Kazakhstan Travel Tips

by Nathan Hamm on 7/20/2006 · 14 comments

I will be travelling to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in September (13-24) and wondered if anyone had any recommendations for what to do in and around Almaty. Also, does anyone have any recommendations for hotels or tourist companies for visa support (and also I suppose for seeing stuff outside the city)? Any pointers, etc. are much appreciated.

UPDATE: Actually, recommendations for Kyrgyzstan are welcome too. I’m not sure exactly how the itinerary will break down, though I imagine that Kyrgyzstan will be toward the end of the trip.


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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 14 comments }

Laurence July 20, 2006 at 10:00 am

Let’s see, Nathan. I liked the Olympic skating rink, the Sanatoria (Yeltsin stayed in one of them), the Opera House, the Detski Palace with its observatory, the KIMEP business school, the Russian Cathedral and former Soviet Army Officer’s club, the museum of history, the museum of musical instruments, and so on. We stayed in a sanatorium, so if you can do that, it might be more interesting than a hotel. We also saw the technological university where they had a very fashionable fashion show! We went to the Kazakh embassy and got our visas ourselves–no bribery required, and it happened while we waited. That’s were I met Burt Herman of the AP, waiting for a visa. Almaty has lots of restaurants and things to do. It also has crime. And be warned, Almaty might seem very expensive compared to Tashkent…

Ataman Rakin July 20, 2006 at 10:46 am

I agree that the Russian cathedrals (for there are two: the Zenkov/Svyato Voznesenskii (Holy Ascension) sobor; and the Svyato Nikolskii (Saint Nikolai) sobor, the latter being the most serene IMO) and the musical instruments museum are worth it. Also visit the new museum of Stalinist repression in the ex-NKVD HQs on Nauryzbai Batyr 180.

One interesting thing to see is the contrast between Almaty and the rest of the country. Almaty will show you, amongst other things, the decadence of the nouveau riches and the expats. The posh parts of Almaty also show the complex of part of this society: showing off your new bubble money in the hope of being taken serioulsy by the global jetset.

The real faultline in Kazakhstan is no longer ethnic (between Kazakhs and Russians that is) but between those who benefitted from the regime and oil revenues (that incl. a number of ethnic Russian too) and those who have not (incl. Kazakhs as well as Russians). You’ll be confronted with the ‘have nots’ in Almaty too, north of Raimbek, once you leave the posh centre and ‘hoods.

For the rest, for a good view of the country, I’d recommend:

*the Charyn-Altyn Emel area east of Almaty;
*lake Balkash/the Ili river delta;
*the Yasawi Sufi mazar in Türkistan;
*Aralsk and surroundings on the Aral ex-Sea: some people call this ‘disaster voyeurism’ but for me it’s an open air monument on what megalomania and rapacious economics can cause.

As for companies, I can recommend Stantours (no, I’m not a shareholder 🙂 ): http://www.stantours.com I rented a one-room appt. via them. They can also arrange trips to the first 2 places suggested above.

Ataman Rakin July 20, 2006 at 10:46 am

I agree that the Russian cathedrals (for there are two: the Zenkov/Svyato Voznesenskii (Holy Ascension) sobor; and the Svyato Nikolskii (Saint Nikolai) sobor, the latter being the most serene IMO) and the musical instruments museum are worth it. Also visit the new museum of Stalinist repression in the ex-NKVD HQs on Nauryzbai Batyr 180.

One interesting thing to see is the contrast between Almaty and the rest of the country. Almaty will show you, amongst other things, the decadence of the nouveau riches and the expats. The posh parts of Almaty also show the complex of part of this society: showing off your new bubble money in the hope of being taken serioulsy by the global jetset.

The real faultline in Kazakhstan is no longer ethnic (between Kazakhs and Russians that is) but between those who benefitted from the regime and oil revenues (that incl. a number of ethnic Russian too) and those who have not (incl. Kazakhs as well as Russians). You’ll be confronted with the ‘have nots’ in Almaty too, north of Raimbek, once you leave the posh centre and ‘hoods.

For the rest, for a good view of the country, I’d recommend:

*the Charyn-Altyn Emel area east of Almaty;
*lake Balkash/the Ili river delta;
*the Yasawi Sufi mazar in Türkistan;
*Aralsk and surroundings on the Aral ex-Sea: some people call this ‘disaster voyeurism’ but for me it’s an open air monument on what megalomania and rapacious economics can cause.

As for companies, I can recommend Stantours (no, I’m not a shareholder 🙂 ): http://www.stantours.com I rented a one-room appt. via them. They can also arrange trips to the first 2 places suggested above.

JP Banks July 20, 2006 at 11:04 am

One of my youth from my work with the ngo in Tashkent as a pcv now lives and works in Almaty. I could send him and email and introduce you – he speaks english and most likely would like to be of assitance. Let me know.

Nathan July 20, 2006 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for the recommendations, and please keep them coming!

