Kazakhstan is, by far, one of the strangest countries I have ever been to, along with Azerbaijan.
On the one hand, it is a surprisingly developed country, home to the most Westernized city in Asia, Almaty, whose inhabitants are very European-minded, as well as some striking mountains.
On the other hand, this oil-rich, barely populated country is also the 9th largest in the world and it is also home to some of the most bizarre places on Earth, like an old nuclear testing town, a drought sea, the Russian Cosmodrome and an extremely vast steppe with the occasional 2-humped hairy camel.
Kazakhstan has two faces and, for this reason, it can really have a place in everybody’s heart, both the traveler who likes to explore a cosmopolitan city and beautiful mountains and the avid traveler who likes to get deep into obscure places off the beaten track.
After traveling in Kazakhstan for a month, I have compiled this guide with all the travel tips you need to know.
Covid 19- Travel Restrictions
Travel insurance for Kazakhstan
The country, people and their culture
Tourism in Kazakhstan
Food and alcohol
As of June 2022, Coronavirus restrictions have been lifted for traveling to Kazakhstan.
IATI Insurance is one of the few providers that offers full Coronavirus coverage, not only when it comes to treatment, but also cancellations costs in case you tested positive before departure.
Moreover, IATI offers up to 1-year plans, so it’s perfect for big overlanding trips around the Stans.
Readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
1 – Visa-free – Travelers from around 60 countries can travel to Kazakhstan without a visa and they can get it on the arrival at any international airport or land border. This includes EU passport holders, the USA, Canada, most Latin American countries, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and a large etcetera. The visa is valid for 30 days.
2 – Extending your visa – Like in the rest of Central Asia, extending your visa seems tricky but, if you leave the country and re-enter on the same day, you will automatically renew your visa for 30 more days. The easiest way would be going from Almaty to Bishkek, as Kyrgyzstan has even more liberal visa rules. However, I think the maximum you can stay is 90 days within a 180-day period.
3 – Registration – For people traveling in Kazakhstan, there is a very strange rule: basically, when you enter the country, they will give you an immigration form which you need to fill in. Once you get it, the authorities will stamp it twice and that second stamp is your police registration. If you lose your card, upon your exit you will have to pay a fine.
Moreover, in the unlikely event that you don’t have a second stamp, you will have to register at the migration police station within 5 days of your arrival. If you don’t register, you could get into some serious trouble.
If you aren’t sure about whether you are eligible for a free visa, check the Caravanistan site.
4 – Get IATI Insurance for traveling to Kazakhstan.Why?
5 – Wi-Fi – It’s all right throughout the country. Nothing wow but I managed to work online without any problem.
6 – Sim Card and 3G – SIM Cards and 3G data are really cheap and work well. Plans may vary depending on specific promos but I paid 2,000TEN and they gave me 20GB of data for 1 month. Amazingly cheap.
You should always use a VPN when you travel, especially when you connect to public Wi-Fi networks.
Your connection will be much safer.
Moreover, you will be able to access content which is typically censored in Kazakhstan.
I recommend ExpressVPN – Extremely easy to use, fast and cheap.
If you want to learn more about VPN, check: Why you need a VPN for traveling.
7 – Currency – In Kazakhstan, they use the Kazakh Tenge and approximately
1 USD = 449 KZT
8 – Currency exchange – You can easily exchange Euros or American Dollars in many banks and offices across the country. Just remember that, except for Russian Rubles, they aren’t very big fans of their neighbors’ currency. I am not sure about Kyrgyz SOM but I was never able to exchange the Uzbek money I had left.
9 – ATMs – In the big cities, ATMs are plentiful and in Almaty, you can pay by card in many places. However, do have cash whenever you are in the countryside.
10 – How much does it cost to travel in Kazakhstan – Personally, I found Kazakhstan particularly expensive, as it was the last country from all the Stans I visited, after 5 months in Central Asia. It is, definitely, the most expensive one but, when I looked at its prices in absolute terms, it became very affordable. These are the prices of the most typical things:
11 – Bribes – Would you believe when I tell you that a very common question I receive from travelers is about policemen asking for bribes in Central Asia? Corruption in Kazakhstan and in the rest of the region is a well-known fact overseas. I personally didn’t have any problems but I heard from a traveler that the police asked him for money after checking his passport, claiming that there was something wrong with his visa.
