Kazakhstan – Trip Report


Kazakhstan Trip Report

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia and has a lot of breathtaking places to visit. I spent a few days in this massive country and barely touched the surface! Here’s my trip report for 5 days in Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan story highlights on InstagramKazakhstan story highlights on Instagram

This trip report can also be seen on our story highlights on Instagram account @travelonthedollar.

Click the image on left to go directly to Kazakhstan Highlights, or visit our page and under ‘Highlights’, scroll to the right and click on ‘Kazakhstan’.

 

Planning

Visa

For U.S. citizens, Kazakhstan does not require to get visa before traveling there (at the time of writing this post). Make sure to check if you require a visa to your destination country with these resources.

Flights

I booked international flights to Almaty (ALA) via Istanbul (IST) on Turkish Airlines, and flew Air Astana domestic between Almaty and Astana.

Rental car and driving in Kazakhstan

Finding rental cars in Kazakhstan is not easy! Most international rental car companies do not operate here. Even if they do, finding a car is almost impossible because of lack of vehicles. I rented a car from Iron Horse Nomads (IHN) which was cheaper than some other companies I contacted.

Rental car insurance with IHN

Most rental car companies will charge additional amount for rental car insurance, but one of the misleading statements on Iron Horse Nomads website is that “insurance is included in the cost”. That’s not true!

You will have to pay a deposit of $300 in cash when you pickup the car, and this amount goes towards the insurance. And that’s not all – any damages to the car (as you see below) is charged extra, on top of the $300 deposit. This simply means that you will be responsible for the amount it takes to repair any damages.

Keep this very important information in mind when booking via Iron Horse Nomads.

Two other agencies I contacted asked for a deposit of similar amounts for any damages, but the difference of you not getting charged anything extra, although the cost of renting was much higher.

While most of the roads around Almaty are in good condition, potholes and unmarked gravel roads are common, so be cautious! Road signs are in Latin characters and helpful to navigate around the region. Make sure to follow speed limits and road rules as there are traffic cops everywhere and they won’t hesitate to stop you. Police speak very little English and they will use translation apps to have a conversation. If you’re stopped for any reason, and do not want to pay “hefty fines”, then bribing the police works in Kazakhstan!

SIM Card in Kazakhstan

There are many providers in Kazakhstan with competitive rates and packages. I got a SIM card from KCell which is the state operator – it costs KZT 4000 ($8.50) for 25GB of data, 100 calls and 100 SMS. This data package also includes free social media (WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Telegram).

There is a KCell kiosk at Almaty airport and it was an easy process to get a SIM card!

Cash or card?

International credit cards work great in Kazakhstan, but most businesses (restaurants, cafes) prefer cash. All hotels will accept credit cards, but cash is always the preferred method of payment.

Almaty and Astana airports have ATM machines to get cash, and exchange centers at the arrivals as well. But your best option is to walk up to any bank in the center of Almaty/Astana and exchange currency.

Taxi or rideshare?

The best option to travel to or from airport, or around the cities is Yandex. Download the app, setup your profile with international credit cards accepted (or pay cash), and you can get it all over Kazakhstan (just like Uber).

Yandex is much cheaper than the taxis in Kazakhstan and you can also avoid the negotiation conversations with taxi drivers if you don’t speak Russian! For example, I paid $4.75 (KZT 2265) from Almaty airport to city center on Yandex, and the taxi drivers asked for $20.

Itinerary

Here is the itinerary of five days in Kazakhstan:

  • Day 1
    Almaty
    Arriving in Kazakhstan and sight seeing in Almaty. 
  • Day 2
    Almaty -> Charyn Canyon -> Saty
    Drive from Almaty to Saty, with a stopover at Charyn Canyon National Park.
  • Day 3
    Lake Kolsay, Lake Kaindy
    Visiting the two beautiful lakes, with a slight hiccup! Overnight at Saty.
  • Day 4
    Saty -> Almaty -> Astana
    Drive from Saty to Almaty, drop off rental car at airport, and fly to Astana.
  • Day 5
    Astana -> Almaty
    Sights of the capital city of Astana, fly to Almaty in evening and fly out of Kazakhstan.

