It is a land of extremes, of arid deserts and fertile plains, of high mountain ranges and endless expanses of immense, open steppe. It is also a country of leafy oases and shaded chaikhanas, and ancient caravanserais along the old Silk Road between China and Europe.
This Kazakhstan overland travel guide is for overlanders who are planning to drive to Kazakhstan, as well as for travelers who fly in and want to do a road trip from there. Info on Kazakh road conditions, road maps, guidebooks, gas stations, SIM & WiFi stuff – you will find it all here.
Stay tuned for the Kazakhstan Travel Budget Report with our travel expenditures and focus on paperwork, workshops, sightseeing, and accommodation/camping!
Our Visits to Kazakhstan
It wasn’t the easiest start in Kazakhstan, winter 2018, with temps down to -20 degrees C (-4F), icy roads, and tires about to give up on us. The big question whether they would still be able to take us to Almaty, the first place we could buy new tires (the last section of this blog post tells you about it).
Meeting local people, some of whom invited us to stay with them, made up for the hardships.
Our second visit was in winter as well, November & December 2019. Snow in Shymkent, but daytime temperatures above-freezing for a long time in southwestern Kazakstan. There, the Mangystau Region offered us one of the most mindblowing landscapes we have seen in Central Asia.
We will be back next summer. The mountains around Almaty are waiting to be explored – by car and on foot, and we want to see the super modern capital city of Nur-Sultan (until recently Astana) as well.
One thing we know by now: Kazakhstan definitely is much, much more than only steppe. The countries massive distances simply require time and effort to see the best of it.
Kazakhstan, we will be back!
Index for our Kazakhstan Overland Travel Guide
Our Overland Travel Information Pages for Kazakhstan consists of two parts: The Kazakhstan Travel Budget Report, and this is the Kazakhstan Overland Travel Guide.
In this blog post we will discuss the following topics:
- Kazakhstan travel – Why / When / How
- Our Road Trip in Kazakhstan
- Roads, Traffic Rules & Police
- Roadmaps & Navigation Systems
- Guidebooks & Other Books & Resources for Kazakhstan
- Water & Food (including info for vegetarians)
- WiFi & Local SIM Card & Apps
- Additional Overland Travel Information Sources
1- Kazakhstan Travel – Why / When / How
1a – Kazakhstan travel – Why
What we loved:
- The kindness of people, particularly in Eastern Kazakhstan.
- The mind-blowing landscapes of the Mangystau Region.
- The opportunities for some good off-the-beaten-track travel.
On the downside:
- Lots and lots and lots of monotone steppe that you need to cross to get from one beautiful/interesting place to the next.
- There’s only a short period of the year that’s excellent for overlanding – winters are long in Kazakhstan.
1b – Kazakhstan travel – When
- Summer: Mountains around Almaty and eastern Kazakhstan.
- Spring: The Mangystau Region in southwestern Kazakhstan.
- All of the steppe: I’m not sure, I would think spring or autumn.
- For a severe winter experience: northern & central steppes are the coldest parts of Kazakhstan.
1c – Kazakhstan travel – How
We traveled in Kazakhstan with our Land Cruiser. Who are we to complain about cold weather and severe winds when meeting TWO cyclists in December on the open steppe!
So yes, you can do travel in Kazakhstan by bicycle, also in winter. It’s just bloody cold. Whatever the means of transportation, expect long monotone distances to cover. The big advantage of all that space: wild camping is no problem at all.
Bring your own vehicle, rent a car in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, or any other big city and bring your camping gear. Kazakhstan will do the rest!
2- Our Road Trip in Kazakhstan
The world’s largest landlocked country and the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is one of the five Central Asian countries that are commonly referred to as the Stans (others being Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan).
Distances and Time Traveled in Kazakhstan:
- Time traveled in Kazakhstan: 58 days (Dec. 2018 & Nov./Dec. 2019)
- Total kilometers driven: 5852 kilometers
- Average kms/day: 101
3- Kazakhstan Travel Guide – Language
The official languages in Kazakhstan are Kazakh and Russian. Both use the Cyrillic script with the Kazakh language having minor variations.
If interested in learning Kazakh, I came across this (but didn’t use it).
Our Russian is very limited but we managed with it in cities. In the countryside that was not always the case – sometimes it was just not clear if local people don’t speak Russian, don’t want to speak Russian. or that our minimal Russian is incomprehensible to them.
Google Translate is super useful to have. There are a couple of ways to use it:
- Google Translate on the web – online only
- Google Translate app – instant voice translation in a two-way setup – online only
- Google Translate app – camera translation – offline*
- Google Translate app – text-typing translation – offline*
*Offline = you need to download the Russian language package (unfortunately this is not possible with the Kazakh language). The offline use is particularly useful because in many of the remote regions you won’t have cellphone connection let alone WiFi (more on that below, 8- WiFi, Local SIM card, Apps)
Tip: It is wise to install a Russian keyboard so that the other party can type a text in Russian into the Google Translate app.