Honestly, if you decide to pay them, not only are you really stupid but you will also be feeding their corrupt system. Because, seriously, how the hell is there going to be something wrong with your visa?
That guy didn’t pay obviously, basically because he told the policeman that, if there was something wrong, he preferred to be arrested and taken to the police station, so the policemen backed off.
Furthermore, a friend of me told me that he was arrested and taken into a room while he was smoking at the train station in Aktau, which was awful, as there were other people smoking as well. The policeman claimed that they had to pay a 100USD fine each. Smoking was technically allowed and if it wasn’t, no way would the fine be that expensive.
However, the policeman kept insisting, as he knew they were about to miss the train and they were going to Aralsk, which was 1,700km away, so it would have been a big deal to miss that train. They held the pressure, however, and, in the end, they agreed on paying around 20USD between the two of them, so they could catch the train.
Personally, I would have tried to hold a bit more, not because of the money but because I would hate that corrupt policeman to get away with it.
12 – By plane – I strongly recommend flying to Almaty, as there are very cheap flights from Europe operated by Pegasus. Alternatively, you could also fly to Bishkek, as it is very close to Almaty and has cheap flights as well. Flying to Astana (today called Nur-Sultan) would also be an option and, if you are in Iran or Azerbaijan, consider flying to Aktau, as there is a daily budget flight.
13 – Overland (bus or train) – There are open land borders with China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. Practically, all of them are open and friendly, at least from the Kazakh site. I personally crossed by train from Uzbekistan.
14 – Overland (by boat) – Long-term overlanders like to take the ferry from Baku to Aktau, which takes 24 hours. I haven’t taken it but my friends from Journal of Nomads did. Check their report here.
15 – Welcome to the ex-Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan – Kazakhstan is a republic which, like most former Soviet republics, got its independence from Russia in 1991. It is, however, the country with the largest Russian influence in Central Asia, not only due to its buildings and remaining infrastructure but you can see it in their culture, and Kazakh people actually like Russia:
We like Russia because she takes cares of us’, a Kazakh friend of mine said. Kazakhstan is the only Stan that borders Russia, so it is obvious that their presence and influence is highly visible.
16 – Kazakhstan today – The development of Kazakhstan is explained by its abundance of natural resources, such as oil and gas. It has really major, rich cities which have been totally built with the help of oil and have become business hubs filled with expats, like Atyrau, the first city I visited in Kazakhstan.
Moreover, the Government has been investing a lot in terms of education, one of their most successful policies being the opportunity of giving loads of scholarships to students to study abroad in major worldwide universities, with the only condition that they must come back and work in Kazakhstan after X years. This has led to a highly educated work-force for Kazakhstan.
However, Kazakhs claim that, given its abundance of natural resources, the situation should be much better and they blame a very corrupt and human rights-abusive President named Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and only President that Kazakhstan has ever had. Since he was elected president of Kazakhstan back in 1991, Kazakhstan has never celebrated fair elections.
17 – The Kazakhs – Kazakhs are descendants from Turkic and Mongolian tribes. They are very ethnically mixed but most of them have strong Mongolian features. The Kazakhs used to be a nomadic nation that moved across the steppe and their biggest contribution to the Silk Road trade was animal-related products, like fur.
18 – Language – Kazakh, a Turkic language, is the official language in Kazakhstan. Russian, of course, is widely spoken, more than anywhere else in Central Asia and, in Almaty, it is the preferred language. Actually, many Kazakhs from Almaty claim that their Russian is better than their Kazakh.
As per English, most young well-educated people from the main cities can speak English but, other than that, you should try to learn some Russian words if you decide to visit Kazakhstan.
19 – Religion – Officially, Kazakh people are Muslim but, like in the rest of Central Asia, they are what I call Soviet Muslim, as their devotion to Islam was pretty much lost during the USSR .
Sure, you will see a few mosques with a couple of worshippers but most people are actually atheist and even those who do go to the mosque, also drink vodka whenever they have the chance. Saudi Arabia has actually invested millions in trying to reverse that.
20 – The land of the weird stuff – Like I said in the introduction, tourism in Kazakhstan is about very strange, remote places, so it is the perfect place destination those people who really like to get off the beaten track.
On the one hand, you have those long journeys on a Soviet train through thousands of kilometers of boring steppe, yet, it is a great way to meet locals.
Then you have those dark tourism places, like the Aral Sea or Semipalatinsk, a nuclear testing site whose inhabitants are still suffering from its brutal consequences today.
