In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in Kazakhstan on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.
The former Soviet country of Kazakhstan is not what you expect – and it certainly isn’t the home of Borat. From glittering Astana to dusty Silk Road towns, Kazakhstan has something that will appeal to everyone. The locals are incredibly friendly, the food is fantastic, it is dirt cheap and it’s easy to get around – what’s not to love?
Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 and the government committed to making the wind-swept city the new, modern face of the country. From the moment you arrive in the centre of town you can see that the city has certainly met its mandate. The futuristic, flashy architecture that dominates the new town is worth a couple of days alone, the Bayterek Tower, National Museum of Kazakhstan and Khan Shatyr look like something out of a sci-fi movie.
TRAVELATOR TIP: From the airport catch bus number 10, which will take you from the airport straight to the city. It has stops near the Bayterek Tower and continues on to the Old Town, where there is plenty of budget accommodation.
While Almaty may be a little light on big tourist attractions, it’s a very liveable city with plenty of green spaces. It’s a nice place to spend a few days strolling around the city and sampling some of the local cuisine. There are plenty of expats, which means great coffee and international food. With an excellent metro system you can spend a day checking out Zenkov Catherdral and it’s surrounding park, strolling Independence Square and catching the cable car to the top of Kok-Tobe Hill. There are also some fantastic day trips to the Big Almaty Lake, Kolsai Lakes and the Medeu Skiing & Ice Skating Park.
TRAVELATOR TIP: With only one line, Almaty’s metro system is super easy to use. It is great for cross-city trips and only costs 80 tenge per person. There is also a stop near the main railway station if you don’t feel like battling the local buses.
Shymkent is the first city in Kazakhstan where we really felt like we had hit the Silk Road. The city is a world away from the glitzy cities of Astana and Almaty. Top sights include Park Abaya, Tauelsizdik Sayabagy (Independence Park) and the striking WWII memorial Alleya Slavy. To get a sense of local life, hang out with the locals splashing in the giant Red Tulip fountain, and head for a stroll along Koshkar-Ata Canal. Shymkent also has amazing soft serve icecream – you have to try it. The city is a great base to spend a few days before heading on to Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, and it is easy to arrange a day trip to Turkestan.
Home to the Mausoleum of Kohja Ahmed Yasawai, no trip to Kazakhstan is complete without a day trip to Turkestan to see this impressive monument and the mosques that surround it. Best visited as a trip from Shymkent, Turkestan is a dusty little city where you can visit the mausoleum, mosques, grab lunch and then return.
TRAVELATOR TIP: To get to Turkestan head to the Samal bus station in Shymkent, and just say ‘Turkestan’. You will be directed to the next minibus to Turkestan, which will leave when full. Make it clear you are not after a taxi, and jump into the minibus with the others waiting. Someone will collect your ticket fare just before departure, which costs between 700-800 tenge. Once you arrive in Turkestan, catch a taxi to the mausoleum for around 400 tenge. It’s the same process in reverse on the way back to Shymkent.
Where To Stay
Kazakhstan has some amazing places to stay, with a growing hostel scene. Here are a few we would recommend:
- Astana – Hostel ASTANA – we loved our stay here! Although it’s called a hostel, you will actually be staying on the top floor of the home of a delightful Kazakh family. The private rooms are huge, the bathroom is amazing and the view from the outdoor terrace is stunning.
- Almaty – Sky Hostel – we did not actually stay here as it was booked out but we were told by literally every tourist we met and quite a few locals that this is the best hostel in Kazakhstan! The pictures look amazing, the prices are great and from what we have heard the owners and staff are incredibly welcoming.
Besbarmak is Kazakhstan’s national dish. We were lucky enough to try some home-made besbarmak at a family’s home in Almaty. This was made with slow-cooked horse meat served on top of boiled noodles. The dish is then served with bowls of meat broth to wash it down, and served with salad (with meat in them of course).
Most countries will dish up some form of delicious local dumpling and Kazakhstan is no different. Manti is the Kazakh version, which is usually stuffed with lamb. These dumplings go down a treat with some sour cream.
This one might not necessarily be traditionally Kazakh but it’s still delicious! Available throughout Kazakhstan but best in the southern parts of the country, shaslik is simply flame-grilled meat on a skewer. They are best enjoyed with some bread, finely sliced onion, vinegar and a cold tomato-based sauce.
For longer journeys, trains are the most common mode of transport. The speed and quality vary depending on the route. There are some fast European-style trains on the Almaty-Astana and Almaty-Shymkent routes. For bookings and schedules, check out Tickets.kz. The website allows you to book from outside of Kazakhstan and accepts international credit cards. The fares are excellent and their online chat service is very helpful. Both the site and the chat service are in English if need be.
For shorter journeys, buses and minibuses are the way to go. Tickets can be booked on the same day as departure at the local bus station. You probably won’t be able to buy tickets in advance. If you are catching a long distance bus, we recommend getting to the station a few hours early to buy your ticket. Minibuses will leave quite regularly for shorter routes, just jump in and wait for the van to fill up. Shared taxis often ply the same routes as minibuses for a slightly higher fare.
Getting In and Out
If coming by air, the major cities of Astana and Almaty are your best bet. Both cities are well connected to Europe and Asia. Flying from Russia is quicker and sometimes cheaper than the train, with good quality airline Air Astana offering great fares if you plan ahead. Flying to other Central Asian countries is surprisingly expensive.
If travelling overland, there are plenty of train and bus options as Kazakhstan shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Common routes include:
- Urumqi (China) to Almaty train – twice weekly at 23:58 on Saturday and Monday nights.
- Moscow (Russia) to Astana train – train numbers 84 and 72 leave Moscow on alternate days. The journey takes 60 hours to reach Astana.
- Tashkent (Uzbekistan) to Almaty train – train number 21 leaves Tashkent every Wednesday and arrives 26 hours later.
- Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Almaty minibus – minibuses and shared taxis depart regularly from Bishkek’s Western Bus Station (Zapadny Avtovozkal). The journey takes 4-5 hours.
Kazakhstan is seriously cheap. A budget of US$70 (for a couple) will take care of everything you need. This will get you a private room at a great hostel/guesthouse, entry fees, all the food you can imagine. It also covers transportation in second-class (kupe) trains and minibuses across the country.
Best Time to Visit
Spring (March to May) is the best time to visit Kazakhstan with the weather being excellent country-wide. This is the perfect time of year for hiking. Winter can also be a great time to visit with Kazakhstan offering some great spots for ice-skating and skiing.
Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.