The Kazakhstan Loop

Almaty--Shymkent--Astana--Karaganda

7-10 days

Of all the countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is perhaps the least understood. Most people recognise only Borat, a fictional comedy shot entirely in the US and Romania, so not an accurate (or locally appreciated) picture.

At the same time, the lack of attention is what makes travel in Kazakhstan so surprising and so enjoyable. You are about to embark on a real journey of discovery.

Hiding in plain sight, Kazakhstan’s vast territory holds a lot of interest for the amateur archaeologist and the flower fanatic, but also for the architect, the armchair politician and the Cold War history hound. If you are not a geek, you can simply enjoy the vast expanses of nature, and the unshackled feeling you get from traversing such a shoreless place. People, as of yet unaccustomed to tourism, will welcome you in, surprised, happy and puzzled. Why did you come to Kazakhstan? Only the road can provide that answer.

The south

Kazakhstan is such a big place, one can only hope to explore a little bit of it at a time. Far-flung jewels like the western Mangystau desert and the magic Altai mountains are stunning in their own right, but due to their remoteness, they require a dedicated trip. Luckily, you can get a taste of each in the Almaty region, where this itinerary starts.

The strange morphology and wild animals of Altyn Emel and Charyn Canyon echo the wilds of western Kazakhstan’s strangely shaped deserts. Like in Altai, the Ili-Alatau national park has roaming bears, shimmering lakes and a sea of firs. Almaty itself blends Astana’s wealthy vibe with the frenetic trader’s buzz of Shymkent. To have a good look around, spend at least 4 days in Almaty and its surroundings.

From Almaty, an overnight train or short flight brings you to Shymkent. Those who elect to do the whole itinerary by car can stop over at the mausoleum of Aisha Bibi in Taraz. Once in Shymkent, there are more mausoleums, Sufi shrines and ruined towns to visit for culture mavens, while the nature lovers will prefer a homestay in Aksu-Zhabagly, a tulip paradise that’s also popular with birdwatchers. If you want to enjoy both, budget 3 days as to not feel rushed. Popular Chinese chain Turandot has their best chef working in Shymkent, but come early to avoid the karaoke.

The north

Ever since President Nazarbayev decided to relocate his capital to Astana (literal translation of Astana: Capital), there has been a building frenzy. The decision to host the World Expo in 2017 has only added to the construction boom. Gleaming constructions of glass and steel by the world’s top architects, rising out of nowhere from an inhospitable desert: it all reminds not a little bit of Dubai. The comparison is apt, and Astana’s army of bureaucrats and careerist professionals love to holiday in the Emirates. You will need at least a day to visit all the new monuments and to get a sense of the reverence (some say personality cult) its inhabitants hold for the creator of this shining mirage, Kazakhstan’s only-ever president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In the evenings, suit up for a night at the opera, located below the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, or shop til you drop at consumer paradise Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest tent. For dinner, reserve in advance at Astana Nury, a top-class Azerbaijani restaurant for the classiest barbecue and beer you can imagine. Eagilik has great coffee for a brunch stopover: its English-language bookshop is an expat redoubt.

For a different view of Kazakhstan once more, take a day trip to Karaganda. This working-class town is dominated by mines and smoke-belching chimneys, so it initially comes as a surprise Karaganda has 4 theatre companies serving an obviously cultured city populace. This all has to do with the KarLag, part of the larger GuLag system of Stalinist labour camps. Many of the Russian intellectuals condemned to hard labour by Stalin ended up here, and stayed if they survived. Solzhenitsyn himself, the prime documenter of the Gulag, served his time in Kazakhstan. Visiting the Dolinka museum and the Alzhir monument, you can learn more about a time in history which saw the greatest destruction of human talent, perhaps of all time.

If you prefer a lighter way to spend your holidays, the Korgalzhyn nature reserve has the world’s most northerly flock of flamingoes.

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