Moreover, there is also the forbidden Russian town where the Cosmodrome is (Baikonur), as well as extremely remote villages surrounded by nothing but steppe and hairy camels. Oh, and if that was not enough, you also have Astana (Nur-Sultan), one of those fake capitals built with the money from natural resources and composed of the most nonsensical buildings, sort of a Dubai concept I would say.
21 – Apart from weird stuff – I fully understand that there are many travelers out there who aren’t really into dark tourism nor visiting remote places just to see strange things, However, this shouldn’t stop you from visiting Kazakhstan, as I strongly believe that the city of Almaty and its surrounding mountains are a first-class touristic destination, as well the Silk Road city of Turkestan and the more traditional-oriented city of Shymkent.
For more information, don’t forget to check my 1-month itinerary to Kazakhstan
22 – Food sucks – I traveled for 5 months in Central Asia and Kazakhstan was the last country I visited, so I am completely biased, but seriously, the food is the same across the region and let’s say that high-cuisine is not their strength, precisely. In Kazakhstan, pelmeni (dumpling soup) would be the most common option, so is lagman (noodles soup with terribly chewy and fatty beef).
23 – You must try beshbarmak when you visit Kazakhstan – A national dish which consists of pasta layers, vegetables, and the star-ingredient being horse meat, all served in a huge flat dish with a bit of broth. Usually, it is a sharing dish, so the few restaurants that serve it require a minimum order of a couple of people. Kazakhs reserve beshbarmak for special occasions.
24 – Yes, horse meat is a thing – You can find horse meat in many countries from around the world but nowhere else like in Kazakhstan, where horse meat is the base of many of their dishes, so that’s why you can find farms all around the country.
I actually visited one horse-farm in Zhabagly, a mountain village around Shymkent. They had hundreds of horses and they told me that, when the horse gets into a certain age, they decide whether they keep it as a workforce or send it to the butchery. It was sad but this is life…
25 – Get drunk on vodka with the locals, at least once – In rural Kazakhstan, in places like Aralsk or even when you travel by train, you are likely to meet friendly locals who want to invite you to drink some vodka.
If you say yes, they will order a bottle and you can’t just drink one shot but you need to finish the bottle with them, otherwise, you will be considered a pussy. If you don’t feel like drinking more than a shot, then just say no from the beginning. Vodka is always served very cold and a bottle costs just a few dollars.
26 – In big cities you can find everything – I spent 8 days in Almaty and never ever ate any Kazakh food, like no way. It was my last destination in Central Asia before going back home, so I tried Japanese, Thai, Italian, and all sorts of international cuisine. You can seriously find everything. In Atyrau and Shymkent, I also found a few international options.
27 – Vegetarians are nearly fucked – Local cuisine is meat-based, even salads sometimes, and usually, this is the only options outside Astana (Nur-Sultan), Almaty, and Atyrau pretty much.
28 – Train – Multi-day train journeys over the Kazakh steppe is an experience by itself and so much fun. For more information, I put together a train guide to Kazakhstan.
29 – Bus – I never got in any bus when I was traveling in Kazakhstan but I always took the train. However, I know that it is also an option to move around cities.
30 – Shared taxis – In some more remote places where trains don’t go, the locals move around in shared taxis. They are significantly more expensive than any other transportation.
31 – City taxis – To avoid any hassles, I recommend you download Yandex, which is like the Russian Uber.
32 – There all of sorts of accommodation – From backpacking hostels to 5-star hotels, in Kazakhstan, you can find all sorts of accommodation. I always booked them through Booking.com.
In my Kazakhstan itinerary, you can find different accommodation options from each city I visited.
Here are the 3 most popular options but, if you want to get deeper into the region, here’s my list of the best books on Central Asia
33 – Kazakhstan travel guide by Bradt – Bradt just released the latest guide for traveling to Kazakhstan. You won’t find any more complete guide. Seriously, I have the Kindle version of all Bradt guides from all the countries I go because they are great.
34 – Central Asia Travel Guide by Lonely Planet – If you are traveling all around Central Asia, you may prefer to buy one book for the whole region. It’s all right but you will just get an overall picture.
35 – Once in Kazakhstan – If you are looking for good literature and get some political context, this is the one I would recommend, as it tells the story of all the struggles of Kazakhstan when it became an independent country