Kazakhstan

Capital Astana
Currency Tenge (KZT)
Population 17,289,111 (2014)
Electricity 220 V / 50 Hz, European plug
Country code +7
Time zone UTC+5 to UTC+6

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country and, as the world's ninth biggest country by area, is the largest of the former states of the former Soviet Union apart from Russia itself. It has borders with Russia, China, and the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which it dwarfs.

Its lack of significant historical sites and endless, featureless steppe repel as many visitors as are captivated by the emptiness and mystery of this goliath state. Kazakhstan is the richest country in the region due to its large oil and natural gas reserves and is also the largest in Central Asia.

Regions

Kazakhstan regions - Color-coded map
Almaty Province
the ex-capital, treks into Tian Shan, historic towns, ancient petroglyphs
Kazakhstani North
cold steppes home to the national capital, the country's Russian minority, and industrial cities
Kazakh Desert
ancient desert cities dotting the Silk Road
Altai
remote and beautiful alpine scenery
Caspian Basin
Caspian beaches and oil industry, and where local tribal affiliations still run strong
Central Highlands
endless and sparsely populated steppes

Cities

Mausoleum of Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi, Turkestan

Other destinations

Landscape in the Altai Mountains

Understand

Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were united as a single nation in the mid-16th century. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.

During the launching of the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities, including the Volga Germans) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these newcomers and their descendants to emigrate.

Modern Kazakhstan is a neo-patrimonial state characterized by considerable nepotism and dominance over political and economic affairs by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. However, it is not a severely authoritarian government as compared to bordering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China and opposition is not usually sacked or imprisoned. Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh government has allowed foreign investment to flow into the capital to develop. The development of significant oil and gas reserves, particularly in the north and west, has subsequently brought a large amount of wealth to the country, though the money falls into the hands of just a few people. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is now labelled a middle-income country, and is already classified with a high human development index. Corruption in Kazakhstan is ubiquitous compared to China, but it is not as widespread as other countries in the region.

Current issues include: Developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets (an oil pipeline to China has been built; the gas pipeline is under construction); achieving a sustainable economic growth outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors, and strengthening relations with surrounding states and other foreign powers.

Get in

Visas

Example of Kazakh visas

Citizens of Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Serbia, South Korea, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine do not need visas to enter Kazakhstan.

Citizens of Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States do not need a visa for stays of up to 15 days during the period until December 31 2017.

Citizens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, United Kingdom and USA (Jul 2009) can obtain single-entry (up to 30 days) or double-entry (up to 60 days) tourist visas without providing a letter of invitation.

Citizens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, United Kingdom and USA (Aug 2010) with valid Kyrgyz tourist visa can travel also to Almaty Oblast and Zhambyl Oblast of Kazakhstan. However if you have two-entry Kyrgyz visa and you cross the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, you can't return on this visa to Kyrgyzstan. Most customs officers are not aware of this agreement, which can cause long obstructions at border crossings.(Update Nov 2011. NO officials know of this agreement and you will be turned away with a stamp on your Kyrgyz visa that says no entry) The similar agreement applies reciprocally in Kyrgyzstan, but not for all nationalities mentioned above, see Kyrgyzstan#Get in.

For more information you should contact a Kazakhstan diplomatic mission in your area or Kazakhstan MFA's website Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan. As of June 2012 the Consulate General of Kazakhstan in New York says it only accepts money orders, but they actually accept cashier's checks as well.

Although the Kazakh government has set certain policies regarding which countries' citizens do not require "Letters of Invitation" (LOI), this does not always reach the embassies. Be prepared for the worst and coming up against an official who might flat out refuse to give you a visa without a LOI. This is an issue at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Moscow (Australian Passports).

By plane

Air Astana plane at the runway of Almaty airport

The most important carrier is Air Astana which flies into Almaty and Astana from Abu Dhabi, Moscow, Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul, Bangkok, Hannover, London, Amsterdam, Baku, Kuala Lumpur, Frankfurt, and Seoul.

Air Astana keeps a monopoly on some international routes by limiting which airlines can fly to Kazakhstan.

