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Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s resource-rich success story, transformed from an ailing post-Soviet state to a booming carbon-based economy. As the world’s ninth largest country (roughly the same size as western Europe), Flying in to Almaty you’ll find that Kazakhstan is predominately steppe grassland with mountains to the southeast and east and the Caspian Sea to the west. The Russian influence is strongest in the north whilst the formerly nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakhs is still evident in the countryside. Kazakhstan is bigger, richer and more cosmopolitan than its neighbours, and yet has a little of everything that Central Asia has to offer.
Go back to Kazakhstan’s nomadic roots by going hunting with golden eagles in the foothills east of Almaty. For built heritage, head to the outstanding fifteenth century Timurid mausoleum of Hodja Ahmed Yasawi in the city of Turkestan. Chimbulak, just half an hour from Almaty’s city centre, is the place to head for winter sports, and, in summer, you can relax at one of the country’s many pristine lakes, such as Burabay, northeast of Astana.
For Kazakh glamour, hedonistic nightlife and outdoor sports, visit Almaty, the financial and cultural capital. Skate in the mountains at the open-air Medeo rink, enjoy Soviet and Kazakh Art at the Kasteev Museum, or take a relaxing steam at the Arasan banya (spa). For luxury shopping, visit the city’s Esentai Mall, or for local souvenirs and colour, pop in to the Green Bazaar. Fans of futuristic architecture should not miss the capital, Astana, with buildings by Norman Foster and Kisho Kurokawa along its arresting skyline.
Travel into the countryside in the spring and you will find wild tulips stretching across the steppe north of Almaty. Nearby you can see thousands of Bronze and Iron Age petroglyphs drawn on the rock at Tamgaly (which translates as ‘painted place’). East of Almaty, in the Zhailiskii Alatau Mountains, rent a horse to trek around the turquoise Kolsai Lakes. For a far-flung adventure, head west to the lunar landscapes peppered with underground mosques along the Mangyshlak Peninsula by the Caspian Sea.