Backpacking in Kazakhstan

– One of the few countries left on earth, where you still get the ‘Into the Wild’ feeling –

MASCHA VÖLKER

Being the ninth biggest country in the world and the world’s biggest landlocked country, it comes with surprise that Kazakhstan hasn’t been explored much – once you visit the country, though, you experience why there are barely any backpackers.

In short, Kazakhstan actually offers anything you look for in a trip (and yes, even beach holidays are possible). It has gorgeous and huge mountains (the biggest one measuring over 7000(!) metres), endless steppes, countless lakes and a wild fauna, including the endangered snow leopard and the saiga antelope (the latter, I was even able to see).

To travel the country, you surely need one of these two things (or both): 1. Time and 2. Money, whereas time is more important.

Your base will most likely be Almaty or Astana – for my trip it was Almaty. German passport holders can easily enter the country visa free for 30 days which made my arrival very convenient. In the big cities, you can take money out of any ATM – but be aware to bring enough cash once you leave the cities (especially small bills)! I consider myself as one of the most extreme budget travellers, so my 2 week trip (without visiting my family for a week) cost me about 125.000 Tenge (summer 2018: 300 EUR).

Almaty

Using Almaty as your homebase, I entrust you to spend as much time on the countryside as possible. Although Almaty has almost 2 million inhabitants, the highlights can be seen within a day. Luckily, more and more hostels are available and relatively cheap (1600 Tenge per night)

On arrival, I jumped on the only bus at the airport, which took me directly into the city. With Google Maps (bless God, that app works without Wifi, when loaded beforehand) I easily found my way to the nearest hostel. The hostels seem to inhabit less backpackers and more young expats and domestic non-leisure travelers, which I didn’t mind as it gave me more chances to improve my Russian.

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Big Almaty Lake

The Big Almaty Lake is a great day trip from Almaty and can be visited with a shared taxi, or bus (Number 28) and hiking (16km). As you get close to the border of Kyrgyzstan, you should bring your passport as the Kazakh officiers might ask you for it. The hike itself is on the car road with many serpentines – if you go in the morning during the week, it’s empty and peaceful. Over the weekend however, it’s supposedly full of people. After my trip, I also heard that you can hike uphill directly on the tube – looks a bit scary and reminds me of the Go Hard, Die Hard Russians on Youtube climbing towers without any protection (if anyone does it, please share a video with me). Whichever way you decide, the view on top is absolutely worth it. The gorgeous and majestic mountains of the Tien Shan behind the lake mark the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border that makes it (sadly) impossible to hike further.  On the way up there is one hotel (slightly expensive) and one observatory that I managed to spend the night in, although it is closed (lucky Russian negotiation skills). Make sure you find a way to spend the night here (either the hotel or camping). The star-mountain combo you get here at night turns everyone into a dreamer and believer.

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Train rides through the Kazakh steppe

Some might wonder, what excitement there is to spend two days riding through the Kazakh steppe. For me, it was definitely about letting go of the feeling of time. On my way from Almaty to Kostanay (around 38 hours) it didn’t matter anymore what time of the day it was and where I had to be at which time. If you have a daily life packed with work, meetings and to do lists, it is such a refreshing feeling! It finally gives you the space to set things straight and come to peace.

We drove for hours, where all you see around you is steppe.

In this environment, I started to make friends with my neighbours, where I met wonderful Gulimai – a beautiful Kazakh singer, where I spent hours drinking tea, eating candy and  listening to her playing.

The next day, somewhere between Karagandy and Kostanay, I became one of the lucky people to see a small saiga antelope in the middle of nowhere – it must have been lost, as they usually live in large herds. Saigas are endangered animals that are only found in Eurasia and Mongolia. What a wonderful train ride!

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Kostanay & hometown

For a visitor, Kostanay might not have to offer that much to do as it has for me. Even though, I lived in Germany most of my life, I still feel connected to Kazakhstan (mainly because my  parents kept the language and traditions whilst in Germany). This trip made me realise just that.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the economic crisis was visible everywhere – inflation, chaos in public administration, and uncertainty about the future. This caused many people to leave to either Russia or Germany. In the meantime, the city’s socio-economic disparities got bigger and bigger. Every time I get there, I see richer houses and people; but also more poverty and homeless people.

If one of you gets to visit Kostanay, the best experience to do and see are the beautiful churches and mosques (especially the newest one, Kostanay regional mosque). It is interesting to see the coexistence between the muslim and orthodox religions, as each is represented in the same ratio.

