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This two week itinerary for Kazakhstan is perfect for those that are visiting this amazing, huge country in Central Asia. Whether you’re already on a road trip in Central Asia or when you’re only backpacking in Kazakhstan. The places that are included in this itinerary are Almaty, Astana, Altyn-Emel National Park, Charyn Canyon, Kaindy Lake, Kolsai Lakes and Turkestan. Perfect to use as an inspiration for your visit!
Next to a possible route for your trip, this Kazakhstan itinerary also includes tips for hotels and restaurants (in the cities), activities and other useful tips. The first and biggest part of this itinerary is a road trip in Kazakhstan with either your own or a rented car (possible with a driver too) and the last part of the itinerary is with the train.
When I told someone we were going to Kazakhstan, this was always met with surprise and the question: “why?”. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about the country. I knew Kazakhstan is a country with beautiful nature and thus replied with: “For the beautiful mountains and lakes.” Before my visit I knew that Kazakhstan is so much more than the way it was portrayed in the movie Borat (it wasn’t even filmed in Kazakhstan, but in the village of Glod, Romania) and during my visit I realised that Kazakhstan is more than just beautiful mountains and lakes. Have fun!
We start this itinerary in Almaty, but of course you can also decide to start in the capital Astana and do this itinerary backwards.
Kazakhstan itinerary for two weeks: travel by car (and train)
Day 1, 2 (and 3): Arrive in Kazakhstan and explore the city of Almaty
We’ve visited Almaty quite frequently during our time in Kazakhstan and it made us appreciate the city more and more. It’s a city with a stunning backdrop of the snowcapped mountain called Zailiysky Alatau. Almaty is surprisingly modern, with countless shopping malls, coffee cafes, Western restaurants, nightclubs and more. You’ll also quickly notice that it’s quite a green city, with a lot of green parks, trees, flowers and plants throughout.
Almaty is the perfect place to start, as it’s Kazakhstan’s main transport hub. From here you can easily travel to most impressive sights in the country. But there is plenty to do in Almaty itself and soon you’ll notice that it is a lot trendier and more sophisticated than the first impression of all the Soviet buildings might tell you. There are a lot of museums, shops, markets, and a great selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs.
We think you need at least two days to really appreciate Almaty. Below you can find things to do in Almaty and a selection of restaurants.
Where to stay in Almaty
We stayed in the European Backpackers Hostel, where we had a private room and a shared bathroom. They also have dorms, if you prefer to spent even less money (there are 3 private rooms and 8 beds in the dorm). The atmosphere was great, the room was clean and there was a big living room and garden where we could hang out. It was quite hard to find the hostel, as there isn’t any sign outside of the property so be sure to write down the address and house number.
If you’re looking for a fancier hotel, then try out Hotel Kazakhstan.
I advice you to check out Airbnb. Sometimes there are pretty good deals in great locations. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, use this link for a discount!
Things to do in Almaty
- Shop at the Green Market, a large, two-level market where you can get all sorts of nuts, spices, fish, meat and much more.
- Visit Zenkov Kathedral, this colourful cathedral is a functioning Russian Orthodox Church.
- Learn more about the history of Kazakhstan at Central State Museum, one of the best museums in Almaty.
- Relax at Panvilov Park, a large park where you can also find the candy-coloured Zenkov Cathedral.
- Soak it all in at the Arasan Baths, which is considered to be one of the best bathhouses of Central Asia. Here you can get a traditional bathhouse experience.
- Visit the Central Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan.
- Enjoy the view of Almaty at 1100 meters above sea-level with the Kok-Tobe.
- Visit the Respublika Alany, a Soviet-created ceremonial square where you can also find the Independence Monument.
Find more things to do in Almaty.
Restaurants in Almaty
- Navat: A traditonal Kazakh restaurant where you can try Beshbarmak, a traditional Kazakh meal.
- Mad Murphy’s: Irish pub with a wide choice of drinks, delicious Indian food and other cuisines.
- Caffé Kangnam: A Korean restaurant with delicious Korean food.
- The Shakespeare Pub: They serve delicous pizza’s, curry and more. It tends to be busy with a lot of expats.
