The man held out his hand and dropped three or four dried apricots into my palm. He flashed his Happy Guy smile: ‘Present!’
From In Search of Kazakhstan, the Land that Disappeared, by Christopher Robbins
Kazakhstan – A Country of Beauty & Surprises
On first sight on any map, Kazakhstan comprises of little more than steppe and a bit of mountainous areas along some of the borders. While steppe indeed is the dominant landscape of the world’s nine-largest country, and driving across the country requires many hours of patience while monotonous countryside passes by your windscreen, the country in fact has a rich history and many interesting sites for travelers.
Kazakhstan is a country originally inhabited nomads living in yurts while herding their flocks. Through books you get an understanding of the coming and going of empires, ruling tribes and, for example, why Kazakhs remained nomads while Uzbeks had the tendency to live in settlements.
In Central Asia, the Soviet-era history of the 20th century is, in my opinion, best felt and seen in Kazakhstan. The Aral-sea disaster (and hope for the future with the second dam in place), the space program of Baikonur, the extensive Karlag prison/labor camps (elsewhere known as gulags), the endless nuclear testing on the steppe are among them.
And, again, while the steppe is the dominating landscape, there are gems when it comes to landscapes: the Altai Mountains in the Northeast, the lakes in the southeast (Kolsai / Bartogai), Ulutau Mountains in Central Kazakhstan, and the Mangystau region (particularly Ustyurt plateau).
We particularly enjoyed the Kazakh hospitality, the many hands that helped us or handed us fruits, and the company of those who stopped by the Land Cruiser for a chat. One visit wasn’t enough, nor was a second, or third. I hope the government will soon change the duration of the visa, because a one-month visit can never do the country justice. Even after four visits we feel that we only scratched the surface.
I invite you to come and explore, to travel and visit, to enjoy the food and meet the people in Kazakhstan. To be prepared, read a book or two from the list below. Enjoy!
A Note about this Booklist
In this list you will find books about Kazakhstan only, while other books combine stories from various Stan countries in Central Asia. If you are looking fore more titles, the below mentioned Bradt guide shares pages with suggestions for reading in their Kazakhstan guidebook.
Our Top 3
I can imagine you don’t have time to read them all. So, what are my suggestions for a top 3 (excluding guidebooks?
- The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, by Peter Hopkirk
- In Search of KazakhstanIn Search of Kazakhstan; The Land That Disappeared, by Christopher Robbins
- Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland, by Caroline Eden
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A factual account of Kazakhstan’s history. Very detailed, and includes historic details of surrounding groups of people or nations, in particular Russia, which helps pain the bigger picture of where Kazakhstan and the Kazakhstani’s come from.
Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, by Joanna Lillis
A book I haven’t read yet but is on my list – whereas I feel that the above-mentioned Vanished Khans is focused on (older) history, I have the impression this gives an insight into the modern workings of this (relatively) new country
The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, by Peter Hopkirk
A truly must-read for anyone traveling in the region. Central Asia, wedged in between the big powers of Russia and India, a British colony in the 19th century, became the playing field of high powers, adventurers and explorers.
The power struggle is referred to as the Great Game by the British and the Tournament of Shadows by the Russians – possibly this Tournament of Shadows is a good read too, about the same issue but written by a different author.
Keep Forever Gulag Memoirs, by Aleksandr Sokolenko
In Kazakhstan were many prison/labor camps during Soviet Times, best known as gulags (or, in Kazakhstan, karlags). This is one of the many memoirs about such camps, however, what sets this book apart are the detailed stories from a couple of other prisoners. These stories help understand the different backgrounds that prisoners came from.
In Search of KazakhstanIn Search of Kazakhstan; The Land That Disappeared, by Christopher Robbins
I greatly enjoyed this book. Also published as Apples are from Kazakhstan, this is not a a typical travel memoir as it’s not focused on the journey but on the story of Kazakhstan.
Through his encounters with local people he gets to meet the president at the time, Nazarbaev, and visits the remotest corners of the country. He gives a thorough account of Kazakhstan’s history, culture and the diversity of its ethnicity. It being written as a travel account, makes it an easy and pleasant read.
The Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron travels through Central Asia right after the independence of the Stan countries in the 1990s. A great piece of travel writing but (largely) outdated as far as the descriptions go because this was 30 years ago.
Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, by Erika Fatland
This book covers the same countries as the above-mentioned The Lost Heart of Asia, but 25 years later and thus much more relevant to the current situation of the Stan countries. (Reading both gives a sense of the changes they have gone through, or not)
A fantastic read with a focus on food and including some recipes of iconic dishes. The book is not just about Kazakhstan, but the other Stan countries as well.
On the Trail of Genghis Khan, by Tim Cope
I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. By horse from Mongolia all the way to the Danube River in Hungary? That certainly got my attention. Expecting to need less than a year, he took 3,5 years and his journey includes a fair struggle of survival (winter in Kazakhstan!)
Tim details into great account what ethnic groups he comes across, giving you insight into the wide variety of, often marginalized, groups of people live in the central parts of Asia.
One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn arguably is best known for his non-fiction, the The Gulag Archipelago in which he details the infamous Soviet gulag system.
Solzhenitsyn spent part of his life in the gulags of Kazakhstan and this book, One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, is a reflection of that experience.
Travel Guide Kazakhstan, by Bradt
The #1 guidebook for Kazakhstan. Lots of background information, and they – as in all their guidebooks – do their best to include destinations & information not found with a quick Google search or the big guidebook publications.
Central Asia Guidebook, by Lonely Planet
For the time being Lonely Planet has no travel guides dedicated to the individual Stan countries, and so we’re ‘stuck’ with a quit general Central Asia guidebook.
Go for the above mentioned Bradt Guide if you intend to properly explore Kazakhstan. For a quick visit, focused on the main sites, this Central Asia guidebook will do.
Kazakhstan – Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture, by Dina Zhansagimova
I am not familiar with this guidebook, and found it while putting together this post. It might be of interest, it sounds like it’s more focused on culture & customs than the Bradt Guide and Lonely Planet guidebook.
Have you used it? I’d love to hear what you think of it in the comment section below. Thanks.
Silk Road Travel Guide (eBook), by Insight Guides
Only the southernmost part of Kazakhstan was part of the Silk Road, and the most tangible remains are in Turkestan. Still, this book will give you a better sense of what the Silk Road was all about and its role in Kazakhstan.
If you’re searching for the most precious architectural jewels of the Silk Road, visit Uzbekistan.
Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?
Do you have suggestions on books about Kazakhstan or Central Asia that I should add to my list? I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share them in the comment section below or send me an email. Thanks!
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