Kazakhstan, the Land of the Great Steppe is indeed a hidden gem located far North of India. I was fortunate enough that I got to spend one month in this beautiful country and immerse myself in to the culture and the breathtaking landscapes all over.
The people here are very friendly and helpful. Since, they don’t see brown faces very often, in fact it is very rare, so they are likely to give you stares but at the same time they are very welcoming. There were times when me and my friends were stopped by random strangers to get a photo clicked with us giving us some celebrity like feeling. Nonetheless, I enjoyed those moments and I am sure you will too.
People very rarely speak English so you have to befriend Google Translate during the entire trip. However, I will recommend you to learn certain basic words for your day to day conversations.
For mobile sims, the best networks are of Kcell, Beeline and Active. I used an Active sim which I bought at a local supermarket just showing my passport. Rates are quite cheap. I got 20 GB of data and free Active to Active Calls for INR 600 with validity of one month. You can get sim cards from shopping malls too.
The local currency is called Tenge. 1 Tenge is equal to about INR 0.18. This means, Indian Rupees has greater value. I carried USD with me as I could not find Tenge in India. I got a very good rate at Western Union Money Exchange in Astana. Also, you can use Halynk Bank ATM (especially in Keruen City Mall, Asatana, third ATM from the right). Best thing is this bank’s ATMS are in English and they charge no transaction fee.
Now let’s get in to the details of the trip. Since, I was in Kazakhstan for an internship rather than as a tourist but nevertheless, I tried to cover as many places as possible both in Almaty and Astana (Nur-Sultan now). So, the itinerary that I am going to provide is based on my calculations for a week-long trip in the country.
I booked my tickets in the month of February for my trip in April-May. Initially, I booked an Air-Astana direct flight from New Delhi to Astana and roundtrip expense was about INR 26,000. However, because of the closure of airspace by Pakistan the flights got cancelled. Therefore, solely from my experience, I would advise not to book Air Astana flights till the issues between the two countries are calmed down.
Later I booked Aeroflot Russian Airlines that goes from New Delhi to Astana with 9 hours of layover in Moscow and follows the same route while coming back to Delhi with 1 hour 30 minutes of layover in Moscow. The roundtrip expense was about INR 55,000.
Something interesting happened with me while coming back to India. Since, the layover at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport was only of 1 hour 30 minutes, Aeroflot did not load my checked in bags in the connecting flight. So, if that happens to you there is nothing to worry about. Aeroflot staff was present there at the baggage belt. They will give you a form, just fill it up with correct address and phone numbers and your checked in bags will be home delivered to you.
Also, the lesson that I learnt is that it is better to avoid flights with small layovers since the ground staff does not get sufficient time to load your checked in bags from the previous flight to the connecting flight.Therefore, travel insurance is a must in case anything like this happens and your bags go completely missing or there is any damage.
Mine was an internship visa (B7) which I applied through a local agent in Bangalore. Documents that I provided were Passport, Visa Application Form duly filled, Air Tickets, Passport Photo (White background, Matt finish paper, 80% face in the photo, colored clothes), visa support document from my internship organization in Kazakhstan and an Indian ID proof like Adhaar or Voter ID.
Breakup of Visa Fee :
INR 5,920 for Visa Charges for Kazakhstan
INR 2,200 for Visa Agent including GST
INR 200 courier charges
INR 3,900 No Interview Charges
However, Kazakhstan has introduced single entry e-visas for Indians from 1stJanuary, 2019. For more details, please check the following link:
When to visit?
If you want to experience both the snow and sun in Kazakhstan, the best time to visit is April-May. I experienced as low as -6 degrees and as high as 22 degree Celsius in my one month stay. The cold is very harsh during Winters (December, January, February). Temperature may go up to -40 degree Celsius. So, for a pleasant stay, I would recommend anytime between April to November would be the best time to visit the country.
Since, Astana is located far North, it is colder than Almaty. Unlike Astana, Almaty’s weather is not as extreme and it is very pleasant during the time I visited the city.
What all places to see?
Astana is a well-structured and well-planned city. You will see many modern architectural marvels and the roads are connected beautifully. You will also see many Soviet style buildings mostly around the old part of the city. Basically, the city is quite well developed.
Now, Astana or Nur-Sultan is not known for its landscapes and natural beauty. But there are many breathtaking monumental structures all over the city.
Places that I visited includes the Baiterek Tower. It is basically an observation tower. You can go up to the top of the tower and have a bird’s eye view of the entire city. Entry fee per person is 700 Tenge, i.e. about INR 140.
The whole Baiterek avenue is quite pleasant and from there we took a walk to the President’s Palace which is just about opposite to the Baiterek Tower.
Other places that we visited are the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, i.e., the Pyramid, the Hazrat Sultan Mosqueand the Kazakh Eli Monument. All the three sites are located next to each other so you can simply take a walk. Apart from this, we also visited the National Musuem of the Republic of Kazakhstanand the National Library. I was amused to see their collection of Indian Literature in the Library, especially books in Hindi language.
There is also an Opera Housein the city but we could not visit because the tickets were a bit expensive. But, I am sure it will be a delight to watch the shows. All and all, I believe 2-3 days are sufficient to cover most parts of the city.
For shopping, the most famous shopping mall is the Khan Shatyr. The mall is huge and as you can see in the picture, it looks like a giant tent house. Apart from shopping, you can also enjoy swimming pools and an artificial beach inside the mall. Other than Khan Shatyr, you can also go to the Mega Silkway Malland the Keruen City Mall.