Day 3: Go on a day trip to Big Almaty Lake
There are lots of day trips from Almaty. A day trip to Big Almaty Lake is one of the most popular options, since it’s easy, not far and an absolutely beautiful place. We suggest starting your day early and first going to Big Almaty Lake and then go to Medeu Ice Rink and Shymbulak Ski Resort or choose one of the other possible day trips!
Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake can be reached by car, bus (bus 28), mountain bike or by foot. By car it’s only 30-40 minutes, so we choose that option. The lake sits at 2500 meters above sea level in the Big Almaty Gorge. What makes this lake special is that the colour changes depending on the weather and the time of year. During our visit the lake had a deep turquoise colour, but it can also have an emerald green hue. The surrounding forest makes it even more spectacular.
At Big Almaty Lake there are options for hiking or enjoying a peaceful picnic. When we went there was a police officer that was giving the visitors a hard time and told us to leave, while we were just admiring the lake from a distance. This while you pay a fee for the national park (200 KZT). Luckily we had already shot some decent photos ;).
Other possible day trips from Almaty
Medeu Ice Rink and Shymbulak Ski Resort
If you want to go ice skating or skiing, then the Medeu Ice rink and Shymbulak Ski Resort are the way to go. In the summer you can’t do either of these activities, but it’s still a beautiful place to walk around to enjoy the view.
This beautiful plateau is located at 2600 meters above sea level in the valley of the river Assy. Here you can enjoy the view from the Assy-Turgen Observatory. You can reach Assy Plateau by car in one hour from Almaty.
Located just 30 – 40 minutes from Almatry, Aksay Gorge is another gorgeous place which can easily be done as a day trip. In the gorge you can find the Orthodox monastic monastry, created in the 20th century.
A rockslide formed a natural dam more than 10.000 years ago, which blocked the river and formed a lake at 1.700 meters above sea level. Issyk Lake can be reached by car in 30 minutes from Almaty.
Day 4: Start of the road trip in Kazakhstan
Time to start your road trip in Kazakhstan! The road trip in this itinerary starts off at Altyn-Emel National Park, but like with everything in this itinerary you can decide to change it up and start elsewhere. As Kazakhstan is quite a big country, most drives are at least three hours long. Make sure to always bring enough water and food with you and make sure you have enough fuel if you’re driving in your own car.
What is the Golden Triangle in Kazakhstan?
This road trip starts in Southeast Kazakhstan and the region that is explored is known as Zhetisu, which goes from Almaty to Lake Balkhash. Zhetisu means ‘Land of Seven Rivers’, as there are many rivers in this region. In this region you will find three major natural attractions: Altyn-Emel National Park, Kolsai Lakes and Charyn Canyon. The collective name for these three natural attractions is the ‘Golden Triangle’. They are located relatively close to each other and you can visit them by yourself or with a tour from Almaty.
Zhetisu is one of Kazakhstan’s most varied regions, so it’s a smart idea to use Almaty as a base. In this itinerary we go from one location to the other, but of course you can decide to return to Almaty in between visits for a bit of a rest.
First stop of the road trip is Altyn-Emel National Park
Altyn-Emel National Park is located approximately 300 kilometers north of Almaty. The park entree of the national park is approximately 1000 KZT per person, 200 KZT ecological charge per vehicle and 600 KZT per group for a guide.
We personally didn’t have a tour guide, but we did have a driver who arranged the permits and other costs for us. Apparently it’s quite hard to go in the national park on an independent visit, however we don’t know for sure as we didn’t try it outselves.
This enormous national park is 4600 square kilometer big with a lot of interesting places to explore. It houses various unique landscapes, archeological, historical and cultural sights and rare and endangered species of animals and plants. Some of the highlights of Altyn-Emel National Park include: Aktau and Katutau hills, Terekty petroglyphs, the 31 Besshatyr burial mounds (one of the biggest groups of Scythian tombs known), Turanga forests and the famous Singing Dune.
On the first day you can hike and jeep around Aktau and Katutau hills. After that you’ll probably crave a meal and some rest after the long journey.
Where to stay in Altyn-Emel National Park
If you’ve brought camping equipment, you can decide to camp in the national park. It’s free to camp here. There are also various guesthouses and hotels in the national park, about five in total. We stayed in a guesthouse in the village Basshi.