Lufthansa also has daily flights to Almaty, from where you can go anywhere via local carrier SCAT, which flies to most cities in Kazakhstan. British Airways and KLM now fly several times a week to Heathrow and Schiphol respectively. There is also a non-stop connection twice a week from Prague, operated by Czech airlines. Turkish Airlines is a good passenger carrier, with flights to Istanbul (ask a travel agent about the student fares, which can be a great deal).

There are twice a week flights from Seoul to Almaty; one is with Asiana Airlines, and the other is Astana. Airbaltic also flies to Almaty; if you reserve tickets in advance, you can go there for €130 (from Riga).

Etihad flies weekly from Abu Dhabi to Astana. Flight time is around 4.5 hours. Taxi fares from the airport to the city range between KZT2,000-3,000.

By train

Trains in Kazakhstan are slow but comfortable and clean. Popular routes include Almaty to/from Moscow (77 hours), Novosibirsk (35 hours) and Ürümqi, China (34 hours). Count on a 3–4 hr stay at the Russian border or 6–8 hr at the Chinese border. Trains in Kazakhstan can also be booked on-line.

By car

You can enter Kazakhstan by car through many of the border checkpoints on main roads into the country. However, be prepared to wait up to 24 (twenty-four) hours in the queues, with rather poor facilities.

By bus

It is fairly easy to travel from Ürümqi to Almaty via sleeper bus, especially if you aren't in a hurry and don't mind living on a bus for a good 24 to 36 hours. The border crossing itself is a bit of a hike, and you may be made to carry all of your belongings with you for quite a way in some seriously warm weather. The bus trip and "baggage fees" are around US$45. You can pick up your Kazakhstan visa at the consulate in Ürümqi as well, but be prepared to chill for at least a week waiting, and be sure to get a copy of your passport before handing it over.

By boat

Freighters travel regularly between Baku and Aktau, and it is possible to hitch a ride. Note, though, that it is common for ships to get held up, even for weeks, before entering port, so you had better stock up on food and water before boarding. See freighter travel to better understand how this works.

Registration

You must register your visa within five days of entering Kazakhstan if your border entry card has only one stamp. After your first registration you must register in each destination if you stay more than 72 hours (see each destination for further details). If you stay in Kazakhstan less than five days then you may not need to register but this needs to be confirmed (28 July 2008).

Although border entry card is having provision to mention just the name of your organisation, you must specify full address next to the name of organisation (although no one tells this at the time of entry). In one off case people are caught by immigration police for not having full address in the border entry card, resulting into seizing the passports causing inconvenience to the visitors. The passports needs to be collected at the immigration police office later next day after due formality.

If you have a one-entry tourist visa for 30 days, no registration is needed. In Almaty airport, custom officials say that you don't need to register as long as you don't plan on staying more than 90 days (only for tourists), as of July 2008.

Get around

Road sign pointing to Uzbek Khan's grave near Aktau

You can travel within the country using taxis, buses, trains and planes, it depends on your budget and demands. Renting a car is rather costly compared to other means of transport.

In Semipalatinsk (Semey) a minivan costs KZT35, and a large bus costs KZT35-40 (in Astana it ranges about KZT60-65), common taxi fare is minimally KZT300 (in August 2013, approximate exchange rates were €1 = KZT200, GBP1 = KZT240, USD1 = KSD150)

By public buses

Public transportation in big cities is rather popular. You can use buses, trolleys, trams and minibuses. One big minus of all of them is that they never come on schedule and very crowded on peak time. Moreover, there is absolutely no plan with bus stops and schedule whatsoever. If you don't speak Russian, taking the bus will be quite tricky but not impossible.

By taxi

Use taxis as they are very cheap (€2 to €6 within the city). You don't have to use official taxis in most cities, basically you can stop almost any car on the street by raising your hand. It works good in Almaty & Astana, but in Karaganda the best way is one of taxis by phone. It some cheaper and even faster than hitch-hike waiting.