Insight Guides Phrasebook
We have an Insight Guides Russian Phrasebook, which comes with an app for on your smartphone.
What did we try to learn Russian:
- We practiced online using e.g. Russian for Free, or on apps such as Duolingo and Memrise.
- We tried a one-week course on arrival in Russia, Vladivostok but that didn’t help much.
Michel Thomas Method to Learn Russian
We are smitten with the Michel Thomas method! We used it in South America to learn Spanish and it worked great and it turns out that his method is available in a number of languages, among which Russian.
It was perfect to listen to and learn while driving those endless roads. We only wish we had known about this earlier. It is a super intuitive way of learning a language.
Read More: Feeling Welcome in Vladivostok
4- Kazakhstan Travel Guide – Roads, Traffic Rules & Police
4a- Roads in Kazakhstan
- In Kazakhstan people drive on the right side of the road.
- There are no toll roads.
From Semey to Almaty: This road is notoriously bad, knowing to destroy suspensions and other parts of vehicles. The advantage of driving in winter was that potholes were followed with snow (but sometimes very slippery).
Clearing roads in winter is not high on the priority list. Every once in a while we saw workers throwing sand from an open truck onto the road surface. In winter you’ll see heaps of sand on the side of slopes that truck drivers throw in front of their tires if their truck can’t make it uphill. The sand aids in traction on ice.
From Shymkent to Aralsk, some 800 kms was very good asphalt. Until Kyzlorda it was a double-lane highway, farther west a single-lane asphalt.
From Beyneu to the Uzbekistan border: This is brand new asphalt, just a few weeks or months old (December ’19).
From Beyneu to Aktau and Zangaönzen: All perfect asphalt.
To get from Aralsk to Beyneu you have two options:
#1. Drive the massive loop via Aktobe, Uralsk, and Atyrau (because the paved road Aktobe to Atyrau apparently is in a very bad state, people drive an even bigger loop via Uralsk). This means driving some 2000 kilometers.
#2. Go off-road through the steppe, which gives you two options as well:
#2a. Via the west side of Lake Aral.
#2b. Via the east side of Lake Aral. Which is what we did. This is some 800K of overlanding pur sang, following mostly sandy tracks, going straight across the dry surface of Lake Aral. Note: 4WD and high clearance required and even then, reconsider going there right after or during the rain – you’ll encounter shitloads of mud baths. Early December most of the soil was frozen.
Tips on stuff to bring for unpaved, possibly dusty or muddy roads:
- Put a dust screen at the back (we use Velcro to keep it in place).
- Carry an air compressor and a pressure gauge to inflate/deflate the car tires depending on the road surface.
- Carry recovery gear.
4b- 2WD or 4WD?
Of course, this is a possibly endless discussion without one clear answer. If you have no clue what the difference is, check out this handy overview of the differences between 2WD and 4WD by Overlandsite.
Here’s our insight, based on traveling here in November/December (early winter season):
- 2WD obviously suffices if you decide to stick to the main roads.
- 4WD if you’re into the off-road challenge from Aralsk to Beyneu, and into the heart of the Ustyurt National Reserve.
4c- Traffic Rules & Traffic Police in Kazakhstan
Mandatory traffic rule in Kazakhstan:
- Always drive with your headlights on.
We have seen a lot of accidents, particularly in eastern and southern Kazakhstan. This may partly be the result of icy roads surfaces. Although also on the clean roads in Almaty we saw many car accidents, often the result – it seemed to us – because people refuse giving each other right of way and all battling for every inch.
Watch speed limits. On the main road running from Semey to Almaty there were police checks all over the place, along the main roads as well as in cities. We were stopped twice. Once was a friendly guy just doing his job. The second was clearly looking for money. It’s an interesting story in itself that is beyond the scope of this travel guide. One conclusion can be drawn: don’t trust the photos they take of your speeding vehicle.
While police checks were everywhere in eastern Kazakhstan, we saw them hardly, if at all, in the south and southwest.
In case you’d like to know what to do when stopped by a police officer, we wrote a blog post on how to deal with police officers based on tricks and experience during 16+ years of overlanding.
Read More: How to Deal with Police Officers
5- Kazakhstan Travel Guide – Roadmaps Navigation Systems
Our go to paper map is, as usual, Reise KnowHow. Hardly ever perfect as roads change all the time and we don’t mind. The Reise KnowHow maps give a perfect overview of the whole country, which is great for planning a general itinerary and getting a feel for how to get where and what the distances are.
