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Endless plains and diverting badlands conjure Kazakhstan’s romantic, remote feel – that’s until you see the dazzling combo of modern cities and ancient kingdoms…

Among the richest and biggest of the ‘Stans’, Kazakhstan is a vast expanse of sparse steppe and desert, cleaved asunder by gaping canyons and sheer gorges, and partly enclosed by mountain ranges like the Tien Shan.

Glittering cities like Astana work to shed the country’s Soviet past, while Silk Route stops like Sayram, Otrar and Turkistan seduce visitors with the promise of romantic minarets and breathtaking domed mausoleums.

 

Top holidays in Kazakhstan

Culture and history

Though becoming increasingly modern in terms of urban development, thanks in part to the lucrative oil reserves, Kazakhstan still remembers its history of nomads, Mongols, the Silk Route and the Soviet Union. A history it shares with many of the other ‘Stans’. Originally populated by tribes of nomads, the Arabs eventually invaded in the 8th and 9th centuries, and introduced Islam to the region.

Around 400 years later Ghengis Khan arrived with the Mongol Horde, and left countless razed towns and cities in his wake. The country recovered and developed into the Kazakh Khanate, which ruled over vast swathes of Central Asia until the territory was seized by the Russian Empire over the course of the 18th century.

In the 20th century Kazakhstan became a republic under the Soviet Union and faced a trying time of famine and religious suppression until finally gaining independence in 1991. Predominantly Muslim since gaining independence, Kazakhstan also has a large minority of Russian Orthodox Christians, other denominations of Christianity, and Jews.

Religion doesn’t play a major part in government or politics, although you should still be respectful and ensure your shoulders and legs are covered when visiting religious places. It’s also a good idea for women to bring a headscarf to wear when visiting mosques and mausoleums.

Things to do

The best place to start on any trip to Kazakhstan is Astana, the capital city and an unexpected bastion of modern, gasp-inducing architecture. After opening its oil industry to the international market at the end of the last century, a new injection of ‘petrodollars’ saw Astana become one of the most dynamic and modern purpose-built capital cities in the world – where architects like Norman Foster (the Gherkin, London City Hall) jumped on board to design with near limitless budget.

The city is well placed for visits to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and for beginning adventures across the steppe. In the country’s southern reaches you’ll find more mountainous scenery and the jaw-dropping Charyn Canyon – which could give the Grand Canyon a run for its money – as well as Soviet-influenced Almaty, the original capital.

Plus there’s the old city of Turkistan, where the grand Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi marks the grave of this cherished poet-cum-holy man.

Flight time

It takes approximately six hours and 30 minutes to fly to Astana from the UK.

Currency

Kazakh Tenge -

The currency in Kazakhstan is the Kazakh tenge (KZT), divided into 100 tiyn. Tenge can only be obtained within Kazakhstan, and it can be difficult to convert it back.

The best thing to do is to bring enough money in US dollars to last the duration of your trip and convert them as necessary. You can also withdraw tenge from ATMs in major cities. Major credit cards are accepted in big cities like Astana and Almaty, but it’s better to use cash in more rural areas.

Passports and visas

A full passport valid for six months is required. British nationals don’t need a visa unless staying for longer than 15 days.

Visit GOV.UK for more advice on passports and visas.

Timezone

Kazakhstan is six hours ahead of GMT, and five hours ahead of BST.

Electricity

Mains voltage is 220 volts AC (50 Hz cycles). Round, two-pin continental plugs are used, so you'll require an adaptor – remember to take one with you, as these are not widely available.

Language

Russian -

Kazakhstan has two official languages, Kazakh and Russian. You may find that in big cities people speak Russian while the language in rural areas is predominantly Kazakh.

The Cyrillic alphabet is used, but the Roman alphabet is starting to become more popular. English is spoken and understood by people who work in tourism.

Tipping

As a guideline, the average amount for good service is $2-4 per person, per day for your tour manager and $2-3 per person, per day for coach drivers.

Climate

Consisting almost entirely of wide-open steppe, Kazakhstan has a continental climate with extremes of temperature – expect freezing cold winters and exceptionally hot summers.

During the spring and autumn months (April to May and September to November respectively) the weather can fluctuate quite dramatically, so dressing in layers is a good idea.

You might also want to bring a warm coat, gloves and a scarf just in case the weather does take a turn. In the south the topography becomes more mountainous, and the climate becomes more alpine with temperatures varying in relation to the altitude.

Health

If taking prescription medicine with you it’s recommended that you bring it in the original packaging and carry the doctor’s prescription with you too.

If travelling in the more mountainous parts of the country, particularly of elevations higher than 2,500 metres above sea level, altitude sickness can become an issue. Symptoms can include headaches and nausea, but usually subside when you reach lower ground.

Flying insects, including mosquitoes, can be a feature of this part of the world during the warmer months and you may find it helpful to wear long-sleeved tops and full-length skirts or trousers, and to use mosquito repellents on exposed areas of skin. Those in which DEET is an active ingredient are thought to be the most effective.

As health information can change at any time, we’d advise you to consult your GP at least 12 weeks before departure.

Country-specific information and advice on possible health risks is also published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre, and The British Foreign and Commonwealth Travel Advice Unit provides important health and safety information for British nationals travelling abroad.

Population and size

18.2 million people live in Kazakhstan, which is just over twice the population of London.

The vast majority of Kazakhstan (around 90%) is steppe, and it shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as the Caspian Sea. Measuring more than 2.8 million square kilometres, Kazakhstan is around a third of the size of the USA (not including Alaska).

Smoking

Smoking is banned in places like hospitals and government buildings, however it’s still legal to smoke in restaurants and on public transport, unless of course this is stated otherwise.