The world’s ninth-biggest country is the most economically advanced of the ‘stans’, thanks to its abundant reserves of oil and most other valuable minerals. That money has transformed the capital Nur-Sultan, on the windswept northern steppe, into a 21st-century showpiece with a profusion of bold futuristic architecture. Travelers will find some fantastic restaurants and accommodation amongst the leafy avenues of Almaty too; its biggest city also boasts the chic ALZhiR Museum-Memorial Complex, glossy shopping centres and hedonistic nightlife. But it's beyond the cities that you'll find the greatest travel adventures, whether hiking in the high mountains and green valleys of the Tian Shan, searching for wildlife on the lake-dotted steppe, enjoying homespun hospitality in village guesthouses, or jolting across the western deserts to remote underground mosques.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kazakhstan.
Some 285km east of Aktau, Beket-Ata is an important and extremely popular place of pilgrimage for those wishing to visit the underground mosque and final resting place of Sufi mystic and teacher, Beket-Ata (1750–1813). The mosque is near the bottom of a picturesque desert canyon and the journey to Beket-Ata involves traversing some spectacular steppe and desert scenery. You can get here via an expensive guided tour from Aktau, by hiring a 4WD and driver, or taking crowded pilgrim transport.
This huge blue-glass-and-white-marble museum covers the history and culture of Kazakhstan from ancient to modern times. Themed halls comprise interactive displays and artifact exhibits, ranging from a yurt in the Hall of Ethnography to a chronicle of the capital's modern history in the Hall of Astana. Don't miss the Golden Hall, which houses several thousand Bronze Age ornaments from the famed 'Golden Man' (a national symbol of Kazakhstan) – a 3rd- or 4th-century warrior whose gold-clad remains were uncovered in 1969.
This astoundingly beautiful, tiled mausoleum with a turquoise dome is home to Kozha Akhmed Yasaui. The main chamber is capped with an 18m-wide dome, above a vast, 2000kg, metal kazan (cauldron) for holy water, given by Timur, who had the tomb built in the 14th century. Yasaui’s tomb lies behind an ornate wooden door at the end of the main chamber: you can view it through grilles from corridors on either side.
Nur-Sultan's most extraordinary building (so far), the Khan Shatyr is a 150m-high, translucent, tentlike structure made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a heat-absorbing material that produces summer temperatures inside even when it’s -30°C outside. Touted as a 'lifestyle centre with world-class shopping', from outside it resembles nothing so much as a drunkenly leaning circus tent, while the multilevel interior contains a high-end shopping mall, food court, and various attractions.
This beautiful glass-and-steel pyramid was opened in 2006 as the home for the triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions, hosted by Kazakhstan. The 30-minute tour (English-speaking guides available) shows you a 1350-seat opera hall, the 3rd-floor atrium where the congress was held, and the apex conference room with windows filled with stained-glass doves (by British artist Brian Clarke). Full of symmetry and symbolism, the pyramid is beautifully illuminated and a highlight of the city.
Over millions of years, the swift Charyn (Sharyn) River has carved a truly spectacular 150m- to 300m-deep canyon into the otherwise flat steppe some 200km east of Almaty, and time has weathered this into some weird and colourful rock formations. The most popular section, the Valley of Castles, is accessible by regular car; for the rest, you need a 4WD. You can get here by guided tour from Almaty, drive yourself, or come by public transport and then hike in.
During the Stalin years, Akmol, 35km west of Nur-Sultan, housed ALZhIR, a notorious camp for wives and children of men who were interned elsewhere as ‘betrayers of the motherland’. The ALZhIR Museum-Memorial Complex poignantly evokes the camp's horrors, displaying a transportation wagon, a replica guard post and photos and possessions of the prisoners, as well as explanatory material in English on the Gulag system in Kazakhstan. Minibuses to Akmol (400T, one hour) leave Nur-Sultan bus station eight times daily.
Between 1949 and 1989, 456 nuclear tests were conducted on the territory of the Polygon, the Soviet Union's primary nuclear test site, both above and below ground. Much of the 18,000 sq km area is now considered safe to visit and you can do so with a guide and car organised by the National Nuclear Centre (easiest via tour agency) in Kurchatov. Radiation suits are dished out for visiting the parts where the radiation levels are considered to be dangerous.
Housed in the old KarLag headquarters building, this poignant museum walks you through KarLag's role in the Soviet Gulag Archipelago. The repression of Kazakh 'kulaks', the post-1917-Revolution Red Terror, the man-made famine of 1931 and the suffering of the victims of the Gulag are all given a voice here. From Karaganda bus station, take Shakhtinsk-bound bus 121 (every 20 minutes), get off at the Vtoroy Shakht stop (150T), walk or take a shared taxi into Dolinka (1.5km).