Kazakhstan is an awesome and expansive Central Asian country that has almost every kind of landscape imaginable. It’s a hidden gem that hasn’t been overrun with tourists yet. It’s most definitely worth a visit and should be near the top of your bucketlist! Before you go, You’ll need to read this list of 12 Things to Know About Kazakhstan.
3 Important Things to Know About Kazakhstan
Most people speak Kazakh, alongside Russian. Both languages have huge similarities. For example, the word for cafe in Russian is кафе and in Kazakh it is кафеci. Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kazakh Cyrillic Alphabet has 9 unique characters not found in the 33 character Russian Cyrillic Alphabet.
If you can speak Russian, you will have no trouble travelling in this area. If you don’t speak Russian, you can still get by with props and hand gestures. People are really friendly and patient when trying to work out how to help you.
It can sometimes be amusing using props, pointing, calculators, pens, hand gestures, body movements and translation apps to get your message across. But if you want a rest from using your body and props to try to explain things, you can always head to the big shopping centres, where many of the staff can speak at least basic English.
Kazakhs are some of the most approachable people in the world. They are super friendly and helpful. Even if they can’t speak any English and you can’t speak any Russian, they’re willing to assist you.
They will also stay with you until your problem is solved. Say you hail a taxi using a taxi app, but the taxi can’t find you. Your new Kazakh friend will call the taxi, then take you to the taxi and make sure you get safely into the taxi and that the taxi knows where they are going.
Want directions but can’t speak Russian? No problem! Locals will use google translate to help. This always produces laughs over the inaccuracies of the translations, but you will get where you want to go eventually.
If you need assistance while in Kazakhstan, you can approach anyone in the street and be guaranteed that your problem will be solved in short order.
Despite what the internet may say, the water supply in most of Kazakhstan is absolutely safe to drink, without boiling. If you’re still a bit worried, you can take your reusable bottle to many cafes and restaurants, where they will refill it. Or you can simply boil your water.
2 Things to Know About Transport in Kazakhstan
Transport in Kazakh cities is cheap and efficient. Buses cover many major routes in the cities and out to the suburbs for 150₸/US$0.38 or 90₸/US$0.25 with the local transport card. They run at intervals of 5 minutes or less. Bus information for Almaty can be found here
Metro systems are relatively new in Kazakh cities and are therefore not that well developed, in terms of coverage. At 80₸/US$0.21, they are cheap, clean and efficient ways of travelling in the city centre. Metro information for Almaty can be found here
Taxis around the city cost about 1000₸/US$2.60. You can use the Yandex Taxi Hailing app to order a taxi if you have data/WiFi access and a phone number that can receive messages in Kazakhstan. If you have no internet access, just stand on the side of the road and put your hand out like your hailing a bus. An unofficial taxi will stop for you within minutes.
Shared taxis are available for inter-city routes, with prices that vary depending on the distance travelled. The 4 hour drive from Zharkent to Almaty should be about 4000₸/US$10.
Mashrutkas, which are vans that work on the same principle as shared taxis, operate out of bus stations. You buy a ticket at the ticket desk and then present the ticket to the driver at the platform. Mashrutkas leave when all their seats are filled. A Mashrutka from the Sayran Bus station in Almaty to the Western Bus Station in Bishkek costs 1800₸/US$4.70 and takes around 4-5 hours.
If you want to head out to attractions like Charyn Canyon or Kolsai Lakes in the east of the Almaty region, you have the option of joining a tour, hiring a car to self-drive or hiring a car with a driver. Tours are expensive and generally only run on weekends. Car hire can cost over US$100/day and may be difficult with the condition of some roads. Hiring a car with a driver can prove to be the cheapest and easiest way to go. A whole day trip to somewhere like Charyn Canyon would cost around 35,000₸/US$89
2 Interesting Things to Know About Kazakhstan
The Old and New Capital
Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan from 1991 to 1997. It may no longer be the capital, but it’s still the cultural and commercial centre of Kazakhstan. It is said to be the origin of the modern apple. The first part of the name Almaty means Apple. Hence the apple heart in this picture.
The Almaty city centre is very developed and pedestrian friendly, due to initiatives of the previous leader. Outside of the city centre however, footpaths seem to magically disappear and you have no choice but to walk on narrow roads where cars will pass way too close to you.
The second largest city and capital of Kazakhstan, was known as Akmola from 1997-1998, then Astana from 1998 to 2019 when it was renamed Nur-Sultan, after a former Kazakh leader. Despite the recent name change, it is still widely referred to as Astana both online and locally.
For a place that has a decent number of Muslims and Christians, you won’t see many mosques or churches. While they hold their faith dear, Kazakhs will not necessarily outwardly show it by wearing certain clothes or worshipping at churches and mosques.
If they are Muslim, they will stop what they are doing at prayer time, face Mecca and complete their prayers before going back to what they were doing previously. If they are Christian, they will pray when they have some quiet time. What a delightful way to honour one’s religion and keep up with other important things in life.
3 Things to Know About Dining in Kazakhstan
If you love meat, you’ll love Kazakhstan! They eat a lot of meat there. The main meats are beef, lamb and chicken, but horse meat is probably the most popular. A very common dish in the region is Shishlyk, which comprises of pieces of meat on skewers. The meat is cooked on an open grill then served with onion.
Kazakhstan probably isn’t too vegan-friendly, unless you want to spend your whole time eating mushroom Shishlyk. Even salads in Kazakhstan can have meat, so it always pays to check what’s in the food you’re ordering!
A popular drink in Kazakhstan is Horse Milk. You can find people selling it from containers in some areas. Kazakhs have several different words to describe horse milk according to the age of the horse and the sourness of the milk.
Beer With Straws
This qualifies as possibly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Every beer served in every pub, club or restaurant comes with a straw. I personally think it would be weird to drink beer with a straw and most people seem to take the straw out as soon as they get the beer.
2 Quirky Things to Know About Kazakhstan
Kazakhs love listening to English language music, with a twist. All shopping centres, restaurants and sporting clubs seem to have mellow versions of mainly 80s and 90s music, with the occasional 21st century hit thrown in for good measure.
On The Roads
One curious thing I noticed when I looked out of the window of the car I was in, was that drivers in some other cars were sitting on the opposite side of the car. The majority of the cars in Kazakhstan are left-hand drive, seeing as they are driven on the right-hand side of the road, but there are also quite a few right-hand drive cars. These cars are mainly imported from Japan and are about 5 times cheaper than their left-hand drive counterparts.
Some Kazakh drivers are crazy no matter which side of the car they’re driving from and traffic can sometimes be insane. Another thing that might take a bit of getting used to, is that traffic lights and pedestrian lights can be green at the same time. That means that cars turning a corner will drive towards you while you’re crossing the road, but they will stop and wait for you to cross.