This week, we travel to Kazakhstan in central Asia with the author of KZBlog, an American expat living and working in Astana. The country is already off the beaten trail but with our expert guide, we head to places that even the Kazakh people rarely visit.
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. So when people ask me to recommend places to visit, it gets a bit difficult because the most amazing sites are spread so far apart. The majority of tourists end up in Almaty, the country’s largest city, where tourism is well developed. If you pick up the Lonely Planet Central Asia guide or Kazakhstan by Dagmar Schreiber, you’ll find good lists of reliable tourist operators that can arrange trips to nearby lakes, mountain climbing or cultural museum tours. But even though Kazakhstan is already off the beaten path, it’s worth going out to the places that not even most Kazakhs go to.
The best trip I ever had in Kazakhstan was out to Aktau on the Caspian Sea. While international tourism is not well-developed, there are nice beaches and a chance to swim in the world’s largest lake. Aktau was originally founded as an industrial port, not a residential town, so streets have no names and I can’t tell you how to find anything. But the town is small and if you head to the coast and walk around, you’ll find everything you need. Near the public beach, there’s a complex of five to ten restaurants and cafes where you can grab a beer or fresh seafood on a balcony overlooking the sea. Up from the beach, there’s a memorial to the Soviet MiG fighters, an actual plane mounted in a 30-degree climb, a must-see. We didn’t walk far enough, but apparently there is also a lighthouse mounted on top of an apartment building a bit further south from the center. The apartment building was already in the perfect place for the lighthouse, so they just mounted the light on top rather than destroy the building and make a freestanding lighthouse.
Another place to go that not many people hear about is the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve, a few hours west of Astana. Getting there is a bit difficult because you have to go to Akmola Tourist Agency in Astana (in the Abay Hotel on the corner of Respublika and Seifulin) and either set up a tour with them or get a permit to go independently. You then have to go out to the village of Korgalzhyn and have your permit stamped by the regional officials before you can enter the Nature Reserve itself. On the way to Korgalzhyn see if you can stop at the ALZHIR Gulag Museum in Akmol, located on the site of a gulag for wives of political prisoners of the USSR. The museum itself is rather small but illuminating if you want to know what a gulag was like. But even if you don’t stop, driving out of Astana you will see just what it means to live on the flat and empty steppe. Sometimes it seems as if you can see all the way to France.
Korgalzhyn is the northernmost point of migration for flamingos and you should definitely ask your guide to try to find some for you. But as you drive around, you’ll see hawks and eagles sitting on the ground or perched on electric wires. Swan and ducks swim in beautiful and picturesque lakes. Last time we were there we saw a dust cloud behind us that slowly but surely overtook our car, then suddenly swerved and passed us going the other way. The driver told us it was saigak, a native species of elk that can run over 80 km/h. The reserve really feels like being on safari, since you are in among the animals.
I’ll also share my wish list of two places I have yet to see. The first is Baikonour, the space station that launched the first man into space in 1961. The Soviets built it in the middle of nowhere, away from prying spies and allegedly the first launch pad was built in 72 hours of manic construction. It is possible to visit if you book with an accredited tourist agency (such as Orexca) but I understand that it is quite costly. Also, because you have to go through both Kazakh and Russian security clearance, you must arrange things well in advance. No guarantee you can catch a launch but you can apparently see where Gagarin launched from, a launch pad that is still in use today.
The other place I would love to go is Jotchi Khan’s mausoleum, allegedly somewhere in Karaganda province. Jotchi was the son of Genghis Khan and it is his line that ruled over this part of the Mongol Empire. In some ways, Kazakhs look to Jotchi (and his son Batu) as the father of the Kazakh people. Bizarrely, most people don’t seem to know that Jotchi was buried here in Kazakhstan and the site doesn’t appear on any maps. I have no idea if tourists are even allowed to go there, or what the facilities are like, but someday I would love to cast my eyes on the resting site of the son of the greatest conqueror the world has ever known.