How to plan a trip to Kazakhstan: 9 tips
In this post we tried to systematize the answers to questions that arise among tourists planning a trip to Kazakhstan - in particular, we focused on the Almaty region, since most travelers begin their acquaintance with our country here. This is no coincidence - there is a huge variety of natural (and not only!) attractions around Almaty, from the sparkling glaciers of the Northern Tien Shan to deserts and canyons.
During a tour by the Almaty region, you can also visit historical sites, see the ancient rock art, catch the flowering of the Sievers apple tree and plunge into the culture of nomads. A variety of landscapes and a fairly good infrastructure can satisfy the most demanding needs of tourists. Around Almaty you can go trekking for 2-7 days, practive mountain climbing or just travel in an off-road vehicle to interesting locations.
We divided the main questions into 8 groups:
1. Season and weather conditions
2. Locations to visit (how much time to spend and what to do)
3. Travel format: on your own, with the help of a travel agency or mixed
4. Drawing up the itinerary
5. Who will go with
6. What to pack
7. Where and what to eat
9. Budget planning
1. Season and weather
Be sure to consider the season when planning your trip to Kazakhstan. Travel agencies involved in organizing travel, as a rule, in the descriptions of tours and locations indicate the most suitable time to visit.
So, for example, in the Almaty region in the spring and late autumn, hiking in the high-mountain zone (including glaciers and peaks) is impossible due to the large amount of snow and high avalanche danger. Also during these periods, roads and approaches may become impassable. On the other hand, tours in the steppe and desert areas are most interesting at this time of the year. It is no longer cold in the lowlands, but not yet as hot as in summer. In spring, the steppe “wakes up” earlier, flowering begins and these immense flat surfaces acquire bright colors.
But in summer it becomes unbearably hot in the steppes - for example, temperatures in July in the Altyn-Emel National Park can reach +50 degrees Celsius. Thus, summer is a great time for mountain hiking and camping: the snow above 2500m has already melted, spring begins in the highlands, the slopes are covered with meadow flowers and it becomes warmer. In general, the most versatile season for traveling around the Almaty region is the second half of August and the beginning of September. At this time, all directions are available for a comfortable trip.
2. Locations to visit
What you should pay attention to:
• Diversity of flora and fauna
• Beauty/wildness of natural landscapes (please check the list of all National Parks of Kazakhstan here)
• Historical and cultural sites
• Distance from roads and settlements
• Availability of more than one activity option in one place
• Availability of infrastructure and opportunities for overnight stays
• Ability to travel by car and on foot
• Season to visit
Each location is good in its own way - in the end, the choice of places to visit depends on the preferences of the tourist. But in some places you can combine a lot of things that seem attractive to you. For example, in the Turgen Gorge of Almaty, you can go on a multi-day hike through the mountains of the Northern Tien Shan still untouched by civilization, visit the reserve of the Sievers apple tree, see the famous waterfalls, get acquainted with the life of nomads and visit a real residential yurt, see ancient petroglyphs. There are plenty of opportunities for self-camping, glamping and a choice of guest houses. In addition, it is not far from Almaty. Be sure to read the reviews of tourists, but make allowances for the subjectivity of opinions and possible changes in outdated information.
3. Travel format: on your own, with the help of a travel agency or mixed
Here are 3 options available in Kazakhstan:
If you have your own or rented car (consider huge distances here), your own camping equipment, then this option is quite suitable for you. With proper route planning, budget adequacy and equipment availability, you will not depend on anyone and can always visit unplanned place, or stay longer at a beautiful glade. But, there are some difficulties associated with local specifics. Firstly, navigation - there are not many maps, especially in English. Drives can be long and some roads (marked as such on maps) can be impassable. If you are caught overnight on the road, then it can also be difficult to find a place to spend the night - the tourist infrastructure in Kazakhstan is not yet so developed. Careful planning is important here, with the study of the terrain and features of the roads / trails. It is better to use up-to-date guides. Secondly, in Kazakhstan the number of people speaking English is quite small and there are practically no inscriptions in Latin. It is worth taking care of safety (small amounts of cash, emergency communication etc.) in case of unforeseen situations. There are very few technical assistance points on the tracks. Thirdly, cellular communication coverage in Kazakhstan is not 100%. In the mountains and far outside the cities, there may not be connection at all. The best option for long-distance travel is to travel with companions, in two (or even more) cars.