A note of warning, getting to the Almaty airport can be expensive. Taxis to the airport vary greatly in price. Any foreigner will be quoted a very expensive rate but usually drivers will come down once they see they aren't going to be able to get that much. USD50 is outlandish. Do not accept the first price as it will result in your being overcharged. It should be less than USD10, although it can never be guaranteed that a foreigner will get that price. A better option are the minibuses and buses that go to the airport. The word "airport" is very similar in Russian and English.

A common way to get around is by unofficial taxis. Any time of day, just wave your hand and someone will stop. Locals do this all the time. Negotiate the price and destination before you agree to go. About USD2-4 is fair for a ride within the centre of Almaty. If your Russian is poor or non-existent, you will be charged a lot more than locals; to avoid this, try to use public buses as much as you can and don't hesitate to tell the driver how much you are ready to pay (do this before he tells you how much he wants). To be safe though, do not get in a car if more than one person is driving. Also, do not take these kind of taxis for long distances or anywhere that goes through remote areas, as there are frequent robberies, especially of foreigners.

Always try to have exact amount of money in cash (the price which you negotiated with a taxi driver), since usually they will not give you change. So if the price should be KZT350, give the driver KZT350, not more (as he/she might not give change).

By rail

Train is the most popular way of covering the huge distances between Kazakhstan's main cities. The main railway stations are in Astana, Karaganda and Almaty, but stations can be found in almost every big city.

The rolling stock, train classes, ticket and reservation systems were inherited from the former Soviet Railways, so they are very similar to the Russian train system.

Ticket prices are slightly lower than in Russia. Kazakh Railways have an e-shop, but it's only in Kazakh and Russian and doesn't accept many non-CIS credit cards, so you'll probably use it only for price checks.

Kazakhstan is a large country. For instance, it will take you almost 24 hours to get from Almaty to Astana. However, going by train is a very fun way of travelling, since the trains are a great way to meet people. A lot has been written about the pitfalls of being included in a vodka drinking party on a train, but for the most part fellow travellers are friendly, and keen to find out about you ("why aren't you married?" and, if you are, "why don't you have children?", and if you do, "why don't they have children?"!). Most travellers take food for the journey, as restaurant car provision is sporadic (and they expect you to share yours too!). If you don't have enough to last the distance, the trains generally stop for 15–20 minutes at each station and there are always people on the platform selling food and drink, at any time of day or night.

There is also a train called the Talgo, which can cover the distance from Almaty and Astana in 9 hours. The cost of the ticket is about KZT9,000.

By long distance bus

"Bus in Kazakhstan"

They're a popular alternative to trains and are faster, but less comfortable. Similarly to train travel, you will need to buy your ticket in advance and will be given a seat number. Be careful when the bus makes a toilet stop, the driver doesn't check if all the passengers are on board before driving away!

Fares are relatively low, for instance a single from Almaty to Karaganda (14 hr) will cost you KZT2,500 - much cheaper than a flight ticket.

By plane

Air Astana provides offices in a few major hotels in big cities; it's the fastest way of travelling within the city for those who can afford it. Planes are brand new and match European standards in quality.

Other

A fun and cheap way to get around is by taking a "marshrutka". These are the dilapidated vans that cruise around town. They usually have a sign (in Russian) listing the destination, and the driver will usually call out where they are going. But you will not find them in Almaty.

Talk

Both Kazakh and Russian are the official languages of Kazakhstan. Both languages are compulsory in all schools, and most people know both of them. Therefore, if you know either of them, you should be fine. However, in some regions people speak more Kazakh and in others they prefer Russian. For example, Shymkent and the western regions mostly use Kazakh but the northern part of the country remains to a large extent Russian-speaking. Kazakh will be somewhat familiar if you know another Turkic language, and Russian if you know another Slavic language.

Many people under age 20 will know some English as well as many customs officials and airport people know English.

It is difficult to get around the country without some Russian or Kazakh language skills; though, within the more modernized cities, it is easier. Have your place of residence written on a card and get a taxi if you get lost (you might be somewhat overcharged by the taxi, but it is better than being lost).

See

Astana

Baikonur is the famous cosmodrome site for the launch of the first manned orbital flight by Yuri Gagarin. The modern town of Baikonur was built near the existing village of Tyuratam.

