Hidden Kazakhstan

One of the world’s largest countries, Kazakhstan is also one of its least known. Most visitors to the region prefer to stick to the better-known Silk Road sites of Uzbekistan. But for those in the know, this giant of a nation also has much to offer and our Kazakhstan itineraries aim to show you some of the hidden highlights of an unexplored land.

We start in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cosmopolitan capital, which feels more Russian than Central Asian. Then we head off into the spectacular countryside to Altyn-Emel National Park. We explore the mountains, ‘singing’ dunes and the extraordinary rock formations of the Charyn Canyon.

At Tamgaly we see prehistoric rock carvings and take the overnight train to the beautiful – and near unpronounceable – reserve of Aksu-Dzhabagly. We travel through hills, mountains and meadows that are home to some of the region’s most impressive wildlife. Look for bear, lynx and Siberian ibex as well as the ever-elusive snow leopard.

Next, we visit the town of Turkestan, with its centuries-old mausoleums that give a hint of the importance of this part of Asia in times gone by. From here we venture into the desert regions of Mangistau, a hidden landscape of canyons, marshes, dramatic rock structures and ancient pilgrimage sites. Using 4WD vehicles we access the most impressive corners of this land, from the salt marshes of Tuzbair to Kazakhstan’s answer to Monument Valley, the rock towers of Boszhira, camping each night in pristine wilderness.

The beauty of travelling in Kazakhstan is that tourism is virtually unknown here. There is no set trail to follow or sites to tick off, and each place you visit feels like a new discovery. This trip is a great introduction to a mysterious and almost forgotten country – break new ground and discover it with us.

Hidden Kazakhstan


  • The multi-hued Aktau Mountains
  • Walk through Charyn Canyon
  • Prehistoric rock carvings at Tamgaly
  • Explore the remote region of Mangistau
  • Camp overnight on the saltpan of Tuzbair

Day 1 - Almaty

Arrive in Almaty and transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore. Overnight Kazzhol Hotel or similar.


The largest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty is a relatively new place having been founded only in 1854 by Russian soldiers, as a frontier post for their forays into the region. Awash with oil wealth, it is Central Asia’s richest and most cosmopolitan city, and retains much more of a Russian flavour than others in the region. It is no longer the capital though – this was moved to the smaller city of Astana in 1997.

With wide leafy streets and modern multi-storey buildings, it doesn’t particularly feel like part of the Silk Road and is quite different in character to somewhere like Samarkand, and its sights are from a more recent era. In Panfilov Park sits the impressive Zenkov Cathedral, one of the few buildings to date back to the time of Tsarist Russia and reputedly constructed without any nails. There are also several museums, including one for musical instruments and another dedicated to the repression faced by the Kazakh people under Stalin’s rule.

Days 2-3 - Altyn-Emel National Park

Drive to Altyn Emel National Park and spend two days exploring this beautiful area, located between the Ili River and the Ak Tau mountains and covering an area of 4,600 square kilometres. We visit the multi-hued Aktau and Katytau mountains, and the famous ‘singing dune’. Overnight guesthouse. (BLD)

Day 4 - Charyn Canyon – Almaty

Today we head to Charyn Canyon, one of Kazakhstan’s most impressive natural sights. After some time spent exploring this area we return to Almaty. Overnight Kazzhol Hotel or similar. (BL)

Charyn Canyon

Charyn Canyon is an 80 km canyon on the Charyn River, 200 kilometres east of Almaty, close to the Chinese border. It is part of the Charyn National Park, which was established 23 February 2004 and located within the territory of the Uyghur and Kegen Districts of Almaty Province. It stretches 154 kilometres along the Charyn River in the northern Tien Shan mountain range. In parts, it attains a depth of 150 to 300 metres. One part of it is known as the Valley of Castles for its unusual rock formations.

