Backpacking Kazakhstan (An Ultimate Budget Travel Guide)

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?

Update February 2022: Kazakhstan is now open for tourism again and the country has reinstated visa-free travel for many passports. See the visa section below for more information.

Time to read: 7 minutes

Boring stuff: I have visited each of the places I recommend and give you my honest opinion, warts and all. All photos are my own unless otherwise stated and may not be reproduced without permission. Affiliate links may earn a 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.

  • 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. The 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 buses 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 (if you need one)

From February 2022 Kazakhstan has resumed its visa-free entry policy which was suspended during the covid outbreak. Passport holders from Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, The UK and the USA can enter Kazakhstan visa-free for up to 30 days.

From 1st January 2019 Kazakhstan introduced the e-visa for 117 countries. This was suspended during the covid pandemic, but as of February 2022, visa-free travel is again possible. You can apply online here.

The Current (2022) 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.

The single biggest cost associated with a trip to Kazakhstan is likely to be your flight. Use sites such as Skyscanner to check for deals and be sure to check Trip.com which have some of the best prices for both international and domestic routes for Kazakhstan.

If you will be arriving in Kazakhstan overland or across the Caspian Sea, then be sure to check out my guide on travelling from Europe to China along the old Silk Road, without flying!

There are trains and buses travelling to Kazakhstan from neighbouring countries such as China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.

See my guides on travel to and from Kazakhstan overland:

China: Urumqi to Almaty

Kyrgyzstan: Bishkek to Almaty

Uzbekistan: Tashkent to Almaty

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!

If you will be travelling well off the beaten path, then you might not find any hostels. However, there are sure to be guesthouses and hotels, which can usually be had for less than a private room in a hostel! See Booking.com and Trip.com to find guesthouses in Kazakhstan.

Hostels (and hotels) I can recommend:

Almaty

Sky Hostel ($11 per night)

Astana Hotel ($21 per night)

Aralsk

Керуен сарайы, гостиница ($15 per night)

Karaganda

Apartment on Pichugina ($23 per night)

Nur Sultan

Hostel Nochleg ($10 per night)

Jasmine Hotel ($24 per night)

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 accommodation 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 single-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.

Looking for a backpack? Check out my guide to the best budget hiking backpacks on the market!

Food in Kazakhstan

Kok Tobe Cafe
Shashlik at the Kok Tobe Cafe, Almaty

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 department 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

Aktau

Aktau Beach, Kazakhstan
Aktau Beach, Kazakhstan

Pleasant Aktau is a port and small resort town on the coast of the Caspian Sea.

A useful base if you are travelling across the Caspian to/from Baku in Azerbaijan.

Almaty

Almaty
Almaty

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!

Almaty also makes a great base for exploring nearby attractions such as the Kolsoi Lakes and Charyn Canyon, which can both be done as day trips from the city.

Aralsk

Aralsk, Kazakhstan
Aralsk, Kazakhstan

Once a thriving 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.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

The cosmodrome at Baikonur is still leased to the Russian’s and is the home of their space programme.

If you time your backpacking Kazakhstan trip right, you can even witness a launch!

Karaganda

Karaganda
Karaganda

Charming 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.

Nur-Sultan

Places to Visit in Kazakhstan
Nur-Sultan – Kazakhstan’s Shiny Capital

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 Kazakhstan.

Shymkent

Shymkent, Kazakhstan
Shymkent, Kazakhstan

A charming small city in the very south of the country and known as “the Texas of Kazakhstan”.

Shymkent is a good base for trips to nearby Uzbekistan (you can take a taxi to Tashkent from here).

Turkistan

Turkistan, Kazakhstan
Turkistan

Ancient Turkistan is the best example of Silk Road architecture in Kazakhstan.

Witness the dazzling mosques and madrassas in this historic city.

Bon Voyage

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 relatively low costs.

Looking for more backpacking adventures? Read my other backpacking guides:


Dunhuang, Gobi Desert, China

About the author:

Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has traveled to over 60 countries, lived in Armenia, China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.

Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of the world by train, bus and boat. He has been interviewed multiple times by the BBC and recently featured in the documentary Scariest Places in the World. See the About page for more info.

Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲

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