Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled Kazakhstan itinerary

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Fly into Almaty - The Big Apple of Central Asia. Check out the Green Market for an authentic slice of Central Asia, the orthodox St Nicholas Cathedral and Great Patriotic War Memorial in Panfilov Park for a taste of Mother Russia, then take a cable car above the city.

Kazakhstan-hills

It's to the south where Almaty's great climate and unique appeal come into their own. The Alatau Mountains are home to world-class skiing, hiking trails, snowboarding and other alpine fun – all within an hour's drive of the city. Hire a local taxi to the Sunkar Raptor Nursery to see up close the awesome birds of prey native to Kazakhstan. If you're up for a potentially bloody introduction to Kazakh culture, go hunting on horseback with eagles.

birdman

Hire a 4WD and head east to the Turgen River for great white water rafting; then carry on to Alteyn Emil National Park – Ghenghis Khan passed through here in his attempt to conquer the world. You can sand-board down the Singing Dunes.

sandboards

Head back to Almaty and along the Tashkent highway for a day driving around in dune buggies.

Buggies

Next head into the Alatau foothills to stay with a local nomad family – learn how to build a yurt and herd sheep like a real Kazakh. Back to Almaty,  fly way out west to the city of Kyzylorda. Take the sleeper train to the former Soviet port city of Aralsk and the devastated Aral Sea.

Permits permitting, take a train to the Soviet time warp of Baikonur – check out cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin’s cottage and make sure you're in town for a rocket launch. Catch the sleeper train again to Turkistan, and a local taxi to explore the ruined city of Sauran, which was flattened by Ghenghis Khan on his world tour of 1218. Then head to the stunning mausoleum of Yasaui. Stay to hear the singing sufis perform a ritual at the shrine built by Timur Lenk (Tamerlane) every dawn and dusk – here, you'll find the true heart of Kazakhstan.

Shrine of Khoja Ahmad Yasavi

Iain Shearer travelled to Kazakhstan on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.