Enjoying the view while visiting Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes

Kazakhstan Travel Guide

This travel guide for Kazakhstan features the top places to visit, how to get around, safety, scams, logistics, and more. All to help plan an amazing independent adventure.

Although the majority of this country is a vast, dry steppe, the eastern and southern borders, not far from Almaty, feature forested, snow-capped mountains, many with peaks exceeding 21,300’ (6,500 m), stunning alpine lakes, valleys, and gorges. This makes the Kazakhstan an ideal place for outdoor enthusiasts and Almaty the perfect base to explore it from. It’s also one of those rare and wonderful off-the-beaten-path type locations.

About Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan means “the land of wanderers”, reflecting its nomad culture. The word Kazakh comes from the ancient Turkic word “to wander”, or “free man”, and the Persian suffix stan, means “land”.

Although many nomads moved to Mongolia to live their lives as the Kazakh Nomads of Mongolia when this area became part of the Soviet Republic (due to Russian persecution), you still see yurts dotting the landscape of Kazakhstan in summer months in the steppe, and in valleys. You can also stay in them, an opportunity to learn about its nomadic heritage.

Historically inhabited by nomads, today Kazakhstan boasts the richest and best performing economy in Central Asia, with enormous reserves of oil, coal, uranium, precious metals, and more. It’s the 9th largest country in the world, larger than all of Western Europe, and the largest landlocked country.

Note: All the information in this travel guide and posts on Kazakhstan are updated as of August 2023.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Top Attractions

Almaty

Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, is the country’s most populous city. It sits at the foothills of the Ile Alatau mountains, which are on the northern part of the Tian Shan Mountains.

The city has a European feel and offers interesting sites in town, while making a great base to explore Kazakhstan’s breathtaking beauty.

It gets it’s name from Alma-Ata, which means “Father of Apples”, as, surprisingly, it’s the genetic home of many varieties of apples around the world.

Top things to do here include: ride a gondola to Kök Töbe, a peak in the area with beautiful views of Tian Shan Mountains, visit its lovely parks, learn from its many museums, see beautiful old Russian cathedrals, explore old Russian frontier towns, try traditional banyas (or bathhouses), and much more.

Zenkov Cathedral in the Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Zenkov Cathedral

Ile-Alatau National Park

Created in 1996, this stunning National park covers 490,000 acres, with alpine meadows, dense forests, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and more. Although there’s a lot to this park, there are two main highlights, Big Almaty Lake and Turgen Gorge.

Big Almaty Lake

This stunning alpine lake is a must-see in Kazakhstan. Located just an hour southeast of Almaty, it’s relatively easy to get to. Created by a landslide from an earthquake 2,000 years ago, the glacial sediment in this alpine lake make it appear different colors at different times of the year. When I was here, it was a brilliant turquoise.

See my Guide To Get To Big Almaty Lake for more details as the road to get here has been closed in various sections for a long time now. For the most up to date situation, check with your accommodation, or the tourist center.

Big Almaty Lake in the Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Big Almaty Lake

Turgen Gorge

This gorge, located in Ile-Alatau National Park, was carved by the Turgen River. It’s about 90-minutes from Almaty and there’s so much to explore here, it’s best to stay a few days rather than try to day trip here.

There’s beautiful hiking along the gorge, where you’ll see waterfalls, alpine meadows, forests, and views of mountain peaks. There’s also a trout farm and skiing in winter.

Kolsay Lakes National Park

Stunning Kolsay Lakes National Park is about 3.5 hours southeast of Almaty. Best known for its beautiful alpine lakes, this destination is also best done over a few days. It’s not the easiest to get to as there is not direct public transportation, but it’s well worth the effort.

Kolsay Lakes

Kolsay Lakes, also called the “Pearls of the Tian Shan”, are absolutely gorgeous. The lower lake (below), which is an easy walk from the car park, is at an elevation of 5,900’ (1,800 m). It’s popular with locals and tourists for boating, finishing, swimming, horseback riding, and picnicking.

Kolsay Lake in the Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Kolsay Lake in the Kazakhstan Travel Guide

If you like to hike, don’t miss the second lake, or. Idle lake, up 6.25 miles (10 km), at an elevation of 7,380’ (2,250 m). It’s more beautiful than the lower lake and fewer people visit (because of the hike), so you’ll have it mostly to yourself.

Kolsay Lake in the Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Middle Kolsay Lake

There’s also a third lake, but it’s too close to the Kyrgyzstan border, so not open to the public for trekking. See my post of Kolsay and Kaindy Lakes to learn more about this area and how to visit.

Kaindy Lake, The Sunken Forest

Also in Kolsay Lakes National Park, is Kaindy Lake. This lake is a little more remote, but well worth the effort to see its unusual petrified, sunken forest. An earthquake in 1911 led to the creation of the lake, submerging the forest. The trees still stand today, dried and preserved from the lake’s icy cold temperatures.