Reise KnowHow has a dedicated road map for Kazakhstan, 1:2000,000
Two other maps that may be useful when driving to Central Asia:
- Reise KnowHow Central Asia Travel Map 1:1,700,000 (which we mostly use in countries without dedicated Reise KnowHow maps).
- Reise KnowHow Silk Road Travel Map 1:2,000,000
5b- Navigation Systems (Electronic Road Maps)
Our choice for offline navigating:
- Guru Maps (formerly: Galileo)
Mostly used in big cities. In the latest version of MapsMe, it is a delight to see that the Beta option of Latin translation works for the Russian language (contrary to e.g. Korean or Japanese).
In cities we like the routing option of MapsMe.
Guru Maps (formerly: Galileo)
Galileo had disappeared from our phone since we first started experimenting and beta testing it in 2012. Guru Maps appeared on our radar recently when they too offered offline routing. However, that is not its greatest feature.
The gem – especially for the desertlike area of Mangystau – is that you can drive offline on very detailed satellite maps. In order to do so, you must be connected to the Internet once and choose “Bing Maps – Bird’s Eye” as the map source. You then zoom in to the level that you feel appropriate and scan the area.
The Guru Map app automatically caches all your visited areas and keeps them until you choose to delete the data in the app. Karin-Marijke found some interesting waypoints which she gave to me and I used the satellite view to find various suitable tracks across the desert.
Every 500 to 1.000 meters I dropped a navigation point on the map. When the time came to drive those stretches, the only thing we needed to do was switch to the “Bing Maps – Bird’s Eye” map source and, boom, all the satellite images were there, even though we were far from any internet connection.
Apart from that, the base-installed OSM vector map shows nice detail when zoomed out (this is where it outshines MapsMe) and instead of routing there is the option of showing a bearing line that indicates the general direction to travel instead of turn-by-turn navigation where you lose any sense of control.
This way it is more like our first old-school Garmin-eTreks (read about it here) with just a line on a very detailed terrain. You are free to choose which roads or direction you want to travel.
Additionally, Guru Maps has a very nice tracking feature that just works.
2Gis is a Russian application, which has detailed, offline maps of many cities in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia as well as a few big cities abroad (e.g. where Russians likely to go vacationing).
Although the 2Gis app is in English, the addresses and names of things to look for are all in Russian. You will understand what the idea is and icons go a long way. A benefit is that if local people want to help you out, they can search and address or location in Russian in this app (note, it is handy to have Russian Keyboard on your smartphone installed).
What we like is the super handy, actual-traffic density option that shows traffic jams and slower-moving traffic by coloring the streets and indicating the overall traffic congestion with a large number in the upper right-hand corner (note, you have to be online for the traffic feature). MapsMe is trying something similar, but probably because not many people are using it here, this isn’t working at all in Russia.
2Gis has a great option for seeing major bus routes as well as the smaller popular marshrutkas (public buses).
Maximum speeds are not at all signed properly in Kazakhstan, so this app will help you to remember the current maximum speed and will warn you when you go over it. It also warns you of any fixed speed cameras ahead of you.
6- Kazakhstan Travel Guide – Guidebooks & Other Books
6a- Guidebooks for Kazakhstan
There are way too few guidebooks out there on the Central Asian countries yet. Not one to be had in Dutch, and very few in English. Here’s what we’ve used:
- Bradt Travel Guides generally dives deeper into a country than any other guidebook we’ve come across. Bradt Travel Guides are about learning about the country, culture, sights, and less about the practical side of things.
- Lonely Planet Travel Guides are great for a quick impression of a country with the basics generally covered on culture, food, history, etc. Super extensive on the practical side of travel information, much of which is useless for overlanders who camp most of the time.
- We appreciate Insight Guides for their photo-rich travel guides. They are perfect guidebooks to get a feel for a place and to get inspired. It describes the highlights of places, has good maps, and is limited on practical information.
6b – Books on Kazakhstan
Suggestions based on what I’ve read thus far / am reading now:
- Keep Forever, by Aleksander Sokolenko. A non-fiction about the Gulag system based on stories of survivors.
- Vanished Khans and Empty Steppes, by Robert Wight. A non-fiction that details Kazakhstan’s history from ancient times until today
Travel Memoir / Travelogue:
- In search of Kazakhstan; the Land that Disappeared, by Christopher Robbins. Travel memoir.
- On the Trail of Genghis Khan, by Tim Cope. An epic, detailed travel memoir of a journey by horse from Mongolia to the Danube River in Hungary.
But, of course, there is more. A dedicated book page on Kazakhstan will follow (but don’t hold your breath).
