Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. It has borders with Russia, China, and the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Kazakhstan is the world's ninth biggest country by size, and it is more than twice the size of the other Central Asian states combined. Its lack of significant historical sites and endless featureless steppe have put many off Kazakhstan, while many still are captivated by the emptiness and mystery of this Goliath state. It will be many travellers' first port of call on their Central Asian adventure, and there is much for the intrepid traveller to enjoy. Kazakhstan is the richest country in Central Asia, due to its large oil and natural gas reserves. The country is also the largest landlocked country.
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 middle of 15th century. The area was conquered by Russia in the second half of 19th 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 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 as severely authoritarian in government as compared to bordering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China and the opposition is not usually sacked or imprisoned or tortured too badly.
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh government has allowed foreign investment to flow into the country. The development of significant oil and gas reserves, particularly in the north and west, have 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 even more ubiquitous than China, but it is not as widespread compared to 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.
Citizens of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Hong Kong SAR, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Serbia do not need visas to enter Kazakhstan.
Between 15 July 2014 and 15 July 2017, citizens of the United States, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Japan will be able to enter without a visa for 15 days at a time.
Update 5 July 2015: This has grown. As of July 16, 2015, the list will include 19 countries: the Commonwealth of Australia, the Kingdom of Belgium, the Republic of Finland, the French Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, Hungary, the Italian Republic, Japan, Malaysia, the Principality of Monaco, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Norway, the Republic of Singapore, the Kingdom of Spain, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Swiss Confederation, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America. According to the government resolution, citizens of these countries may enter Kazakhstan with all types of valid passports visa-free from July 16, 2015 for a period of up to 15 (fifteen) days after the crossing of the border of Kazakhstan. Registration of citizens from these countries will be made directly at the border crossings upon their entrance into the territory of Kazakhstan. End of update.
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 back on this visa to Kyrgyzstan. Most customs officers don't know about 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 abovementioned nationalities, see Kyrgyzstan#Get_in. However, many of these nationalities now do not need a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan, so check with the local Kyrgyz embassy as well.
For more information you should contact a Kazakhstan diplomatic mission in your area or Kazakhstan MFA's website Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan. Note that 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.
Note: Although the Kazakh government has set certain policies regarding which countries do not require LOI's, 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).
Air Kazakhstan stopped flying at the end of March 2004. The flag carrier is now Air Astana which flies to Almaty, Astana, Aktau, Aktobe, Atyrau, Abu Dhabi, Uralsk, Kyzylorda, Moscow, Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul, Bangkok, Hannover, London, Amsterdam, Baku, Kuala Lumpur, Frankfurt, Seoul, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hong Kong.
In 2011, Air Astana stopped flying to and from Dubai, but now flies to and from Abu Dhabi. Etihad Airways also services the Almaty and Astana to and from Abu Dhabi routes.
However, Air Astana has a near monopoly on the international routes by limiting the access of foreign airlines to Kazakhstan.
Lufthansa has also flights to Almaty, from where you can go anywhere via local carrier SCAT, which flies to most cities in Kazakhstan, although it must be mentioned that SCAT is on the list of airlines banned from European airspace. British Airways (Almaty-Heathrow route taken over by bmi from Sept 2007) and KLM now fly several times a week to Heathrow and Schiphol. There is also non-stop connection twice a week from Prague, operated by Czech airlines. Turkish Airlines is 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 Asiana Airlines, and the other is Astana. Airbaltic also flies to Almaty (no direct flight); if you reserve tickets in advance, you can go there for €130 (from Riga).
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 hours stay at Russian border or 6–8 hours at Chinese border. Trains in Kazakhstan can also be booked online.
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 36 hours in the queues, with rather poor facilities.
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 ways in some seriously warm weather. The bus trip and "baggage fees" are around USD45. You can pick up your Kazakhstan visa at the consulate in Urumqi 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.
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.
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 (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.
You can travel within Kazakhstan 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 (at the time, March of 2009, USD1 was approximately KZT150 ).
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.
Use taxis as they are very cheap (€2 to €6 within 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 cabs 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 (otherwise he/she might not find change for you).
