Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the states of Central Asia of the former USSR. It is the world's ninth biggest country by size, and 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, but many are captivated by the emptiness and mystery of this goliath state. Bordering both China and Russia it will be many travellers' first port of call on their Central Asian adventure, and there is much for the intrepid traveller to enjoy.
Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were rarely united as a single nation. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.
During 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) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these newcomers to emigrate.
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 neighboring states and other foreign powers.
Air Kazakhstan stopped flying at the end of March 2004. The most important carrier is now Air Astana which flies to Almaty, Astana, Aktau, Aktobe, Atyrau, Uralsk, Dubai, Moscow, Delhi, Beijing, Istanbul, Bangkok, Hannover, London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Seoul.
Lufthansa has also seven days flights to Almaty, the best city in Kazakhstan, from where you can go anywhere. British Airways and KLM now fly several times a week to Heathrow/Schiphol. 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 Air Line and the other is Astana.
Popular routes include Almaty to/from Moscow (77 hours), Novosibirsk (35 hours) and Ürümqi, China.
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 mins at each station and there are always people on the platform selling food and drink, at any time of day or night.
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. I would suggest you to use taxis as they are very cheap (1-4 euros within city). You don't have to use official taxis, basically you can stop almost any car on the street by raising your hand. Official taxis cost 3-5 times more.
You can travel within country using taxis, buses, trains and planes, it depends on your pocket and demands. Renting a car is rather costly comparing to other means of transport.
In Semipalatinsk (Semey) a minivan cost 30 tenge, and a large bus cost 15 tenge, common taxi fare was 150 tenge (at the time, June of 2005, USD1 was approximatly 120-130 tenge).
A note of warning, getting to the Almaty airport can be expensive, I had the relatives of Kazakh guide to help, but they said a Taxi to the Airport costs USD50.
Taxis to the airport vary greatly in price. Any foreigner will be quoted a fantastic rate but usually cabs will come down once they see they aren't going to be able to get that much. USD50 is outlandish. 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.
In general any taxi will quote a foreigner a fantastic rate. If you ever take the first price, you're getting overcharged.
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 $2-$4 is fair for a ride within the center of Almaty. 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.
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.
The Kazakh language is very difficult to understand and to pronounce, though it is notably easier than some other regional languages like Kyrgyz. Actually, travellers proficient in Turkish might be able to get by.
If you speak and/or understand the Russian language, then you should be fine. But still Russian is considered to be tougher to learn (grammatically speaking). At the very least, become familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet (it's easy) and learn a few phrases.
Note that despite the president's campaign to stamp out the Russian language, Almaty and much of the north are still predominantly Russian speaking.
Many people under age 20 will know some English. Most customs officials and airport people know English.
It is difficult to get around the country without some Russian or Kazakh language skills. Within the city 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).
Meat, potatoes, rice and pasta. And lots of it. If you're vegetarian be weary, because if it doesn't have meat in it, it was almost certainly cooked on meat stock.
Some recommend 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 produce available at little markets everywhere. 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.
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...
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.
There are numerous hotels, from very cheap ones (10 euro 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.
Not impossible to find. English teaching schools are sprouting up all over. The English department at KIMEP might be a good place to start, depending on credentials and experience of course.
The general rules of safety in Kazakhstan are the same as in any other civilized country of the world. Besides the normal risk of pick-pockets etc, the main risk is meeting a group of corrupt police. Try to avoid being taken to the police station. But in general this is a very friendly country where foreigners are respected as the hospitality is one of the Kazakh main traditions.
Fire brigade: dial 01 (land line phones), dial 101 from any mobile
Police: dial 02 (land line phones), dial 102 from any mobile
Ambulance: dial 03 (land line phones), dial 103 from any mobile