If you want to get a taste of the local markets, you can go to the Central bazar or the Artyom Shopping Center. You will get a wide and unique variety of dry fruits in these markets for quite cheap, worth bringing back to India. They also have stalls of fresh pomegranate and grapefruit juice, unadulterated with water and sugar. Cherries are quite abundant and if you are just like me, you will finish half a kilo in a day. They are that tasty.
How I got to Almaty?
For Almaty, I booked a Talgo Train that runs from the Astana Nurly Zhol Railway Station . The distance is about 1200 kms and it takes about 12 hours time, one way. Total round trip expense was INR 6,000. Train tickets can be booked from www.tickets.kzbut only problem is that the website is in Russian and so I had to ask one of my friends in Astana to book it for me.
The Talgo Trains are very comfortable. There are four berths inside one cabin and for food there is an in-house restaurant. Food is a little expensive in the restaurant and honestly I didn’t quite like the quality. So, I would recommend you pack some food and come. Toilets are really very clean. There is a bar inside the train as well and alcohol is served.
Throughout the journey, you will see huge barren lands and steppes and wild horses grazing and the train just passes through it. The sceneries are quite mesmerizing.
Staying in almaty
I booked a hostel called Dostyk Hostel which is just near to the Dostyk Avenue from www.booking.com without pre-payment . It is a mixed dorm and my experience was quite amazing. Beds were comfortable and the washrooms were very clean. The kitchen is located in the basement and it is big and has everything. The owner is a lady. She is very friendly and she speaks English, very important in Kazakhstan. She helped me a big deal with arranging my itinerary in Almaty. I will highly recommend this hostel to everyone. Total expense for three days was 6,000 Tenge, i.e. about INR 1,200.
Places to see
Since mine was a short stay, I only visited places in and around Almaty city. First day, I booked an In Drive cab to the Big Almaty Lakewhich is 37 kilometers from my hostel. Round Trip journey including 40 minutes of waiting time, the total expense was 9,000 tenge, i.e., about INR 1,800. The drive to the Almaty Lake is quite breathtaking. You will see snow-capped mountains and steep slopes with thick pine tree canopies.
In the evening, I took a cable car ride to the Koktobe Mountain park. It is sort of a small amusement park with a few rides and activities. However, the reason I went there was to see the sunset and I was just on time. The sunset happens at around 8:00 to 8:05 pm and as you can see in the picture, the view is just serene. After the sunset, you can have your dinner at one of the lamb kebab places and it will cost you around 600 Tenge per plate. A roundtrip cable car ride will cost you 2,000 Tenge, i.e. about INR 400.
Our next stop for the second day was the Medeo and the Shymbulak Mountain Resort. To get to Medeo, you can just take a walk to the Dostyk Avenue opposite Hotel Kazakhstan and then take Bus No. 12. It will take about 20 minutes to reach to Medeo and Shymbulak Cable Car Station. Bus fare one way is 150 Tenge, i.e. about INR 30.
We got down at Medeo first. Medeo has the highest ski rink in the world, however since it was off season, the rink was converted to a Go Karting arena. Also, I will highly recommend the small local café next to the road (I don’t recall the name). They have outdoor seating as well and if you want to try local Kazakhi delicacies, this is the place for you. The ambience is cozy and prices are quite reasonable too. Also, do not forget to try their tasty Kebabs and Tashkent Tea which totally complement the weather.
From Medeo, take a walk down the road to the Shymbulak Cable Car Station. A roundtrip journey will cost you 3500 Tenge, i.e. about INR 700 and it will take about 15 minutes to reach up. You can also take a local cab but I will recommend taking the cable car ride if you don’t want to miss the breathtaking scenes of the mountains. Local taxis will charge you anywhere between 4000 to 4500 Tenge, both ways.
Reaching the top, there are more cable car rides that take you to the actual skiing area. However, you have to take new tickets for that and since I don’t know a thing about skiing so I stayed down. Here DJ keeps playing amazing tracks and you can let loose to the tunes while surrounded by snow covered mountains. I mean, how often do you get to party at 3200 meters!! Also, there are nice and cozy cafes and hookah bars that you can indulge yourself in, definitely worth trying.
Getting around in Kazakhstan:
Astana is not as big as Almaty and therefore, almost all the tourist sites are located in a 10 km radius. So you can simply opt to walk. However, you can also take local buses but I mostly took Yandex. Yandex is an app based Taxi service just like Ola or Uber. Best thing is, it is in English. Plus, fares are not that high as well, much less than here in Ola or Uber in India. Uber no longer works in Kazakhstan.
Food in the country:
The country can be a little difficult for vegetarians but it is not impossible. Horse meat and Beef are in abundance. Chicken based dishes are not that popular. If you are someone who does not like experimenting with their palate, you better stick to supermarkets where you can easily find ready to eat foods or the usual KFC, Burger King or McDonalds. For me, since I had to stay there for a month working, I refrained myself from experimenting much so I stuck to ready to eat food from Galmart and the ususal Burger King and KFC and Turkish Doner (Wraps) Joints around the city. There is one Indian Restaurant in all of Asatana called The India Gate. However, there are 2-3 Indian restaurants that you can go to in Almaty. I went to Spice Mantra and it was really nice.
Overall, if I want to rate the country in case of tourist friendliness, I will give it an 8 out of 10. I chucked two points out only because of the language issue and the food. But, it was really safe, especially for women. Traffic rules are followed in discipline and pedestrians are given utmost respect. The cars will simply stop in order to let you pass. There were an awful lot of babies all over the two cities and trust me they are just too adorable.
I will highly recommend a visit to this surprisingly lesser explored country of Kazakhstan. The culture, the people, the breathtaking landscapes, I am sure you will fall in love with the place.