6c- Other Resources on Kazakhstan
- Steppe is a glossy twice-yearly magazine covering the wider central Asia region. Available at the bookstores in upmarket hotels in Almaty and Astana. Find it here.
- Eurasianet covers news and analysis of the Central Asian region. Find the website here, and Facebook page here.
7- Kazakhstan Travel Guide – Water & Food
As far as I know, the tap water is reliable in big cities such as Almaty, Shymkent and Nur-Sultan. Elsewhere it is not. With the filter system and water tank in the Land Cruiser that’s easy for us. We fill the water tank from water pumps in villages, or at people’s homes.
The water in southwestern Kazakhstan really tasted not good, locally used a lot to make tea and I just did not like the taste. I assume it is a result of salt and other minerals in the soil.
Whether you hike, bicycle, motorcycle, drive a car or backpack around the country, please minimize buying water. Bring a stainless -steel water bottle and a water filter system. There is an amazing selection of small, handy, water filter systems out there, such as MSR water filters or, even smaller, a SteriPen or Lifestraw. Or carry water purification tablets if weight and space really are a big issue (we do so on our long-distance hikes).
The environment will thank you!
7b- Kazakh Food
Kazakhstan food is rich in meat and dairy, and salads are dripping in oil. For us it has been be a country where we cooked most of our meals unless staying with local people.
In the cities are big supermarkets that are well stocked. Expect e.g. to find olive oil, canned foods, proper coffee (although most is of the instant stuff). The ‘really’ big supermarkets may have a wider selection of vegetables than on bazaars – you’ll pay for that privilege, of course.
What we like from those supermarkets are the frozen berries, which are perfect for oatmeal breakfast (when in season, you’ll find those fresh on bazaars as well).
In the countryside, shops are small and is a great place to stock up if you love soda, chips, candy, and cookies. You’ll find some staples like rice, pasta, couple of canned foods, frozen meat, and maybe a bit of fruit and minimal vegetables.
Want to cook some of the traditional Kazakh food in your overland vehicle? Here are some recipes.
7c- Info for Vegetarians
Based on our trip in November/December (as some products may be seasonal):
- Forget about mushrooms.
- Among the legumes: mung beans, brown lentils, red lentils, black beans, chickpeas.
- Among the vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, red cabbage: mostly in supermarkets. Onion, garlic, tomato, bell pepper, potato, white cabbage, carrot, pumpkin are reasonably common elsewhere too. In supermarkets check the freezers, they may have frozen spinach and green beans. Severely limited on leaf vegetables.
- Nuts / seeds: You have landed in paradise: walnut, pastiche, hazelnuts (different varieties), peanuts, cashew, pumpkin seeds, sunflower (last one = mostly with shell).
- Dried fruits: Particularly rich in dried apricots, dates, and figs.
Note that the smaller the town/village, the smaller the selection, especially in vegetables.
You can try the Happy Cow app to find restaurants that serve vegetarian/vegan foods but it does not offer many places in Kazakhstan.
Tip on bazaars: Take reusable mesh bags to stock up on legumes, grains, nuts and the likes. Many vendors want to sell every product in a different plastic bag and you’ll find the bags littering towns and countryside.
Spread the word through good example 🙂
8- Kazakhstan Travel Guide – WiFi & Local SIM Card & Apps
8a- WiFi & Local SIM Card
Right after the border Russia/Kazakhstan, in the small town of Shamanaikha, we bought SIM Cards for our iPhone (Dec 2018). Coming from Uzbekistan, we topped up our previously bought SIM Cards in Shymkent (November 2019).
We can top up by using dedicated machines or by going to one of their offices.
For the most up to date information about a countries cellphone service it is wise to ask other travelers who have been in the region most recently (see below #9- additional overland information) or find it on this website.
- In Almaty found upscale coffee cafes with WiFi.
- Locals we stayed with had WiFi, as did the hotels.
- Elsewhere we didn’t look for WiFi, using our SIM cards instead.
- Don’t expect mobile service in the countryside.
WhatsApp is popular. Install it if you don’t have it. It’s free, fast, and easy to use. You’ll need Internet to use it.
9- Additional Overland Travel Information Sources
- The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
- WikiOverland, help expand the special Wiki Overland pages.
- iOverlander is the place where overlanders share GPS waypoints on many things, among which camping spots.
- 4ever2wherever is another site where overlanders contribute with practical information
- Overlanding Facebook groups among which Overland to Asia.
- Caravanistan is an excellent, up to date online resource for Central Asia.
- About Kazakhstan is a website to check out interesting sites to visit in Kazakhstan.
Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?
We hope you find this Kazakhstan Travel Guide useful. Do you have questions or your own experiences to add? Feel free to do so in the comment section below. Thanks!
Stay tuned for the Kazakhstan Travel Budget Report, which will follow soon!
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