The steppe is characterised by a semi-arid climate © Aureliy, Shutterstock
In the east and southeast of the country are high mountain ranges: the Tian Shan along the borders of Kyrgyzstan and China, and the Dzhungarsky Alatau and Altai ranges further north along the Chinese border. Kazakhstan’s highest peak, Khan Tengri in the country’s southeastern corner, shades 7,000m. In contrast, in the west, close to the Caspian, lie some of the lowest points on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan’s lowest land altitude is the Karagiye Depression in Mangistau Region, at –132m. Many of Kazakhstan’s rivers flow northwards and westwards from its high ranges, and their continuations in China and central Asia: the Irtysh, with its tributaries including the Ishim and Tobol, flows north into Russia, to join the Ob and thence to the Arctic Ocean. The Syr Darya feeds the Aral Sea; the Ile runs into Lake Balkhash. Many rivers simply expire in the arid expanses that straddle much of the country. In the west of the country the Ural and Emba rivers flow south, rising in the Ural Mountains in Russia, and disgorging into the Caspian. Kazakhstan also boasts some 48,000 lakes.
Belts of pine and birch forest in the north give way to the world’s largest dry steppe region, a vast expanse of open grassland covering more than 800,000km2. With gradually declining rainfall and increasing temperatures from north to south, the steppe belt gives way to semi-desert and then to desert.
Far from the moderating influences of the oceans, Kazakhstan has an extreme continental climate. Average January temperatures range between –19°C and –4°C; average July temperatures between 19°C and 26°C. Extremes can reach –40°C and 40°C, respectively. There is a considerable variation between north and south, with summers warmer and winters milder in southwestern parts of Kazakhstan. Rainfall is low across most of the country, from around 400mm in the north to 150mm in the south, meaning that irrigation is usually required to support crop growth. Rainfall levels are higher in the Tian Shan and Altai mountains, reaching 1,500mm in some parts of the latter. High winds are a notable feature of Kazakhstan’s wide expanses of steppe and semi-desert.
Kazakhstan’s extreme continental climate makes for large seasonal variations, with hot summers and cold winters. Its large size makes for big regional variations too. In general, the northern regions are at least a few degrees colder than the south.
Thus winter in northern Kazakhstan means snow cover between November and April, and temperatures regularly below –20°C. In Kyzylorda and Mangistau regions, there is relatively little snow, and winter temperatures that, while still often below zero, are nothing like as extreme. Winter brings with it opportunities for snow-related sports across Kazakhstan, including downhill skiing at Shymbulak and Ak Bulak outside Almaty. Cities in the north build elaborate ‘villages’ of ice sculptures. On crisp, cold but sunny winter days, Kazakhstan is perhaps at its most beautiful. However, for everyone except winter sports enthusiasts winter is nonetheless deservedly the low season for tourism. The cold weather inevitably restricts movement, and travel schedules are also subject to disruption: for example, flight delays caused by freezing fog or snowstorms. If you do come to Kazakhstan in winter, you will need to prepare your wardrobe carefully for the cold.
Yurts, the traditional nomad dwellings, are often also erected in city squares for the spring festival of Nauryz © OspanAli
The Nauryz festival on 22 March announces the arrival of spring, with festive yurts placed in the squares of the main cities. It can, however, still be cold in the north at this time. Late April and May bring a wonderful carpeting of wild flowers to the steppes, and to the slopes of the mountains. The tulips on the slopes of the Tian Shan in May are a particularly fine sight. The trekking season in Kazakhstan starts to develop around mid-May, running to late September, though some high-altitude routes remain closed until June or July. The summer months are in general an excellent time to come to Kazakhstan, and represent the peak of the tourist season. With temperatures in the southern regions frequently reaching well above 30°C in July and August, budget travellers planning to visit at this time should consider trading up to accommodation with air conditioning. It is also worth bearing in mind that the best-known spots can get pretty packed with domestic tourists in August. If you are heading to a resort area at the height of summer where the attractions include water to swim in, it is a particularly good idea to pre-book your accommodation.