Day 5 - Tamgaly – Aksu-Dzhabagly

From Almaty, we drive to the petroglyphs at Tamgaly, a collection of around five thousand rock engravings, which date back to the Bronze Age. Later we return to Almaty to take the overnight train to Tyulkubas, near the Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve. (BL)


Set around the lush Tamgaly Gorge, amidst the vast, arid Chu-Ili mountains, is a remarkable concentration of some 5,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating from the second half of the second millennium BC to the beginning of the 20th century. Distributed among 48 complexes with associated settlements and burial grounds, they are testimonies to the husbandry, social organization and rituals of pastoral peoples. A huge number of ancient tombs are also to be found including stone enclosures (middle and late Bronze Age), and mounds (kurgans) of stone and earth (early Iron Age to the present). The central canyon contains the densest concentration of engravings and what are believed to be altars, suggesting that these places were used for sacrificial offerings.

Days 6-7 - Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve

Arrive into Tyulkubas and drive to Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve. Spend the rest of our time exploring this beautiful area, situated within mountains and hills and dotted with pretty alpine meadows. This is one of the most important areas in Kazakhstan for wildlife, with an impressive number of mammal and bird species, including bears, ibex and the ever-elusive snow leopard. Overnight Aksu Guesthouse or similar. (Day 6 – LD, Day 7 – BLD)

Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve

Located in the northwestern part of the Tien Shan mountain range in southern Kazakhstan, the Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve was established in 1926, and is the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia. Its count of species is impressive – 239 bird, 52 mammal and over 1200 different plant species. The most famous animal in the reserve is without a doubt the snow leopard but the chances that you will ever spot one here are very low. The same goes for the Eurasian lynx, which hasn’t been seen in the reserve for many years. It should be less difficult to observe the Menzbier’s marmot, the Tolai hare, the Tien Shan bear, the Tien Shan argali or the Siberian ibex. For those interested, in an almost inaccessible part of the reserve, ancient rock carvings can be found from the Kaskabulak people.

Day 8 - Turkestan - Shymkent

Drive to the ancient town of Turkestan, stopping en route at the ruins of Otrar and the 12th century Mausoleum of Arystan-Bab. After lunch we explore Turkestan including the mausoleum complex of Khodja Akhmad Yassawi, dating to the 12th century but much restored and improved by the Mongol ruler Timur two hundred years later. Later we transfer to Shymkent ready for our flight to Aktau in the morning. Overnight FM Shymkent or similar. (BLD)


With a history dating back to the 4th century, Turkestan rose to prominence after the demise of nearby Otrar and became an important centre of Islamic learning for the peoples of the Kazakh steppe due to it being the home of the revered Islamic scholar Khodja Akhmad Yassawi, a Sufi teacher. His mausoleum complex now dominates the town and is comprised of a bathhouse, museum and a 15th-century mausoleum for the wife of an Uzbek leader – sadly now just a replica as the original was demolished by the Russians at the end of the 19th-century.

Day 9 - Shymkent - Aktau

Transfer to the airport for the flight to Aktau, the starting point for our adventure into the remote but beautiful region of Mangistau. Overnight Aktau Hotel or similar. (B)


A vast region in western Kazakhstan, Mangistau is almost off the map as far as tourism is concerned yet is one of the most incredible parts of the country. Isolated by its remote location, this is a land of superlative landscapes, vast deserts, imposing mountains and ancient pilgrimage sites still frequented today. Access is by 4wd only – there are no real roads throughout the region – and the going can be tough at times, but this is more than compensated for by the sheer sense of true exploration. Some of the more unusual sights of the area include Torysh, a vast field of spherical rocks that resemble giant cannonballs, and the salt marshes of Tuzbair, shimmering in the relentless sun.

Day 10 - Shakpak Ata – Torysh - Ayrakty Shomanay

Today we head out into the mountains and deserts of Mangistau, first visiting the underground mosque of Shakpak Ata. Carved into the rock, it dates back to the 10th century and is one of the most impressive of the underground mosques that dot this region. From here continue to Torysh, an area of ‘rock balls’ strewn across the landscape and reaching up to 4 metres in diameter. Continue to Ayrakty Shomanay with its striking rock structures. Overnight camping. (BLD)

Shakpak Ata

According to legend, in the north of the Tyub-Karagan peninsula lived an extraordinary healer – the greybeard Shakpak-Ata, and according to rumour, there were no illnesses that he could not cure. Centuries have passed but people still come here for healing. According to archaeologists, the mosque was built in the 9th to 10th centuries and was named in honour of Sufi Shakpak-Ata, who lived here with his disciples during enemy raids. In the last years of his life, he was a recluse and no longer left his underground abode.


