The world’s ninth biggest country is one of its last great travel unknowns. Though the outside world is gradually becoming aware of Kazakhstan, largely thanks to its oil and the antics of that pseudo-Kazakh Borat Sagdiyev, few have really explored this country of vastly varied attractions.
Easily the most economically advanced of the ‘stans’, post-Soviet Kazakhstan is reinventing itself as a uniquely prosperous and modern Eurasian nation. The leafy commercial and social hub, Almaty, has an almost European feel with its quality hotels, slick boutiques, chic cafés and streets thick with BMWs and Mercedes. Astana, in the north, is being transformed at quickfire speed into a 21st-century capital with a unique mix of Islamic, Western, Soviet and wacky futuristic architecture. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet times, doesn’t encourage political opposition but is managing to forge a peaceful, multiethnic nation – which makes him on the whole pretty popular.
Around the fringes of the great steppes where the once nomadic Kazakh people – still famed for their horse skills and unique equestrian sports – used to roam, Kazakhstan presents an array of surprising adventures. You can trek on foot or horse in the spectacular Tian Shan or Altay Mountains, watch flamingos on steppe lakes or discover mysterious underground mosques near the Caspian Sea. Community ecotourism programmes in some of the most beautiful areas enable travellers to stay with village families at affordable cost.
With travellers still rare here, a foreign guest is usually treated not as just another tourist but with real hospitality, and locals will often go out of their way to help you. Enjoy it while it lasts!