Autumn too can be a good time to visit, especially the south, where in the low-lying areas the weather often remains pleasantly warm, albeit with increasingly chilly evenings, into November. Note that Almaty hosts the Kazakhstan International Oil and Gas Exhibition in the first week of October: at this time many mid- and top-range hotels raise their prices, and getting a room at any price can prove difficult.
Specialist wildlife and fishing holidays all have their own seasons. For example, as regards fishing, the season for catfishing in the Ile Delta is May–June and September–October. Trout fishing in the Tian Shan is at its best between September and mid-November.
Kazakhstan is a vast country. While there are fascinations to be found everywhere, the following are some of the highlights around which, depending on your interests, you may wish to build your trip.
The largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, in a beautiful setting at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains, Almaty has the best range of places to eat and the most vibrant nightlife in Kazakhstan, and it makes an excellent base for exploring the attractions of the wider region.
Rising from deciduous woodland packed with wild fruit trees, through pine, cedar or spruce forest, to upland meadows and then peaks fringed with glaciers, the mountain ranges on the southern and eastern borders of the country are great environments in which to trek, ride or simply just be. You can be up in the hills in a matter of minutes from the centre of Almaty, and truly beautiful spots such as the Big Almaty Lake are an easy day trip. For mountaineers, Khan Tengri, the beautiful pyramid-shaped peak that marks the highest point in Kazakhstan, offers an irresistible lure. While there are many great places to head for in the mountains, two personal recommendations are the Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve in South Kazakhstan, where you can stay at some of the best-developed community-based tourism facilities in the country, and the Rachmanov Springs sanatorium high up in the Altai Mountains, where some believe that the legendary Buddhist kingdom of Shambala is to be found.
Sites along The Silk Route
A northern branch of the Silk Route ran for centuries across southern Kazakhstan, with the modern-day towns of Turkestan, Sayram and Taraz all prominent settlements. The architectural legacy of the civilisations that controlled this route includes some of the most beautiful buildings in the region, such as the carved terracotta tilework of the Karakhanid Mausoleum of Aisha Bibi outside Taraz and, above all, the Timurid Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui in Turkestan.
The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui is the shining jewel of Turkestan © Djusha, Shutterstock
The interior of Mangistau Region
As yet receiving very few tourists, this remote area of Kazakhstan offers some stunning desert scenery, with isolated bluffs and white limestone escarpments, underground mosques, necropolises with intricately carved tombs, and the chance to join pilgrims making the long trip to the tomb of prominent Sufi Beket Ata. The regional capital Aktau, on the shores of the Caspian, is an ideal base for trips into the interior.
Securing the necessary permissions to come here is time-consuming, but the cosmodrome of Baikonur is a fascinating living museum of the history of space exploration, being the place from which both Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and the first artificial satellite set off on their historic journeys. A visit here is an expensive but unforgettable one, especially if you can manage to get your trip to coincide with a launch.
Like love, steppe is all around, at least across vast swathes of Kazakhstan, but it is such a central part of the national identity that you should ensure your programme includes some exposure to this great expanse of grassland, from where you will take memories of the scent of wormwood and circling flights of the steppe eagle. Places to head for include the lakes around Korgalzhyn, with their colony of pink flamingos, the Mausoleum of Abai and Shakarim near Semey, and one of the attractive areas of wooded granite hills, which stand as ‘islands’ in the steppe. Of these, Borovoye north of Astana is being heavily marketed as a tourist destination. Karkaraly, east of Karaganda, is a quieter and more authentic alternative.
Many visitors to Kazakhstan have just a few days to spare but, thanks to the concentration of sites in and around Almaty, and the reasonable provision of domestic flights, this shouldn’t prevent you from seeing something of the country.
