Kazakhstan is a country that few people have heard about, but is the perfect backpackers destination. It’s the ninth biggest country in the world with lots of things to see and do for those that are interested in nature, history, train journeys and off the beaten path places.
Honestly I didn’t know much about backpacking in Kazakhstan either before I went and that was maybe part of the appeal. All I knew was that it was a country of nomads with a grim Soviet past that was hard to get to.
But the region is slowly opening its doors. Gone are the days of expensive visas, paperwork, bureaucracy and registrations with the local police. Most EU nationals no longer need a visa at all. Backpacking Kazakhstan is now easier than ever.
There was not much information on the internet about backpacking in Kazakhstan, but I was surprised by its diversity and how easy it was to travel around. I was left wondering how come people know so little of this huge country that has so much to offer for backpackers?
Backpacking Kazakhstan by train
There is no better way to get a true sense of the vastness of Kazakhstan than travelling by train. The distances are huge and the train journeys are long. The old Soviet trains are slow, but offer a nostalgic journey back to the good old days where in a few minutes you became friends with your fellow passengers. They will share their food and vodka with you while discussing the meaning of life. If you have time on your hands this is still the way to go.
But since a couple of years Kazakhstan introduced new high-speed trains from Spain. This reduces the train journeys between Astana, Almaty and Shymkent considerable from 20+ hours to comfortable nighttrain journeys between 13 – 16 hours. The Kazakh hospitality remains the same.
The ninth biggest country in the world
Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world and besides some mountains in the south and east, most of the country are empty steppes and grass lands.
Throughout it’s history this emptiness has been used for many things. Especially during the Soviet times Kazakhstan was used as Russia’s trashbin. The so called gulags or working camps brought many political prisoners to the country where they were forced to work under austere conditions.
Stalin even deported whole ethnic minorities such as the Chechens to Kazakhstan out of fear that they were not loyal enough to the regime. Famous persons like Trotsky and Dostoyevski all spent time in exile in Kazakhstan.
The hospitality of the Kazakh nomads is impressive and could be a lesson for the world today. Many of those deported that chose to stay explain they could not have survived without the Kazakh people that helped them and taught them how to survive the harsh climates of the steppes.
Kazakhstan was not only used to dump unwanted or suspicious persons. The Soviets build their space launch program in Baikonur because of it’s isolation. Away from spying eyes even though the rhetoric was that with rocket debris falling from the air they would cause the least casualties in this empty space. As much as they were concerned about the lives of the Russians they were less so about the Kazakh nomads that were actually living on the steppes.
The area around Semipalatinsk was used for Russia’s nuclear tests untill Nazarbayev put a stop to this in 1991. But even today the people are still suffering from the consequences due to increased rates of genetic mutations and cancers as can be seen in this article from National Geographic.
The train from Astana to Shymkent
I got my first sense of Kazakhstan’s ermptiness on the train journey from Astana to Shymkent. The old trains still take more than 24 hours, but the new high speed train goes there under 20 hours.
The nighttrain was comfortable with 4 bunk beds in each cabin. I woke up to a desert landscape of endless flat grasslands with dried yellow grass. It continued for hours and after a while the landscape got boring. During the whole journey we only stopped in 4 cities where we could go out to buy some food from old ladies selling pancakes and dried fish. God knows where they got the fish from.
Even though the landscape might get boring this will be well compensated by the interesting people you will meet. I shared my cabin with a russian couple and a young Kazakh girl with her one year old son. Word traveled fast and soon everyone in my part of the train knew there was a foreigner from ‘gollandiya’ on board.
People were curious and passed by to take a look. Nobody spoke english, but with Google Translate they managed to ask me all kinds of questions. Why was I in Kazakhstan? Did I like their country? What kind of work did I do? Did I have brothers and sisters? Where was my husband? And then in shock, Why wasn’t I married yet?
A warm welcome in Shymkent
As we came near Shymkent the landscape became more interesting. The dry grass lands changed into green hills with the occasional river flowing through. We were close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and in the distance i could see the Tien Shan mountains. Snow was still on top of them.
In Astana it was warm and sunny and even though we travelled further south it was cloudy and rainy in Shymkent. Despite the icy cold weather I got a warm welcome from Natalia in Shymcity Hostel. The one backpacker hostel in town where I was the only guest. Maybe not the only guest, because at night the mosquitoes kept me awake. I remembered reading something about them being plentiful in the kazakh steppes together with all kinds of other wildlife. Maybe the steppes are not so empty after all.