Dolkun July 20, 2006 at 10:36 pm

I’d get out of the city as often as possible, and up to the mountains. The only problem is many — though not all — of the day trip destinations are likely to be covered in trash or overly developed. Haven’t been there in a long time, but I heard Big Almaty Lake, for example, has becoem a bit of a trash pit.

There’s a woman named Karylgash who organizes trips for groups of foreigners, but I can’t seem to find her contact info.

Hadn’t heard of the Stalinist museum. Is it any good, Ataman?

WLB July 20, 2006 at 11:51 pm

My list–which repeats what’s been said:

The National Museum
Paflinov Park with Zenkov Cathedral and other accountrements including the museum of national instruments–ask for a concert.
Arbat shopping area and TSUM, good people watching plus a fake McDonalds!
The statue of manshuk and Aliya, also in a nice little park
SoHo club for rock and roll!
Cafe RSV for rock and roll and for campy Soviet nostalgia
Restaurant Esik or Zheurik for traditional Kazakh food and a show.
Arasan Banya–there’s Eastern or Russian saunas
Medeu, the rink and to do a little walking about
Bolshoe Almatinskoe Ozero.
Butakovka–walk down the road to the national park, pleasant when not hot.

check out ecotourism.kz for agencies to handle adventures!

WLB July 20, 2006 at 11:56 pm

left out, that if you are American–and I can’t remember if you are–getting a single entry tourist visa for one month for Kazakhstan is no problem, no support letter needed.

Nathan July 21, 2006 at 12:03 am

Yep, I’m an American. But, I’ll be needing a double entry visa as I’ll be travelling to Kyrgyzstan as well (and flying back out of Almaty).

Kuda July 21, 2006 at 3:40 am

I would avoid Zheurik restuarant on Sifulina. It is sinply a tourist trap with over-priced dishes and shoddy service. Check your bill for ‘extras’.

SoHo is famous in Almaty – not however for Rock and Roll more for the type of ex-pat who go there and the ladies they meet!

Gorky park is nice in the summer. Good fun and you can have a nice greasy shaslik and vodka at one of the many cafes.

Michael July 22, 2006 at 11:00 am

I don’t know who told you Big Almaty Lake is a trash pit, but I thought it was stunningly spectacular when I visited last October. The Charyn Canyon was also a good time… both trips can be completed in a day, and only cost about US$10 each if you take one of the Russian buses that leave on Sat. and Sun. morning from the big soccer stadium. I bought tickets for each tour at the travel agency on the first floor of the office building housing the American consulate, near Ramstor supermarket. You can check out pics of my trip to Almaty in my gallery at http://china.notspecial.org/gallery/kazakhstan/.

Kevin - RPCV Kaz 11 July 22, 2006 at 9:29 pm

Assuming you have a basic comprehension of Russian, my advice is to just walk the city, the bazzarres, etc. and relax. Granted, there are currently riots to the north of the city, but there are also reasons for the riots and, for once, they don’t involve Americans.

For a laugh, there is “Almaty’s Disneyland” called Fantasy World, where a few hundred tenge gets you access to the entire park… except the bathrooms… you have to pay extra for those. If the circus is up and running, go for it. Same goes for anything playing at the opera house.

There are a lot of locales in Almaty geared towards Americans/westerners. I’d recommend avoiding them if you can. The club/disco “Tequila Sunrise” is just bad. The Guinness pub overcharges for Guinness (I recommend Baltica #6 – Porter if you’re in the mood for a decent beer). The whole center section of town, complete with a Baskin Robbins, is designed to rip off Americans. And if you try to hail a cab anywhere near there, expect to pay two to four times more than if you hail one a few blocks away.

If you can make the trek to Lake Kapchagai, do it… it is beautiful.

Jamie Hollis July 24, 2006 at 3:35 am

Depends where you want to go in Kyrgyzstan. As you will be in Almaty already, Bishkek is the closest. If you head into Bishkek then for restaurants you can check out Yusa (Turkish), Balasagun (good Chinese and cheap) and Faeza is a good Kyrgyz restaurant. Make sure you head to Lake Issyk Kul at least once and have someone take you to a yurt for kumiz and a sheep sacrifice for a real Kyrgyz dinner not complete without trying a sheep’s eyeball as you will probably be the guest of honor as a foreigner. If you’re up for a bit of a drive you can head to Tash Rabat near the city of Naryn. If you go by Karakol, make sure you visit Jettyogoose (the valley of the seven bulls and broken heart.) Make sure you pack clothes for hiking and a camera:) Have fun. Oh, also, the hot springs at Altin Arashan are worth the day long hike.

TC August 7, 2006 at 7:29 pm

1 Jamie Hollis

Go to Yssyk-Kol lake, maybe Sary-Chelek…

The Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association (KCBTA) has some nice tours and trips. Check them out.

See this blog too http://www.meniki.com/gokyrgyz/

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