Kazakhstan travel guide
Unexplored by many, Kazakhstan is a curious yet little-known land of vast plains, mountainous horizons and beautiful culture. Bordering Russia in Central Asia, it’s truly massive in size – this is, after all, ranked as the world’s ninth biggest country. It’s also the most economically successful of those countries surrounding it, known fondly as the ‘stans’. This is largely thanks to oil reserves, as well as other natural resources. The upshot? You can expect more modern, higher-quality hotels, restaurants and travel options compared to some of the country’s poorer neighbours.
South Kazakhstan is a focus of Central Asian history, featuring many famous monuments. It is a scenically diverse region where the snow-capped peaks, lakes and glaciers of the Tian Shan range give way to steppe and desert. The desert is home to the Singing Barkhan – a sand dune 3.2km (2 miles) long, which, as it crumbles, produces a peculiar singing sound.
Almaty was until very recently the former capital of Kazakhstan and it enjoys a beautiful setting between mountains and plains. Still the country’s biggest city, it is a hub of modern architecture, cool fountains, parks and spectacular mountain views. You can also expect irreverent nightspots, trendy cafes, and palatial malls there. The present capital of Astana is following in its predecessor’s footsteps as a modern metropolis, with its space-age buildings clinging to the northern steppe.
The truth is, though, that travellers are more likely to be attracted to Kazakhstan’s natural wonders. It’s a beautiful country in its own haunting way, where intrepid travellers will enjoy hiking through the lofty mountains and down in the valleys of the Tian Shan. Its sparseness can seem mind-boggling, but you’ll find plenty of wildlife if you look for it, especially in the lake-strewn steppe. It’s also worth seeking out the underground mosques and villages that are scattered about the land. All in all, Kazakhstan is a special, unique country well worth discovering despite it being low on the radar of most tourists.
2,724,900 sq km (1,052,089 sq miles).
17,855,384 (UN estimate 2016).
6.7 per sq km.
President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev since 1991.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov since 2014.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Most visits are trouble-free. However, mugging and theft occur in cities and rural areas. Foreigners can be targeted.
There have been a number of violent attacks and muggings on the expatriate community in Atyrau and Aktau in western Kazakhstan, and in Astana and Almaty. Attacks have largely taken place at night, in and around local nightclubs and bars or when arriving at home late at night, as the majority of apartment buildings have dark stairwells and no lifts. Avoid walking alone and where possible pre-arrange transport. Keep valuables in a safe place and out of public view. Avoid travelling in unofficial taxis, particularly at night and alone, or if there is another passenger already in the car.
Robberies have occurred on trains, so always lock railway compartments on overnight trains.
Passenger lists on aircraft are not always kept confidential. There have been instances of people being met from an aircraft by someone using their name and then being robbed.
The following areas of Kazakhstan are closed to visitors unless prior permission has been received from the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry, with the agreement of the Kazakh National Security Committee:
- the Gvardeyskiy urban-type village in Almaty region (south eastern Kazakhstan)
- the town of Baykonur
- the districts of Karmakchi and Kazalinsk in southern Kyzylorda region
You should be aware that borders, particularly with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, may be subject to closure without notice.
Additional checks and restrictions may remain in place at Uzbekistan’s borders following the recent death of President Karimov of Uzbekistan.
If you wish to drive in Kazakhstan you should apply for an International Driving Permit
Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are a single Customs Union so if you’re planning to travel overland in your own vehicle make sure your customs declaration and temporary import licence are valid for the entire period of stay in all 3 countries. Your import licence can be extended for up to a year if necessary by contacting the customs authorities in any of the 3 countries.
Service stations are limited outside the main cities. Make sure you take all you need for your journey including water. Make sure your vehicle is properly maintained and in good condition for lengthy journeys.
Many roads are poorly maintained and road works or damaged roads are often not clearly signposted. Driving standards can be erratic. In some remote areas there are often stray animals on the roads. These are especially difficult to see in the dark. In winter, roads can become hazardous due to snow and ice.
Local traffic police only have the right to stop vehicles if an offence has been committed, but you should obey any request from the police to stop. The police officer should complete official papers relating to any alleged offence.
Many cars are not safely maintained and do not have rear seatbelts.
Don’t use local buses or mini-buses as they are poorly maintained.
Take care when crossing roads as pedestrian crossings are rarely respected.
On 6 December 2016, all Kazakh airlines were removed from the list of airlines banned from operating to/from the European Union. Pending clarity on the implications for domestic flights, UK government staff in Kazakhstan remain advised not to use any Kazakh airline other than Air Astana for domestic flights.
The International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
In 2009 an audit of Kazakhstan’s Civil Aviation Authority by the International Civil Aviation Organisation found that the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Kazakhstan was below the global average.
A list of incidents and accidents in Kazakhstan can be found on the website of the Aviation Safety network.
Local airlines don’t always run to flight schedule. Check your actual departure or arrival time in advance. Keep hold of your baggage tags, as you will need to show them when you leave the airport.
Public demonstrations are only permitted when authorised, so rarely take place. You should avoid any demonstrations or political gatherings. If you become aware of any nearby violence you should leave the area immediately.