Starting in Almaty, a weekend is ample time to visit the city’s Panfilov Park and wooden Cathedral of Holy Ascension before spending the afternoon getting to know the locals (and doing some all-important souvenir shopping) at Green Bazaar or taking the waters at the Arasan Baths. Spend the evening watching a performance at the Abai Opera and Ballet Theatre before having a nightcap at one of the city’s numerous pubs and bars. Rise early the next morning and go to Republic Square and the Independence Monument. Choose between the Central State Museum and the often overlooked Museum of Folk Musical Instruments of Kazakhstan for a strong introduction to Kazakhstan’s past and culture. In the late afternoon take the cable car from the city centre to Kok-Tobe, making sure you get your photo taken with The Beatles, and enjoy a drink while you watch the sunset over Almaty.
If you are in Kazakhstan for a week, start with a few days in Almaty before heading out into the spectacular Ile Alatau National Park. If it’s winter and you’re a ski bunny, you’ll probably get no further than Shymbulak and Medeu, but hikers should continue a little further to the Aksai Gorge and the unprepossessing village of Ungirtas, which some believe is the hub of the universe. Tamgaly, west of Almaty, is home to the most impressive collection of petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings) in Kazakhstan. There are over 4,000 examples dating from the Bronze Age to the present, and it is well worth spending a full day at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A fortnight will allow you to travel further afield without relying on flights. From Almaty, travel west to the spectacular Aksu Canyon where the white-water Aksu River has carved 600m-deep channels up to 500m wide through the rock. You can travel by 4×4 or on foot and are guaranteed to see a wide variety of flora and bird life. Shymkent is famous only for its lead smelter and oil refinery, but it makes a convenient stopover point for Sayram, an ancient oasis inhabited by Nestorians and later overrun by Muslim forces and then again by Genghis Khan. Sections of the fortified walls remain, as do several mausoleums and the 15m-high Hisr Paygambar Minaret. Travelling north, stop at the tomb of Islamic mystic Arystan Bab before reaching the more famous site in Turkestan, where Bab’s disciple Khoja Ahmed Yassaui is interred. His mausoleum is the finest work of Timurid architecture in Kazakhstan, and the neighbouring tombs and mosques have also been well restored. If you have the time and money to afford a permit, don’t miss a trip to Baikonur. Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut, blasted into space from this empty stretch of Kazakh steppe. Modern rocket launches can still be seen from up to 1,000km away. Make your last major stop the remains of the Aral Sea. Aralsk (Aral town) is understandably bleak, but the ships in the desert make a poignant sight, as does the railway station mosaic commemorating local fishermen’s efforts to fight famine in 1920s Russia. Return to Almaty from Kyzylorda, the former Kazakh capital with its attractive Russian Orthodox church, making sure you see the 9th-century city at Sauran before departing.
Three weeks or more
If you are lucky enough to have three to four weeks in Kazakhstan, you will have ample time to explore the country and may even consider trekking over the border to Kyrgyzstan to see the best of the Tian Shan Mountains. Consider hiring a car and, having done a trek in the breath-taking Charyn Canyon east of the city, drive north from Almaty to the 614km-long Lake Balkhash. Wild boar, wolves, pelicans and reed cats (Felis chaus) are all present in significant numbers, and the lake’s shallow waters are a fisherman’s dream.
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is a landmark of Astana © EXPO-2017 National Company
Continuing north, Karaganda provides an insight into more harrowing aspects of Kazakhstan’s past: migrants and prisoners slaved here well into the 1950s, forced to exploit the region’s mineral wealth. Their stories are told at the Karaganda Regional Historical Museum, and also by the industrial decay that litters the landscape. Break your journey with a day of indulgence in Astana and marvel at the eccentric architecture of landmarks such as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, the Baiterek observation tower and, of course, Norman Foster’s giant tent (the Khan Shatyr). Providing you are not agoraphobic, you should then work your way west through the central steppe, camping when weather permits to take in some serious stargazing. Keep your eyes peeled for the steppe eagles, marmots and Bactrian camels and head towards Aral, finishing your trip by completing the two-week itinerary in reverse.