It is funny just how much mystery shrouds theninth largest country in the world. Known best as the home land of Borat and its amazing accomplishments at this year’s Olympics, Kazakhstan is one of the world’s last great adventures!
Out of the five Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), Kazakhstan could definitely be considered the older brother in terms of economy, infrastructure and international recognition. This republic is definitely leading the way. However, even with all this growth and wealth, the country’s tourism infrastructure is almost non-existent. This is possibly why this is the biggest draw to adventurers like myself, who look at the unending steppe as an opportunity for new experiences.
Where should one start? Well, this is the fundamental question isn’t it? The country has everything: modern cities, historic relics, futuristic architecture, quant old towns and sights of religious pilgrimage. Due to size, options and lack of information, travelling this country can be a daunting task, but what is travel if not the hunt for the unknown and search for ways to better one’s self?
Now I have to admit I am a sporadic traveler and I often plan the bare minimum and let the adventure take me till the money runs out. For Kazakhstan, this philosophy worked well. I entered into the west of the country from Uzbekistan by 24-hour train and managed to do a survey of the major attractions and get a great feel for the country. Places that I will never forget were the ship graveyard in Aralsko More, the Mouselium of Khoja Yasawi in Turkistan, the sheer bizarreness of Astana and non-stop hospitality on the train and from the hosts I couch surfed with.
One of the greatest ecological horrors of all time had to be the complete devastation of the Aralsk Sea by the Soviets. In a failed attempt to turn the Kazakh Steppe into the most fertile cotton crops in the world, the Soviets managed to destroy an entire ecosystem. The water receded so quickly that some of the boats never managed to make it back to shore and were left in the Steppe as if magically dropped from the sky. Though the graveyard originally stretched for miles with multiple ships laying abandoned, due to their negative environmental impact the ships have recently been dismantled. Three of the ships have been left for tourist purposes. The sight is shocking when you see it; rusted, empty hulls in the middle of the barren dessert. A site all should see to remind us to know our limits as species and the consequences when we don’t.
Kazakhstan’s south is famous for its national parks and the country’s most beautiful women, as I was told many, many times. Here also lies the stunning Mouselium of Khoja Yasawi in the town of Turkestan. The town was built in commemoration of the first Khan, or leader, who introduced Islam to Kazakhstan. Unlike the teal-tiled building in Uzbekistan, the mausoleum is still in its original state and used for the worship of locals. I was amazed by the sheer size and beauty of the building. Turkistan is definitely new to tourism as museum attendants drilled me about why I was there. The local cultural bureau invited me for tea and a family asked me to join their prayers. Even if you don’t get the royal treatment, the mixture of blooming roses, beautiful architecture and great people makes the stop more than worth it.
Of course, one cannot leave Kazakhstan without seeing the oddity of Astana. The counties new capital looks like something out of an apocalyptic science fiction movie. Futuristic buildings, non-stop monuments and winters that can dip to minus 40 degrees Celsius makes this probably the oddest city you will ever visit. To be honest, I was lucky. When I lived in Kyrgyzstan, I met an EU diplomat who offered to let me stay with him in this extremely expensive city (coffee can be as much as 5$ a cup!) and because of this I had a bizarre experience. I will never forget the first night I met my host when he invited me to a dinner with some of the other diplomats living in the city. Apparently everyone already knew I was here because Astana does not get tourists and seeing someone with a backpack and Lonely Planet was just so rare. That night I also ended up in the cities craziest club, Chocolate, where seven Kazakh men almost beat my drunk butt out of oblivion for wooing away their girl. OK, I almost died, but this is still my favorite story!
Back to travelling advice: personally I feel you only need two to three days to truly enjoy Astana. In those short days you cannot miss the aquarium complex across from the Mega Mall . Here, moving sidewalks will take you down the largest, and maybe only, aquarium in this land-locked nation. Make sure not to miss the miniature wonders of the world and my personal favorite, the mechanical bull all located in the same complex. If your feeling especially auspicious you could always take an elevator up the Bayterek a monument based off a Kazakh legend about a golden egg. Here, engaged couples go to the top to place their hands in a cement indentations of presidents, which is suppose to ensure for many children…
Some tips for the adventurous traveler. Kazakhstan is an expensive country, though traveling on a budget is possible, you will see food, accommodation and transport expenses accumulate quickly. With this said, some great tips to remember are: Central Asia is full of street food but Kazakhstan has the best-established grocery stores in the region. Stock up here and you will save quite a lot. As well, in some locations cafeteria-style restaurants are a good find here as the selection is large and food is cheap. If not, fried potato fritters and meat pies known as Samsa can be found on every corner.
The train is by far the best option for long trips. Each train has three classes, one open concept, a private room with four bunks and another with only two. Though a private room sounds appealing, I recommend the lowest class. The best times I had in Kazakhstan were on the train where old ladies would stuff me with tea, soldiers on their way home would want to practice their English, and students would chat to me about the newest Russian pop songs. Plus, if you get a night train, you won’t need to book a hotel or worry about food, because everyone around you will be eager to share. You will eat even if you don’t want to!
Lastly, two of the best places I turned to for help were local NGO’s and couch surfing. Trips to the Ship Graveyard and national park I visited in Southern Kazakhstan were both coordinated by local NGO’s Aral Tenizi and Wild Nature, who both have great programs and English speaking guides. Couch surfing was also great;. Here, I really got to know the true Kazakhstan and fell in love.
Truly, this is a country that should not be missed. It is so beautiful and fantastic, even if you don’t speak Kazakh or Russian, people are eager to help. Armed with a Lonely Planet and Russian phrase book, you should be fine…as long as you are not looking for Borat!Share This: