The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Kazakhstan
Backpacking Kazakhstan can be hugely rewarding for the intrepid traveller and doesn’t have to cost the earth either. Below I will tell you all the tips I have accumulated on my many trips backpacking this vastly underrated destination.
Kazakhstan is part of Central Asia (sometimes referred to as “the Stans”) and is a vast and beautiful land of mountains, alpine lakes, deserts and steppe.
With cheap transport, food and accommodation, Kazakhstan is one of the best destinations in the world for backpacking. Kazakhstan is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. From mountainous Almaty to the deserts and steppe of the interior, this is a true destination for adventure travellers!
Want to know about safety in Kazakhstan? Check out my article is Kazakhstan safe?
Important Note: Due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis around the world, Kazakhstan is not currently open to tourists. We will update as the situation changes.
*Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links, which means should you click and purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Planning your Backpacking Kazakhstan Trip
Step 1 – Decide on a Rough Route
The first thing you need to work out is what you want to see. Kazakhstan is a vast country (the world’s ninth largest in fact) and there is so much that seeing it all would take a lifetime. Starting in the capital Nur-Sultan and heading south to Almaty and the border with Uzbekistan is a popular route.
Some popular destinations:
- Nur-Sultan – the nation’s modern capital is home to an impressive array of architecture.
- Almaty – former capital and laid-back city in the shadow of the Tian shan Mountains
- Medeu – the highest ice skating rink in the world
- Shymbulak – Central Asia’s premiere ski resort.
- Big Almaty Lake – picture-perfect lake on the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border.
- Baikonour Cosmodrome – the site of Russsia’s space program. If you are lucky, witness a launch!
- Karaganda Gulag – discover the dark past of the Soviet Union at this former gulag.
- Aktau – Kazkahstan’s Caspian Sea resort and gateway to the Caucasus.
- Shymkent – the “wild west” of Kazakhstan and gateway to nearby Uzbekistan.
- Aralsk – former Aral Sea fishing port turned dusty, desert outpost.
- Kolsai Lake – stunning scenic spot.
- Charyn Canyon – a stunning 90km canyon close to the Chinese border.
Kazakhstan is very easy to get around as it has a great rail infrastructure. Fares are very reasonable and the trains are modern, comfortable and clean. Long distance and sleeper buses are another popular choice for budget travellers.
One of my best tips for travelling Kazakhstan on a budget is to make use of the sleeper trains and busess as you can cover large distances and wake up refreshed at your destination. What’s more, you will save on a night’s accommodation!
Step 2 – Apply for your Kazakhstan Visa
The below information is provided for when tourist travel to Kazakhstan resumes. Presently no tourist visas are being issued. This will be updated as soon as things change.
In pre-covid times citizens of Europe, the US, Australia and Canada could visit Kazakstan visa free for up to 30 days. Visa free entry has since been suspended, but looks to re-start from 1st May 2021. We will keep you updated of developments so be ssure to check back.
From 1st January 2019 Kazakhstan introduced the e-visa for 117 countries. You can apply online here.
Current (2021) Price for Kazakhstan e-visa is $80
Step 3 – Book Your Flight
Once you have received your e-visa, you can now book your flight to Kazakhstan if you will be flying.
If you will be arriving in Kazakhstan overland or acrosss the Caspian Sea, then be sure to check out my guide on travelling from Europe to China along the old Silk Road, without flying!
Step 4 – Book Your Train Tickets
Most people backpacking around Kazakhstan will opt to take advantage of the country’s excellent rail network.
With both fast and slower overnight trains, moving around the country is very easy.
You can book train tickets online up to 30 days in advance via the Kazakhstan Railways website.
Example Fares and Journey Times (April 2021)
- Almaty to Nur-Sultan 13h37m, 14,500KZT ($34)
- Almaty to Shymkent 11h03m, 9,500 KZT ($22)
- Nur-Sultan to Karaganda 3h47m, 2,000 KZT ($4.70)
Step 5 – Book Your Accommodation
All of the major cities have a selection of hostels, but once you get off the beaten path hotels can often cost the same price as a bed in a dorm.
Visit our partners at Hostelworld to book your bed!