As the cosmodrome area (6000 km2.) is rented by Russia, no Kazakh visa is needed if you fly in directly from Moscow.

Do

Buy

Costs

Kazakhstan is slightly more expensive than Uzbekistan, but still cheaper than Turkmenistan. A street snack costs around USD0.30 to 0.70. A night in a dorm in the big cities is USD15 to USD20. A more comfortable double room is around USD60 to USD80.

Currency

The national currency is tenge (KZT, Cyrillic: тенге and sometimes symbolised as ₸ or T). In late September 2015, exchange rates were: €1 = KZT301, £1 = KZT410, US$1 = KZT270

Even for people who are not big shoppers, the beautifully crafted felt items will appeal. They are also easy to carry and inexpensive to post.

Eat

Meat, potatoes, rice and pasta. And lots of it. If you're vegetarian be wary, because if it doesn't have meat in it, it will be almost certainly cooked in meat stock.

Beshbarmak
Manty
Korean carrot salad, created by Koryo people (the Korean diaspora in Central Asia)

Some recommended dishes:

If you're a vegetarian, you're probably thinking there's nothing for you in Kazakhstan. And you're right, if you eat out. But if you're cooking your own food, you'll be more than satisfied. Kazakhstan has some excellent products available at little markets everywhere. You will be amazed at the taste and availability of fresh organic veggies at low price! For a treat in Almaty, try Govinda's, a delicious vegetarian Hare Krishna restaurant. Malls have food courts with some vegetarian options too. Even some small Kazakh eateries will prepare vegetarian meals for you if you make it very clear to them (e.g. "byez myasa" (without meat), "ya vegeterianetz" (I [male] am a vegetarian), "ya vegetarianka" (I [female] am a vegetarian) in Russian). At some places (e.g. smak) you can even find vegetarian manty made with pumpkin.

The legacy of Korean resettlement in Kazakhstan means that Korean dishes, particularly salads, are very common. At the country's many bazaars (independent food and goods markets), look for the Korean ladies selling these. They will wrap you up any number of delicious, often spicy and garlicky salads to take away in plastic bags. If you are vegetarian, this may be the only decent thing you get to eat while you're in the country.

On the other hand, in Kazakhstan you can find any dishes you want, but Chinese and Japanese dishes are very expensive. The most delicious is caviar, which is very cheap, you can buy 1 kilo of caviar for less than USD300 in Almaty Zyeloniy Bazaar, but you can't export or take it with you home; you will be stopped at the airport and pay high fines.

Eating out is relatively cheap; you basically order the meat dish and then add rice, potatoes, etc. Each element is priced individually, so you can order for instance only meat or only rice. Prices are relatively cheap, count KZT500 for chicken, KZT1,000 for beef, and up to KZT1,500 for horse, a local delicacy. Of course, the fancier the restaurant, the higher the price. If you don't speak Russian, things are relatively hard as the majority of restaurants don't have English menus (with the exception of some hyped places in Almaty).

While Kazakhs are not very religious, most do not eat pork. Be aware of this if you are dining out with Kazakhs or planning a dinner at home. Also many dishes that are made elsewhere with pork (such as dumplings or sausage) are made with beef or mutton here.

Drink

Kumys looks just like regular milk (this individual brand is from Russia)

Traditional beverages include:

Sleep

There are numerous hotels, from very cheap ones (€10 per night) to the luxurious ones. You wouldn't find the cheapest ones on the web; the only way to book them is to call directly, but in that case you'll have to speak Russian at the least.

There are almost no camping sites except in Burabay/Borovoe in Kazakhstan. You can, however, camp almost anywhere due to the huge uninhabited spots. The scenery is beautiful but because of the very hot weather: don't forget to take plenty of water with you as you can very easily spend many of days without seeing anybody. If you camp near a nomadic tribe, ask for the permission to stay near; it will not be refused.

Work

Unlike certain European countries still recovering from recession, Kazakhstan abounds in employment or business opportunities. Skilled professionals may be able to find a job in the energy or educational sector. Salaries tend to decrease as the country is working towards ensuring equal pay for locals and expatriate staff. Expatriate candidates must obtain a work permit. In recent years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get a work permit.