Meanwhile, there is an option to move around without a car - auto-stop, although here it will be quite difficult and not suitable for everyone. Not all tourist locations can be reached with public transport, and there may not be a ride. But if you consider the loss of time waiting as a process of travel, then this is also a good option.
- Travel with the help of a travel agency
There are many benefits to this option. You buy a ready-to-go product and do not waste time preparing, booking and resolving unforeseen issues. Ready-made programs already take into account all the nuances of a particular route; you do not need to look for where to stop, how to pay the National Park fees, etc. As a rule, travel agencies provide not only hotel and transport services, but also competent support, English-speaking guides. In such tours you will learn and see more than during an self trip. Moreover, in trekking or hiking with professional guiding, you will feel safer (unfortunately, there is almost no trekking culture in Kazakhstan - there are no signs, trails, huts etc.).
Many companies offer custom tours, or the opportunity of compiling a unique program based on your preferences. By the way, the budget of a tour bought from a travel agency can be comparable to the cost of an self-made trip, because without knowledge of the local culture and specifics, in many cases you will overpay (oh, this is Asia!).
- Partly self-travel, partly through the travel agency
Mixed format: you have compiled your itinerary yourself, you have chosen locations, route and stops. And for holding, you use (partially) the service of a local tour provider. For example, you decide to hire only a driver with a car. This is a good travel option, but you need agree with the fact that in this case it will be difficult to pre-calculate the budget of the trip - it’s not true that it will turn out to be cheaper than when buying a ready-made tour (you may be asked to pay for the driver’s accommodation and meals, additional repair costs etc.). In such cases, the driver may not necessarily be a good storyteller and guide. His job is to take you through your program, and of course, he will not be required to accompany you on hiking and excursions. Even so, the option looks safer and more informative than just traveling on your own.
So, you have already decided what you expect from the trip (actively spend time, see natural attractions, watch wild animals, catch tulips in bloom, etc) and how much time you are ready to devote to this. Now, in order to save time and money, it is worth contacting the professionals of the travel industry who will help you make a travel schedule based on your wishes, opportunities, season and terrain. Or, you can choose a ready-made tour. For example, on our website there are such summer and autumn-spring 7-day programs. They are designed with taking into consideratio the season, as well they are quite eventful - without sacrificing comfort. If you are a solo traveler, these descriptions can serve as an example for you to plan your own schedule.
In any case, when thinking over the program, consider Kazakhstan's tourist features:
- large distances between objects. Moving takes a lot of time, the road can be boring
- not all interesting places have an asphalt road access. Dirt roads are mostly good, but driving conditions are highly dependent on the weather and season - this should be taken into account when choosing a transport.
- try not to be in popular locations on weekends (too crowded). If this cannot be avoided, then the best option is to start your journey early in the morning.
- do not buy too "saturated" one-day tours from Almaty (remember the huge distances) - for example, "all the canyons of Charyn in 1 day" or "Charyn - Kolsai - Kaindy in 1 day". Firstly, you definitely won’t have time to see everything normally, and secondly, you will get tired on the road so that by the third location you don’t even want to see anything.
- always include spare time in the timing of the program, your journey in Kazakhstan will always be longer than you planned
- book a place in the guest house in advance, especially if the dates fall on a weekend
5. Who will go with?
The question is, of course, a very delicate one. Here much depends on your attitude, self-sufficiency, age and sociability. Ideally, groups of friends or couples from 2 to 5 people are the most comfortable travel environment. The per-person cost of the tour in such a group is already less, and the size of such a company is good to hear each other and enjoy normal communication. Traveling as a small group, you are not as dependent on the timing and needs / desires of other people - like as in big group tours. This is true not only for tours purchased through travel agencies, but also for self trips.
6. What to take?
In this section, we will not provide a detailed list of things and equipment needed for a certain trip, because it depends on your experience, season, company, program, etc. Let's just highlight the main points:
- Personal items and clothes
If you are going on a road trip, then pack your luggage in such a way that you have a main bag (suitcase) for almost all things, and a small backpack where you will store the minimum necessary for a short walk or one-day hiking, excursion to the lake or along the canyon. Don't forget a sleeping bag with a mat if you plan to spend the night in tents.
