Kazakhstan

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Introduction to Kazakhstan

If you're not a fan of endless semi-arid steppe and decaying industrial cities, Kazakhstan (Kazakstan) may seem bleak, but those who enjoy remoteness, wide open spaces, lunar landscapes, long hypnotic train rides and horse sausage will definitely be in their element.

The chief exceptions to this relentless desolation are the cosmopolitan city of Almaty, and the spectacular spurs of the Tian Shan and Altai mountains on the country's southern and eastern borders. And any country which uses a headless goat's carcass as a polo puck obviously has chutzpah.

If it sometimes looks like the landscape has suffered from hundreds of nuclear explosions, well, parts of it have - ever since Russian rocket scientists started using Kazakhstan as a sandpit in the late 1940s.

Full country name: Republic of Kazakhstan

Area: 2.71 million sq km

Population: 16.8 million

People: 46% Kazakh, 34.7% Russian, 4.9% Ukrainian, 3.1% German, 2.3% Uzbek, 1.9% Tatar

Language: Kazakh, Russian

Religion: Muslim (47%), Russian Orthodox (44%), Protestant

GDP: US$52.9 billion

GDP per capita: US$3,100

Inflation: 10%

Major Industries: Oil, coal, iron ore, manganese, chromite, lead, zinc, copper, titanium, bauxite, gold, silver, phosphates, sulfur, iron and steel, nonferrous metal, tractors and other agricultural machinery, electric motors, construction materials, grain (mostly spring wheat), cotton, wool, livestock

Major Trading Partners: Russia, UK, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the Netherlands, China, Italy, Germany, Turkey, South Korea

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Traveler Facts

Visas: The Kazakhstanis change visa rules more often than a nanny changes nappies so any information should be double checked with your travel agency. Basically the only sure-fire way of getting in and out of the country is by arranging an invitation, or 'visa support', from the Kazakhstani police department or a resident, or by pre-paying all accommodation costs, flights and tourist bookings. The 72-hour transit visa, which allowed you into the country for that amount of time if you had a Russian visa, has been temporarily revoked and the happy-go-lucky days of yesterday when you could pick up a visa at the airport (albeit at ransomely-inflated prices) are gone. Just to increase the degree of difficulty in this transaction, most overseas embassies or consulates that used to issue Kazakhstan visas no longer do and even getting one from a Russian embassy in a country without Kazakstan representation is a hit-and-miss affair. If you plan to cross overland from China, you may get a Kazak visa in Beijing; there's also a small Kazak embassy in Islamabad.

Health risks: hepatitis, cholera, diphtheria

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +6 (Almaty - east Kazakhstan), GMT/UTC +4 (Aqtau - west Kazakhstan), GMT/UTC +5 (Aqtobe - central Kazakhstan)

Dialling Code: 7

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Kazakhstan isn't really known for its splashy mardi gras. Public holidays include two for New Year's Day (1 January and either 31 December or 2 January), Kazakhstan Constitution Day (28 January), International Women's Day (8 March), Labour Day (1 May), Victory Day (a commemoration of the end of WWII for Russia on 9 May 1945), Republic Day (25 October) and Independence Day (16 December).

The spring festival of Nauryz ('New Days') is by far the biggest holiday. It's an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations and can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs. Medeu, outside Almaty, hosts the Voice of Asia rock festival in August, when bands from all over the CIS and Asia dribble on the drum riser.

Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.

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Best time to Visit

As summers are ferociously hot and winters bitterly cold, spring (April to June) and autumn (September to November) are the best seasons to visit Kazakhstan. In April, the desert blooms briefly and the monotonous ochre landscapes explode in reds, oranges and yellows. Autumn is harvest time, when market tables heave with freshly picked fruit. If you do decide to battle the winter, be aware that many domestic flights are grounded and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Tenge

Meals

Budget: US$4-8

Mid-range: US$8-40

High: US$40-60

Deluxe: US$60+

Lodging

Budget: US$10-20

Mid-range: US$20-50

High: US$50-120

Deluxe: US$120+

Kazakhstan is the most expensive of the Central Asian countries. If you're travelling with a friend, staying in modest hotels, eating in cheaper restaurants and travelling by bus or train, you can get around for about US$20-40 a day. You can cut this further by shopping for your food in bazaars, staying in people's houses, avoiding taxis and staying away from cities as much as possible. If you have to stay in a tourist hotel, your budget may go up substantially. Other little luxuries include car hire, imported beer and Mars bars, which will really blow you out. As a foreigner, you will often have to pay more for services than the locals do.

Kazakhstan has the most advanced banking system in Central Asia, and credit card use is on the increase. Generally, though, you can't rely on anything but cash. US dollars are the easiest to exchange (particularly on the black market) but the Euro can also come in handy. Most banks will only accept new notes. You may be able to change travellers' cheques in Almaty - American Express are the most widely accepted.

Tipping is not common, although a few top end restaurants automatically add a 5% to 15% service charge to the bill. Tipping runs counter to many people's Islamic sense of hospitality, and may even offend them. Shops have fixed prices but bargaining in bazaars is expected.

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Attractions

Astana

Kazakstan's capital was a tiny mining town until the 1950s, when Krushchev announced his Virgin Lands scheme to turn vast areas of Kazakstan steppe into wheat and cotton fields. Astana became the project's capital and became the centre of an important grain-growing region.

Known as Aqmola until 1998, the capital was shifted from Almaty to Astana in December 1997 amid almost universal reluctance. President Nazarbaev cited Astana's more central and less earthquake-prone location and better rail links with Russia among its advantages.

Almaty

This booming city was founded in 1854 as a Russian frontier fort when the Kazaks were still nomads and was capital of Kazakhstan until late 1997. Almaty is now a honeypot to Kazakhstanis and a bunch of foreign traders, diplomats and financiers, vying for a slice of Kazakhstan's mineral resources.

Sudden exposure to the outside world turned this provincial outpost into the Central Asian cosmopolis with shops, restaurants, hotels and casinos that would make the place unrecognisable to anyone who had been away since 1990. But with the capital shifted to Astana, Almaty's future is uncertain.

Köl-Say Lakes

These three pretty green lakes lie amid the steep forested foothills of the Küngey Alatau, 110km (68mi) east of Almaty. The lakes are strung along the Köl-Say river at an altitude of around 2000m (6560ft). The camping and trout fishing are great.

June and August are the best months to visit, but keep a close eye on the weather. Travellers can arrange helicopter excursions to the lakes from Almaty or reach them overland from Saty; the lower lake is accessible by vehicle but you're better off hiring horses in Saty.

Zailiysky Alatau Foothills

The weekend playgrounds of Medeu and Shymbulaq are in the foothills of the Zailiysky Alatau, 15km (9.3mi) from Almaty. Situated at an altitude of 1700m (5576ft), Medeu consists of a smattering of buildings built around one of the world's largest speed skating rink.

Between October and May, half of Almaty seems to spend its weekend leisure time whizzing round the rink in various states of dizziness and undress. Shymbulaq, a further 500m (1640ft) closer to God, is one of Central Asia's top skiing spots.

Zailiysky Alatau

The greatest attraction for rough-n-tough travellers to Kazakstan are the 4000m(13,120ft)-plus peaks of the Zailiysky Alatau and the Küngey Alatau, two spurs of the Tian Shan which run east-west between Almaty and Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan.

This beautiful region of glaciers, wild rivers and steep valleys used by nomadic herders as summer pasture is great trekking territory. There are dozens of trails of varying length and difficulty, including hikes right over the range to Lake Issyk-Kul; Almaty travel agents can arrange a guide.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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