The Kazakh Steppe
It wasn’t planned to spend two days in the national park and we slowly ran out of petrol. But we managed to reach a gas station which was giving us enough Diesel for the long drive to the Kazakh steppe because we had to drive more than 600 KM on this day. The weather in the steppe can sometimes be extreme. If you plan to cross the steppe in the winter time it is recommendable to study the weather forecast before. If the “winter buran”- a famous snowstorm – is coming then the risk is high to get stuck in the snow which is with temperatures around -40 degrees probably not the best experience. We had no snow but constant rain. Three days before we were sweating with temperatures of 33 degrees; now it was only 7 degrees. Freezing cold. The road was covered with potholes and for a long time we didn’t see any house, car or human being at all. Only some camels and wild horses were along the wide roads. Our first camp on our way through the steppe was at the shore of the 614 KM long Lake Balchach. Right before the sun was going to set the rain stopped and when we were about to reach our spot for the night a wolf was running away for us. Real nature. After another 500 KM from the lake we just took a random side road and went deep into the steppe – in the middle of nowhere. Around us was: nothing! Only lots of mosquitoes which came from everywhere. But no problem: I do have a mosquito net! We put the net on the side of the car and had from now on a perfect cover for cooking and watching the sunset at the same time 🙂
Astana is the capital only since 1997. The people of the steppe of course needed a new capital as well in the middle of the steppe. With the time more and more Russians were settled down in the north of the country while the Kazakh people moved more and more towards south and Almaty. To change this trend they decided to move the capital. It took a while but nowadays the Kazakh people accept the new capital. There are many futuristic buildings and architects could do some interesting experiments in this city. But it still can be very harsh in this region in the winter time because of the cold. When we arrived the sky was as blue as the flag of Kazakhstan which is by the way also the meaning of the color of the flag. Such a city like Astana was also for me something new. The futuristic design was giving the city a special flair. In between was a lot of green. Astana will be the host of the EXPO in 2017 with the title “Energy of the future”. It is still open though if the country manages the reorientation from the profitable export of fossil fuel to sustainable economy.
Tourism in Kazakhstan
The tourism in Kazakhstan is still on the beginning. In Almaty and Astana are accommodations of any price class. It is not easy to find a place to sleep outside the cities though. It is useful to rent a car and put a tent in the trunk. For sure my setup with the jeep was the best thing for the country and we spent most of the nights in the car which is absolutely no problem in this country. All the places we stayed were simply awesome.
Communication can be tough in Kazakhstan. Only a few are speaking English. I already learned the numbers 1-300 in Russian to do at least some negotiations at the markets (Only bad that the exchange rate is 1€ – 300 Tenge). But even with the language problems we were welcomed heartily everywhere in the country and the locals tried their best to tell us the most important things. Sign for sights are everywhere but navigation like offline maps (Maps.me, Google Maps) is recommendable. Maps.me even contains several hiking routes which is useful if you want to hike without a guide.
Food in Kazakhstan most of the time contains meat. The people of the steppe need in the cold times energetic food. Tough place for vegetarians.
At the end we only saw a few tourists in this country maybe also because of the time of the year. Many hiking routes in the mountains are only open from June to August. These routes are definitely a highlight but also a reason to come back another time. Then I will visit the Caspian Sea for sure as well!
Police and corruption
Kazakhstan is on place 131 of 175 of the list of corruption (information from 2016). Already when I entered the country the customs gave me some extra treatment. The officer told me to unpack the whole car. I knew what he wanted but we had time. So I started unpacking but already after two bags he said “Ok its alright. Put it back inside”. But he also asked for Vodka and cigarettes. Same happened when I left the country but then it was even more obvious. Along the roads and especially in the city are many traffic police which is only waiting for a little mistake. If you cross a solid line on the road you can even lose your driver license (if you are not willing to pay a bribe). After I’ve got used to the Indian traffic rules (= no rules) it was not so easy to follow the rules again. I managed to cross the country without any police check but 50 KM before we reached the border the police stopped me. I waited for the officer to come but he was still busy with another car. So I decide to continue driving (bad habit from India haha). 5 min later I saw the blue blinking light in my mirror. I gave the copy of my driver license and the copy of my car papers to the officer. Once they have the original document they have something as a pressure. He insisted for the original documents which I showed them but not handled them over. He told me to follow them back to the check post. Inside the cabin one colleague waved to me a “Heil Hitler”. Then I was allowed to continue without paying a fine.
Kazakhstan was one of the highlights on my journey. The landscape was many times just terrific! When we left the country it already looked like Siberia. A taste of what should wait for us in Russia. I really recommend anyone of those who read this post to visit this country before it gets a real tourist attraction. Don’t listen to the people who wonder what the hell you are going to do in Kazakhstan. Maybe you as well changed your mind after I shared my experiences. And when somebody of your friends are telling you that they want to travel to Kazakhstan you will instead react with “Wow! I always wanted to visit this country!”