Below you can find our two-week itinerary for travel in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is huge, and there are plenty of things to do besides what we mention below. However, this Kazakhstan itinerary is a perfect introduction to the country.
Ask someone about Kazakhstan, and 9 times out of 10 their response will be “Borat”. Images of a village with poor farmers, incestuous families, and no running water make Kazakhstan seem like the backwaters of the world.
Little do people know that this village wasn’t even in Kazakhstan (Romania, actually) and that Kazakhstan is the richest and most modern country in Central Asia. And there are many more interesting facts about Kazakhstan, too. Though far from topping the bucket lists of the masses, Kazakhstan is seeing an increase of tourism, especially thanks to their new one-month visa-free travel program for many citizens of the EU and OECD countries.
One month visa-free countries: United Kingdom, United States, Ireland, Iceland, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, South Korea, United Arab Emirates
Two weeks is hardly enough for such a massive country, but the Almaty region of southern Kazakhstan has more than enough to see to keep you busy for two weeks. So check out our Kazakhstan itinerary below for the perfect two weeks in Kazakhstan.
Two-week photo itinerary for Kazakhstan
Days 1-4 in Kazakhstan: Almaty
Although not Kazakhstan’s capital, it has a cosmopolitan feel to it. Well-heeled urbanites live it up in swanky restaurants and nightclubs that put renowned European staples to shame, while remnants of Soviet-style heroics loom large in its many lush public parks.
The shiny new skyscrapers, modern metro system, and hip bars and restaurants give Almaty a chic, almost European ambiance. Walk around in the city center, and stop for lunch and a drink at one of the many cafes on the streets. Give your body some rest to digest, and spend an hour or two people watching while sipping coffee.
Of course, Almaty still holds to old Silk Route traditions. There are several bazaars, of which the Green Bazaar is the biggest and most stimulating on the senses. Head over there for endless rows of fruits, salads, meats, and cheeses, and don’t forget to look up for small cafes with cheap and cheerful Kazakh cuisine. For those that have spent a lot of time traveling through strict Muslim countries, you can even find some good old fashioned bacon in the depths of the bazaar.
Also heading to Astana? Check out these 6 things to do in Astana!
Don’t forget to pay a visit to the technicolored wooden Zenkov or Ascension Cathedral in the heart of Paniflov park. Every single component of it is made of wood–even the nails! It’s free to enter, so long as you’re in somewhat modest clothes.
Be sure take a cable car ride up to Kok Tobe, the highest point in Almaty, to watch the sunset. The cable car leaves from a building to the right of the Palace of the Republic and costs 2,000 tenge for a two-way ticket.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city life, take a day to head to the outskirts of the city and take in some of the nearby nature. To start, take a bus or taxi to Medeu, the highest ice skating rink in the world.
There are plenty of trails up, down, and around the surrounding mountains that start around Medeu. The Lonely Planet for Central Asia has a good description of a route through the mountains with hardly any people.
Watch out for curious critters along the way.
Where to stay in Almaty:
Almaty has plenty of accommodation to meet fellow travelers and plan the next part of your travels in Kazakhstan. Below are just a few options available.
- Budget: Amigo Hostel is a decent hostel close to the metro. It has a kitchen for cooking and there are several cheap eateries nearby. Popular with overlanders – Book Amigo Hostel now
- A bit nicer: Sky Hostel Almaty is a highly rated hostel with a cool interior. It’s close to the city center and offers all the amenities you would want – Check out Sky Hostel Almaty now
Days 5-7 in Kazakhstan: Kolsai National Park
If natural beauty is your thing, but time is short, look no further than the gorgeous alpine lakes of Kolsai National Park, where azure blue water reflects snow-capped mountain tops and dense pine forests. The park is famous for its three lakes, although the third lake can’t be visited without permission due to its close proximity to the Kyrgyz border.
It’s 750 tenge per person to enter Kolsai National Park–more if you’re setting up your own tent. There’s no way for the gatekeeper to verify that you’re camping, though, so just say you’ll be staying in a yurt. If you have your own car, you have to pay an additional 1,000 tenge.
Kolsai park can be reached from Almaty in a day, and doesn’t require your own transport or overly expensive tour operators to get to. Saty (Саты), the closest town, offers several homestays and is also a jumping-off point for Kaindy, another famous alpine lake. You can get to Saty using public transport or by hitchhiking. There are several small shops in Saty to stock up on supplies.
Though the hike to the second lake can be done in one day, we recommend you take a bit more time for Kolsai. You can sleep in a yurt by the first lake or, for the die-hards among us, trek to the second lake and camp in your own tent there.
Classic yurt stays and jolly, vodka-shotting local tourists only add to the charm, even though their gifts of kumis, sour alcoholic horse milk, and kurt, equally sour salty cheese snacks, might be a bit of an acquired taste.
All in all, the park was our favorite stop during our Kazakh voyage.
Where to stay and how to get to Kolsai:
- A yurt! Don’t worry about booking ahead – the yurts are large, and there are several camps near the first lake. A whole yurt is around 7,000 tenge per night, more with food.
- Homestays in Saty. Look for signs that say “Гостиница”, hotel.
- Check out our report on getting to Kolsai by public transport.
Day 8-9 in Kazakhstan: Charyn Canyon
Alas! We didn’t have time to visit Charyn Canyon, as we had a bit of a delay in Almaty. But, that doesn’t mean you should skip it! The turn-off for Charyn is close to the turn-off for Kolsai, so it makes for a great stop on your trip back to Almaty from Kolsai.
You can easily hitch or take a taxi to the entrance, and spend a day and star-filled night amongst the rocks. Don’t forget to bring water–it can be quite hot during the day!
Caravanistan has more information about visiting Charyn Canyon.