The village life in the North of Kazakhstan is very simple, and so is the infrastructure. Roads are bumpy, water comes from dwells and showers are taken once a week in the local banja (sauna). Every time, I come back, I wonder how my life would have been if we would not have left this place. Glebovka is the village 300 km South of Kostanay, where I “grew up”. Unless you have relatives in the area, it is not necessarily a place you go visit. However, I recommend anyone to visit these “isolated” places (wherever they may be in the world), because of 2 reasons:

Time

For me, these places make me realise how much importance we give time in the Western world. In Glebovka, it seems like time does not exist. Your daily routine is ruled by the sun. Living in a big city (Berlin) it is very refreshing and important to realise that your life doesn’t have to be ruled by appointments, free time slots and schedules.

Community

The sense of community in Kazakhstan (the Russian-Kazakh culture) is enormous. Whilst it is important to grow up to become an individual in Europe, in Kazakhstan (especially in the villages) you have to grow up to bring food to the table, take care of your parents when they get old and build an own family, so they take care of you when you get old. I’m sure that not only this mindset in social security, but also communistic politics from back in the days play a big part of this culture.

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Kolsai Lakes, Saty and Kaindy Lake

These lakes are magical places – if being avoided on weekends. Tourist companies have already discovered and fulfilled the demand of offering tours to the lakes (so far mainly for domestic tourists).

Arriving in Saty after 6 hours of hitchhiking, I met some Germans in my accommodation, who luckily took me with their car to the base of the lake. From there, we rented horses and did some horse riding from the first to the second lake. The horse riding definitely let me overthink the ethics of animal keeping by bringing the horses so steep uphill. However, I got told that they do it on a daily basis and need this ride (I hope that this is true).

The view on both lakes is phenomenal (supposedly, the third one cannot be visited anymore due to border control) – it is so quiet and peaceful and still making you feel like a real explorer of the earth.

In Saty, you cannot really do much but use it as your accommodation base. If you have a tent. Wherever you stay make sure to go out and see the stars at night in this mountainous area. It is just gorgeous to see them without any distraction.

The Kaindy lake is more difficult to approach, but also possible through hitchhiking. 16 km from Saty driving through rather sceptical roads, you will find a natural wonder, with pines coming out of the lake. A lake where you can surely just spend hours looking at its fascinating beauty. On top, you can sleep in a simple Yurt or camp (which I would recommend anyone) behind the lake following the side path around it. Here, it is just you and the nature!

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Sharyn Canyon

I wonder why I never heard of this place before! It is definitely one of these places where you feel so much energy and where you can recharge! You can walk through the whole canyon without anyone or anything stopping you.

Unexperienced hikers shouldn’t go too far off the main path, or you will get lost like me just before a sandstorm comes up. During the days I stayed there, I had completely no access to the outside world. The canyon is quite isolated, which makes it the perfect spot to put thoughts in order.

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Travel tips Kazakhstan

  • Always(!) negotiate – Unless you’re in the city and prices are written on a board, people always try to charge you more.
  • Know the prices – Complementing the first tip, make sure you know the basic prices for food, transport and accommodation. In the big cities, you usually find less people trying to rip you off as prices are standardised. My suggestion is to ask around 3 people (possibly people who are not trying to sell you sth.) for the average price of the just mentioned things.
  • Have change on you – People don’t have change. To save you some money, make sure you have enough small bills before you leave the city.
  • Don’t listen to accommodation tips of guidebooks – Whilst becoming more and more popular, Kazakhstans accommodations change fast, meaning, you can usually find better deals (even in remote areas) and you make sure that all locals economically benefit from your visit 🙂
  • Load Google Maps/have a gps with you – Make sure you download or load areas before. The people I met could never read a map/card, so it is good to come prepared when hitchhiking
  • Hitchhike – For sure, there are many people who wouldn’t recommend it but I think Kazakhstan is relatively safe to hitchhike, especially for travellers. Here, you usually pay some money to the driver anyway, so it’s more seen as an alternative to public transport. Even in remote areas, I never waited longer than 1,5 hours (and that’s the record. Usually, it was just 10 min). And the biggest plus: You get to mingle with the locals.
  • Bring a tent (in summer) – Wild camping is allowed and the views are just magical! Just make sure to not leave your stuff unattended – risks about being attacked are low, but pickpocketing is not unusual around here.

MEER KAZACHSTAN…