Kaindy Lake I’m the Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Kaindy Lake
Kaindy Lake in the Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Sunken Forest

Charyn Canyon National Park

This canyon in Charyn National Park, looks like a miniature Grand Canyon. A stark contrast to the the alpine forests, peaks, and lakes of Kazakhstan. It spans about 30 miles (50 km) with a variety of different rock formations, many in different colors. It’s located on the way to Kolsay Lakes National Park, so makes a great stop along the way.

Charyn Canyon | MrPanyGoff

Sand Dunes of Altyn-Emel National Park

This park, which covers 4,600 miles² of mostly desert and rocky terrain. Located about a 3 hour drive northeast of Almaty, it’s best known for its ‘singing sand dunes’.

Shymbulak (Chimbulak) Ski Resort

This is the largest ski resort in Central Asia, with 12 miles (20 km) of slopes, many of medium to advanced difficulty. In summer, Shymbulak offers excellent hiking.

Nur-Sultan (Formerly Astana)

Nur-Sultan, for,early known as Astana, is the new capital of Kazakhstan, located in northern-central Kazakhstan. This city became the capital, moving from Almaty, in 1997. It was named after the first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev (1990-2019), after its Soviet Republic days.

Being a relatively new, modern city, I would not consider this much of a tourist destination. However, as the second most popular international airport in Kazakhstan, many flights arrive/depart from here. I visited as for a departure flight to Mongolia, my destination after Kazakhstan. The main sites here include museums, Mosques, theaters, unique architecture, and parks.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit is generally May to September. Winters can be very cold, especially at night and at elevation. Northern areas, like Nur-Sultan are much colder, even in the fall and spring.

If you want to see, or stay in a traditional yurt, part of Kazakhstan’s nomadic heritage, you can generally find them dotting the landscape from June through September.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Languages

Russian is still the official language for business and the primary language on the streets. The Kazakhs, however, typically speak their native language, Kazakh, at home. 

A little over 20% speak English, which is more prevalent with young people in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. It’s best to try to learn a few phrases before traveling. It’s also a good idea to download Russian on Google translate in advance, so you can translate if necessary without wifi.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Money Matters

Currency: The currency of Kazakhstan is the Tenge (KZT). Also sometimes noted as ₸. The word tenge means “scales” in most Turkic languages. The tenge was introduced in 1993 to replace the Russian Rouble when Kazakhstan gained independence from Russia. Currency exchange locations are prevalent. Know the latest rate to check for the best exchange price.

Conversion rates as of January 1, 2024 are as follows.

  • USD (1)=458 KZT
  • Euro (1)=505 KZT
  • CNY (1)=64 KZY

Credit Cards: Credit and Debit Cards are accepted, with Visa being the most accepted (about 2/3), followed by MasterCard (1/3). Kazakhstan, however, is still mainly a cash society, so it’s best to have tenge in hand. Especially in smaller shops, restaurants, for taxis, and cities outside Almaty and Nur-Sultan.

ATMs: ATM’s will be easy to find in Almaty and Nur-Sultan, but unlikely outside of these cities. You will be given large bills at the ATM, but will usually need smaller change, which you can get by buying an item at a larger local shop. Don’t expect taxis or small shops to have change for large bills.

Tipping: Tipping is not common here, although as tourism increases it is becoming more prevalent. Especially in touristy areas. Because it is not the norm, there is no standard if you do decide to leave one. There will likely be a service fee on your restaurant bill. If you want to leave a tip for the server, do so in cash.

Almaty Apples Everywhere

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Safety

Kazakhstan is relatively safe, but as in many tourist areas around the world, pick-pocketing and petty theft do occur. Especially in more crowded areas. Take normal precautions, always being vigilant and aware of your surroundings. Don’t carry too much cash and keep a close eye on your purse or wallet. 

There have been reports of muggings in evenings, so try to avoid walking late at night. Especially in nightlife areas, smaller towns, and border areas.

Avoid demonstrations, and protests. If they do occur, always follow police directives.

Don’t take photos of buildings that are considered sensitive. Especially political buildings. It’s best to ask first.

Always check the latest situation on your government website. Sign up for STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program), or similar in your country for updates if a known issue occurs.

It is a requirement to carry your passport, as well as any immigration papers, at all times in Kazakhstan.

All this said, I felt very safe as a solo traveler in Kazakhstan (and I never carried my passport).

Panfilov Park

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Scams

Generally Kazakhstan is safe, but there are always a few people trying to take advantage of tourists.

Taxi Scams

Taxi scams are a top issue in just about every country I’ve written about and, unfortunately, Kazakhstan is no different.

Scammy taxi drivers will hang around the airport in Almaty and try to catch your attention immediately. Just ignore them. There are all kinds of taxi scams, although the airport is notoriously bad, taking advantage or tired travelers. Sometimes they will demand more money at your destination, claim the cost was per kilometer, not the entire trip, or say the cost was per person rather than for a group.

Look for the taxi booth inside the airport, ask the information booth to order one for you, use the Yandex taxi App, or arrange through your accommodation in advance.

