Are you looking for an unforgettable adventure in the land of Great Steppe and nomads? You've probably read about this place in books or seen it in historical movies but never thought of visiting it. Welcome to Kazakhstan - a land of picturesque landscapes, friendly people and delicious halal food! Not to mention that it's really budget-friendly too ☺️ There's just so much the world's largest landlocked country has got to offer. Ready to explore?
[P.S. We've got 10 Muslim-friendly destinations you've got to visit in 2019. Check them out here.]
1. VVIP hospitality
Kazakh people often pride themselves as the most hospitable people on the planet! There's a saying in Kazakh language - "Konak keldi, irisyn ala keldi" - which means "the guest comes and brings happiness to the home". Treating guests with warmth is considered a sign of generosity in Kazakhstan.
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The strong culture of hospitality has been embedded in the country for centuries and goes back to the time when the Kazakhs were nomads. Being in the vast steppes, it's only natural that villagers would open their homes to visitors.
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The Kazakhs take sharing food and drinks up a notch. For example, the best meal is always reserved for guests. Nowadays, food for guests would come in three courses - mainly cold cut dishes and dishes made from horse meat, Russian and Uzbek-inspired dishes and a tea-drinking ceremony with variety of fruits and homemade jam ?
Our great hospitality can only be felt if you come over here and experience it for yourself!
2. Mesmerizing nature and picturesque landscapes
Did you know that Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world by land? It has everything you can ever imagine - surreal landscapes like vast steppes, breathtaking mountains, deserts, magnificent lakes, canyons and more. There are more than 100 protected nature sites in Kazakhstan. With some of the world's best-kept secrets, Kazakhstan is truly a nature lover's dream come true ?
Ile-Alatau National Park
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One of the best places to start your exploration of nature is the Ile-Alatau National Park made up of lakes, waterfalls and glaciers The Big Almaty Lake is one sight not to be missed here - it's known for its stunning blue-green waters. Lake Issyk and the Turgen Gorge are also breathtaking spots here!
Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy
Another great area to explore is the Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy (pictured above). Lake Kaindy is home to one of the world's few submerged forests. Seeing the trunks of the trees rise above the lake is a very surreal sight.
Credit: @landscapes_of_kazakhstan on Instagram
Canyons in Kazakhstan? I kid you not! Located around a 3h-drive from Kazakhstan's biggest city, Almaty, there are 5 different canyons here and you'll find sandstone in different shades of colours from deep orange to light brown. The Valley of the Castles is a great place to start if it's your first time here!
Burabay National Park
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This is one of the Kazakhstan's lesser-known places but it's worth the visit! With a sprawling area of 835-sq-km, the walking trails here have scenic views of beautiful lakes, mountains and rock formations. Some of the must-see places here are the Lake Burabay, Big Chebache Lake and Bolektau Mountain.
From the primeval forests and river Irtysh in the north to the Caspian Sea - the world's largest inland sea - there are just too many enchanting nature sights in Kazakhstan that it's almost impossible to list them all down ?
[P.S. Are you a not-so-ordinary traveller? Then, we've got 12 destinations that'll take you off the beaten track!]
3. Magnificent cities
Besides nature, Kazakhstan also boasts of impressive cities, both modern and ancient ones.
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Almaty (where I'm from!) is the country's largest city and former capital. It's one of the financial and cultural centres of Central Asia. Almaty is surrounded by the great Tien Shan mountains, so the skyline is really marvellous. Being the biggest city, most travellers make Almaty their starting point.
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Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana), only rose up after it became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. It's a planned capital city, much like Canberra, Australia and Washington D.C. The city was designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and there are many futuristic buildings. The Bayterek Tower is one of the icons of the city and a must-visit!
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Kazakhstan is also home to the ancient city of Turkestan, an important commercial centre along the Silk Road. Most of Kazakhstan's history can be found in Turkestan as it was for many years, the seat of the Kazakh khanate. One of the places to visit here is the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, one of the highly respected Sufi masters. The Hilvet Semi-Underground Mosque is also an impressive sight. Turkestan and the nearby town of Taraz hold many important mausoleums and historical landmarks of ancient Kazakhstan.
4. Nomadic lifestyle
Kazakhstan is known for the nomadic lifestyle of its ancestors, and today you can still experience what it was like to live like the nomads!
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The nomads live in a yurt (called kiyz ui in Kazakh or yurta in Russian) which is a movable (and collapsible) round tent comprised of a wooden frame covered over with skin or felt. It's amazing how it has been used for centuries by nomads but the design has remained largely unchanged throughout time!
There are some companies in the city that provide yurt tours so you can experience what it's like to live like a nomad. Do check with your hotel if you're interested.
5. Beautiful mosques
Did you know that around 70% of Kazakhstan's population are Muslims? So, there are many impressive mosques that you can visit here. Mosques in Central Asia have their own individual style where the unique local architecture and traditions are combined with Islam in the house of prayers.
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The biggest mosque in Kazakhstan is the Hazret Sultan mosque located in Nur-Sultan city. It houses the country's largest dome. The mosque’s 40m height signifies the age when Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) received the revelation, while the 63m long minarets reflect the age of his passing.
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Some of the other stunning mosques include the Central Mosque in Almaty known for its gold dome and white marbles, and the Nur Astana Mosque.
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The Mashkur-Jusup Central Mosque deserves a special mention too for its unique green centerpiece. Located in the small town of Pavlodar, the architecture is really exceptional and reflects the diversity of Islam in Kazakhstan.
6. Traditional cuisine of Central Asia
Last but not least is Kazakh cuisine! Because of the cold winter season, vegetarianism is rarely practiced in our country so you'll most likely see a wide range of meat (mutton or horse) and dairy dishes. Most of Kazakh cuisine has unique flavours of Asian and European influences, and you’ll definitely be greeted with mouthwatering meals ?
Credit: Wonderful Kazakhstan on Facebook
One of the must-try dishes is Beshbarmak, usually considered a main course. Beshbarmak means "five fingers" because the nomads traditionally eat it using their hands. Horse or lamb meat is boiled and then mixed with noodles and seasoned with herbs. Before savouring Beshbarmak, you'll be served the shorpo (mutton broth).
Credit: @thermomix_consultant_kz on Instagram
Other dishes that are popular are laghman (pulled noodles with beef and tomatoes in beef broth), manti (like dumplings, usually filled with lamb or beef in black pepper) and little munchies like baursak (fried dough, like donuts). The Kazakhs also have a culture of drinking tea and yogurt drinks together with our meals.
Now that I've introduced to you all the wonders of my beautiful country Kazakhstan, what next? Time to mark a date in your calendar and book your flight!?
[P.S. Looking for another Central Asian country to visit? We've got 10 amazing reasons why you should visit Uzbekistan!]