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Highlights of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has a myriad of tourist attractions, and it now has excellent air connections (through Lufthansa, British Airways, KLM and others) to the rest of the world. It is as yet by no means a major tourist destination. It still receives less than half a million foreign visitors a year which is a tiny number compared with the 70 million who visit France and the 20 million who visit Russia every year. And most foreigners visiting Kazakhstan come for business. Only 50,000 people (mainly from Germany and western Europe) come first and foremost as tourists.

Before Independence Kazakhstan was regarded as an exotic (and therefore little known) appendage to tours to the Soviet Union, and the numbers who visited were minuscule. Since Independence the Government has sought to build up its tourist infrastructure before embarking on a wholesale marketing programme. There are now excellent hotels of international standard in Almaty and Astana. There are daily flights from Moscow, Frankfurt, London and Amsterdam. There is a good network of domestic flights within the country which is vital in a country as big as Kazakhstan. The rail network is comprehensive, but still represents something of an adventure for foreign tourists.

The country's tourist attractions are not well known overseas. The Islamic monuments of Turkestan and Taraz in southern Kazakhstan rival those in Uzbekistan. The Tien Shan and the Altai Mountains, ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 metres are every bit as challenging and picturesque as the Himalayas. And the skiing facilities, as at Shimbulak, are fast expanding.

For those in the know, Kazakhstan is a tourist paradise. Specialist travel companies in Europe and America arrange increasing numbers of climbing/mountaineering, hunting, botanical, ornithological and fishing excursions to the Steppes and the mountains. These are
surprisingly reasonable in price despite the small numbers involved. A ten-day walking trip in the pristine Tien Shan Mountains will cost less than 2,500 dollars from Europe.

Cultural tours, to sites of great antiquity, unfolding the astonishing history of Central Asia over several millenia, are surely an enterprise of the coming period.

Kazakhstan has plenty of places that can compete world famous sites of our planet. At first, the country has many natural sites where you can enjoy untouched beauty of nature and landscapes. Ancient architecture sites that are spread through the region will amaze you with their shapes and stories. People of different origin and lifestyle living in this part of the world wiil become heroes of your best pictures. In any city of Kazakhstan you have a choice interesting spots you can visit in one day. Many sites are located inside the cities or even across the street from your hotel. To take a full advantage of your visit you should hire a professional guide who will show you places from the very correct angle.

Southeast and East Kazakhstan, with their high mountains along the Kyrgyz, Chinese and Russian borders, offer the greatest outdoor excitement. There’s good hiking and some horse riding in the Zailiysky Alatau near Almaty, and at Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve and Sayram-Ugam National Park. The northeastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk is the gateway to a mountainous area full of adventurous possibilities, culminating in the gorgeously beautiful Altay Mountains. Exciting biking, hiking and riding in the little-visited steppes and hills of central Kazakhstan are offered. Ascents of Belukha in the Altay, and Khan Tengri and other peaks in the central Tian Shan, are superb challenges for climbers in July and August.

In winter skiers and snowboarders enjoy Central Asia’s best facilities in the mountains near Almaty, especially at the modern Chimbulak resort, with the famous giant outdoor ice-skating rink at Medeu nearby. Amazing summer heli-skiing is possible on the glaciers of the central Tian Shan. Rafters can tackle the Chilik River east of Almaty and several rivers out of Ust-Kamenogorsk. Birdwatchers should make especially for the Aksu-Zhabagyly and Korgalzhyn nature reserves. The latter is the world’s most northerly flamingo habitat. 

Kazakhstan is a vast country, ineed. While there are fascinations to be found everywhere, the following are some of the highlights around which, depending on your interests, you may wish to build your trip.

ASTANA Kazakhstan's new capital is a gleaming city of dramatic and inventive architectural compositions rising up out of the central steppe. This place best demonstrates the post-independence achievements and ambitions of Kazakhstan, with its Norman Foster-designed pyramid to peace and harmony, a shark-filled oceanarium thousands of kilometres from the ocean, and the world's biggest tent, a structure complete with indoor waterfalls, an artificial beach and botanic gardens.

ALMATY The largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, in a beautiful setting at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains, Almaty has the best range of places to eat and the most vibrant nightlife in Kazakhstan, and it makes an excellent base for exploring the attractions of the wider region.

THE MOUNTAINS Rising from deciduous woodland packed with wild fruit trees, through pine, cedar or spruce forest, to upland meadows and then peaks fringed with glaciers, the mountain ranges on the southern and eastern borders of the country are great environments in which to trek, ride or simply just be. You can be Lip in the hills in a matter of minutes from the centre of Almaty, and truly beautiful spots such as the Big Almaty Lake are an easy day trip. For mountaineers, Khan Tengri, the beautiful pyramid-shaped peak which marks the highest point in Kazakhstan, offers an irresistible lure. While there are many great places to head for in the mountains, two personal recommendations are the Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve in South Kazakhstan, where you can stay at some of the best- developed community-based tourism facilities in the country, and the Rachmanov Springs sanatorium high up in the Altai Mountains, where some believe that the legendary Buddhist kingdom of Shambala is to be found.

SITES ALONG THE SILK ROUTE A northern branch of the Silk Route ran for centuries across southern Kazakhstan, with the modern-day towns of Turkestan, Sayram and Taraz all prominent settlements. The architectural legacy of the civilisations which controlled this route includes some of the most beautiful buildings in the region, such as the carved terracotta tilework of the Karakhanid Mausoleum of Aisha Bibi outside Taraz and, above all, the Timurid Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui in Turkestan.

THE INTERIOR OF MANGISTAU REGION As yet receiving very few tourists, this remote area of Kazakhstan offers some stunning desert scenery, with isolated bluffs and white limestone escarpments, underground mosques, necropolises with intricately carved tombs, and the chance to join pilgrims making the long trip to the tomb of prominent Sufi Beket Ata. The regional capital Aktau, on the shores of the Caspian, is an ideal base for trips into the interior.

BAIKONUR Securing the necessary permissions to come here is time-consuming, but the cosmodrome of Baikonur is a fascinating living museum of the history of space exploration, the place from which the first artificial satellite, space dog Laika, Yuri Gagarin and the first space tourist all set off on their historic journeys. A visit here is an expensive but unforgettable one, especially if you can manage to get your trip to coincide with a launch.

THE STEPPE Like love, steppe is all around, at least across vast swathes of Kazakhstan, but it is such a central part of the national identity that you should ensure your programme includes some exposure to this great expanse of grassland, from where you will take memories of the scent of wormwood and circling flights of the steppe eagle. Places to head for include the lakes around Korgalzhyn, with their colony of pink flamingos, the Mausoleum of Abai and Shakarim near Semey, and one of the attractive areas of wooded granite hills, which stand as 'islands' in the steppe. Of these, Borovoye north of Astana is being heavily marketed as a tourist destination. Karkaraly, east of Karaganda, is a quieter alternative.