Another site connected with local legends – hordes of enemies once came to Mangistau and local people turned to prayer for help. Torrential streams, thunder and lightning came down from heaven, turning all the invaders into stones – this is how these ‘globular concretions’ appeared. Their actual size reaches 3-4 metres in diameter, some are larger.

Day 11 - Tuzbair

Drive to Tuzbair, a vast salt lake and marsh. The landscape here is quite spectacular, with white limestone contrasting against the eroded desert mountains, with the colours changing throughout the day depending on the light. From the high points of the plateau there are stunning views over the lake, and it’s sometimes possible to find fossils nearby. Overnight camping. (BLD)

Day 12 - Beket Ata - Najza

Visit the underground mosque of Beket Ata, an important site of pilgrimage for local people. We continue to the mountain of Najza, where mouflon can sometimes be seen. Nearby are old stone structures, thought to be traps for catching antelope and wild goats. We continue to Boszhira Valley where we set up camp for the night. Overnight camping. (BLD)

Day 13 - Boszhira

Today we wake up in one of the most impressive parts of the Mangistau region. Somewhat similar to the USA’s Monument Valley, Bozshira is comprised of towers of rock rising from the plateau creating canyons, peaks and castle like structures, while the surrounding area is dotted with the remains of old settlements. We drive to various vantage points for the best views of this striking landscape and later return to Aktau for the night via the Karagie Depression. Overnight Aktau Hotel or similar. (BLD)

Day 14 - Aktau – Almaty

Transfer to the airport for our flight back to Almaty. Spend the afternoon exploring the city, visiting Panfilov Park, the picturesque Zenkov Cathedral, as well as Republic Square and other sites of interest. Overnight Kazzhol Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 15 - Almaty

Transfer to the airport for your onward flight. (B)

Mangistau desert scene
Tien Shan Mountains - Kazakhstan holidays
View of Tuzbair salt pan, Mangistau tour
Tuzbair salt pan - Kazakhstan tour

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers. Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.

  • Guides

    In most cases, you will be accompanied by one guide from start to finish. However, there may be occasions when this is not practical, for example, if your trip covers a number of different countries. In these cases it often makes more sense to include different guides for each place, to take advantage of their specific knowledge of the destination.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

  • Single supplement

    Please note that this applies to hotel nights only, not on the trains.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively, a visa agency such as Travcour can assist.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however, you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.


UK, US, Australian and New Zealand travellers do not need a visa to visit Kazakhstan for stays of up to 30 days. Other nationalities should check with us or their nearest embassy as to the visa requirements for entry into Kazakhstan.

Visa regulations in Central Asia are particularly fluid and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy, or us, for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations, you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.


It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover, which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.


The local currency in Kazakhstan is the tenge. It’s not difficult to change money in the region – usually, the most convenient place will be a hotel, but your guide will be able to point you in the right direction. There are also an increasing number of ATMs in larger towns. However, these are not always reliable and so it is best to think of them as a back up rather than a main means of obtaining money. The best currency to bring for exchange purposes is US dollars, and these should have issue dates of 2006 or later, otherwise, they can be difficult to exchange.

Credit cards are accepted in larger hotels and better restaurants (usually in major cities only) but are not commonly accepted elsewhere.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO does not advise against travel to any of the parts of Kazakhstan that we visit on our tours.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Updated July 2023

Mangistau desert scene
Tien Shan Mountains - Kazakhstan holidays
View of Tuzbair salt pan, Mangistau tour
Tuzbair salt pan - Kazakhstan tour
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
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Date -
29 August 2024
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17 May 2025
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20 September 2025
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