 

Destinations

Here are the details of the things to do, sites to visit and all the details of the destinations:

Almaty

We walked around the city visiting some of the sights:

  • Ascension Cathedral
  • Panfilov Guardsmen
  • Monument of Panfilov
  • Museum of Musical Instruments
  • Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater
  • Kok Tobe Gondola
  • Green Bazaar
  • Zhibek Zholy Street
  • Kazakhstan Hotel
Ascension Cathedral, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Ascension Cathedral, Almaty
28 Guardsmen of Panfilov, Almaty, Kazakhstan
28 Guardsmen of Panfilov, Almaty
28 Guardsmen of Panfilov, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Statue at 28 Guardsmen of Panfilov, Almaty
Monument of Panfilov, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Monument of Panfilov, Almaty
Museum of Musical Instruments, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Museum of Musical Instruments, Almaty
Almaty Opera House, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Almaty Opera House, Almaty
Statues all over Almaty, Kazakhstan
Statues all over Almaty
Mother with child statue, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Mother with child statue, Almaty

 

Green Bazaar, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Green Bazaar, Almaty
Green Bazaar, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Green Bazaar, Almaty

 

Soviet architecture hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Soviet architecture hotel in Almaty

Charyn Canyon National Park

The rental car was delivered to my hotel in the morning by Iron Horse Nomads representative, and I started to drive towards Saty, stopping at Charyn Canyon park. Situated at roughly a 3-hour drive from Almaty, this national park is part of Kazakhstan’s famous “Golden Triangle” – Almaty, Charyn Canyon and Lakes. It is one of the absolute best things to see and do within the country, with the extraordinary Valley of Castles at the heart of it all.

Over millions of years, wind and water eroded several valleys out of the dry desert terrain, shaping it into the deep red-colored sandstone landscape we admire today. Also known as the Grand Canyon of Central Asia, Charyn Canyon can be done as a day trip from Almaty, and offers a few easy to moderate hiking trails.

Here are two links that give in-dept information about how to get there, what to do there and everything else – Complete guide to Charyn Canyon (WhereTheSoulsWander) and How to get to Charyn Canyon (Adventures of Nicole).

Charyn Canyon National Park, Kazakhstan
Charyn Canyon National Park
Charyn Canyon National Park, Kazakhstan
Charyn Canyon National Park
Charyn Canyon National Park, Kazakhstan
Luxurious accommodations at Charyn Canyon National Park

 

Saty

After spending a few hours in Charyn Canyon, it was a short drive to Saty. A small village located about 60 kms from Charyn Canyon in the Shilik valley, Saty is the ‘base camp’ for visiting Kaindy and Kolsay lakes. The region is also well-known by archeologists because of numerous Scythian’s tombs. Apart from some locals offering their homes a homestays, there are numerous semi-luxurious accommodations available in and around Saty.

We stayed at a new hotel names “Tauspirit Kolsay” which is a few kms south of Saty, between the village and Kolsai lake (Coordinates – 43°00’31.3″N 78°20’13.7″E). I would NOT recommend this place as the owner doesn’t live there and their communication is terrible! Additionally, this homestay is in middle of nowhere with no access to anything nearby!

Saty, Kazakhstan
Saty, Kazakhstan
Homestay in Saty, Kazakhstan
Homestay in Saty, Kazakhstan

Saty, Kazakhstan

 
I headed to Saty (from the homestay) in the night for dinner at Fortune Cafe for delicious Shawrma, calling it an early night abck at the homestay.

Lake Kolsay

About 10 minutes drive from my homestay in Saty is Lake Kolsay (or Lake Kolsai) – three lakes

The drive is smooth and paved to the entrance and once there, you need to get out of the car at the ticket booth to go buy a ticket. It costs KZT 1045 as entrance fees and a ticket for the car is KZT 400.

Once parked, you will walk down to the first Kolsay Lake. The views of the lake are stunning from here. After visiting the first lake, you make your way back and turn right to the second Kolsay Lake.

There is even a third Kolsay Lake, but it is reportedly a bit difficult to get to due to it being close to the border of Kyrgyzstan. The three Kolsay Lakes are respectively at heights 1800, 2250 and 2700 meters above sea level.

Tips:

  • Bring lots of water if you plan to hike to the second and third lakes. Also, bring rain gear with you, as the weather can be absolutely weird! One moment it would be bright sun, and the next would be downpouring.
  • If you are planning on going all the way to the bottom of the first lake (and maybe onward to the second lake), hike on the right side of the lake, alongside where the horses trek. The left side of the lake is strenuous more and doesn’t offer as great of views, but is in the midst of the greenery.
  • There are a few little convenience stores in Saty, so make sure to stock up on snacks if you are going to be out at the lakes for a while.