Train is the most popular way of covering the huge distances between Kazakhstan's main cities. Main train stations are located in Astana, Karaganda and Almaty, but they can be found almost in every big city.
The rolling stock, train classes, ticket and reservation system was inherited from former Soviet Railways, so they are very similar to the Russian system, see Russian train travel article.
Ticket prices are slightly lower than in Russia. Kazakh Railways have an e-shop  (only in Kazakh and Russian), but it doesn't accept many of non-CIS credit cards, so you probably use it only for price check.
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 most 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 Talgo, which is able to cover distance between Almaty and Astana in 9 hours. The cost of the ticket is about KZT9000.
By long distance buses
They are a popular alternatives to trains and are faster but less comfortable than them. As for trains, you will need to buy your ticket in advance and will be given a seat number. Be careful when the bus makes a bathroom stop, the driver don't check if all passengers are on board before resuming driving!
Fares are relatively low, for instance a single from Almaty to Karaganda (14 hours) will cost you KZT2500, much cheaper than an flight ticket.
Air Astana provides offices in a few major hotels in big cities, or you can book on their website; it's the fastest way of travelling within the country for those who can afford it. Planes are brand new and match European standards in quality.
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.
The Kazakh and Russian languages are spoken in Kazakhstan. More than 90% of Kazakh citizens speak Russian, while less than 50% speak Kazakh, and roughly half of those who speak Kazakh speak it as their native language. Although the Russian language is much more useful, ethnic Kazakhs will react extremely well to you if you speak even a little Kazakh, and even if they themselves speak none, because the Kazakh language is a great source of national pride for the Kazakh people. Most ethnic Kazakhs are not proud to speak the Russian 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 cab if you get lost (you might be somewhat overcharged by the cab, but it is better than being lost).
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 (6000km²) is rented by Russia, no Kazakh visa is needed if you fly in directly from Moscow.
The national currency is the tenge (Kazakh: теңге, teñge, sometimes also written as ₸) coded as KZT. In Feb 2014, the tenge depreciated overnight by 19% to:
Exchange rates are controlled by the state bank. Prices are increasing, especially on imported goods, but also on basics like bus fares. As of March 2014, it's difficult to buy dollars, at least in Karaganda.
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.
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 was almost certainly cooked on meat stock.
Some recommended dishes:
If you're a vegetarian, you're probably thinking there's nothing for you in Kazakstan. And you're right - so long as you eat out. But if you're cooking your own food, you'll be more than satisfied. Kazakstan has some excellent products available at little markets everywhere. You will be amazed with 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 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 500T for chicken, 1000T for beef, and up to 1500T 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.
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 21.
You can find any sort of drink you want, some of the traditional beverages include:
Cheap alcoholic drinks can be found at every little corner shop (called the astanovka). These places are open 24/7, just knock on their door if the shopkeeper is asleep. Kazakhstan's specialty is cognac, though stores still sell vodka cheaper than bottled water at times. However, some of these astanovka sometimes sell alcohol of dubious origin; for the sake of your stomach you may want to buy your beverage in a supermarket, although the price will definitely be higher.
Several brands of beer, of good quality and flavor, are made in Karaganda.
Juices, in cartons, are common and delicious, especially peach juice.
There are numerous hotels, from very cheap ones for €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.
There are also many apartments rent by the night, some by agencies, or from women often near the train station whom shake large key rings on the main roads, and are cheaper.
Unlike certain European countries still recovering from recession, Kazakhstan abounds in employment or business opportunities. Skilled professionals may be able to find a job, more likely, in the energy or educational sector. Salaries tend to decrease as the country is working in the direction of ensuring equal pay for locals vs. expat staff. Expatriate candidates must obtain a work permit. In recent years, it is becoming harder to get a work permit, comparing with prior years.
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 the 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 concentration 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, 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 rougher parts of major USA 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 with petty crimes, make an arrest, and attempt to obtain a KZT1,000-5,000 cash payment "fine". Cell phones work 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 jail time. 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 trunk, 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 occasionally can lead to a fatal last argument. 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 involving a local woman.
Kazakhstan has some foreign consulates and official representatives.