Stay safe

Kazakhstan is a country where the population has a long history of balanced, harmonious, multi-ethnic social interaction, where both guests and locals are treated with respect during everyday life, with certain exceptions (described below in more detail). Visitors will experience hospitality and warmth in this lovely country. However, your personal safety may vary from very safe to relatively unsafe depending on your location, time of the day, circumstances, and your personal behaviour. Unlike other former Soviet Union countries, black, South Asian and Middle Eastern people should feel comfortable.

Generally, Kazakh cities are safe during the day, but certain parts of major cities should be avoided at night to reduce risk (e.g. (i) all parts of Almaty below Tashkentskaya street and all microdistrict areas within these zones, certain other remote microdistricts, and areas with high concentrations of shabby private houses (such as Shanyrak); (ii) in smaller towns, e.g. Taraz, Balkhash, Shymkent, Taldykorgan, Uralsk, Semey and Ust-Kamenogorsk, going out at night should not present a significant risk, though infrequent muggings do occur; and (iii) all smaller towns such as Shar, Stepnogorsk, and Temirtau may present a higher risk of mugging and violent crime).

Although illegal, unfortunately prostitution has become widespread in many big cities lately. Usually prostitutes work in hotels, night clubs or saunas. Also, local classified newspapers typically have a whole section dedicated to escort services. Many sex workers in Kazakhstan are in fact from neighbouring less economically developed states such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Keep your passport (or a certified copy of your passport and visa) with you at all times. While the situation has improved lately, police might still try to extort money from foreigners, especially on trains and long-distance buses. Unless the officers involved are drunk, it is possible to avoid paying them by pretending not to understand, or by claiming poverty.

The risk of violent crime is comparable with Eastern European countries and rougher parts of major US cities. An ordinary tourist should not experience any violent crime and is unlikely to be a target of minor crimes, if their behaviour stays within generally accepted norms in public places.

Excessive consumption of alcohol and visiting a nightclub will always present a higher risk, especially if a person goes out alone. It is advisable to go out as a group, or even better, with locals. Late at night, people speaking foreign languages may receive extra attention from local police, who have been known to falsely accuse a person of petty crimes, make an arrest, and attempt to obtain a KZT1,000-5,000 cash payment "fine". Mobile phones work in most places and should be used to call a local-language speaking friend.

A foreign man soliciting a local woman on the streets or in a nightclub may draw unwanted attention from locals, or might result in arguments. Normal western attention and respect for women and children, including a smile or kind greeting, can be taken by a local husband or father as threatening or offensive.

Carrying expensive phones, watches and jewellery; or otherwise demonstrating wealth in public may result in closer attention from pickpockets and potential criminals. Outside Almaty and Astana, this should be avoided.

There is zero tolerance for any drugs, and trace amounts may result in criminal investigation, prosecution and a prison sentence. Prisons are known to be dangerous and often inhumane.

Careless and drunk driving is a problem. It is always advisable to obey traffic rules and wear seat belts. In most cities, using local taxis may present a higher risk than official public transportation due to many taxis operating unlicensed with incompetent drivers. Situations of unlicensed taxi drivers demanding additional fees before releasing luggage from their boot, or driving off and stealing luggage are more common than would be expected in western cities with a well-regulated taxi industry. It's advisable to keep your valuables and passport in your pockets and your most valuable bag on your lap. Public transportation and taxis are much less expensive than in western cities.

Kazakh people have more pride than most westerners would expect. Therefore, insulting or negative comments about Kazakhstan or local Kazakhstani people will often result in arguments and possible threats of physical violence. It is not recommended to get into an argument with locals, as Kazakhstan is a nation where physical power is part of the local culture, and can occasionally lead to a fatal last argument. Do not under any circumstances associate the country of Kazakhstan with the character Borat. There have been cases of violence against foreign workers in West Kazakhstan. A housing camp of Turkish workers was destroyed, with many workers assaulted, due to anger about foreigners taking local jobs and an alleged rape of a local woman.

Connect

Embassies

Kazakhstan has most major foreign consulates and official representatives for visa needs.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, March 31, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.