 

Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan
Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan

Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan
Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan
Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan
Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan
Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan
Lake Kolsay, Kazakhstan

Lake Kaindy

After visiting Lake Kolsay, we drove towards Lake Kaindy which passes through Saty and then 12 kms of unpaved road leading to the lake. But half way to the lake, an animal jumped in front of the car during a turn, making the car swirl into a ditch! It took a lot of effort, and with help of the locals for 3 hours, we pulled the car out from the ditch with some extensive damage to the front of the car!

This incident led us to return to our homestay without visiting Lake Kaindy at all!

Road towards Lake Kaindy
Road towards Lake Kaindy
Accident to Lake Kaindy
Accident to Lake Kaindy
Accident to Lake Kaindy
Accident to Lake Kaindy

 

Accident to Lake Kaindy
Accident to Lake Kaindy

Accident towards Lake Kaindy

 

After heading back to Saty, we called it a night. Next morning after breakfast at the homestay, we drove towards Almaty, reaching Almaty airport in the evening. Our flight from Almaty to Astana was late evening, reaching Astana in the night.

Astana

After reaching Astana, I checked in to the Sheraton Marriott in downtown, and cost was free because of two award nights on my account!

The next day was sightseeing in Astana. Here are some of the places we visited:

  • Baiterek
  • Presidential Palace
  • Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center
  • Triumph Astana Residential complex
  • Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
  • Independence Square
  • Hazrat Sultan Mosque
  • Nur Astana Mosque
  • KazMunayGaz Building
Nur Astana Mosque, Astana, Kazakhstan
Nur Astana Mosque, Astana
Inside Nur Astana Mosque, Astana, Kazakhstan
Inside Nur Astana Mosque, Astana
KazMunayGaz building, Astana, Kazakhstan
KazMunayGaz building, Astana
Khan Satyr Mall, Astana, Kazakhstan
Khan Satyr Mall, Astana, Kazakhstan
Girl monument at KazMunayGaz building, Astana, Kazakhstan
Girl monument at KazMunayGaz building, Astana

 

Astana Opera House, Astana, Kazakhstan
Astana Opera House, Astana

Presidential Palace, Astana, Kazakhstan
Presidential Palace, Astana
Golden Towers at the Presidential Palace, Astana, Kazakhstan
Golden Towers at the Presidential Palace, Astana
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana, Kazakhstan
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana
Triumph Residential Towers, Astana, Kazakhstan
Triumph Residential Towers, Astana

 

Independence Square, Astana, Kazakhstan
Independence Square, Astana
Peace Wall as part of Monument Stena Mira, Astana, Kazakhstan
Peace Wall as part of Monument Stena Mira, Astana
Commercial building, Astana, Kazakhstan
Commercial building, Astana
Hazrat Sultan Mosque, Astana, Kazakhstan
Hazrat Sultan Mosque, Astana

 

Old Bridge, Astana, Kazakhstan
Old Bridge, Astana
Baiterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan
Baiterek Tower, Astana
Baiterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan
Baiterek Tower, Astana

 

 

Expenses

Note: All values in USD, unless otherwise mentioned, are approximate and based on the exchange rate at the time of publishing. Each cost is for one adult. The exchange rate at the time of publishing is assumed to be USD 1 = KZT 480. This does not include international flights to/from Kazakhstan.
 

What Cost Notes
SIM Card $8.30 For 25GB, including free social media.
Almaty airport to downtown $4.75 KZT 2265 with Yandex. One way.
Homestay in Almaty $83 KZT 40,000 for 2 nights. Booking.com link.
Rental Car $335 From IHN for 3 days.
Aroma Cafe Breakfast $7.76 Breakfast in Almaty – Coffee, egg omelet, etc.
Post office $0.62 KZT 300 – Stamps for my collection at Postal Stamps Travelogue.
Groceries in Almaty $8.95 KZT 4300 for snacks, water, etc.
Dinner in Almaty $10.50 KZT 5040 at Del Papa.
Charyn Canyon $1.96 KZT 945 entrance fees.
Tauspirit Kolsay (Saty) $208 KZT 100,000 for 2 nights. Breakfast included. Free Wifi.
Lake Kolsay $2.25 KZT 1075 entrance fees.
Dinner in Saty $7.30 KZT 3500 at Fortune Cafe. Shawarma and water.
Groceries in Saty $7.04 KZT 3380 for snacks, water, etc.
Gas $41.60 KZT 20,000.
Flight Almaty-Astana-Almaty $120.50 On Air Astana, return flight.
Breakfast in Astana $7.30 KZT 3500.
Dinner in Astana $16.30 KZT 8000.
Total Costs $871.13 Per person
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