- Camping gear
Even if you plan to spend the night in guest houses, it will not be superfluous to take a folding table and chairs with you so that you can comfortably take on-road lunch at a beautiful viewpoint. But if you have plans to spend the night in tents, then, of course, take a more serious approach to the list and take care about everything related to questions like where to sleep, dine and cook.
- Navigation and communications
Of course, if you bought a ready-made tour, then these wisdoms are useless to you. But if you decide to drive on your own, especially by unknown roads, be sure to have GPS navigation - it can be a regular smartphone or a tablet with pre-downloaded maps that will be available offline. GSM communication in Kazakhstan does not work everywhere, so pre-loaded maps will be very useful. It will not be exessive to have walkie-talkies for communication between cars or when hiking within a group. A satellite phone may not be useful, but it can help out in an unpleasant situation.
- Identity documents
It is necessary. Many tourist sites in the Almaty region, such as the Kolsai Lakes, are located in the border zone and a passport is required there.
- Money: better keeping some amount in cash (not very large amounts), as cards are not accepted everywhere or there may not be connection everywhere.
- Auto repare kit, at least small set. If you are travelling by car, then the minimum set should be with you (remember, road assistance is very limited here ). This is especially true for the spare wheel, jack and tire self-repair kit.
- First aid kit
7. Where and what to eat?
This is a very important issue that deserves special attention. If you are booking a tour in advance with a tour operator, then be sure to check the menu so that it matches your preferences. When you travel on your own, the choice is yours.
- Meals - usually on tours where an overnight stay is planned in guest houses, dinner and breakfast can be ordered there: as a rule, the food is good, but the choice is not too big and main dishes will be served in portions. In this case, you can only add something delicious (bought in advance) - some tasty treats such as yogurt, sweets, fresh vegetables, etc. If you camp in a beautiful place, then your menu will depend only on a set of you products and fantasy.
- Lunches - you can have lunch in a cafe along the road, but, unfortunately, they are not available everywhere in Kazakhstan, and you may not always want to waste time waiting for an order. Therefore, we recommend taking your own and settling down for lunch in any convenient place. Good for lunch: sandwiches, cheese, fruits, vegetables, chocolate, bread, cookies, nuts, energy bars, water, tea and coffee in a thermos.
- Carrying food products - it is better to transport products in Central Asia, especially in summer, in refrigerators or coolers.
- Water - drinking water is a very important point that should always be remembered. It is needed not only for drinking, but also for cooking. For example, for camping in the Aktau mountains, where there are no water sources, it is better to take water with you at the rate of 10 liters per person per day (not only to drink, but also to cook, wash dishes, wash).
Where to stay overnight? It is advisable to work out this issue in advance so as not to find yourself at the end of the day near a full guest house with no free space for you. It's best to book in advance, especially if the dates fall on weekends.
In regards to the accommodation type, the travel can be divided into two types:
- Based on hotel/guest house accommodation
This is convenient: you do not need to carry, set up and roll up the tents. You can order food. However, in this case, you are dependent on availability, reservations, and distance from specific locations. Some guest houses in popular locations are really far from the attractions. This also needs to be taken into account.
- Tent camping
This option is a bit more complicated, since it requires the necessary equipment, time to install it, remove it and cook. But it also has many advantages: you do not depend on booking and availability; you can set up a camp in a place you like, cook an unusual dish according to a unique recipe. Overnight stays in a tent give the trip an unforgettable flavor and romance of adventure, as well as sense of freedom. By the way, if you have chosen a route far from crowded places, then this option with tent camping will expand your opportunities.
Caravanning (traveling in motorhomes) is not developed in Kazakhstan - there is no infrastructure, parking etc.
You can find information about the possibility / cost of placing tents in the National Parks, or a list of guest houses in the Almaty region on the Internet. Detailed descriptions with reviews are now available on various resources and forums.
Travel budgeting issue can be approached from different angles. You can start with the amount you want to spend on a given trip, and based on this, design a program. In this case, be sure to adhere to the ceiling designated for yourself, taking into account unforeseen expenses.
On the other hand, you can first decide on the main questions regarding travel - how much time to spend, what exactly to visit and with what level of service. And after that calculate the costs.
In any case, careful route planning - accommodation places, provider, food etc. - can reduce costs.
Good luck with your travels!
Frequently asked questions about Kazakhstan