Unlock hidden Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan may be one of the least well-known ‘Stans but it harbours plenty of enchanting gems. Visa-free travel and regular flights with Air Astana make it prime for exploring…

Mighty Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest country, dominates the landscape of Central Asia, stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea across the Great Steppe to the Altai Mountains. Air Astana flies direct from London to Aktau and Almaty, two of Kazakhstan’s most vibrant cities, both of which are convenient gateways for wilder adventures. Whether you are dreaming of a cultured city break, a Silk Road odyssey through ancient sites, or embracing nature in spectacular national parks, Kazakhstan is waiting to dazzle you with its scenery, its history and culture, and a warm welcome from the diverse Kazakhstani people.  

Welcome to Aktau

Aktau (meaning “White Mountain”) takes its name from the cliffs where the fringe of Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Region gives way to the waves of the Caspian Sea.

People have lived in this southwestern part of Kazakhstan for more than 2,000 years, but the city you see today mostly developed from the late 1950s onwards once Soviet geologists discovered uranium nearby. This gave Aktau great strategic importance. For the first few years it was a secret city: few people knew it existed, and going in or out was tightly restricted.  

 Aktau opened up to the world when prospectors also struck oil, and the influx of investment and people made it boom into one of Central Asia’s wealthiest cities. Using Aktau as your base you can explore Mangystau’s fascinating historic sites, including the underground Bekket-Ata Mosque and the imperial Russian Fort Shevchenko; and also discover the striking, almost other-worldly landscapes of Bosjira and the Valley of Balls. Returning to the city with its modern infrastructure and international hotels, you can relax on Aktau’s expansive white sand beaches; admire the museum, theatre, and numerous monuments to famous figures; and party the night away with new friends in one of the lively clubs and bars.

Three things to see

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See the Bekket-Ata Mosque

The golden domes of the Bekket-Ata Mosque glitter on the skyline of Aktau. Named after a Sufi saint who preached and built subterranean mosques across Mangystau, this modern building is Aktau’s main place of worship and surely its most beautiful landmark. The wave-like form of the outer wall and the beige mudbrick from which it is built remind us that Aktau is the meeting point of the desert and the sea. Pilgrims, especially those unable to make the strenuous journey to Bekket-Ata’s original mosques, come here to pray to the saint, asking for his help in matters of health and family.

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Wander Fort Shevchenko

Fort Shevchenko is the latest of many names given to this mid-19th century fort built by the Russians on a peninsula looking out into the Caspian Sea. It is named after the Ukrainian artist and poet, Taras Shevchenko, who was exiled here for almost seven years in punishment for having criticised the tsar. Little remains of the original military fortifications, but the commandant’s cottage within the grounds has been preserved and is now the Taras Shevchenko Museum; and you can also see the hut where Shevchenko lived, wrote, and painted. The buildings are surrounded by an attractive park.

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Explore the Mangystau Regional Local History Museum

Mangystau Regional Local History Museum is one of the largest museums in Kazakhstan and tells the story of Mangystau Region, its people, and wildlife. The museum was founded in 1975 but has recently moved to a new location with much more modern galleries, one of which was designed to resemble a yurt. This is a poignant reminder of the area’s nomadic past. The museum is a good place to begin your time in Aktau as the displays provide helpful context on Mangystau’s natural history and archaeology, as well as more recent developments in the oil industry and in post-independence Kazakhstan.

Beyond Aktau

Many of Mangystau’s greatest tourist attractions lie beyond the city limits of Aktau, but they are easily accessible on a day trip with a local driver-guide. It is well worth making the effort to explore Mangystau Region, contrasting the seemingly untamed desert landscapes with the man-made regularity of the city.

Valley of Balls

The Kazakh name “Torysh” can be translated as the Valley of Balls. The spherical rock formations in this area near the town of Shetpe are naturally occurring, as far-fetched as that sounds and as incongruous as they look on the otherwise fairly flat landscape.

 The rock balls range from tiny marbles to cannonballs, and at their largest, are about the size of a small car. Geologists are not entirely sure how they formed, but one theory is that they are megaspherulites, hard balls of igneous rock surrounded by volcanic ash which has weathered away over time, leaving just the core. 


Bosjira boasts the most iconic landscape in Mangystau, the limestone ridges of the Ustyurt Plateau towering up to 200m above the desert. 200 million years ago, this land was at the bottom of the Tethys Ocean; fossilised shells and shark teeth attest to this ancient history.

Few tourists ever visit Bosjira, but those who do are without exception captivated by the scenery. This is an unbeatable location for landscape photography and for astronomy, and though most people get around by 4x4, if you do go on foot, you will feel as if you are walking on the moon.

Welcome to Almaty

For much of the 20th century, both before and after independence, Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan.

Though today it is the second city (Astana being the new capital), Almaty is still larger and more appealing, a cultural and commercial centre surrounded by a sweep of often snow-capped mountains in the Ile Altau Range in the south of the country.

The modern city of Almaty grew up around Fort Verny, a military outpost in the south of what was then the Russian Empire. The magnificent Ascension Cathedral, a multicoloured masterpiece whose claim to fame is being the world’s second tallest wooden building, pre-dates the Russian Revolution, as do a handful of other buildings.