Step 6 – Take out Adequate Travel Insurance
Any backpacking trip requires insurance to cover against the unexpected, and backpacking Kazakhstan is no different. Now that you have booked your flights and accomodation it would be sensible to protect these expenses should you have to cancel your trip.
As Kazakhstan is a vast country with rugged landscapes and a healthcare system that is perhaps not what you are used to back home, travel insurance is a must. I made the mistake of travelling without insurance to Thailand and got sick. I was left with huge hospital bills of around $600. It’s fair to say I won’t be making that mistake again when the cost of a ssnigle-trip policy is usually under $50.
Our partners at World Nomads specialise in insurance for backpackers and have some of the best rates around. You can tailor the policy to suit your specific needs to include more adventurous activities or extra cover for expensive items like cameras and drones. Get a free no-obligation quote from the World Nomads website.
Step 7 – What to Pack
By now you should have your visa, booked your flights and accommodation and know how you are getting around. So, what to pack when backpacking Kazakhstan?
There are a few things to consider when packing for a trip to Kazakhstan such as the climate and time of year. Nur-sultan is the second coldest capital on earth and winter temperatures can drop to below -20c.
If you will be spending time in the mountains around Almaty in the winter then you will also need to pack accordingly.
Summers in the interior or places like Aralsk, which is mostly desert and steppe can be extreme. Ensure you have light, cotton clothes and plenty of sunscreen.
Bring any medication you need from home as it might be more difficult to obtain in Kazakhstan.
Food in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s cuisine is very meat-heavy, and outside of Nur-Sultan and Almaty it is unlikely you will find appropriate dishes on menus. However markets are plentiful and you won’t have a problem picking up fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts to make your own meals at hostels.
Shashlik (grilled skewers usually of lamb or horsemeat) is ubiquitous and a staple of Central Asian cuisine.
Be aware that most menus in restaurants will be in Russian.
Backpacking Kazakhstan – Money
Kazakhstan uses the tenge (KZT ₸).
$1 US = ₸432
Notes come in 7 denominations; ₸200, ₸500, ₸1,000, ₸2,000, ₸5,000, ₸10,000 and ₸20,000.
ATMs are widespread in larger towns and cities, but not all will accept foreign cards. Outside of these places it’s best to carry cash in tenge.
Credit and debit cards associated with foreign banks may be taken in deparment stores and large, high end restaurants. In smaller restaurants and away from the big cities it’s unlikely they will accept plastic.
Books about Kazakhstan
Below you will find a selection of travel books that will help you get the most out of your trip to Kazakhstan.
Why not check out my list of the 19 best travel memoirs, which includes books on Kazakhstan and Central Asia?
Top Places for Backpacking Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s charming former capital and winter playground.
This cosmopolitan city at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains is a must-visit when backpacking Kazakhstan!
Once a thrivig fishing port on the Aral Sea, little remains of this town’s former glory.
That being said, Aralsk is an interesting destination to check out as you can still see some boats stranded miles from the shore.
Karaganda is a small city 270km south of the capital, Nur-Sultan.
As well as being a small, pleasant place with interesting architecture and murals, it is also a good base for discovering the Karaganda Gulag.
Formerly known as Astana, Nur-Sultan is Kazakhstan’s shiny, new capital.
Aside from some interesting architecture around the centre, Nur-Sultan isn’t a particularly interesting city, however many people will arrive here on a trip backpacking in Kazahstan.
A charming small city in the very south of the country and known as “the Texas of Kazakhstan”.
Shymkent iss a good base for trips to nearby Uzbekistan (you can take a taxi to Tashkent from here).
Turkistan is the bet example of Silk Road architecture in Kazakhstan.
Witness the dazzling mosques and madrassas in this historic city.
So, now you should be all set for that once in a lifetime trip backpacking Kazakhstan! It really is a fantastic place for backpackers given how easy it is to travel and the relativly low costs.
Looking for more backpacking adventures? Read all about backpacking in China!
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About the Author:
Steve Rohan has lived in China for over six years and has backpacked the country extensively. He always travels overland and is never more at home than when watching the world go by from the comfort of a train.
He has visited Kazakhstan over 10 times and plans to move to the country when travel allows.