Day 5: Visit the Singing Dune in Altyn-Emel National Park
On the second day of your road trip, you can explore a bit more of Altyn-Emel National Park and visit the famous Singing Dune. The name comes from the sound the dune makes: it hums like an aircraft when the weather is windy and dry. It’s possible to climb on top of the Singing Dune, it’s a mountain of light coloured sand and has a length of 3 km and a height of 150 m.
Although it may seem like not more than just a huge pile of sand, it’s quite special as it seems to have been created on a quite random place in the middle of the steppe. Furthermore, from the dune you have a great view from the surrounding countryside!
After the Singing Dune you can decide to explore another highlight of Altyn-Emel National Park or already continue your road trip to Charyn Canyon.
Day 6: Drive to Charyn Canyon
After a good night’s rest, make your way to Charyn Canyon. Located 300 kilometers from Altyn-Emel National Park, about 4 hours drive, the canyon comes as a pleasant surprise in the otherwise repetitive landscape of the steppe. The entree fee for Charyn Canyon is about 700 KZT and if you want to camp there it cost another 350 KZT per tent.
After driving through the steppe for hours with the exact same view through your car windows, you’ll arrive at your destination, where the landscape is no longer monotone at all. Here you can follow the dirt track and climb up rocks to enjoy the magnificent views and of course take great photos. Furthermore, at Charyn Canyon you can walk, take a jeep tour, and even go rafting.
Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan, this twelve million old natural wonder is not the second largest canyon in the world, even though we found this information elsewhere online and in a folder we received in Kazakhstan. The river Charyn (or Sharyn) has carved a 150 meter to 300 meter deep canyon in the middle of the flat steppe.
Where to stay at Charyn Canyon
If you’ve brought camping gear, you can spent the night at the canyon and experience the beautiful sunset and sunrise. Because it’s in the middle of the steppe, you’ll have a beautiful sky full of stars in the nighttime. If camping is not an option for you, it’s also possible to go to the Saty village or go to the hotsprings at Chungja or Chundzha, near the border of China, where you’ll also find guesthouses and resorts.
The hotsprings at Chungja are completely natural and supply hot, mineral water, heated underground. The water come in a range of temperatures, from 20-37 degrees celsius to 50-100 degrees celsius.
Don’t expect too much of these ‘resorts’ though. It’s in the middle of the steppe, so it’s not a surprise that it’s not a super luxurious place. The rooms we stayed in were perfectly fine, with a private bathroom (cold water from the shower though) and comfortable bed.
Day 7: Explore more of Charyn Canyon and drive to Kaindy Lake
You can decide to explore more of the large Charyn Canyon in the morning, as it’s such a huge place. Some of the highlights of the canyon are: the Valley of Castles, Bestamak Canyon and Red Canyon. Take a picnic basket with you and enjoy the view from the Valley of Castles or walk around the Red Canyon to admire the different hues of red.
You can also decide to immediately head to the beautiful Kaindy Lake.
Visit the gorgeous Kaindy Lake
Lake Kaindy is located 275 kilometers from Almaty in the south of Kazakhstan, right at the border with Kyrgyzstan and within Kolsai Lakes National Park. The entree fee is about 700 KZT and 350 KZT per tent for camping. (you have to pay separately for Kaindy Lake and the Kolsai Lakes). The drive from Charyn Canyon takes about 2-3 hours. If you’re going to Lake Kaindy with your own transport, be aware that the road is pretty bad and you need to cross rivers to get here.
Kaindy Lake is a beautiful deep turquoise lake that was formed because of an earthquake in 1911. The landslide that followed the earth quake created this lake (Kaindy fittingly means landslide in Kazakh). Because of the landslide, the river was blocked and the forest that grew at the foot of the hill was flooded by water.
At Lake Kaindy you can dive, hike, spot wildlife and fish. It’s an extraordinary location. In the lake there are trees that are well preserved because of the low temperatures of the water. Underneath the surface, the trees are overgrown with algae and other water plants. The sight of the submerged trees and the deep blue colour of the mountain water is definitely special. Especially the water at the edge was so clear that you can see right through it!