Spiked Drinks

Always watch to see your drink opened (or made) and keep an eye on it so it does not get spiked. It’s best if you can open it yourself and keep a close watch on it. Never leave your drink (or food) unattended. Especially in nightlife areas.

Tampered ATMs

Use ATMs connected to banks or inside malls to minimize the chance that they have been altered. Visually scan the ATM machine before using. Especially scrutinizing the slot where you insert you card to make sure nothing has been added and look for cameras above the keypad where you enter your pin. Never accept help from a stranger here.

Lost Wallet

If someone claims they found a wallet and try to split the cash with you, be wary. Someone may step in and say it was their wallet demanding the full amount from you. Or someone may say they lost their wallet and ask to see yours, using it as a chance to grab it and run.

Fake Police

Some people may try to pose as police officers, demanding fines. Official police should always show their badge first. If they don’t, ask for it, or suggest paying the fine at the station.

Fines For Vague Violations

There have been reports of customs officials in Almaty airport requesting cash for vague violations.

Old Russian Orthodox Church

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Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Where To Stay

The following accommodation is in Almaty.

Shoestring

  • Art Hostel is a 6-bedroom very basic mixed dorm, but located within walking distance of some of the main sites here, including the tourist center noted above. This is where I stayed and for the price, I enjoyed it, liked the people, and felt safe.  It’s not stellar though.

Budget

Moderate

  • If you want something more grand, but want to avoid the international chain hotels here, try the Kazakhstan Hotel (I always try to choose local over big chains). This historic Soviet era hotel, located by Kök Töbe Gondola, is a 4-star hotel. Reviewers note it’s a little dated, but renovation seems to be going on. It’s known for its views of the Zailiyskiy Alatau snow peaks.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Getting Around

Flying Into Almaty

The two most poplar international airports for travelers arriving in Kazakhstan are Almaty International Airport (ALA) and Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport (NQZ).

Getting To Almaty

Almaty city center is about 15 miles (24 km) from the airport. The best way to get there is taxi or bus.

Taxi

A taxi from Almaty airport to the center of town runs about 4,000 tenge (about $8).

Unofficial taxis will try to sell you their taxi services in the arrival hall, but it’s best to use an official taxi to avoid being scammed. See taxi scams above. Use one that you see dropping people off at the airport, or use the Yandex app to hail one.

Bus

Bus is the least expensive option, and allows you to avoid scammy taxi drivers. They leave the airport regularly to go to the city. You will need small change to pay on board, about 150 tenge. If you buy an “Onay” transport card, you will pay 80 tenge for a one way ride. There are several buses, depending on your destination, so look for the information booth at the airport to ask for details, see routes, and buy the card.

Arriving From Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Marshrutka

Marshrutka, or old Soviet mini buses drive between Bishkek’s West Side bus station and Almaty Saipan station daily, taking about 3 hours (depending on the amount of time needed in customs).

You will need to get out at the border, wait in line to walk through customs, then find your driver on the other side. It sounds scary, but I did this twice and the drivers tell you where to find them and wait for you. Make sure to remember what your car and driver look like.

Getting Around Almaty

Taxi

Yandex is the most popular taxi app in Kazakhstan, although it may be limited, or stopped due to sanctions against Russia as it’s Russian owned. As if this writing in August 2023, it is still operating.

Most local taxis do not have meters, so you need to negotiate in advance. Of course, once they realize you are a foreigner, they will probably charge you more.

Ask your hotel in advance for an estimated ride cost, or use the Yandex app to get an approximate cost. See taxi scams above.

Bus

The large buses here are standard full sized buses (not like the marshrutka in Bishkek) and a popular way to get around town. This means they are often crowded, especially during rush hour. It’s not usual to have to stand on the bus.

Metro

There is a limited metro, with only 1 line, running from Moskva to Rayimbek. See Mapa Metro for more details. Plans are in place for expansion in the future.

Hitchhiking

The bus system is solid in Kazakhstan, reducing the need to hitchhike (as is sometimes needed in neighboring Kyrgyzstan), but it is still an option.

US Government websites warn not to get into cars not marked as official taxis, but locals sometimes act like taxis, picking up hitchhikers for a fee like a taxi would. Do this at your own risk, however, as you could be picked up by scammers.

Make sure to negotiate your price in advance and be very clear about destination, cost and if it’s total, per kilometer, or per person. As they may not speak English, be prepared by downloading Russian on Google translate when you have wifi so you can use it offline. It’s also best to download the map of Kazakhstan on maps.me in advance, so you can track your location offline if you need to.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Visa Information

US citizens and most EU citizens can travel visa free for up to 30 days (as long as it’s not for business or missionary work). For more details, see egov.kz.

It is a requirement to carry your passport, as well as any immigration papers, at all times in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan Travel Guide: Top Destination Blogs & Stories

Click the icons below for more detailed information on the key sites in Kazakhstan.

If this travel guide has been useful in planning, or just dreaming about visiting Kazakhstan add a comment below.

Safe Travels!

To learn more about me and my philosophy on travel, my about me page.

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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