatbread that has been coated with a cheese sauce, with copious amounts of beef or mutton and fried onions piled on top … bon appetite!
Check out other Central Asian country guides as a reference for Kazakh cuisine and check out their food sections, as other dishes like Shashlik, Manty, Plov and others are widely enjoyed here as well.
As for dishes that can be found exclusively in Kazakhstan, Kazy is a great choice for the inquisitive traveler. This food is a sausage cased with horse meat, and it often served with Beshbarmak. Ordered on the side with other meals, it often comes served cold, so be aware of this if this variation bothers you.
The truly adventurous traveler should try some Mypalau, which is cooked sheep’s brain. Don’t make that face, as it is served for guests of honour or elders; in addition to the brain itself, it is cooked with chunks of meat, bone marrow, salted fat and garlic, so tell yourself it is something other than brains when you try it … or you could pretend to be a zombie… whatever works!