WHERE TO STAY: Almaty Dom Hostel (2000 tenge/$7 per night)
This was my base during my Kazakhstan stay and it was awesome. The name 'Dom' is Russian for home, which pretty much describes the feel of the hostel. Shakir, the guy who runs it, couldn't have been nicer or more helpful and the place as a whole was super welcoming. The bedrooms have air conditioning and there is enough space so you don't ever feel cramped. As for location, it isn't directly in the city center, but all the main spots of the town are within a 10-15 minute walk. Plus, you'll be greeted by the neighbor's dog, Laika, upon arrival. (She's loud, but friendly)
COST OF TRAVEL: Very affordable.
- 30 minute taxi ride - 2000 tenge ($5)
- Drink at a bar - 500 tenge ($1.50)
- Dinner at a descent restaurant - 2000-3000dram ($4-6)
- Hostels (about 5000 dram ($10) per night)
- Ride to Krygyzstan from Almaty - no more than 3000 tenge ($10)
TAP WATER: Mostly Safe
In Almaty and Astana, as well as many of the small towns, the water is perfectly fine to drink. However, in several of the industrial cities and near some polluted areas, drinking the water is probably a bad idea. If you're unsure, just ask around and you'll find out.
COMMUNICATION: Russian and Kazakh (very little English).
Although both languages are official, more people actually speak Russian than Kazakh (90% of the country compared to 60% respectively. English is not well known, but people are friendly and will go out of their way to help you if they can. Therefore, knowing a few basic phrases in Russian can be very helpful. Here's a few:
- Здравствуйт (zdrastvitye) - Hello
- спасибо (spasibo) - Thank you
- Меня зовут (menya zovut) - My name is...
- Я люблю Казахстан (Ya lubloo Kazakhstan) - I love Kazakhstan
SAFETY: Pretty safe
I personally had no trouble during the 10 days I stayed in the country, and the same goes for most of the other travelers I met there. However, there have been a few cases in which people dress up as police offers in attempt to solicit a bribe. This isn't a widespread practice, but just be on the lookout just in case and ask to see the guy's badge if such a circumstance occurs. That said, there is little risk of harm.
TRANSPORTATION: Far distances, low prices
Almaty is the only city with an underground metro which costs 80 tenge (25 cents) to ride. There's only one line, so it doesn't cover the whole city, but the trains are clean and the stations are nice. Other than that, there are bus routes throughout the other cities including the capital, Astana. However, if you really want to go cheap, hitchhiking is pretty common throughout the country. Especially as a foreigner, someone will likely stop for you within minutes. Just keep in mind though, the country is very large and cities are often several hours by car apart with little to no civilization in between, so be prepared for the long rides (for example, it's 12 hours by train from Astana to Almaty).
If you want to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, there are many taxis and Marshrutkas that will take you there from Almaty to Bishkek. The cost should be no more then 2000-3000 tenge ($7-10) and will take between 5-6 hours total. Sometimes you the driver will only take you to the border though and you'll have to get in another vehicle once you cross over (as was the case for me). For more info on that, please read the following posts.
Once upon a time, Turkey and Mongolia had a baby that was adopted and raised by Russia. That's how someone once described Kazakhstan to me, and I have to say, it seems pretty accurate. There is still a resonance left over from the Soviet era and nearly 25% of the total population is ethnically Russian, so it makes for an interesting cultural mix. Therefore, you'll see Sunni mosques next to Orthodox Christian churches next to each other in most town and city centers. The country itself though is largely secular (unlike most of it's Central Asian counterparts) and any form of religious discrimination including against atheists is punishable by law (the movie Borat got this part wrong).
The word 'Kazakh' is derived from an old Turkic word meaning 'wanderer.' Therefore, the name Kazakhstan literally means 'Land of the Wanderers.' You can see traces of the nomadic history throughout the country, including a few groups of people still living as nomads in the steppe (although not in the cities). However, only about 60% of the country is ethnically Kazakh, so you also see a variety of cultural blends.
Overall though, people are very welcoming, so don't be surprised if someone or some family decides to invite you over for dinner within minutes of meeting you (this actually happened to my friend Tristan in Astana).
Compared to the rest of Central Asia, Kazakhstan's infrastructure is significantly more developed. Roads are decently maintained and there is an extensive railway network throughout the country. Kazakhstan as a whole seems to be drastically changing by the day, which is pretty incredible to see. For example, the capital city Astana was built up from a small village to a super modern metropolis of 1 million people in the span of just 20 years. As a result, many of the buildings look futuristic, making both Almaty and Astana stand out drastically from other major cities around the world.
Also, Kazakhstan was the center of the Soviet space program and many sites are still left over from that time. Sputnik, the first ever satellite, was launched into space from Kazakhstan too.
DO AND DON'T
- Go hiking. The mountains are incredible.
- Visit Medeu. It is said to be the highest ice rink in the world. I never checked to verify, but nonetheless, it is pretty cool.
- Visit the Park of the First President in Almaty. It is so intricate and enormous, and there's a viewpoint in which you can see the entire city.
- Eat apples. The fruit originated in Kazakhstan and they remain very delicious there.
- Visit both the Steppe and the cities. The contrast is drastic but both are incredibly interesting.
- Prepare for the weather. Kazakh summers are very hot and winters are frigid.
- Visit an open market. Throughout Central Asia they're huge and pretty amazing. Kazakhstan is no exception.
- Visit the Caspian Sea
- Take a train across the country and see the vast steppe turn into huge mountains
- See the dried up Aral Sea. While there is no more water, it does look like a graveyard for old ships.
- Don't wear shoes into someone's house.
- Don't make Borat impersonations
- Don't take a large glass of Kumis (fermented horse milk) if you've never had it before. You'll be expected to finish it which is quite a difficult task.
- Don't enter a taxi before agreeing on a price. If so, you will be overcharged.
- Don't refuse an offer of food or drink as it is seen as an insult. Ask for a small portion if need be.
- Don't take a bus if you need to be on time. They are notoriously late.