Day 10-11 in Kazakhstan: Shymkent
Return to Almaty from Kolsai, and then take the long westward train to Shymkent.
This bustling city, with some of the friendliest and jolliest bazaaris we’ve met so far, is a great stepping stone for exploring this region.
We walked through the bazaar’s maze, surrounded by throngs of shoppers and local shopkeepers. Some were bold and curious, coming over to investigate using a mixture of basic English and fluent Russian, while others were more subtle. America, you could hear floating through the alleyways. Gollandiya, the whispers said. We were clearly the attraction of the day.
Kazakhstan doesn’t get as many tourists as neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and it shows in the people. Jolly and curious, language barriers mean nothing to them, and the strict social norms adhered to in other Muslim majority regions do not apply here. Sebastiaan was offered two daughters in marriage, while Alex, the American celebrity, was peppered with questions despite being half naked in a changing room.
Where to stay in Shymkent:
- Budget: ShymCity Hostel is run by a lovely expat lady who can help you organize tours in the region. Popular with overlanders – Book ShymCity Hostel now
- A bit nicer: Altair Hotel is a decent hotel for people no inclined towards the hostel life – Check out Altair Hotel now
Day 12 in Kazakhstan: Day trip from Shymkent to Aksu river
Unfortunately, you need a car to reach the natural attractions near Shymkent… which we didn’t have. Taxis were also out of our budget, so we did something very uncharacteristic: we joined a tour!
Comprised of cackling local women and tour guides who must have been part of the Gestapo in a previous life, the tour took us to the ice cold (but stunning) Aksu river and park.
Aksu means “white water” in Kazakh, named for the glacial water that fuels the river. The park is a beautiful area of golden fields, steep gorges, and some water-worn rock formations.
If you have your own car, you can ask the lady at ShymHostel for information on how to get to the park. She can also help you book a tour or get a taxi if you so choose.
(Alternative) Day 12-13 in Kazakhstan: Sayram-Ugam National Park
If it fits in your budget, Sayram-Ugam National Park is (relatively) close to Shymkent. Less frequented than neighboring Aksu-Zhabagyly National Park, it has a community-based tourism program and several village homestays to make your stay more comfortable.
The Central Asia Lonely Planet has more details on how to get there and where to stay, and you can try your hand at contacting the Ecotourism office for more information. Beware, many of the workers only speak Russian and Kazakh. Find a local friend to help you with making the call.
Day 13 in Kazakhstan: Day trip from Shymkent to Turkestan
Finally, we’ll take you to Kazakhstan’s spiritual heartland: Turkestan, home to Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a Turkic Sufi poet and saint. No visit to Kazakhstan is complete without seeing this epitome of Islamic architecture, and the most beautiful manmade structure in the country.
The mausoleum is as grand as the holy man was humble, and the intricate blue tile design and gorgeous dome are juxtaposed with a shiny new mosque in the back.
It’s 500 tenge for foreigners to enter the site, which contains the mausoleum, a library, and an underground mosque. Ladies, don’t forget to dress modestly and to bring a headscarf–it’s an Islamic site.
Getting to Turkestan takes about 2 hours by marshrutka from Shymkent, making for a perfect day trip. You can easily spend a day wandering around the city, but there’s not much to keep you there overnight.
Day 14 in Kazakhstan: Back to ???
Where you head on your last day depends on where you’re off to next.
Heading home via the airport? Use this day to meander back to Almaty–it’s a long train ride from Shymkent.
If you’re crossing into a neighboring country overland, see the section below.
Inspired enough to visit Kazakhstan? Check out our Kazakhstan backpacker budget report!
Leaving Kazakhstan over land?
- Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: End in Almaty, and take a marshrutka to Bishkek. Check out our Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan border crossing post for details.
- Tashkent, Uzbekistan: End your Kazakh adventure in Shymkent, and cross over the border from Shymkent to Tashkent. Caravanistan has more details on this crossing.
- Urumqi, China: End in Almaty or Kolsai, and hitch or catch a bus on the main road leading to Zharkent. Don’t miss our China – Kazakhstan border crossing report for more details.
Useful information when traveling in Kazakhstan
- Russian is widely spoken in Kazakhstan, and it’s not common to find English speakers outside the main cities. We recommend you learn the Russian alphabet and pick up a Russian phrase book to make life easier.
- Hitchhiking is fairly common in Kazakhstan, although people will often expect some money for gas. If you don’t want to pay for your ride, you’ll have to explain this before getting into a car.
- Wild camping is allowed in Kazakhstan. Make sure to bring proper camping gear and gas canisters when going west. There is a lot of nothing out there.
- When you enter Kazakhstan you’ll get a stamped immigration card. Make sure to keep it for the duration of your stay in Kazakhstan.
- The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Kazakhstan. Get a Steripen if you want to avoid buying bottled water.
- Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, has recently been renamed Nur-Sultan. Most people will keep referring to it as Astana, though.
Useful resources for traveling in Kazakhstan
- The Lost with Purpose guide to how much it costs backpacking in Kazakhstan – Includes all the information you need to plan your trip to Kazakhstan on a budget.
- Caravanistan – Great resource for everything Central Asia. Their forum is especially useful for recent updates and finding travel buddies.
- TicketsKZ – Online booking website for train and plane tickets. Can also be used to find train schedules.
- Yandex Taxi – The taxi app to use in Kazakhstan, similar to Uber.
- Journal of Nomad’s guide to backpacking in Kazakhstan – Useful guide to backpacking in Kazakhstan.
- World Nomads travel insurance – We recommend you never leave home without proper travel insurance. We use World Nomad.
And there you have it, our two-week itinerary for Kazakhstan, including practical info for traveling in Kazakhstan. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.
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