Backpacking Kazakhstan by Train: A 2 week itinerary
Day 1-2 Astana
I started my journey in Astana. Whether you like Astana or not, it is an interesting start of any journey to Kazakhstan. The capital will give you a better understanding of the country and it’s politics. Look at the futuristic buildings, visit some museums and get your first taste of Kazakh food.
I can also recommend a visit to Alzhir in Malinovka. A former gulag from the Soviet times for the wives of political enemies of the state. It makes for an easy half day trip from Astana.
Add an extra day if you would like to visit the Borovoe National Park for beautiful lake Burabay or the Korghalzyn Nature Reserve. An important site for birdwatchers where you can spot pink flamengoes if you are lucky.
Read more about what to see and do in this city in my guide to Astana.
There is a daily nighttrain to Shymkent leaving at 19:50 from Astana’s new train station (Astana Nurly-Zhol) and arriving in Shymkent at 12:16 the next day. Check for the most recent timetable and other options the Kazakh Railway site.
Day 3-5 Shymkent & Turkestan
If you arrive by train you will arrive in the late afternoon. Reserve a day to visit the city of Shymkent and another day to make a daytrip to Turkestan to see the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasaui. Add 2-3 extra days if you want to visit the Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve where in spring you can see the wild tulips in bloom.
Read more about Shymkent and Turkestan: Kazakhstan’s Silk Road.
There is a daily nighttrain from Shymkent to Almaty leaving at 21:05 and arriving at 08:10. Check for the most recent timetable and other options the Kazakh Railway site.
Day 6-13 Almaty
Almaty is a fascinating city surrounded by spectacular nature. While the city itself deserves 2-3 days to explore you can add several days to get out into the mountains. You can make day trips to Big Almaty Lake, Medeu Ice skate ring, Chimbulak ski resort and to the Charyn Canyon. Kolsai Lakes needs at least 2 days, but preferably 3 days.
After Almaty you can either travel back to Astana or continue your journey to Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is only 5 hours by bus from Almaty.
There is a daily night train back to Astana leaving at 18:52 and arriving at 08:40 the next morning. Check for the most recent timetable and other options the Kazakh Railway site.
Backpacking Kazakhstan by train: Practical information
Kazakhstan has both the old Soviet style slow trains and new trains. The high speed trains fill up quickly, especially in summer and during holidays. Therefore I can recommend to book your tickets online as soon as possible.
How to book Kazakh train tickets online?
I booked my tickets directly on the site of the Kazakh Railways. Before you needed a Kazakh credit card, but the site now also accepts international cards. Other reliable sites to book tickets online are TicketsKZ and Tutu.
Of course you can also book tickets at the station itself, but chances are its sold out.
Train classes in Kazakhstan: how to choose your seat?
The slow trains have three classes. Platzkart has open wagons divided in compartments with 6 bunk beds. Kupe has seperate closed compartments with 4 beds and Lyux/SV is the most expensive with only 2 beds in a closed compartment. The option Obshye is a seat only and although it is cheapest it is best avoided on long overnight journeys. Platzkart is my preferred option, because it is the best way to meet people.
The high speed trains also have three classes, but does not have platzkart. Tourist is the cheapest and is comparable with Kupe (4 beds in closed compartment). The more expensive Business has only 2 beds and Grand has an ensuite toilet and shower. I travelled in Tourist class and found it very comfortable.
What to expect on a Kazakh train?
The high speed trains all have a restaurant that serves decent food for decent prices. Each train wagon also has a water dispenser with both cold water and boiled water. Kazakh trains do not make a lot of stops, but at the stops you have local woman selling homemade products such as plov, blini’s and dried fish.
Each wagon has an attendant that checks your ticket and passport. On overnight journeys they will provide you with sheets, a pillow and a blanket. There is a toilet with water basin at each end of the wagon. Hygiene varies a lot, but in general they get more dirty as the journey progresses.
What to bring on a Kazakh train
Despite the trains having a restaurant wagon it is a good idea to bring some food and snacks. People will often share their food with you and it is nice to be able to give something back. With the hot water dispenser you can make tea or noodles. Also bring toilet paper and wet wipes.