Where to stay at Kaindy Lake
You can decide to spent the night at Lake Kaindy and camp. If you rather stay at a guesthouse, I recommend to stay in the Saty village. This little village is close to Lake Kaindy (about 15 kilometers) and the three Kolsai Lakes, as it’s also located in Kolsai National Park, and is surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Surprisingly, the guesthouse we stayed here was quite modern with WiFi, various bedrooms and a Western-style toilet. For only 6000 KZT per person you can stay here and get breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Day 8 and 9: Kolsai Lakes
For a while, the lakes were unreachable because of a landslide. Luckily, locals had dug out the road to make it accessible again.
Very close to Saty village you’ll find the Kolsai Lakes. The Kolsai Lakes is a system of three alpine lakes, sitting on altitudes between 1700 and 2650 meters. They are located about 300 kilometers east of Almaty. The entrance fee for Kolsai Lake is about 700 KZT and 350 KZT per tent for camping.
It’s another extraordinary location, as the lakes are incredibly clear and lie in a perfect forest, surrounded by cliffs and the hills of Northern Tien Shan Mountains with snowy caps and wooded slopes.
To fully enjoy the three lakes, you can take two or three days. There are plenty of activities to undertake, such as hiking and horse riding from Kolsai one to Kolsai three.
The three lakes are pretty much located on the same line. The first lake (pictured above) is located at an altitude of 1700 meters and to get to the second lake you have to climb higher in the mountains, as it sits on an altitude of 2500 meters. The third lake is the highest of the three, and sits on an altitude of 2700 meters high.
Where to stay at the Kolsai Lakes
At the first two lakes you can wild camp. There are also yurts located near the first lake. Another possibility is to return to Saty and stay at the same guesthouse as the night before.
Day 10: Back to Almaty for a rest
Drive back to Almaty after a lunch at your guesthouse in Saty. The drive is about 300 kilometers by road and takes about 5 hours.
Once you return in Almaty in the evening, make sure to wind down and relax for a bit before you resume your travels in Kazakhstan. You can spend an extra day in Almaty so you can really re-energise or you can decide to catch the night train the next day to Turkestan. If you have your own car, you can also drive to Turkestan, which takes about 10 hours according to Google Maps (we haven’t tried it ourselves ;)).
Always book your train tickets in advance!
If you already know which day you’ll travel with the train, it’s a good idea to already book your tickets in advance. The spots in the train coupes can go quite quickly and sometimes it can be completely booked, especially if you’re going to a popular place like Astana.
We tried both the fastest, modern train in Kazakhstan and the older, Soviet train in the nighttime. Both options were fine, although the Soviet train was very hot when it was still light out. If you can we definitely recommend to book the faster train, as it’s more comfortable and really doesn’t cost that much more money.
Day 11 and 12: Travel to Turkestan and explore this extraordinary destination
The fastest train to Turkestan from Almaty takes about 12 hours and the cheapest train takes about 20 hours. We definitely recommend the faster one… If you take the fast train on day 11, you’ll arrive in Turkestan early in the morning.
Even though Turkestan is pretty much out of the way of the other destinations in this itinerary, I would still advice you to go. This trip in Kazakhstan so far mostly includes beautiful locations in nature, and Turkestan is a place to really indulge in the culture. Furthermore, Turkestan in Southern Kazakhstan is definitely one of our highlights of our travels in Kazakhstan.
It’s is located 165 kilometers northwest of Shymkent and is an easy day trip from here, so if you also want to see the city of Shymkent, you can also decide to stay here. In Shymkent itself there isn’t much to see or do. Therefore you can also decide to stay in Turkestan and book an hotel there.
The highlights in Turkestan are: Yasawi Mausoleum, Hilvet Semi-Underground Mosque, Historical-Cultural-Ethnographic Center, History Museum and Mausoleum of Rabigha-Sultan Begum.
Where to stay in Turkestan
We personally stayed in Shymkent instead of Turkestan. In Shymkent there are plenty of accomodation options, however we personally didn’t enjoy our stay that much. If you rather stay in Turkestan you can try out Hotel Edem. This hotel has comfortable rooms and a great restaurant with a courtyard garden.
The beautiful Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi
In Turkestan you can find Kazakhstan’s most important pilgrimage site and greatest architectural monument. This place can’t be missed when you visit Turkestan…
The beautiful Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi was built by Timor in the late 14th century, from 1389 to 1405. This partly unfinished building was were Persian master builders experimented with architectural and structural solutions that was later used in the construction of Samarkand, the capital of the Timurid Empire.