It was the Soviets who made this city their own, however. Trotsky was exiled here by Stalin, staying just a year before leaving for Mexico; and the population grew significantly in the 1940s when everything from hospitals to industrial facilities, universities to cultural institutions relocated to Almaty during WW2. Residents have built upon this legacy in the intervening decades, and the result is a thriving metropolis with superb theatres and museums, grand public buildings, and a cosmopolitan vibe which is reflected in the city’s shops and restaurant scene.

Three things to see

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Explore Ile-Alatau National Park

Ile-Alatau National Park takes its name from the mountains surrounding Almaty. It is part of the Tien Shan Range and a paradise for adventure seekers, with hiking and mountain biking trails, spots for wild swimming, and numerous places to camp. It is the native wildlife which is Ile-Alatau’s greatest draw for visitors, however. The diversity of the ecosystems here support 300 species of mammals and birds, from golden eagles and bearded vultures to Central Asian lynx and Siberian ibex. In winter there is even a small chance you will spot a snow leopard, though these big cats are notoriously shy.

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Climb Kok Tobe Hill

Kok Tobe is Almaty’s most popular recreation area, an easily accessible hilltop overlooking the city. There is a cable car up to the park on the peak, but on a fine day it is a glorious walk. Whichever route up you choose, the views are superb, and if you do want some extra height, there is always a ride on the ferris wheel. In Kok Tobe Park you will find cafes and a promenade, children’s play equipment and – somewhat surprisingly – a rather un-lifelike sculpture of The Beatles. This bronze is the work of Kazakhstani sculptor Eduard Kazaryan and it was unveiled in 2007.

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Wander the Green Bazaar

Green Bazaar is not only Kazakhstan’s most photogenic marketplace but also a living reminder of the country’s Silk Road history. Traders jostle for your attention, hawking everything from pyramids of watermelons to kazy (horse meat sausage). The joy of shopping in Green Bazaar is not in what you might buy, however: it is the immersive cultural experience. There are fortune tellers and alternative medicine sellers, occasional street performers and beggars, and crowds of locals chattering not only in Kazakh and Russian, but Korean, Ukrainian, and Uighur, too. This market, which manages to assault all your senses, is the beating heart of multicultural Kazakhstan.

Beyond Almaty

Almaty beguiles as a city break destination, but from parks and squares and the windows of high-rise buildings, you will glimpse the mountains and they’ll call you. The only way to silence them is to heed their call and venture out to the lakes, canyons, and ancient cities of southern Kazakhstan.

Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon rivals Arizona’s Grand Canyon in dramatic beauty if not size. Over millions of years, the Charyn River has carved its way through 80km of red sandstone, creating a succession of five separate canyons. The most famous of these is known as the Valley of Castles, but nothing you see here is manmade.

Many of Charyn’s visitors take to the river. You can kayak or raft, either of which will get your heart racing, but if you prefer to keep both feet on dry ground, there are plenty of hiking trails and scenic riverside camping spots.

The ancient cities of Southern Kazakhstan

Tourists in search of the Silk Road need look no further than Southern Kazakhstan. The ghost town of Otrar was besieged by Genghis Khan and destroyed, but the gateway to this fascinating ancient city has been rebuilt and the chance to learn about 2,000 year-old history woos archaeology lovers.

For more substantial monuments, head to Turkestan. The Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmad Yassaui is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the surrounding Silk Road city was the capital of the Kazakh Khanate. The 14th century mausoleum and the underground mosque nearby remain important places for regional pilgrimage as well as tourism.

World Nomad Games in 2024

Kazakhstan’s appeal isn’t just in its landscapes and monuments: it is also in the country;s intangible cultural heritage. The best way to learn about the nomadic cultures of the steppe is by attending the World Nomad Games, which will take place in Astana from 8-15 September, 2024.

The World Nomad Games is an international competition which brings together athletes competing in sports such as kok buru (headless goat polo), kurash (wrestling), and archery. It’s a valuable opportunity to raise awareness of the nomadic traditions and help preserve them for future generations. There will be music, dancing, and handicrafts, too.

Kolsay Lakes

Open any tourism brochure for Kazakhstan and you will soon see an image of Kaindy Lake, the spindly, silvery trunks of dozens of Asian spruce trees rising sharply from blue-green water. Kaindy is one of the most iconic sites in Kazakhstan, and it lies within the Kolsay Lakes National Park.

There are four major lakes at Kolsay, all of which are surrounded by lush meadows and mountains. You can traverse the park on a 25 km hiking trail in three days, which isn’t too strenuous, but if you are short of time, consider riding the same route on horseback.

Make it happen

KE Adventure introduces visitors to the mountains and deserts of Kazakhstan, with a particular focus on hiking and cycling. They have some great options for active travellers wanting to spend the bulk of their trip in the wilderness. For something a little more sedate, however, Wild Frontiers has both group and tailor-made itineraries, including a 12-day tour of Kazakhstan which includes the 2024 World Nomad Games, while Jules Verne's Peaks and Petroglyphs trip encompasses both Almaty and the rock carvings of Tamgaly. Regent Holidays has also crafted a trip that takes in the 2024 World Nomad Games, as well as its comprehensive Kazakhstan Explored adventure, which encompasses its epic landscapes like the Charyn Canyon. Silk Road Adventures can also curate an unforgettable trip for you, combining the highlights of Almaty and Astana with an authentic yurt stay in Mangystau.

For more information on Air Astana and to book your flights to Kazakhstan, ready to explore Aktau or Almaty, click the link below.