Last tips on travelling Kazakhstan by train
Both Almaty and Astana have two stations so check what station you depart or arrive from.
Astana’s old station (ASTANA – 1) is in the old part of town. The high speed trains arrive and depart from the newer Astana Nurly jol station near Mynzhyldyk alley.
Almaty also has two stations. Almaty 1 is a bit outside of town while Almaty 2 is in the centre at Ablai Khan street
You can find more information about travelling by train in Kazakhstan on Caravanistan.
Backpacking Kazakhstan: Accomodation
With Tourism on the rise hostels are opening up all over the country. Airbnb is also having some decent and good options available. The hostels below are recommended based on my personal experience
Astana: Hostel Nochleg (near Baiterek tower, friendly people)
Shymkent: Shymcity Hostel (great location, friendly people)
Backpacking Kazakhstan: what and where to eat
Kazakhstan has a mix of Russian and Central Asian cuisine. Bazaars are a great place to try local food and in the major cities you have plenty of choice between budget and mid range restaurants. You can check my guides on Shymkent, Almaty and Astana for recommended restaurants
Beshbarmak is the national dish of Kazakhstan which is a noodle soup with horse meat. Other local dishes worth trying are plov (rice with carrot), laghman (noodle soup with vegetables), kuurdak (potato stew with meat), shaslyck (central asian kebab), manty (dumplings), baursaki (fried dough snacks) and samsa (samosa snacks).
You can also try Kymyz (fermented horse milk). Horses and Kymyz are central to Kazakh culture and every year on the last saturday of may is the World Kymyz Muryndyk festival in Taraz.
Backpacking Kazakhstan: Money Matters
Kazakhstan uses the Kazakh Tenge. In Astana, Almaty and Shymkent there are enough ATM’s. You can also exchange EURO’s or dollars. Look for obmen valyuty for an exchange office.
How to save money in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is not an expensive country per se. Public transport and local food in budget restaurants are extremely cheap. However, tourism infrastructure is not well developed yet outside of the cities where public transport is limited.
Therefore visiting some of the more remote national parks such as Aksu Zhabagly, Charyn Canyon or the Kolsai Lakes requires tours that can add up to your budget. A pity, because Kazakhstan has such beautiful nature that is well worth the effort. A trip to Kazakhstan would not be complete without a trip into the mountains.
Here are some tips to keep things within your budget
Meet up with other people: Tour companies often let you pay per minivan with driver. This means that you can divide the costs per person and the more people, the cheaper the costs. Hostels are a great place to meet up with other travellers.
Plan your trips in the weekend: Some tour companies offer shared trips in the weekends. These services are also used by expats and locals and therefore considerably cheaper. Almaty Backpackers Hostel has trips to Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes and Qazway tours has daytrips to Borovoe NP in the weekends.
Hitchhiking: Hitchhiking is quite common in Kazakhstan and is a safe way to travel around for both travellers and locals. It is not free though and it is expected that you pay the driver something at the end. It also requires a bit more time and patience, but it would be much cheaper than a tour and an adventure in itself.
For more information you can read my guide on how to visit the Charyn Canyon and the Kolsai Lakes
Backpacking Kazakhstan: When to visit
Kazakhstan has a quite extreme climate. Winters are bitterly cold and summers unbearably hot. The best time to visit is spring and autumn.
The end of March brings warmer temperatures and from the 21st of March till the 23rd of March is Nowruz. The new years spring festival celebrated in Iran and Central Asia.
In April and May you can see the wild tulips in Aksu Zhabagly National Park and bird migrations in Korghalzyn National Park.
During the summer from June till August it can get hot in Astana and the steppes, but this is the perfect time to go trekking in the Tien Shan mountains near Almaty or the Altay mountains in the northeast of Kazakhstan.
From September and early October temperatures go down, but the mountains are at its most beautiful with the autumn colours.
Winter brings snow and opportunities for winter sports around Almaty.
Backpacking Kazakhstan: Solo Female Travel
I travelled as a solo female traveller around the country for 3 weeks using public transport and trains. In my experience Kazakhstan is a very safe country for backpackers, whether you travel alone or not.
Kazakhstan is a muslim country and even though most people identify with the islam, they rarely follow religious rules. Kazakh people are very friendly and helpful towards travellers whether you are male or female.
Last updated: January 2019
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.