The mausoleum was built on the burial site of the Sufi poet Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, who had a big impact on Islam in Central Asia. Now, this mausoleum is one of the largest and best-preserved constructions of the Timurid period.
Even though this building has such religious and historical relevance and it’s obviously gorgeous, it was surprisingly quiet when we were there. As you can see on the first photo, there was not a person in sight when I took the shot.
Day 13, 14 (and 15): Travel to Astana and explore the capital city of Kazakhstan
This itinerary ends in Astana, but of course you can also switch it up and start in Astana or skip the capital city and fly back home from Almaty (or resume your road trip to another country in Central Asia). Personally, we weren’t the biggest fan of Astana, but we did want to include it in this itinerary as it is still the capital city of Kazakhstan, and a rather unique city too.
It’s possible to travel directly from Turkestan or Shymkent to Astana by train, however that takes more than one day. Other options are going by airplane (which takes one hour and 40 minutes) or first taking the fast train back to Almaty (13 hours), have a rest and resume your trip to Astana by train (another 13 hours).
Astana is the brand new capital of Kazakhstan and has been built in the middle of the northern steppe. It has only been the capital city since 1997 and before it was named the new capital city by President Nazarbaev it was just a provincial city. More and more buildings, cultural, sports, leisure and shopping centers have been built. This futuristic city has countless of skyscrapers and buildings in Asian, Western and Soviet styles.
Where to stay in Astana
There are plenty of accommodation possibilities in Astana. If you’re on a budget, there are a couple of very affordable and good quality hostels in great locations. We personally stayed in Hostel Nomad 4×4 in a private room and shared bathroom. The staff was friendly and the location was very central. Here are a few budget options in Astana:
- Hostel Nomad 4×4: Great location, free WiFi, comfortable beds and friendly staff.
- Hostel Forum: Great location, free WiFi and comfortable beds.
- Hostel Ishim Astana: Great location, free WiFi and a restaurant.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious accomodation, check out one of these options:
- Radisson Hotel: This five star hotel in the center of Astana is very comfortable and offers an indoor swimming pool, a gym, a sauna, a Turkish steam bath and a spa centre.
- King Hotel Astana: This four star hotel in the center of Astana offer big and comfortable rooms.
I advice you to check out Airbnb. Sometimes there are pretty good deals in great locations. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, use this link for a discount!
Things to do in Astana
- Visit the Bayterek Monument and place your hand in a print of President Nazarbaev’s palm and enjoy the view of Astana from above.
- Go shopping at Khan Shatyr, a 150 meter high tent-like building with lots of shops, the Sky Beach Club with a big swimming pool, a beach and a water slide, and a dino park.
- Explore how we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy while reducing CO2 emissions at the ‘Future Energy’ Expo 2017 (pictured above and our personal favourite option in Astana).
- Visit the Palace of Peace, a glass-and-steel pyramid that is the home for the triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions.
- Learn more about the history of Kazakhstan, from ancient to modern times, at the Kazakhstan History Museum.
- Admire collections of Kazakh jewellery at the Presidential Cultural Center.
- Go on a day trip to Lake Burabay and Burabay National Nature Park to explore lakes, hills and more of the beautiful nature in Kazakhstan.
Restaurants in Astana
- The Shoreditch Burger & Wok: Here you can all sorts of cuisines, from Indian to European-style food. We tried their delicious curry’s and their amazing risotto.
- Pane & Vino: If you’re craving Italian food, be sure to stop over here for their delicious pizza’s and pasta’s.
- Yakitoriya: A rather weird place, as they seem to be serving pretty much everything (it’s a Japanese restaurant though), but it’s very affordable and the quality of the food is actually pretty good.
- Qazaq Gourmet: A perfect place if you want to eat Kazakh food.
We hope you have an amazing time in Kazakhstan and that our itinerary proves to be useful. It’s also possible to use this itinerary for three weeks in Kazakhstan and take it slower and see more in the surrounding area of Almaty. Personally, we also took three weeks.
In the coming month we’re writing more posts about Kazakhstan! Do you have any questions or comments about this article or about Kazakhstan in general? Feel free to contact us using the comment section below or sent us an e-mail using the contact form.
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